We all know, thank goodness, that racism is a crime and the mother of crimes, and many of us are prepared to demonstrate against it. The horrific murder of George Floyd has aroused anger amongst black people in the USA but also amongst people of all skin colours and in many parts of the world. A history of oppression is being held up so that it can be seen, judged and challenged. I wrote recently on this site about the systematic dishonouring of black women men and children by the institutions of most nations in the world, including, for example the UK and and China, as well as the USA. Steady, costly opposition will be needed to remove this blight and to liberate its victims, but the effort to do so is noble.

We all know, or should know, that poverty is a crime and the mother of crimes, affecting far more people than racism, ever since societies have existed, yet protest against it is at best weak and often altogether absent. The evident division across the centuries since the invention of cities is between the majority of people whose labour creates a surplus of material resources and the minority whose monopoly of violence allows them to live off that surplus. There are developments of this division over time – Karl Marx thought that the 19th century European development gave an opportunity for revolution- but it remains the most evident feature of most societies throughout the world today.

Poverty in Rio

In some times and places the income of the labouring classes is sufficient for a human life – the UK of the 1950’s, Norway today, but in no place has the division been totally abolished: even so-called communist or socialist regimes have perpetuated it, as for example between party and citizens, governors and governed. The advance of technology has increasingly created another a subdivision of people whose labour is not required for the creation of a surplus, and who are therefore dependent on state benefits, charity, slavery and crime.

Obviously, these extreme manifestations of poverty are seen mainly in poorer nations, but even here in reasonable wealthy Scotland, some of them exist unseen by most citizens, although an increasing number of charity workers, child protection staff and others, are becoming uncomfortably aware that the horrifying individual cases that they deal with, are part of a systemic social problem, the existence of poverty. Every day in our world the knee of poverty chokes the life out of many more people than racist thugs can kill. Poverty is one of punishments for having a skin colour that racist societies dislike.

Poverty in Scotland

Poverty, that is, the regular uncertainty of having the means of life, is still the condition of the majority of people in the world, and is increasing amongst the citizens of advanced capitalist states such as the USA and the UK, as witness the huge increase in the use of food banks in them. All over the world there are men who scavenge in waste dumps, women who prostitute themselves to earn food for their families, children who live and die in slums overflowing with sewage, whole communities whose expectation of life is a half of what wealthier communities expect. Even those whose labour provides them with an adequate income live with the constant anxiety of a disaster – illness, unemployment, violence, which will deprive them of income. For them there is no credit available except from those who want to harm them.

If we are being rightly asked to recognise racist people and institutions in our societies, why are we not being asked to waken up to the underlying division between rich and poor? And why is it, that even good people who have protested against racism, may become defensive and angry if asked to think about poverty? Racism it would appear is an evil human attitude, whereas poverty is a basic condition of humanity, possibly invented by God. The poor are not expected to protest, nor to have any right to protest, for they are thought to be at least partly responsible for their own deprivation. And anyway, poverty is just a fact of life.

At present we are beginning to realise why so many black people are angry. My wonder is that most poor people are not angry. They have been the object of violence, they have seen their lives and the lives of their children blighted by poor housing, inadequate diet, decreasing or non – existent public services, along with the suspicion and scorn of wealthier people. They are more frequently and completely dishonoured than those subjected to racism, and in fact often suffer from it as well.

I hope the day of their anger arrives. Meanwhile we who are not poor should refuse with all the passion we can muster, to live in acceptance of this division which degrades the lives of a majority of our brothers and sisters. We should in the UK be determined to sweep away the idle privileged trash who presently rule us, replacing them with a government that is determined to eradicate poverty. But if we are to do so by democratic means, we must create a new consensus that our whole society and every citizen of it, are so dishonoured by poverty that we will vote for its abolition regardless of any small disadvantage to ourselves.

