Argus title : Still hoping for a New Jerusalem
When I was a young student, I was attracted by complex ideas. I wanted to be able to understand the way things worked. If I’m honest, I suppose I also wanted to be thought clever.
I would read writers I didn’t understand, but they rarely seemed to teach me what I needed to know. There were moments of enlightenment, but usually they arose when I was reading unfashionable texts.
After I came to England I considered studying philosophy. The then professor at Sussex University, who was a charming man, asked me what I wanted from the study of philosophy. “Wisdom” I replied. He laughed and said nothing like that was taught in English universities. So I studied literature instead – which may or may not have been a good idea.
By that time I was beginning to question the value of difficult texts and ideas which only highly educated people could understand. Nonetheless, in deference to the critics, I tried to prefer Proust and Joyce to Dickens and George Eliot. It was without success.
I was exploring religious ideas at that time. A priest recommended an enormous book by the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung. I waded through around 100 pages and then gave up, extremely dispirited. I remember wondering at the time why he had given such a complex book to a novice. Yet at the same time, I was flattered.
As I have grown older and have come to terms with my own intellectual failings, the dementia of my parents and the death of fine teachers, I suppose I have come to realise the fragility of the human intellect. More than ever I realise the value of simplicity.
In the past I would have given my eye teeth to meet a great liberal theologian like Kung. On the other hand, if I had been offered the opportunity to meet some one like the South African Archbishop Tutu, I might not have bothered. I knew him to be a sincere and committed opponent of Apartheid, but I didn’t value him as I did other great leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa and the like.
Tutu seemed to lack the stature of the other men. To be honest, he embarrassed me a bit. I disliked the way he laughed and pranced and capered. It seemed to me that he played the fool and so allowed white people to laugh at him.
I had grown up in a society in which white audiences at the cinema would roar with laughter if a black person appeared on screen – usually in the role of smiling servants washing dishes or cleaning cars. It was vicious and uneasy laughter and I grew to dread it.
At the time I was convinced by the deeply serious ideals of Black Consciousness which called upon Black people to have pride in themselves and demanded respect from others. I could not understand why Tutu appeared willing to act out old stereotypes.
What I did not realise at the time was that Tutu wasn’t playing the White racists’ game any more than those who supported Black consciousness. He just didn’t give a damn. Tutu was able to dance and laugh, because he had transcended racist stereotypes. He had obeyed the Gospel instruction to “become like a child”.
Years later, almost 20 years since the fall of Apartheid, I find it is Tutu I admire most of all South African leaders. While many have become rich or corrupt or have simply played safe, Tutu has remained as he always was. During the years of Apartheid, he spoke out against injustice, in the simplest of language. Since the system fell, he has spoken out equally clearly about abuses of power which have followed.
It was he who said of leading African National Congress politicians that they had “stopped the gravy train just long enough to climb on it”. He has had the courage to state explicitly that while Black people were the principle victims of the Apartheid system, women and children are now the primary victims of injustice and violence in the post-Apartheid era.
While the Anglican hierarchy has torn itself to pieces over the issue of female and openly gay priests, Tutu has supported both without reserve. And through it all, he has continued to joke and laugh and caper. He is in old age as wily as a serpent and as innocent as a child.
In that regard, he reminds me of the 18th century poet and artist William Blake. Blake was a mystic who from childhood reported regular visions of angels and prophets. It was he who wrote the words of the famous hymn “Jerusalem”.
When I was a student I struggled with Blake’s deceptively simple poems. I didn’t like the apparently crude and child-like little etchings with which he illustrated them. I felt embarrassed by the fact that he and his wife used to sit naked in their garden in Felpham, Sussex and that he used regularly to talk with angels and his dead brother.
There was nothing fashionably sophisticated about Blake. He condemned the hypocrisy and sexual repressiveness of the church and, in contravention of Church teaching, rejected the notion of original sin, believing that children are innocent until corrupted by society.
Blake railed against the despoliation of the land and the oppression he witnessed everywhere. Like Tutu, he was appalled by the abuse of children and young people, condemning child prostitution and child labour. He wrote in his poem “London” of the “chimney sweeper’s cry” and the “youthful harlot’s curse” which “Blasts the newborn infant’s tear”
I can’t quite picture Archbishop Tutu naked in a Sussex garden with William Blake, though I think I can imagine them both communing with angels. I am sure they would lament how far we are in the 21st century from building the New Jerusalem for which Blake longed.
I can imagine what both of them would have to say about a society such as ours in which an 8 month old baby like little Jessica Harman from Horam in Sussex dies from non-accidental head injury with 15 broken ribs, allegedly at the hands of her father. Or one in which Jessica Knight, a 14 year old girl, fights for her life following a frenzied knife attack in her local park. Or in which 16 year old Adam Battams, apparently once in local authority “care”, dies in a Robertsbridge motel after taking an overdose of methadone which belonged to his stepfather – having previously been supplied with heroin by his father.
A society in which 5 young Ipswich prostitutes, all addicted to heroin, can be butchered and left naked to rot would horrify Blake and Tutu, but would not seem alien to either. One has lived through decades of violent social dislocation in South Africa, while the other witnessed the corruption and violence of 18th century England.
However, what both would be entitled to ask is why – with so many resources and after so many years – Britain is still mired in corruption.
What kind of society is it in which heroin addiction takes the flower of our youth, offering them up to prostitution and violence? In which rape and domestic violence are commonplace, exploitation is the norm and alcohol the anaesthetic of choice which, for a time, makes life bearable.
“The greatest truths are the simplest” said brothers Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare in 1827. And so they are.
It seems to me that we need only two things to live well in the world – love and justice. Justice stops people having or being less than they should. Love leads us to be more than we are.
I wish I could find a political leader or organisation prepared to fight for that. The Church used to, at least some of the time, and so did the Labour movement – but not any more.
Building Jerusalem went off the agenda years ago.