GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS
Show Hide image

The Ten Commandments for the modern age

Six of our writers share a commandment for modern times. With Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Hoare, Julian Baggini, Mona Siddiqui and Laurie Penny.

Take care of the rest of creation

Philip Hoare

Among all the proscriptions in Moses’s mountainous memoranda, the most glaring omission must be any acknowledgement of humanity’s responsibility for the planet. Not least considering that it was hardly an environmentally sensitive act in the first place, hewing chunks out of the rock; a nice bit of papyrus might have been more eco-friendly. So, perhaps it is time to make amends. Pope Francis seems to think so. His recent encyclical, Laudato si’, could be taken as a tardy eleventh commandment to redress this imbalance – for all that it has come a little late, by an aeon or two. Indeed, the Old Testament kick-started the Anthropocene by firmly determining our dominion over the natural world, “over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing”. One might argue it was this biblical entitlement that set in train a disastrous, exploitative relationship, one in which Christianity has been complicit, if not explicitly culpable.

But you have only to glance at hagiography to see a different story. Take the Desert Fathers, for instance – eremites who would give Thoreau a run for his money in their back-to-nature lifestyles and relationships with animals. Helen Waddell’s wonderful Beasts and Saints, published in 1934, wittily retells these tales: from St Pachome, who would call crocodiles to take him across a river “with the utmost subservience, and set him down at whatever spot he indicated”, much as one might hail a cab, to St Jerome, menaced by a limping lion with a thorn in its paw which the saint extracted and who was rewarded with leonine loyalty – surely a parable for Walter Palmer, the demonised dentist-killer of Cecil the lion.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Pope’s own namesake is Francis of Assisi, the tonsured summoner of birds and beasts who created his own eco-garden, much as modern gardeners sow decorative meadows of their own. The saint was evoked in the 1960s and 1970s as a Christian response to the burgeoning movements of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace – not least through the lush lens of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 biopic, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which presented the dewy-eyed Francis getting his kit off in ultimate communion with nature. Here in the UK, we had our more modest Cuthbert, the best beloved of British saints, possibly because he introduced the first ever piece of environmentally aware legislation when he placed the eider ducks of the Farne Islands under legal protection. But even he got naked for the Lord, skinny-dipping in the North Sea all night to pray, emerging at dawn to find a pair of otters at hand to dry him with their fur (I’ve often longed for the same on my own dawn dips).

I know many readers of this publication will set little store by such mythology. But in the absence of any high-minded political leadership on the subject, I think we need to take what we can get. The Pope’s encyclical, which takes its title from St Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun”, also known as the “Canticle of the Creatures”, has encouraged some environmentalists. “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us,” it avers. The depredation of the world’s flora and fauna is no part of God’s plan, and should not be part of ours: “We have no such right.” Last year it appeared that Francis even suggested that animals have souls – although it soon transpired the quote came from an earlier pope, Paul VI, who’d told a boy grieving over his dead dog: “One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.” This misattribution even made it on to the front page of the New York Times, an indication of the eagerness to acclaim the Pope as a radical force.

In a recent interview for the Tablet, the animal ethicist Andrew Linzey – an Anglican priest who teaches theology at the University of Oxford and who runs the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics – made the moral and religious argument against animal experiments. These continue apace at the expense of 115 million animal lives worldwide each year, according to Cruelty Free International (as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection is now known). Linzey notes that the 19th-century cardinals Henry Edward Manning and John Henry Newman were both opposed to vivisection. Manning was a founder in the 1870s of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the precursor of the BUAV, and he was a leading supporter of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876; Newman preached a sermon that saw vivisection in terms of Christ’s Passion: “What is this but the very cruelty inflicted on Our Lord?” “And why?” Linzey asks. “Because there’s innocence, do you see?”

Innocence. There’s a loaded word. ­Taking Francis’s encyclical to heart, Linzey declares: “What’s implicit is . . . we have obligations to other than the human species and that those obligations might have to come first if only for the sake of preserving the very Creation that God has made. So this constant jarring of human rights and animal rights really won’t do it. As Noah would say, ‘We are all in one boat together.’” Hmm. Tell that to St Brendan, who on his Atlantic voyage landed on a small island and gave thanks for his salvation, only to discover, as his fellow monks lit a fire, that the island turned into a whale and sank beneath them.

