Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

Despite being suspended from the Arab League, Syria shows no sign of changing its repressive policies. So one wonders what happens to a people when they have endured decades of authoritarian rule, as in Syria. Some clearly support the regime, and the state blames the violence on terrorists. But do brutal regimes brutalise people so that the sense of how to treat others well becomes eroded for everyone? How then is redemption possible?

Thinking about that called to mind those curious words of Jesus of Nazareth at his crucifixion. ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ ‘Forgive them’ I understand; but, ‘they know not what they do’ seems strange. For surely, these people that condemned, tortured, humiliated and killed Jesus, even those that came out to mock and cast derision, knew exactly what they were doing. They were doing their duty as citizens: getting rid of a trouble maker; joining their fellow countrymen in expressing contempt for one who threatened the equilibrium of daily life. Of course, they knew what they were doing.

Yet Jesus seems to be saying that far from being wicked people bent on wicked deeds, they didn’t really understand what was going on at all. They were in the grip of what Marxists call ‘false consciousness’.

Perhaps there is a general truth here. In authoritarian regimes that enforce their will through violence and oppression there will certainly be those who are truly wicked; those whose satisfaction lies in inflicting pain and humiliation on others. Such people have their uses for dictators; and they rise to the top. But they are few. Most people are not wicked in that sense, though they are caught up in what Hannah Arendt once called ‘the banality of evil’ – which is to say: they obey the law; they carry out orders; they go along with things because otherwise they risk their jobs, their families, even their lives. What they don’t do is think too much beyond their own immediate situation. They mind their own business and get on with life. False consciousness is their protection.

But where there is false consciousness, where people, in Jesus’s words, don’t know what they are doing, there is hope and the possibility of redemption.

If Christianity is right, false consciousness can be overcome when wickedness is named and seen for what it truly is. This is why the crucifixion of Christ is central to Christian faith. The cross makes clear the end point of not knowing what we do: unthinkingly doing our duty, self-censoring our thoughts for fear of having to acknowledge some moral imperative and act on it.

But this pattern of behaviour is not only the product of dictatorships, such as in Syria. ‘Not knowing what we do’, obeying too much and thinking too little, is part of the human condition. Something from which we all need saving.

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