Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

A couple of weeks back I made a mistake one Friday evening. It had been a long week, long hours and various stressful events, mostly to do with the church ceiling repair. It seemed like an evening to just chill, so I ended up binge watching series 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is available on Shortcut, Latvia’s version of iPlayer and Netflix combined.

And it was a mistake, alright. For those not familiar with this series, based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future (or present?) in the USA, tells the horrific story of the founding of a republic named Gilead in the northeastern states of the US. The flashbacks give us glimpses of how this starts, with increasingly conservative politicians working together with fundamentally oriented Christians to establish a theocratic system. Due to some unspecified catastrophe involving nuclear waste, the population has become infertile, and women of childbearing age become the eponymous Handmaids, subdued by violence and manipulation to become vessels for childbirth. If you haven’t yet read the original novel, do.

Why was this binge on a cool Friday night a mistake? Mostly because the second series begins

…..Begins with a long sequence filmed at the Boston Globe, deserted, abandoned; and then the discovery of a wall where the journalists have been shot. Of course this evokes a reaction because it resonates with the current US President’s frequent denunciations of the Press as ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Because what happens to the ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE? They are exterminated, and not in a basically cosy, Dr Who Daleky kind of way. That is extrapolation, of course it is. But Handmaid’s Tale shows us that sometimes the descent into totalitarianism, just like the pathway to Hell, is paved with the very best of intentions, and it happens slowly, imperceptibly, when at each step we think that none of this is really so bad, when we become habituated to small acts of hatred, to increments of intolerance and oppression.

That’s why Donald Trump’s nastiness towards Elijah Cummings matters. It does.

Quite apart from the sheer indignity of the President(!) of the USA (!) using such intemperate language on Twitter (!) towards someone who is, basically, just a political opponent, this is dog whistle racism. And that is NOT OK. Can you imagine FDR, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes doing this? Let alone statesmen or women from other countries, like Adenauer, Churchill, Gandhi, Merkel, or the rising new star of world politics, Jacinta Arden? (Names picked rather randomly, by the way).

And now in the UK there is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (sic). Prime Minister, serial adulterer and proven liar, with his own ‘Cummings’, the rather less savoury Dominic.

Here’s a quote from The Independent:

Fletcher, the former Times editor, has compiled a list of Johnson’s greatest hits from Brussels: Johnson wrote that the EU wanted to standardise coffins, the smell of manure and the size of condoms – and had rejected an Italian request to make undersized rubbers. He warned Brits that their prawn-cocktail-flavoured chips could be banned, that their sausages were under threat and that their fishermen would be required to wear hairnets.

And all of those were lies. But does any of this matter? Yes, it does, too. Bishop Berkeley wrote in 1750

It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.

That is still true today, even if some commentators are trying to divorce public from private morality. And thereby hangs the problem. Morality has become something of a dirty word in our postpostmodern world. We have a diversity of moral frameworks, based on a potpourri of religions, and, indeed, for many people morality has become something entirely private, a sliding, slippery, ephemeral concept, where moral relativism, albeit unnamed, is the order of the day. Reality TV shows us adultery and luuurve in all its shapes and sizes, making popular drama out of real pain and betrayal. Love Island apparently thought this was a cute quote

After getting a drama-filled text the night before telling all the Islanders to nominate a fellow couple to be dumped, Amber told the Beach Hut: “In here you can be at your highest high, and you think that nothing could possibly ruin this, and then a text comes in.”

Our bankers and politicians lie without compunction, and without consequences. Greed has become praiseworthy, and stealing or corruption the norm for many. In addition, social media have become a breeding ground for contempt and unkindness.

The old standards of morality, often observed in the breach though they were, were a rule by which to measure ourselves, first and most importantly, and others only in a secondary way. So I can even see the temptation to believe that a benevolent theocracy, guided, say, by the Sermon on the Mount, might drag us out of the cesspit. But that way lies Gilead, Law not Gospel, and more intolerance, even if accompanied by a greeting of

Blessed day!

But what we should do, as people of faith and people of goodwill, is to uphold those standards in any case. If we were, seriously, to take the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as reasonable guidelines for living well, we would save ourselves and those around us from much misery. As the Church of England website says,

The Ten Commandments set out fundamental principles of how we are to treat God and how we are to treat our fellow human beings. 

For lack of a better or more functional vademecum, most Western legal systems, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other fundamental documents find their basic principles precisely here. I suspect also that a necessary concern for the environment and overcoming the existential challenge of global climate change would be aided by a deeper understanding of these two profoundly wise writings.