As for those of us who belong to churches, our responsibility was marked out long ago by the Hebrew prophets:

The word of the Lord

When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Pope prays with Grand Mufti in Mosque

We all know that we ought to respect other people’s religious beliefs.

The principle of modern inter-faith movements is that all religions, whether worldwide or local, should be respected by those who profess other religions or none. This is considered essential for societal and international peace, as well as being a good discipline in itself.

Of course there are advantages in people of different religious beliefs sharing a sense of mutual trust which in turn helps build up multicultural communities. It is also good to have a peaceful basis for learning about other religions from those who actually practice them. Hans Kung, a noted Roman Catholic theologian, put his calling at risk to study other faiths from the standpoint of his own, and reached the conclusion that “there will be no peace amongst nations until there is peace amongst religions.”

There are critics who argue that the goal of multicultural community is both unrealistic and self-defeating in that most people have limited tolerance for the unfamiliar; and anyway what’s good about religions, if anything, is their distinctiveness. Often these critics are defending prejudice or advocating so-called Christian privilege, as for example in Orban’s Hungary.

Just occasionally, however, I find myself utterly opposed to the beliefs and/or practice of a particular faith-group, and am unwilling to stifle my opposition. Often this has been with regard to other Christian groups. For example the arse-licking policies of the Orthodox Church is Russia towards President Putin, as of many Hungarian churches towards Victor Orban, as of fundamentalist churches in the USA towards Donald Trump, are offensive to me, and in my opinion, unchristian. The calm assurance of many Moslem friends that we’d all be better under an Islamic Caliphate also gets up my nose, especially if it comes from those whose liberal behaviours would have led to them missing a number of bodily parts, under any Moslem regime. I assume that people who do not share my beliefs have similar complaints about me.

So what am I saying here? That mutual respect across boundaries of faith is impossible or maybe not even desirable? Not at all, but I consider that our duty of respect is towards religious people rather than their religions. We ought to be able to cherish each other and live in peace, while holding each other’s faith or practice in frank disrespect, if that is our conviction. So, Boris’s remark about Moslem women looking like postboxes was guilty of contempt of persons, whereas (some) protestant criticism of the Pope is directed to an office in a religious hierarchy rather than to Francis as a person.

Given that most religions put forward their faith as a set of profound truths it seems unreasonable to demand respect for what others see as nonsense. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity seems to Moslems pernicious nonsense because it insults Allah who is one. On the other hand, out of respect for me, their brother, they may choose not to mention this to my face. When St.Francis preached to the Moslem Sheikh and began to express his celibate disgust of the bodies of women, the Sheikh interrupted him and warned that if he continued to insult his wives and daughters he would be obliged with regret to cut off his head. Respect is for persons rather than doctrines and when religious doctrines show disrespect for people, we should be able to say so.

The respect we ought to have for our brothers and sisters of other faiths includes a requirement that at least with regard to the faiths of our neighbours, we spend time knowing their beliefs and customs, including such study in the curriculum of our schools. We may find within the stories of other faiths signs of respect which match stories in our own. Jesus was faced up by a Canaanite woman whom he had disrespected, and he immediately praised her faith. The prophet Mohammed, seeing a funeral in the street, stood up in respect. The bystanders looked at him in surprise, saying, “It’s only a Jew.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, answered, “Is it not a soul?”

Respect of persons should not preclude respect for the truth. Even if we practice a wise scepticism towards our possession of the truth, and especially towards the words in which our faith has expressed it, we should not lose our commitment to it. If we say that the truth possesses us rather than vice versa, we are still obliged to witness to it, as best we may. When we do so, we must expect those of other faiths to do so as well. I think this kind of robust friendship between people of differing belief will help the growth of communities which are colourful, rich, disputatious and humorous. It is my experience that those who were happiest with their own faith, were full of broad humour about it, and ready to offer me, if not my faith, their respect.

We all know that honour is an outdated idea.

