Black Friday and the Heavenly Father

So the Church of England wants us to pray and they’re willing to enter the market place by attempting to screen an advertisement in our cinemas. Good for them. Sitting in the cinema, I imagine it will be no more offensive than a man on the moon looking through a telescope carried to him by balloons from a girl on earth who thinks he’s lonely. I also imagine it will be considerably less offensive than someone impressing on me the need to have their product in order to be sexy, intelligent, popular or some other vacuous insinuation.

Personally, I’d rather not have religion proseltysing in my face when I’m out for some rest and relaxation, but then the rubbish spewed out by some big companies about how their product will save me is a considerably less endearing form of salvation than a spot of ‘Our Father’. In any case, I’ve been known to grumpily scoff in the cinema with the occasional ‘what total bollocks’ when the claim by some product is so damn stupid, it is offensive.

It’s the problem though of liberal religion really. Our salvation is not even as electrifying as a deoderant. We would like you to feel better, to do better and to work together harder to make the world better, but our message is soft. We can’t promise a thrilling experience unpacking the latest gizmo or trying on your newest item of clothing. Neither can we guarantee the emotional rollercoaster akin to the guilty feeling when you see the dent in your bank balance. And our miracles are laughed at whilst the celebrity endorsed miracle of the newest piece of technology is inescapably alluring.

Of course, and I would say this, I think the enduring power of living in a community, seeking to make the world a better place through your shared values and marking the moments of the year and times in your life are important things to hold on to – just as teaching the ideas of civic responsibility and concern for the stranger or comforting the bereaved and visiting the sick. But that doesn’t mean I want or need that message in the cinema. Let me sit back and relax; I’ll happily be entertained with real fiction in the picture-house not sacred myth and hope for humanity.

Lately I noticed a pub selling itself under the tag line ‘Join our congregation’ (of beer drinkers) and the Christmas advertisement for one big supermarket encouraged me to ‘love your neighbour’. So I did get to thinking, if the materialistic world of consumerism can get in on my act, then why shouldn’t religion get in on theirs?

And let’s face it there are plenty of snake oil sellers preying on our insecurities and superstitions offering us all manner of religious paraphernalia. The free stress test, red strings, holy waters and post modern indulgences are undeniably a sign of the religious consumables travelling in the direction of the market place more aggressively and successfully than the Church of England or progressive Judaism could ever muster.

This Friday is Black Friday apparently. I still think it sounds a bit like a commemoration of some kind of medieval plague. Rather than lighting a candle, some will make pilgrimage to the shopping centre to discover the best deals. If they’re lucky, they’ll come away with something they’re looking for and a slightly reduced bank balance. Doubtless we’ll be offered some sage advice on getting a competitive advantage, avoiding the crush and disappointment and there will be some equally pious wisdom about consumerism gone mad and the true face of human greed.

I should think a few Fathers and Rabbis will be praying for forgiveness of our trespasses and that we be not led into temptation. I’ll be making ready for the Sabbath (Shabbat), minding my own business, and modelling to my children that there is more to life than what we have and what we can buy. I like new things too, but there must be some counterbalance to commercialisation of everything. It’s not salvation through retail therapy but there’s a lot to be said for quiet redemption and saving for a rainy day. And most of the lifestyle we’re sold with that other ‘retail stuff’ is bollocks anyway. Maybe Digital Cinema Media did the C of E a favour after all.

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EAPPI and the Church of England General Synod endorsement

I’m generally quite cautious about posting in a reactive way to matters about Israel, sitting here in London. It is often difficult to sift through the facts of specific situations and the opinion pieces are wide and varied on the internet – often it feels as if the truth is baffling. I am also hesitant because I’m conscious that sometimes all you can be left saying are a few simple value statements which do not make a wider contribution to the debate.

In reading about the recent vote at the General Synod of the Church of England about EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel), I felt equally uneasy about voicing a strident opinion without having reasonable opportunity to research for myself. Though I still feel somewhat uninformed because I have a nagging feeling that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when decisions such as this are made, I have read a couple of blog posts on the EAPPI website. These posts were sufficient to make me feel uneasy.

You see, I’m not an ‘Israel can never put a foot wrong’ type of person. I am passionate, frustrated and sorrowful about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. I care deeply about the fate of the State of Israel and her future. And I am capable of holding in mind, at the same time, a desire for peace, justice and the implementation of a Two State solution – which meets the needs of both peoples’ rights of self-determination.

But you see when I read a blog post by an Ecumenical Accompanier who visits Yad Vashem and insinuates a banal and, dare I say, specious comparison between the fate of six million Jews and six million other people and the current situation experienced by Israelis and Palestinians, I feel worried and perturbed. When an Accompanier’s only reference for the display of striped camp clothing is a fictional novel, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, I know they are probably woefully under-educated about the Jewish experience in the 20th Century and probably utterly ill equipped to comment on a highly complex political situation. I’m aware of the human rights issues, the demolition of homes, the expansion of settlements, and the impact of security measures on the lives of Palestinians. Clearly the settlements and the occupied territories will have to be included in any peace process, but to believe that they alone are the essential obstacle to peace is to display a remarkable deficiency in conceptual understanding of the situation. Moreover, to suggest that there is equivalence between the Nazi Holocaust, and the lessons that could be learnt, and the current situation is, I think, a misreading of what is happening today and a desecration of the memories of those who were murdered by the Nazi regime set on the extinction of an entire people.

The second blog article has been reposted on twitter a couple of times by Jeremy Newmark, CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council. I’m not sure I fully agree with how he reads anti-Semitism in the article ‘Land (f)or Peace’ – though read between the lines of the claim regarding the neglect of prophetic literature in Judaism and the way the same literature points towards Jesus in Christianity and you can understand Newmark’s point. However, I do think the post displays a chronic over-simplification of Jews and Judaism. I also think it plays too fast and loose with the rhetoric of ‘Chosenness’ which has historic resonances of anti-semitism. Moreover, I once had the misfortune of reading an anti-Semitic commentary on aspects of the Talmud and I’m afraid that the portrayal of a religious Jew in the blog post on the EAPPI website drifts into similar territory. The post lacks nuance and breadth of context and over-generalises the notion of religious Jews (Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox).

I only read a couple of articles and did not have time to comment at length. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the EAPPI or of all its blog postings, but I’m afraid these two posts are individually problematic and hint at the wider concerns raised by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and the Board of Deputies and Ruth Gledhill (also in the JC). If the General Synod wants to support peace in the Middle East I suspect there would be less controversial, probably more balanced, constructive and inclusive relationships that could be built.