As the controversy over Boris Johnson’s jokes about burqas continues, I would like readers to look at passage from Matthew’s Gospel chapter 23:
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
2 The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. 3 So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
4 They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. 5 Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. 6 They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. 7 And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.”
Later in the same rant, he was even more abusive:
“You Pharisees and teachers are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. 28 That’s what you are like. Outside you look good, but inside you are evil and only pretend to be good.”
It’s clear that Jesus was giving a wholesale verdict on what he regarded as hypocrisy, but he begins with derisive remarks about their religious dress code. He certainly appears to think that daft religious clothing is fair game for mockery.
Am I making a comparison between Jesus and Boris Johnson? Heaven forbid! Boris is an upper class sneering bully who would have mocked Jesus for wearing sandals, and who, for the sake of public decency, should never be reported, whatever he says. His mocking dismissal of burqa – wearing Moslem women is intended to insult, but can safely be dismissed by them, coming as it does from a man whose chosen mode of sartorial elegance is floppy fatness.
And even though the burqa has been imposed on Moslem women by partiarchal prejudice, many of the women value it and other “modest” coverings as at any rate preferable to the appearance of western female celebs such as Britney Spears at a recent gig wearing the standard pop uniform of a boob-pube-tube. If we pause to reflect on the truly gross clothing imposed by our males on our obedient females, we may feel that Moslem women have the better of it.
To return, however, not to Boris, but to the issue of so-called respect for religion and religious customs, I cannot agree with the current official government position, namely that while of course our secret services will spy on them and monitor their words and actions, in case these are contrary to “British values”, at the same time we must profess a pious respect for their religion and its practices. In this way systemic disrespect for a whole people is clothed in the decencies of public protection.
I have a profound interest in Islam and admiration for many of its representatives in my city. I have worked with the young Moslems of “Taught by Muhammed” their social care arm in Dundee, where the principles of their religion are shown in providing a food-bank delivery service to non- moslems who lack food. As far as I know myself, I am completely free of prejudice towards Islam or its adherents; yet I want to claim the freedom to make jokes about aspects of their faith and practice which I judge to be oppressive.
Who am I to make jokes about the excessive power of males in Islamic families? I am their friend and neighbour using a freedom which I am happy to grant them with regard to my faith and practice. A robust mutual respect can co-exist with robust mutual criticism. Jesus’ rough language about a respected sect of his own religion is an indication that he could use the broad humour of ordinary people to expose what he saw as play-acting. Some of his deunciation, if recorded live today, might see him facing a charge of “hate speech.” That should make us think: Is our concentration on what people may say about minorities a way of disguising what our society does to them?
Reclaiming the real Jesus means grappling with a person whose words were often more challenging than comfy, more spicy than bland.