Reputation now, bolstered by all the modern means of publicity, yes, that’s something real, but honour sounds as if it’s 50% family inheritance and 50% heroism when the former is out of date and the latter is a combination of courage and insanity.

There’s nothing new in being sceptical about honour. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV prince Hal tells Falstaff before a battle that “he owes God a death” to which Falstaff replies with a sceptical examination of “honour”:

Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day. What need I be so forward with Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter. Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere ‘.scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

He concludes that honour is a mere coat of arms, a claim to nobility. Shakespeare of course doesn’t leave the matter there but shows certain characters gaining honour in battle because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. But in spite of that, most people remember Falstaff’s speech long after the rest have been forgotten. We all know that honour is a concept born in past culture which has no currency now.

And yet, what exactly were we offering to the NHS staff whom we applauded at our doors? Thanks? Yes, but not just that. Celebrity? No, something more serious. Solidarity? Possibly, but for how long? So, could it be that we were dealing with Honour, and if so, were we conferring it or recognising it? I think we were recognising that by their duty, courage and skills, these women and men had gained honour in the eyes of our society which we had to reflect back to them so that they would know it.

If that is so, here, in the 21st century, is an admission of the relevance of an ancient concept, which suddenly seems real because we are faced with an obvious public danger. Our normal rejection of it may be due to the normal absence, in our society, of that sort of danger. Certainly in war there are special honours for outstanding acts of courage, but honour is also given to all who have done their duty. The honour we have given to the NHS staffs is of the latter kind: they found themselves in a situation where we would have been terrified, and they were also, but they did their duty, day by day.

I smuggled in the word “duty” because it too is considered a bit out of date, as representing a moral obligation: to do what we can to protect the lives and welfare of our fellow human beings. The pandemic has reminded us that we may have duties which go beyond our comfortable self- concern, and even if we don’t like them, push us to do the right thing in order to preserve our honour, even if only in our own eyes.

Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, offered to everyone, especially to those regarded by others as scum or outcast, an advance of honour, simply as human beings, capable of doing their duty. Something like this advance of honour is offered by citizens to their fellow citizens in any decent society. Of course some may prove unworthy of this honour, but the mutual regard which makes society work, cannot be maintained without it.

Trump dishonouring the Bible

To refuse this advance of trust is to dis-honour a fellow citizen; to refuse it to a particular class of citizen, is to dis-honour not only that class but the whole society which cannot survive peacefully without that trust. And if a whole class of society, let’s say, those with black skins, has been systematically dishonoured, what will happen when a particularly vile and dishonouring murder of one of that class is shown on every kind of social media? Well, then we get the USA today, where that whole dishonoured class is demonstrating its conviction that the bonds of society are broken. In the face of riot, arson and looting people who sympathise with their black fellow citizens may plead for calm, pointing out that this violence does their cause no good. They forget that black citizens have been deliberately dishonoured, treated as scum, by the Police, whose actions have been supported by some in society and permitted by others.

It turns out, not the first time, that Jesus was a good deal wiser and more realistic than those who imagine that you can take away a person’s honour and still expect her to be a loyal citizen; and certainly wiser than a President whose exercise of power involves dishonouring his opponents almost every day. Some Christian believers may dissent from my interpretation of what Jesus offered to the dishonoured of his society. They may want to call it, healing, compassion, salvation. These are good words, but without the restoration of honour they would have been meaningless.

The New Testament word for the restoration of honour is “redemption” which means “buying back” and was particularly used of the liberation of a slave. The dishonouring condition was removed and the former slave set free to be a citizen. Those who wrote about Jesus thought that this word characterised his practical application of his message. His advance of honour freed people to do their duty as human beings.

I certainly don’t have a ready-made policy for the USA, but I want to insist, in the wisdom of Jesus, that it must include a) an end to the dishonouring habits of the Police towards black people and b) a start to restoring the honour of those who have been deprived of it again and again.

Our common knowledge that honour is an outdated idea turns out to be wrong.