‘God is dead’ Nietzsche infamously proclaimed in 1882. He was issuing a then-provocative statement within the context of a wider discussion; but as a snappy slogan it was inevitably misconstrued by his critics and appropriated by atheists whose righteous conviction in their chosen belief system can often make them as sanctimoniously zealous as the followers of the faiths they decry. Religion, whether worshipping a living God or a dead one, always divides as much as it unites, with rival factions of the same faith having a habit of engaging in never-ending family feuds that can cost hundreds of thousands of lives when elongated over decades and, in some cases, centuries; and then there are the opposing faiths that routinely square up to one another every few years in order to prove whose God is bigger than the other. So many religions, so many Gods, so much unnecessary bloodshed – no wonder so many societies are secular today compared to the past.
A modern multi-faith democracy has to accommodate all of these spiritual ideologies, yet whereas the ultimate judgement as to which religion takes priority over the rest is traditionally in the hands of those following the dominant faith (for they tend to hold all the power), if secularism is their common currency, favouritism can be influenced by other factors. Whilst most would argue the majority of Brits today inhabit a secular world that mainly only acknowledges two Christian festivals – Christmas and Easter – this is still technically a Christian country, albeit one our Christian forefathers would sometimes struggle to recognise as such. To take the changing, diverse nature of the nation’s worship on board, our law-makers have done their best to ensure none of the myriad religions on offer today is discriminated against; however, there can be shades of an Identity Politics approach at play when ring-fencing faiths that aren’t associated with any of the British traditions which are now criminally unfashionable.
The foot-soldiers of the law-makers are dispatched to enforce those laws, and the undeniable existence of two-tier policing is evident in the way ring-fencing a minority at the expense of the majority produces one rule for one and one rule for another. Just as few MPs of recent years have seen active service in the armed forces compared to previous generations of politicians – therefore making it far easier for them to deploy troops when they have no notion of what operating in war-zones really entails – there probably aren’t many honourable members who’ve been policemen or women. I should imagine passing some ill-conceived new law is simple enough if you’re safe in the knowledge that you personally won’t be sent out onto the streets to enforce it; and if you’ve never been in that position, your grasp of the realities of doing so is probably limited to watching one of those ‘Police Camera Action’-type cheapo docs on Channel 5. Moreover, if those making up the rules have none of the inbred loyalty to Christianity that a Christian country implies, they won’t necessarily exhibit sensitivity towards its worshippers in the same way they might with other (more politically beneficial) faiths.
An illegal gathering of individuals outlawed by Covid restrictions – we’ve all seen such gatherings dispersed in an often-OTT manner by the police in online videos shot by those present; this is what we’ve come to expect. Not so in Batley, however. An illegal gathering outside a school there included the likes of Shamima Begum’s lawyer and was organised by an organisation which has apparently received effective sponsorship from the local branch of the teaching union – something that might further explain the silence and absence of support for the teacher now in hiding from the intolerant bigots who believe he didn’t show the followers of their faith the respect they’re not automatically entitled to. An illegal gathering breaking the restrictions the rest of us have to abide by and the incitement of religious hatred – two issues that surely should have led to police wading in and dispersing, no? No, of course not. Contrast this with events on Good Friday when the Met gate-crashed a service at a Polish Catholic church in South London with such brutish and arrogant insensitivity it was a wonder they didn’t declare ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’
A scenario impossible to imagine being enacted in a mosque – and it would be no more enlightening or laudable a spectacle there than in a synagogue or a Methodist chapel – the interruption during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion at Christ the King Polish church in Balham doesn’t require a devotion to the faith in question to send shivers down the spine. On the widely-circulated video, the leader of this glorified Gestapo makes the most of his moment in the spotlight by showing the worshippers who is boss. ‘You are not allowed to meet inside with this many people under law,’ he declares. ‘At this moment in time you need to go home. Failure to comply with this direction to leave and go to your home address ultimately could lead to being fined £200 or, if you fail to give your details, to you being arrested.’ It was like a scene from a movie set in the post-Reformation 16th century, when Catholic practices were outlawed in England and forced to be secretly staged in clandestine priest holes in constant danger of being raided. One might almost imagine we have a fresh network of spies dotted about the country reporting suspected services to the authorities. Perish the thought.
The protestors in Batley were not in the process of commemorating a Muslim Holy day – which may have led to an understandable softly-softly approach by the police; they were denouncing an ‘infidel’ and placing him in fear for his life with their vile rhetoric as they forced the closure of a school. The worshippers at the church in Balham, on the other hand, were celebrating the most solemn day in the Catholic calendar; and the police deliberately brought it to a close halfway through by striding into the church wearing their size-nines and barking their orders at the small congregation from the altar. This was a service that was being streamed online and had, according to reports, complied with the regulations at a time when the coronavirus is declining in the capital; that the police didn’t even have the decency to wait until the service was over would have robbed them of their melodramatic money-shot, one they clearly imagined would emphasise their authority and instil fear into those considering breaking the law. Yet it just made them look even more like an out-of-control private army drunk on its new powers.
As a long-term, prominent immigrant community in the UK, Poles have historically set up home here after fleeing persecution under totalitarian regimes that weren’t exactly tolerant of their faith. That a Polish church in particular should have been singled out for this unedifying treatment seems an especially damning indictment on the way in which two-tier policing is now dispensed in this country as well as highlighting a glaring lack of insight and understanding as to the kind of ghosts such an incident can evoke. Immigrant communities and their descendants carry the scars of their ancestors, packed into the collective suitcase when departing the homeland and then passed down the generations as part of the family silver, helping to forge a shared identity. Worship can often form a key element of this identity, yet one doesn’t have to be a believer at all to find the clumsy actions of the police in Balham a fairly shameful desecration of that worship which would be just as bad were it applied across the board to all forms of worship. That it isn’t being applied this way makes a mockery of both the law and the law enforcers, neither of which are generating the feeling that we’re all in this together. Because we’re clearly not.
© The Editor