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From Gethsemane to your back garden, life is full of betrayal

Betrayal is not always a not always an act of malicious intent, or a sign of power. It can be a demonstration of weakness.

When you wake on a spring morning to thickly falling snow and violent wind there is that brief moment of, oh whiteness! and then the slow grip of betrayal. By now, surely, we should be watching the leaves unfurl and feeling the first warmth of the sun. There should be cut grass beneath bare feet. Tulips. Daffodils? An ability to go outside without gloves and an iron will. I look at the naked trees from my window and can almost hear them saying, well, sod this. It’s as though the apocalypse has happened, not the one we were expecting – nuclear, life-eradicating, big bangs and flashes – but a quiet one, just out of sight or round the corner, and we’re gradually realising that we’ll never have seasons again, that heat is dead, that the flowers have taken a collective decision and resigned.

Talking about the weather is tired and stereotypical, and yet at the same time oddly energising. There’s always something to say. We have interesting weather! That’s why we talk about it! You may laugh at our obsession in your hot countries, in your Mediterranean towns where you know the sun will shine for day after faultless day, where you can drink wine in the square and sit out under the moon, but here we are constantly bamboozled, endlessly surprised, always caught out by the brutal caprice of our bonkers, manmuddled climate. We go on buying barbecues and planning summer weddings like blind fools, raging against reality. We pretend we’re having a nice time as the rain lashes through June. We lumber through winter and look forward to the hot days of August even though the last time we had hot days in August was in our warped and gilded childhood memories, when the summers were long and we weren’t who we actually were at all, but pretty filmic versions of ourselves on a perpetual seaside holiday that we never had with a family that didn’t argue, and picnics.

Our weather betrays our expectations at every turn. But it especially betrays us in the spring, when life should be budding, the sky opening out. It’s Easter after all: a rising again. But then Easter, or the days before Easter at least, are as much about betrayal as they are about hope, and so maybe this weather fits.

As a kid, I always preferred Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter Sunday, not only because I was gleefully morbid, but because the story was so much better. The resurrection seemed deeply suspicious – the empty tomb, Jesus blithely wandering around again as if everything was fine. But the run-up had everything – the superbly named Pontius Pilate, Romans, violence, injustice, bad guys, weeping women, a trial, the crucifixion, and Jesus’s closest disciple Peter, as predicted, betraying his friend again, and again, and again.

Of all the betrayals, it was the one that took place in the garden of Gethsemane that got me the most. Not Judas, arriving to kiss Jesus and prompt his arrest but the quieter betrayal of the three disciples who accompanied Jesus to the garden.

Jesus was praying in the depth of night for some kind of reprieve, and having his very understandable moment of doubt at having to die for the whole of humanity. He’d asked his friends to stay awake while he wrangled with his fate but every time he came back he found them dozing like sheep.

I felt for Jesus, obviously, but you were always being asked to feel for Jesus one way or another, and actually I felt more for his friends. I could imagine being that friend – struggling to keep your eyes open, even though you knew the stakes were high and someone had specifically asked you not to fall asleep. I could feel the burn of shame as they frantically, hopelessly tried to stay awake. But as Matthew writes in his Gospel, “their eyes were heavy”, and we all know that feeling – when the urge to nap is so intense that it feels closer to suffocation, or drowning, a force beyond you not within.

It’s the smallness of the act that makes it all the more painful and poignant – all they did was sleep, but the petty selfishiness in submitting to that basic, natural urge is what colours it into betrayal. We associate the idea of betrayal now more readily with infidelity and adultery – Pinter’s play of that title is about a husband and wife and her lover, the husband’s best friend – but it is really the breaking of any social contract, any bond. The disciples had promised their friend that they’d stay awake, but they couldn’t do it – something so simple, so insignificant.

Peter’s betrayal of Jesus at the crucifixion is far more pointed, not only because Jesus has already warned him of what he will do but also because of the consciousness of the act. Asked to choose between protecting himself and being honest about whether he knows Jesus or not, he chooses himself. When we read stories like this, we like to think we’d act differently, that we’d stick to our principles and sacrifice ourselves, but I’m not so sure. I think, more often than not, our instincts are to save ourselves. We too would sleep.

In the Bible, betrayal is the twin of temptation. The phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” originates from the Garden of Gethsemane – spoken by Jesus to his friends when he finds them mid-slumber. It’s a fine expression, now repeated into cliché, that skewers the heart of what it means to betray – not always an act of malicious intent, or a sign of power, but a demonstration of weakness.

I don’t believe in any of it, of course, being entirely faithless and alienated from such burdensome concepts of sin. And yet, like any good story, there’s some truth at work. More often than not our spirits are willing and our flesh is weak – we mean well but we mess up – and we usually end up betraying ourselves as much as anyone else. Still, that’s what makes us human, and more interesting (even as we rail for the thousandth time against the damp and cold) than an earnest prophet who mysteriously comes back from the dead.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.