First published in Strangely Warmed (Bloomsbury 2010)
By far the most enjoyable thing to issue from a more strident secularism in public life has been the enthusiastic airing of some of the most delicious and condescending put-downs the mother tongue has to offer.
Listening recently to BBC Radio 4 phone-in, which had featured some calmly non-flammable comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in whizzed a call bemoaning Dr Williams’ ‘moralistic hand-wringing’. Chances to employ ‘hand-wringing’ with any real vigour ideally require a senior churchman on the receiving end in order to convey the right sense of clammy-palmed paranoia about moral issues. Slip in ‘the good bishop’ before your criticism and the game is as good as over.
There is no point denying it: the church invites the best insults. These, like all the finest abuse, usually come double-barrelled and are extremely satisfying to say: ‘sanctimonious drivel’ pretty much takes the prize here, rolling round the tongue like wine before being disdainfully spat out. Its close cousin, the neatly dismissive ‘pious claptrap’ is fairly irresistible, too. If you find yourself held in church against your will, there are few more cathartic things to do than mutter ‘sanctimonious drivel’ darkly under your breath during the sermon. Only make sure your microphone’s turned down.
Happily, you see, God-botherers can also use such fiery darts to lob at our over-inflated brethren. Indeed, whilst Christians have their own armoury against the world (‘filthy heathen’ still sounds rather good, for instance), they have tended to reserve their sniffiest epithets for fellow-believers of a different ecclesial hue. My late aunt, a nun, used to relish telling how my great-great grandfather, an anglo-catholic parish priest, had once been requested to take a funeral for the local Baptist minister, who was on holiday. ‘Would you bury a Baptist?’ they enquired, politely. ‘I’d gladly bury the lot of them’, came the disparaging reply. Touché, old ancestor.
Insults generally aim to make an opponent’s position appear fatuous or eccentric, while simultaneously painting one’s own stance as the acme of objective good sense. Very often, then, they have far more to do with us than those we are criticising, shoving another into the wings in order to stand in the spotlight ourselves. The best ones, however, are not quite so calculated and spring from moral outrage on another’s behalf.
Jesus’ own terms of abuse are interesting here. He did have some belters, usually aimed in-house at the Pharisees, that ‘brood of vipers’, whom he readily labelled ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘blind guides’. This invective erupts most dramatically in the gospel passage known as ‘the six woes’. Jesus, we learn, has been invited back to a Pharisee’s house for a meal. Before they’ve even served the soup, the latter observes that the Lord hasn’t washed his hands properly before the meal. This clearly touches a raw nerve, and Jesus proceeds to rain down a hailstorm of sarcastic abuse on these ‘unmarked graves’ who sit round the table.
After three woes – denouncing the Pharisees’ vanity and neglect for the poor – his flabbergasted host says, limply, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us’. Get away. Jesus – who is just warming to his theme – ignores him entirely and piles on another three woes for good measure. ‘Woe to you, ‘experts in the law’’, he sneers, ‘because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them’. And then – scripture doesn’t record the ‘Pah!’ – he walks out. Salad, anyone?
Given his evident loathing for all the Pharisees stood for, Jesus’ choice ultimately to yield to them is all the more arresting. When the Temple guard came for him in the garden, the logical climax of their feud was Peter’s ear-slicing sword, not the lamb-like submission. The way Christ silently soaks up insults is focal to the ensuing story of his Passion – the gormless mockery of the soldiers, the braying crowd, and, finally, the not-very-good joke hammered over his comedy crown. With the public cheering him on, and everything to fight for, the Nazareth firebrand suddenly allows himself to be stamped out, deliberately losing the argument.
Now, as Quakers and queers have found, there is something genuinely disarming about taking a decent insult and wearing it proudly. But the cross of Christ is something far rarer, and related to how St Paul explains the wrath of God – that is, not in terms of smiting the offender but (far more chilling, this) ‘giving them over’ to what they want. Letting people see the logical end of their action, without divine prevention. As such, Christ’s triumph on the cross is a martial art, letting the enemy overreach and exhaust himself, allowing the full force of the offensive to become the means of its own downfall.
Insults, well-crafted or otherwise, have limited range. Whilst they keep the derided viewpoint at arm’s length, crucially they don’t make it disappear. And although full-throated ridicule of all that is wicked and vain is vital to any good fight, it never really wins, partly because it’s what you are for that enables victory, not simply what you oppose.
The problem for Christianity’s cultured despisers in our own time is that much of what the atheists are for – scientific method, for example – most Christians are not against, and much of what they are against – religious violence, say – most Christians are not for. Christianity – let alone religion as a whole – is such a huge target, sprawling across centuries and cultures, that you can’t help but hit it. Infuriatingly for those who have it in their sights, it is also so big that you can’t help but miss it, like an elder brother who just yells ‘didn’t hit me’ every time you finger-shoot him at point-blank range.
Dry your hands, then, peddlers of pious claptrap, for you know you can take it.