And we have do the right – no, the obligation! – to hold Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and leaders to a standard of morality, without which we find ourselves in an environment where lies are  as good as truth, dishonesty as honesty, where kindness is seen as weakness, and a world where racism, sexism and all the other isms are set free to skitter around, wounding and killing as they go.

QED, I guess.

My name is Jana and I am an Archers Addict.

Those who know me well know not to call me or talk to me  from 7-7.15pm (whatever the GMT equivalent is, because – thanks to the internet, it’s possible to listen almost anywhere in the world), because it’s Archers time. An everyday story of country folk, as it used to be called: but now more of a soap opera based around a village called Ambridge in a fictional county in the heart of rural England. Sorry, but there we are: my name is Jāna, and I am an Archers addict. I even belong to a Facebook group called Ambridge Addicts – not so much therapy as feeding the addiction, sadly.

So far, so not very interesting and slightly humiliating. But the point of this blog is that over recent months the plot line in The Archers has included a developing drama around a clearly sociopathic/psychopathic/disordered personality character. Rob Titchener charmed a lonely, vulnerable single mother into marrying him, but at the same time he is extraordinarily manipulative, a chronic liar, occasionally verbally and physically violent and entirely unscrupulous in his dealings with others. And this has caused an explosion of reactions among listeners, and Facebook commenters.

Many of those reacting are simply bored by this long story line; but others have been distressed, and have suffered from a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction, because they – well, we  ourselves have suffered at the hands of our own sociopaths, and the trauma this leaves behind is often lifelong and extraordinarily damaging. I also find myself listening from behind a metaphorical sofa, as the all too recognisable phrases trip off Rob’s tongue. Whoever is in the writing team for this line has certainly researched personality disorders very thoroughly.

But it probably is valuable, if it helps even a handful of people to realise that they too may be being abused by a sociopath (I’m not proposing to explain the differences, such as they are, between psychopaths, sociopaths and those with personality disorders: one version can be found here) . As there may be as many as 10% of the population who are affected in this way, there are a large number out there, and all of us will come across someone like that sooner or later. Here are a few pointers which may tell you that you are in the presence of someone with a personality disorder.

  1. One day they are charming and attentive to you, making you feel that you really matter to them; and the next time you meet they ignore you completely.
  2. They tell you lies all the time – sometimes to save their own face, but sometimes senselessly
  3. Nothing is ever their fault. Someone else is to blame for all that goes wrong.
  4. You have a minor disagreement, and it blows out of all proportion. None of your usual strategies for resolving conflicts work.
  5. They ‘gaslight’ you:
    Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. (from Wikipedia)
  6. Often they will pursue you for vengeance, especially if you manage to overcome them in a conflict. In some cases, this will stretch to stalking, cyberharrasment, domestic abuse, physical or psychological violence.
  7. And crucially, and this is what Ambridge Addicts are doing at the moment – the sociopath occupies your headspace, often to the exclusion of all else. You find yourself worrying what they are doing, what they might do, trying desperately to understand why things don’t work between you; even when all falls silent, you worry about what is being planned next.

As a minister of religion it seems very distressing  that the church is particularly vulnerable to the depredations of sociopaths, both in congregations and among ordained ministers. In churches and other faith institutions, we have a presumption that people are going to be well-intentioned, truthful and will want to do their best for others. It can take a very long time for ministers with personality disorders to be uncovered, and meantime they leave a trail of havoc behind them (watch out for the pastor who hops from church to church, from denomination to denomination). Who actually wants to challenge the bishop who tells lies, or the vicar who preaches such wonderful sermons, but you have a horrible feeling they might be dipping their hand into the collection basket? It is difficult to do in the faith context.

When the sociopath harassing me was at their worst, I asked a wise old pastor for advice and help. Partly this was simply because I didn’t know what to do, but partly also because I was wrestling with a theological question. Sociopaths can’t, in a sense, be blamed for their conduct, as they often have almost no insight into their true nature. Most are never diagnosed by a psychologist, as they wouldn’t dream of going near one. There is no treatment as such, as this is not an illness; the exception is for the small number of people with personality disorders who have some awareness of their problem, and are willing to work hard with a psychologist to at least modify their behaviour, if they are aware of how damaging they are, and if they care.

So, for a Christian, the question is – where does salvation lie for the sociopath? If someone is quite unable to see their wrong behaviour, their sins, for what they are, they are also unable to confess them honestly, and be forgiven. They also cannot repair their relationships with other people, for the same reason. At the same time, the self-obsession of most people with personality disorders makes ‘repentance’ – metanoia – a change of focus towards God impossible.

The wise old pastor said something along the lines of ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19.26) He told me to keep praying for the sociopath, and to pray for myself to be able to forgive them, and to leave the rest to God’s grace.

And all that stems from a soap opera story line.