Thursday, 8 November 2018

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 796 8 November 18 EFFIGY BURNING


‘To witness suffering is pleasant. To inflict it, even more, so…there is no festivity without cruelty…Even in punishment there is something so very festive.’ Thus wrote Nietzsche in the ‘Genealogy of Morals’. I guess the eminent philosopher might have enjoyed the sight of the burning of the London block of flats named Grenfell Tower, in which 72 people died. (‘Punished’ only for being there.) Like the men who guffawed and rejoiced in setting fire to a large flammable model of the Tower – little paper figures shown trapped inside – on Guy Fawkes Night. Though universally blamed, they demonstrated the bit of uncomfortable truth in Nietzsche’s callous remarks. No wonder he loathed Christianity, the religion of a better truth: brotherly love.

Burning people’s images. Nasty thing. Yet a fate suffered for centuries by Guy Fawkes. The only man who entered Parliament with the right intention, as he wanted to blow it up. For centuries his ragged effigy burned on bonfires amidst public rejoicing, up and down England pleasant and green. Bit offensive to Catholics? Papists had to grit their teeth and take it. Staunchly Protestant England had to have her bit of fun. The historical Fawkes had been tortured and hideously executed but that wasn’t enough. Condemned forever to have his puppet figure a butt of baiting and then burnt amidst fireworks. Indelicate but quite festive, eh?

The archetypal bad guy of Christian tradition is Judas. One of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He who betrayed his Master for thirty pieces of silver. His very name being synonymous with treason. Many nations, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, like Greece, still burn Judas’ effigy before Easter amidst popular rejoicing. It might be offensive to Jews but, remember, Jesus and his followers were all Jews, Semites. How can Semites be guilty of antisemitism? Besides, though Judas’ crime was the foulest possible, he was an unwitting, necessary instrument of Providence. Without the Cross, no redemption of man. Overcome with remorse, he took his own life. A traitor who realised the extent of his enormity and paid for it with his life, whatever his punishment in the next world.

More modestly, the English town of Lewes still burns the Pope – England’s perennial foreign foe. Enemy nations were politically feared but the Pope was more insidious: he, like a hideous alien from outer space, invaded and took over Englishmen’s inner life: their consciences. With the general eclipse of religion in personal and public life, the Bishop of Rome is no longer a bogey but lingering prejudice dies hard. An effigy of Pope Paul V still goes up in flame. Though largely Lewes sets fire to ‘negative’ characters like Kim Jong-un, President Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Katie Hopkins and Boris Johnson. Part of me wishes I was deemed dangerous enough to join the club…

In magic the destruction of an image intends a physical attack on the person whose effigy it is. There is more to magic than mere superstition but you will not be harmed by a wizard who sets fire to a caricature of you. (Pace the fate of Steven Segal in the movie ‘Belly of the Beast’.) Rather, the practice expresses the impotent spite of those who are unable to hurt the real person. Trump is beyond the reach of his mockers – scores of gorilla-like FBI agents see to that - so burning his image is an act against the impression he makes on the minds of his admirers. Similarly with the public burning of the American flag by angry demonstrators. No one expects America to go up in flames as a result. It is an insult aimed at US patriots and nationalists, no more.

For Nietzsche that brings out the crucial difference between the weak and the strong, key categories of his philosophy. The strong, the superior men, have the power to discharge their aggressiveness. They can do whatever they like and can genuinely hurt whoever they wish. The weak, the bungled and the botched, cannot. They are impotent. In consequence they must find devious, subtler ways of manifesting their hatred. Of course, Nietzsche also believed the weaklings’ greatest revenge on the strong had been to get them to accept a ‘slave ethics’, a morality based on inferior values, such as pity and compassion. Via the agency of Christianity, he claimed.

The yobs who celebrated Guy Fawkes Day by burning the Grenfell Tower effigy betrayed their weak characters. They hated immigrants, especially illegal ones, Muslims and coloured people. However, they had not the power or courage to really attack the objects of their hatred. All they could do was to release their hostility by making a simulacrum of it and setting it on fire. Xenophobia, the dark side of England, dare not show itself and fight openly. (Brexit apart…) It prefers to lurk, to dwell in the shadows. The media spread deep layers of obfuscation on this unpleasant national reality – they piously squawk about compassion, inclusion, care, community, the plethora of liberal clichés and pretend all is well. In fact, the inner beast has yet to die.

When Tony Blair joined Bush in the invasion of Iraq, I contemplated nothing as futile as burning his image but something theological. Standing in Whitehall, just outside Downing Street and cursing Phoney Tony. Using the Book of Common Prayer Service of Commination for that purpose. (Check it out: interesting stuff.) In the end my spiritual director dissuaded me. Pity. Surely cursing a tyrant is pleasing to God? And, God willing, of some effect?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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