The Bible is full of symbolic leviathans: whales surf through the Old Testament, swallowing up prophets, evoking havoc and wonder by turns. The irony is that the whale has become a true icon for our own, secular age. If any animal symbolises our disconnection with nature, it is the whale, shape-shifting from fearful monster of creation myth to industrial resource, and now to an emblem of future threat.

Given their demonstrable sentience, social structures and cultures, cetaceans set new challenges for anyone keen to write an eleventh commandment. The respected US professor of ethics Thomas White has written of our moral responsibility towards “non-human persons” such as dolphins, primates and elephants, and a group of ethicists, scientists and environmentalists in 2010 issued a “declaration of rights for cetaceans”, its own alternative ten commandments, stating that “No cetacean is the property of any state, corporation, human group or individual” – a direct refutation of that biblically endorsed dominion. As the boundaries between species continue to blur, religion may find new issues for its certainties, much as it might on the discovery of alien life. It is a dilemma that echoes the cataclysmic undermining of creationism by Darwin in the mid-19th century, Arnold’s withdrawing sea of faith, and Tennyson’s nature, red in tooth and claw.

Our new commandments are emboldened by an environmentalism that demands its own absolute leaps of faith. But as someone who has spent more than an ordinate amount of time with cetaceans, I regard as my own great hero the whale scientist Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, a remarkably rational man who has suggested that sperm whales – possessed of the biggest brains on the planet – might have become so existentially aware of their own selves that they’ve evolved their own sense of religion. I had lunch with Richard Dawkins once. I didn’t tell him that.

Philip Hoare’s “Leviathan, or the Whale” won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize

Do as you would be done to

Mona Siddiqui

Shortly before last year’s general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was widely mocked for his decision to commission an eight-foot slab of limestone on which he laid out his party’s manifesto pledges. He was accused of likening himself to Moses, to whom, the Hebrew Bible says, God gave the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Miliband had only six promises, rather than Ten Commandments, but the biblical comparison was used to maximum derisory effect.

Despite falling religious literacy, there are some stories and images that we can tap in to immediately even when we don’t quite know the history. While most of us are aware of the Ten Commandments as a foundational biblical story, the primary text of God’s covenant with the Jews, it is less known that there are variations of these commandments or, more literally, “ten words”. They are found in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and a fairly different version in Exodus 34. Despite the differences in these texts, by late biblical times the Decalogue had achieved the status of epitomising a guidance for right belief and practice. The prescriptions and the prohibitions seemed to assume a code-like status; but, stone or no stone, the values enshrined have always been and continue to be open to interpretation, observance and rejection.

No one really talks about the Ten Commandments any more, so I decided to conduct my own research and asked a few friends if they knew any of the Commandments. Some tried to remember by recalling the glorious 1956 Cecil B DeMille epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses. The top reply was “You shall not murder”, followed closely by “You shall not commit adultery” and “Honour your father and mother”. A few mused over the prohibition on “coveting” what belonged to a neighbour, including his wife. Yet most forgot to mention that worshipping God as the one true God was the central commandment and that the first few commandments are really about how to understand God’s desired relationship with his people. I suppose those who believe in God don’t really focus their worship on discussing his nature, and those who do not believe in God can’t understand his jealous nature: that is, why does he keep insisting he is the one true God, let alone necessary for human morality? Indeed, if we measure human morality by our relationship with one another, it could be argued that the commandments not to worship other gods, create idols or utter profanities are not intrinsically moral in themselves.

I detected an air of amusement, especially around the word “covet”. It is slightly archaic now but relevant in both its meanings – desiring what you can have and desiring what you can’t have. After all, isn’t capitalism, isn’t our whole society built on coveting? Rest has given way to restlessness and wanting and spending is a way of keeping busy. We know we should limit our desires, but it has become harder than ever to be content just with what we have. To be human is to desire and how we place moral limits on this reality has always been a difficult issue. Commerce often wins against its rivals. And this tension is again being played out over the government’s proposals to extend Sunday shop opening times, with the concept of the Sabbath as rest or holy becoming increasingly irrelevant to many.

