Lepanto, Our Lady, and Life
07/October/2009 Filed in: Jottings
Given that the Man Booker prize has gone to a historical novel (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall) and today is the anniversary of the Holy League's most decisive defeat of Ottoman war galleys (Battle of Lepanto, 1571), in thanksgiving for which the Memoria of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted, we thought we might allow today's jottings to follow a vaguely historical and liturgical course. We were shocked out of our comfort zone, however, by a chance find on the internet. As many will be aware, flooding in southern India has caused huge problems and, like many others, we have been keen to contribute what we can to help, especially to some of the poorer Christian communities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I was doing an internet search for a small Christian organization we know about in Tamil Nadu (where the population is predominantly Hindu) and stumbled across a Forum, hosted in Britain and featuring mainly posts from people in Britain, about Tamil Nadu. It was deeply upsetting. In the crudest possible terms Tamil Nadu Christians were attacked, their Faith vilified, and the prospect of their murder contemplated with relish. We can dismiss this kind of thing as being beneath contempt, one of the downsides of the internet being that people often express themselves with too little thought or restraint. But it set me thinking about free speech and the limits of religious tolerance.
I know that our Hindu friends would be the first to distance themselves from the sentiments expressed on the Tamil Nadu Forum. They, like me, believe that respect for others is a fundamental principle and value the tradition of free speech we enjoy in the U.K. Above all, we share the belief that life is sacred, that it comes to us as a gift and is not to be insulted or mistreated, still less bludgeoned to death.
The language of invective is, of course, a constant in history: some of the insults bandied about in eighteenth century England, for example, would make ears burn today; and many a threat may be uttered in the heat of an argument that the speaker has no intention of carrying out. But I am still left wondering how it is that words which from a Christian would be actionable are somehow tolerable when expressed by someone who is not a Christian. Don't get me wrong, I am not asking for "special treatment" for Christians here or elsewhere, nor am I suggesting that the freedoms enjoyed by any religion should be curtailed. It would be dishonest not to admit that inequalities can be very striking — Christians in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy the freedoms that Muslims enjoy in Rome, for instance — but we have a duty to try to create a just and equitable society wherever we happen to live. Part of that duty must surely involve indicating the acceptable limits of the freedoms we take for granted. Words do matter: they can be a source of life or death.