Ignorance Informs Intolerance

Marc Chagall's Return of the Prodigal

Very few events during the Taoiseach’s present term will be as fundamentally happy as the safe return of Emily Hand to her family. The Tánaiste’s statement went basically unnoticed. Indeed, the Taoiseach’s full statement has also mostly been bypassed. What has been noted – with fury by many on social media and with rancour by the Israeli government – is a tweet issued through the Taoiseach’s account. Mr Varadkar wrote:

This is a day of enormous joy and relief for Emily Hand and her family. An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned, and we breathe a massive sigh of relief. Our prayers have been answered.

Algorithmic Outrage

The objectionable element in this brief statement seems to be that the Taoiseach did not mention that Emily was kidnapped by Hamas. While seasoned communicators like William Crawley make an apt point when they say that politicians must shape their messaging defensively, so that they are not wilfully misunderstood, it does feel like one of those dismally common situations where internet algorithms and obscure political agendas combine to create a controversy where no scandal really exists.

It is common practice to avoid naming the perpetrator when writing about grave acts of injustice. The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice was not established to defend the powerful, but in this case, it is hard not to conclude that Varadkar is being unjustly criticised.

‘Eye for an Eye’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

But there is another level where the message was a grave failure. The Taoiseach’s tweet follows quickly from Micheál Martin’s bafflingly offensive “eye for an eye” comments. When addressing the devastation of the ongoing war in the Dáil, he said we “don’t need an Old Testament approach to this” and that what instead we need is a “New Testament approach to this”. This went largely unnoticed in Ireland but was surely registered in Israel, where the words would seem like textbook anti-Semitism – positioning Christianity as essentially morally superior – a sort of 2.0 upgrade – over Judaism.

In context, the Lex Talionis is a doctrine of restraint. Where the common response to being attacked is to strike back with escalating force, Exodus 21 restricts the Israelites to moderate, considered responses. This code recognises that when we are aggrieved, we are prone to self-justify. The citation made by the Tánaiste in the Dáil might seem innocuous to most Irish people, but that is because most Irish people lack a basic understanding of what it means to be Jewish (it should not need to be said but I will say it anyway: being Jewish is not the same as being Israeli).

Quoting the Wrong Bible?

When we realise that Martin’s comments were surely registered in Israel, the response to Varadkar’s tweet makes more sense. When I read it, I knew exactly what the authors were getting at.

Initially we feared Emily had died. Then we discovered she was alive but was in a “distant country”. Over the weekend, to our profound relief, she returned home and was embraced by her father. There was weeping with joy and presumably feasting. It is not a reach to think about Jesus’ famous parable of the two lost sons, recorded by Luke.

Other, more skilled readers discovered resonances with material that was riffing on the parable. And it turns out that the immediate reference was the famous hymn by the repentant slave-trader John Newton. But that hymn is a reflection on the gospel text.

What is wrong with this? Well, Luke 15 is certainly in the bible, but it isn’t in the bible Jesus read. Building your statement around the New Testament when addressing a Jewish context is many things, but it certainly isn’t diplomatically savvy. It repeats the same offence the Tánaiste made last month. As the Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine puts it, there is a longstanding tendency to preach this passage so that the Christian is inclusive and loving and whoever is not on the side of such grace “remains the Jew”.

So, while it was drowned out by the performative online outrage over the weekend, we can assume the Taoiseach’s tweet was entirely benign in intention; it was softly anti-Semitic. Quoting the New Testament when the Psalter is there for the citing is a shocking act of cultural and religious illiteracy. For a nation that regularly pats itself on the back for its literary prowess, this inability to see the insult in our words should chasten us.

Why We Have to ‘Do Religion’

After the latest furore, it would be fully coherent for Leo Varadkar to stick up a big banner over his writers’ desks echoing a slogan from the Tony Blair years: “We don’t do God.” Whatever about a question as fundamental as God, the latest diplomatic mistakes should not be taken as a sign that the Irish State must flee from religious references. It shows how much more work it must do to become competent around other people’s religions.

Ireland is facing a potent societal challenge, as evidenced by the riots in Dublin last week. Violence is being targeted towards immigrants. On average, Immigrants to Ireland are more religious than those born here. They are Muslim, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Catholic. They join with the other most marginalised and most easily dismissed group in our society – Travellers – as being more committed to a religious faith.

The Irish State – its senior leaders through to the essential services it extends to its citizens – too often defaults to what the philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls the “subtraction theory”  of religion. Religion is seen as a superficial outer layer of enculturation and the default human experience is secularity. This is empirically false but politically destructive. It hinders integration and accelerates polarisation. Many societies that have tried to make the public square hygienically clean of the messiness of religious language have seen the worst outcomes in terms of genuine pluralism and diversity. If already marginalised people are expected to shed their fundamental convictions before participating in the public square, they will be pushed ever more rapidly back into contexts where they can be themselves. When we really think about this, we see the ideological violence of unthinking secularity.

The unfortunate recent missteps of our most senior politicians are not born of malice. But they do exhibit how fundamentally uninterested we can be about what matters for our neighbours. The ignorance is certainly not vindictive, but it will create intolerance. Instead of refusing to engage religious ideas, it is time we start engaging them seriously. We must stop assuming we have a full grasp of them because Ireland “was a Catholic nation”. Humility is a pre-requisite for encountering and truly hearing our neighbours who are different from us and seeing their difference not as a threat, but as a gift.

If you care about integration, if you care about the plight of the most marginalised in our society, then you should care about religion.