It is questionable whether most people consider these commandments as the most important moral rules for society, especially at a time when war, hunger and oppression of all kinds dominate our world. Some of them, such as the prohibitions on murder, theft and kidnap, are clearly principles for an ordered society, but they are secular as well as religious principles to live by. With an increased awareness of all kinds of injustices, our moral consciousness continues to shift and so is often determined by the zeitgeist. Furthermore, the obvious patriarchal tone of some of these commandments reflects their context and time, but in an age of increased inclusiveness and gender equality, how do these commandments speak to the moral responsibilities of women? Women also covet, murder and desire the illicit.

As a society we usually do not frame our lives with moral absolutes; our thinking has become far more fluid on ethical matters. We could imagine the state coming up with its own commandments, such as “You shall pay your taxes” or “You shall not commit an act of terrorism”, far more important for political regimes than whether its citizens commit adultery. But maybe, despite changing realities, we like to hold on to ideals that fix certain things such as marriage and property as inviolable. They are sacred to us precisely because they can’t be couched in legal language.

The Ten Commandments don’t form part of daily conversation for most of us, but I grew up well aware of the implications of one particular commandment: that of honouring my father and mother. It was culture, religion and my parents’ discipline all rolled into one. It wasn’t always easy but it remained an unspoken truth.

For me, however, I think there is only one rule to live by, the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated yourself. A bit ordinary – even a cliché, maybe – but it still stands as culturally the most widely shared ethical tenet in history. This is the ultimate religious, secular and moral commandment, applicable to all and deserved by all. It has the power to lift people out of all kinds of subjugation but it’s not always about doing anything or acting in any way. Rather, it is more an orientation towards others, a state of mind in which we are aware that we are essentially relational beings, without drawing on too many emotional or psychological excesses. If we turn it into a philosophical abstraction, it becomes meaningless; if we think of it in terms of our everyday encounters with one another, it speaks to human aspiration in us all.

Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh

 

Thou shalt tolerate other gods

Julian Baggini

Morality is one of humanity’s most important innovations. Although it is often thought of as belonging to an eternal metaphysical reality, handed down to human beings on tablets of stone, it is first and foremost simply a powerful tool for managing the social world. At the very least it keeps us from each other’s throats and at its best it promotes actively pro-social behaviour. Laws enforce a
certain degree of order but it is morality that oils the wheels of daily interactions and gives the law its legitimacy. Different cultures have found different ways to implement such a system of benign control, and the Ten Commandments provide the template for how it has been made to work in the West.

The first component is that the core moral principles tell us what we must avoid if we are to live together peacefully. The five final instructions of the Decalogue – the “Thou shalt nots” – state these in the broadest terms possible. Three still form the basis of our most serious criminal laws: killing, cheating, stealing. The other two are examples of the kinds of sins – adultery and covetousness – we generally oppose but which it would be foolish to use the weight of the law to enforce. All five still resonate today. The prohibition against adultery might seem outdated but it is remarkable how our theoretical tolerance usually goes out of the window if we are the ones cheated on.

The first five, however, deal with a very different aspect of morality: the authority on which the rules stand. They are prefaced by a simple message: “I am the Lord thy God.” The message is clear: if anyone should ask why these commandments should be followed, the answer is simply because your God says you should, and gods are not to be disobeyed. God is a strangely elusive being, however; and consequently, a society obedient to him must remind itself frequently that he exists. This demands forsaking all other gods, setting aside a day a week to worship him and creating taboos against uttering his name in vain or trying to create images of him.

Then there is the rule that links divine with secular authority: “Honour thy father and thy mother.” Here is the acknowledgement that morality requires a commitment to the social order, not just the heavenly one. To keep the old rules, people must learn to respect the old ways and that starts by revering the generation above you, with the reward that you, too, will one day be respected by the generation that follows.

So here you have a kind of recipe for a moral system that can survive millennia: rules that govern social interactions, underpinned by an obedience to those who gave you the rules. These law-givers are both the ultimate source – remote and divine – but also the actual people who pass these laws on – proximate and human.

No wonder that the very word “morality” seems to be increasingly out of place in the modern world. Even though almost no one would want to be killed or slandered, or see their partner or belongings stolen, very few of us recognise anything as providing sufficient authority to underwrite these rules. We want the protections of morality without having to defer to it, the fruits without the roots.

The problem is not that morality requires divine assent. Plato showed long ago why God’s say-so doesn’t answer the question of why some things are right and others wrong. If things were good only because God commanded them, then morality would be hollow and God could as easily demand murder as prohibit it. So God only gave us his commandments because they were the right ones to follow in the first place. That means they are right whether God tells us about them or not.

The problem we have now is social, not philosophical. We have as much reason to be moral today as when Moses descended from Mount Sinai. The trouble is that, in practice, reason has little to do with it. Ask most people why they hold the values they do and they won’t give you a philosophical argument: they’ll simply say “That was how I was brought up” or “It’s just right”. Deference to a moral authority saves us the trouble of having to think more deeply about why we ought to do anything at all.

I don’t think there can or should be a going back to the days when spiritual shepherds spoke and human flocks followed. But something needs to do the work today that those five commandments did for centuries. That something needs to transcend our own narrow self-interests and those of our kith and kin. The only credible candidate for that is our common humanity. To cynics this sounds like wet, naive, kumbaya-singing optimism. Ideals of a shared human nature evaporated pretty quickly in the ­Balkans, Rwanda and Congo. When even Muslims slaughter Muslims for being the wrong kind, it would seem that when push comes to shove, what divides us is always much stronger than what unites us.

Yet these things horrify us precisely ­because they are exceptions to the rule. On the whole we do treat each other well, for no other reason than we recognise that if you prick any of us, we bleed. Every major moral advance – the emancipations of slaves, women, ethnic minorities and gay and transgender people – has followed from a growing recognition that those previously seen as second-class citizens are in all vital respects the same as anyone else. Add to that a strong dose of enlightened self-interest,
a recognition that the smitten have a tendency to smite back with even more righteous violence, and there is no mystery as to why we still largely adhere to the social teachings of the Decalogue long after their author has exited stage left.

But the genocides and sectarian struggles of our age remind us that this sense of shared humanity is extremely fragile and we need to work constantly to maintain and strengthen it. In a globalised world, that requires us to resist any kind of “us and them” thinking, particularity the kind that denigrates outsiders.

This is the heart of the moral revolution that has been quietly rumbling on over the past few hundred years. Morality used to be rooted in a sense of attachment and loyalty to the group, with its requirements to honour its God alone and to forsake all others. Now it has to be about weakening those partisan links and connecting with a wider humanity. This requires a complete reversal of the first three commandments. Thou shalt allow other gods or none, tolerate graven images or likenesses, and let your Lord’s name be taken in vain. For whoever the Lord thy God is, your first and highest duty is to your fellow human beings.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher. His books include “Freedom Regained: the Possibility of Free Will” (Granta)

 

Follow the mantra of online gamers

Laurie Penny

The sun is blazing over the smoky mountains as I sit down to eat my lunch on the “thou” of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. The words are hammered into the North Carolina hillside above a natural amphitheatre a hundred feet high. I have come to the World’s Largest Ten Commandments, a roadside attraction and religious theme park, to make some healthy British fun of bonkers American Christianity and to amuse myself by walking all over the word of God. Quite literally, in fact – the barrier is broken, and there is no sign saying, “Thou shalt not wander on to the Ten Commandments and eat a peanut butter sandwich.” Which is what I do.

Making fun of Bible-bashing Yanks is a standard tourist activity for British expats. This is a country marinated in Christianity, a country where some believers open fire in women’s health clinics and others dedicate their lives to social justice in the name of a dead Palestinian. Americans are not perturbed by the violent absurdity of Christianity, whereas the British have had too many centuries of mad aristocrats roasting each other alive for reciting the wrong catechism to be anything else. It is no accident that most of the high priests of world atheism are British – not when our major exports are intellectual snobbery, religious discomfort and passive aggression.

The Ten Commandments theme park is relentlessly mockable. The gift shop features so many weak attempts at wacky religious wordplay that it should be called a punnery. You can buy a ten-inch plastic ruler that says “He is the Ruler” and a T-shirt with an owl on it that says “God is Good Owl the Time”. There are books of prayer specifically for the followers of various sports teams. There’s a plaque acknowledging the sponsorship of the Church of God of Florida, a mysterious cult that surely involves the worship of a giant alligator. I could go on.

There are countries and communities in the world where being an atheist takes true courage – but I did not grow up in one, and neither did most of us in the West. There are situations where it’s fine to laugh at religion, where religion is used as an excuse to terrorise the vulnerable and oppress minorities. But religion does not have a monopoly on those excuses. To my surprise, browsing in the awful gift shop, I find myself thinking of the “ultimate commandment” of Jesus. The one he is supposed to have invented for a follower who found ten too many to handle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

****

People are often surprised by how well I know the Bible. As a child, I briefly attended an evangelical boarding school – an unusual phenomenon in godless Britain, especially for the atheist child of a lapsed Jew and a lapsed Catholic.

There were daily Bible lessons, and I was a swot. It was a point of pride to me to get the top marks in every scripture class, despite thinking the whole thing was silly and not being afraid to say so.

I had about as much fun at that school as you might expect. Once, after midnight, I was shaken awake and led into a bathroom where eight other 11-year-old girls were clutching Bibles and praying for my soul. There followed a long session of prepubes­cent proselytising about how terrible it was that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. My overwhelming memory of that night is of shame, not about my sinfulness, but about how badly I needed to wee. The toilets were right there and the girls wouldn’t let me go because they were too concerned about my eternal soul, whereas I was worried about the immediate possibility of wetting my pyjamas.

Kids are mean, especially when someone gives them a book of rules telling them that they’re allowed to be mean for somebody else’s own good. So are adults. I got into trouble with the kids for being a weirdo, and I got into trouble with the teachers for arguing about evolution. I got into trouble for questioning the school uniform and asking why there were different rules for boys and girls.

Getting into trouble for those things didn’t make me feel good – it made me feel righteous. I knew I had the right answers, unlike my poor, deluded, hymn-singing and hand-waving classmates. Having the right answers meant that I was smarter than they were, and that meant that I was better than they were, and that was a small comfort while they were pouring orange juice in my schoolbag.

I did have one friend, a girl who was sometimes kind to me and invited me to her house to listen to Sugar Ray while her brother shot crows in the back garden. We didn’t have much in common, but if it hadn’t been for her, my lonely childhood would have been far lonelier, though I never found the courage to say so at the time. When we had rows, like little girls do, it was always about Jesus.

We were both convinced that we were right and the other was dangerously stupid, but somehow we stayed friends. She got sick, and I visited her in hospital and made her mix tapes until she got better. When she was well, she gave me a copy of Left Behind, the evangelical novel about the Rapture. I interpreted this as a catty comment about my sinfulness and never opened it.

In senior school, my friend began to make new friends, girls with shiny hair and social skills. Instead of telling her how hurt I was, I picked fights about God to push her further away. Once I made her cry in the middle of double English by calling her a religious hysteric. I was right and she was wrong, so of course I didn’t think of myself as a bully. I was only telling her those things for her own good.

We grew up, like little girls do, and lost what touch we still had. Years later, packing my books to move house, I opened that copy of Left Behind – and found a note in curly, childish handwriting, thanking me for being a good friend.

 

****

Goodness is not about what a person believes, but how a person behaves.

I no longer think it’s a good use of my time to mock other people simply because they believe silly things. I believe a lot of silly things, myself. I believe that human beings are basically decent, and that if we learn to take better care of one another there’s a good chance the species will survive the century. I believe that scientific progress can solve structural problems. I believe that one day Doctor Who will be good again. I believe in such things as justice and mercy, which are impossible to see or touch or quantify, and if I didn’t, I don’t know quite how I’d carry on.

I don’t like rules. I prefer guidelines. But if I had to come up with a commandment, it would be: “Don’t be a dick.” This mantra of the online gaming world actually works rather better than “Do unto others”, which relies on people thinking that they deserve to be treated with kindness, when even the most devout people can find it hard to believe in their own worth.

I learned, as I’ve grown and travelled, that people often see God not as he is, but as they are. I’ve learned that being right and being good aren’t always the same, although I’d rather be both. I still think that the Bible is a patriarchal fairy tale that can be poison in the hands of bigots. I’m not sorry about that. I am sorry for being a dick to my friend when I was 13. I was right, but I was also wrong.

“Don’t be a dick” covers the important bases. It probably includes not making public fun of people’s profound beliefs simply because that makes you feel superior. I am an atheist. I believe that all we’ve got is this world, and each other. All the more reason, then, to be kind.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing editor

Keep it simple: just be kind

Jan Morris

I am an agnostic edging towards theism, by which I mean that on balance, on the whole, it seems to me there probably exists some unimaginable agency, somewhere or other, which has, since the beginning of all things, governed everything, past, present and in the future. That being so, during my nearly nine decades of existence and experience, I have reached the conclusion that one’s own life can best be governed by a single rule of moral conduct. God knows (if I may be forgiven the phrase), I don’t always obey the rule, but here it is for what it’s worth; my One Commandment, as it were: Be Kind!

This strikes me as simple, straight, easy to understand and all-embracing. I was brought up, though, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition that honours the more complex injunctions brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses – the Ten Commandments, known to scholars as the Decalogue. They appear in several, slightly different versions in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch and traditionally believed to have been written by Moses himself, and as I am a child of Anglican discipline they lie always dormant in my subconscious.

It is curious to consider how relevant they are to today’s concerns and how my own elementary rule conforms to the instructions of my distant childhood; so here they are, the Decalogue, from the Book of Exodus in the good old King James version of 1611, shortened and provided with my own agnostic responses. They are prologued by a simple declaration – “I am the Lord Thy God,” which is agnostically debatable, for a start – and they continue thus:

1 The Decalogue: Thou shalt have no other gods.

Me: Well, so you say.

2 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Me: It depends entirely upon the image.

3 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Me: If you mean using religious conviction to evil ends, I agree.

4 The Decalogue: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Me: Oh dear, I wish I could, but it’s too late even for Wales.

5 The Decalogue: Honour thy father and thy mother.

Me: Quite right, too.

6 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not kill.

Me: Spot on.

7 The Decalogue: Thou shall not commit adultery.

Dear me, no.

8 The Decalogue: Thou shall not steal.

Me: Certainly not.

9 The Decalogue: Thou shall not bear false witness.

Me: Agreed, of course.

10 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.

Me: Semantically acceptable, as there’s a difference between coveting and envying.

(11 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not lie.

Me: This is not one of the commandments but I think it should be.)

I agree with most of the Ten, you see, as most of us presumably would. Allowing for changing circumstances, in the many centuries since Moses first carved them in his Sinai rock, most of his commands seem to me to make moral sense still. But naturally, down the generations Christians of diverse persuasions, followers of the New Testament, have questioned aspects of the code, and many converts to the faith have doubtless been puzzled by it.

Indeed, in the 1860s the first Anglican bishop of Natal, an ardent Christian missionary, publicly doubted the historical validity of the entire Mosaic law, resulting in a celebrated imperialist limerick:

A bishop there was of Natal
Who took a Zulu for a pal.
Said the Kaffir, “Look ’ere,
“Ain’t the Pentateuch queer?”
And converted My Lord of Natal.

I agree with that Zulu. I reject the Decalogue as a behavioural guide for Christians, let alone agnostics, not merely because some of it is outdated and ignorable, but because of its utter lack of compassion. There is no hint of forgiveness in the Ten Commandments, an absence which might well have seemed queer to converts to the faith of the New Testament. For it was, of course, Jesus, long after Moses, who taught us the fundamental Christian virtue of universal affection: and it was St Paul, a convert in his own right, who told the Celtic Christians of Galatia that all the laws of conduct could be summed up in this single one of Christ’s sayings: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”

In other words, BE KIND! 

Jan Morris is a historian and the author of more than 30 books

Thou shalt not destroy

Jeanette Winterson

I love the story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to visit G-d, who is variously a thick cloud and a burning bush and who eventually writes in stone with his finger. G-d likes writing with his finger, especially on solid surfaces – later he will terrify Bel­shazzar by graffiti-ing his wall while he is having people over to dinner.

Aramaic was written with consonants alone, no vowels, so knowing what vowels to add is supplied by the context. In G-d’s case, that usually means trouble, and in Bel­shazzar’s case it certainly did: he had been weighed and found wanting – Mene mene tekel upharsin. When I was growing up Mrs Winterson had a tray for her bills labelled “Mene Tekel”: she could never pay them.

Our turns of phrase are here – the writing is on the wall. Written in stone. The Ten Commandments had to be written out twice by G-d because Moses broke the first set in a fit of rage when he got back down the mountain and found the Israelites dancing round a golden calf they had made by melting their jewels. They didn’t know that G-d had just written that they weren’t to make any graven images or go chasing after other gods. It was an awkward moment.

Unusually, because G-d loses his temper easily in the Old Testament (see Get Out of Eden wearing just the fig leaves on your back, well not on your back, elsewhere, and The Flood – I made them, I can break them), G-d agrees to write another set of commandments, provided Moses brings him the stone.

The big deals of the Ten Commandments are no murdering, no adultery and no gods other than G-d. This move to monotheism was radical, and signalled YHWH’s corporate takeover of tinpot deities like blingy calves. It was a political decision on the part of G-d and a smart move to rebrand Israel as different. If you are wandering around in the desert wishing you were back in Egypt with better food and toilet facilities (if you don’t believe me, read it for yourself), then some new ideas might distract you from the fact that 40 years in the wilderness is a long time for what started out as a camping trip to the Promised Land.

The adultery clause, like No Other Gods, is a way of keeping things focused and in the family. It addresses the worry that we always know who is the mother of the child but in a patriarchal system it’s paternity that counts. Such a system is plainly bonkers, but we’re pretty much still in it, and women, then as now, are expected to be the gatekeepers of morality.

At the time, an even bigger worry than whom your wife might be sleeping with was the Great Whore of Babylon: in other words, any of the goddess-worshipping, ­female-first religions that Judaism had to get rid of. The Goddess Has To Go preoccupies priests and prophets alike, and cripples the role of women in Orthodox Judaism – in spite of the strange and magnificent presence of the Shekinah, always feminine in the Kabbalah.

Fear of female sexuality is the negative of the Sex Commandment. The positive side of this Thou Shalt Not must be that if you are not sleeping with someone else, your erotic and emotional attention is available to your partner. We all know that gets harder as a marriage gets older. But the best part of commitment is the challenge. Finding new ways to love is more difficult than finding a new person to love.

When Jesus was presented with the woman taken in adultery, and the religious types ready to stone her, he did some of that finger-writing favoured by G-d – this time in the dust – and challenged anyone who was without sin to cast the first stone. When her accusers slunk off, Jesus forgave her. That the woman couldn’t be stoned or strangled was a step forward in consciousness. The commandment Thou Shalt Not Murder was not understood as Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Murder is the wrongful taking of a life. Killing can be legal, as all our wars make miserably clear. People of all faiths kill each other for just cause. I wish we could revise that commandment. As long as people of faith – any faith – can justify killing, we will go on killing, and the outlook in 2016 for world peace is bleak.

My favourite commandment is the honouring of the Sabbath. The six days of labour and the seventh day of rest. The rest day isn’t about slumping in front of the TV with a tube of Pringles; it’s a day shaped differently from a week of getting and spending. I am not religious any more, but I like the spiritual observances that religion is mindful of. If you believe that life has an inside as well as an outside, then how shall we honour that truth? How shall we find time for contemplation, imagination, turning the mind away from daily worries towards that word, “soul”? You don’t have to believe in God or an afterlife to believe that human beings are more than their material purpose.

It is against the materiality of life that the Graven Images Commandment has most to say. How do we imagine what is transcendent? Music can do it. Poetry can do it. Abstract art can do it. Representation cannot – what are we representing? Not an apple, not a dog, not a thing, not a noun. The Puritan zeal against Roman Catholic adornment was the usual wish of reformers to return to a simpler basic – wherein, supposedly, truth lies waiting.

Isis has been doing the same. When you watch the hateful men in black laying waste to ancient monuments, remember Cromwell on his spree across England, finally halting at Stonyhurst, leaving behind an orgy of smashed altars, stained-glass windows and the dust of desecrated Virgins. Mary, of course, had to endure a double destruction, as icon and as woman.

Thou Shalt Not Destroy would be a good commandment for the modern world. It might even save the planet. Along the way, it might save the destruction in the name of profit of much that is beautiful. That commandment about covetousness is never observed. We want everything our neighbour has, and newer and bigger. But there is no commandment that says “Buy Now, Pay Later”. l

Jeanette Winterson is a novelist and professor of creative writing

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

RAY TANGT/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution