Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Dog-Whistle Journalism

The good Dr James MacMillan (Upon Whom Be Peace) is understandably irked by a risible piece in a journal called Forward. It is a review of his 'St John Passion'. Parts of it are laughably ignorant:

...liberation theology, a form of Christian socialism that avoids hectoring and assigning blame, preferring to focus instead on human dignity and communitarianism..


This makes it clear the author knows little of liberation theology and has never met, read or heard a liberation theologian.

But apart from exposing the ignorance of the writer about the nature of the Good Friday Liturgy (in either the EF or the OF) there is a rather creepy Pavlovian quality to this piece: St John's account of the Passion? "His blood be on us and on our children" and all that. You knows what that means don't you, eh? Nudge, nudge.

Does the writer seriously expect Catholics to stop using their sacred texts, The Passion being the most sacred? Does the writer seriously think that a Jew writing his inspired words - a meditation on the savage death of his Master, a Jew, at the hands of his own people intended that text to be used to fuel hatred of Jews? When you hear that text and the Improperia at Good Friday do you feel like fire-bombing a synagogue? Of course you don't, you feel as I feel and I daresay Dr MacMillan feels, that my sins crucify Christ, that every wilful offence against God hammers another nail into Christ's broken body, and in the words of Herbert McCabe OP:
If you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.


The reviewer picks the wrong target, however, as is clear from Dr MacMillan's response which is measured but pulls no punches:

Hearing Hate Where There Is None

My composition “St John Passion” and character are the subject of a ludicrous attack by your reviewer Benjamin Ivry (“MacMillan and Strife: A New ‘St. John Passion,’” March 6).

Ivry’s implication that the Gospel of John is antisemitic is offensive to Christians. Likewise, his assertion that the Reproaches (Improperia) used at the Good Friday liturgy are also anti-Jewish is laughable, considering that much of the text of the Reproaches is taken from the Hebrew Bible.

In 1965 the Catholic Church issued the document Nostra Aetate, which addressed the relationship of the church to our elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people. Nostra Aetate specifically said that the death of Jesus cannot be laid at the door of the Jewish people, and that Jews should never again be wrongly accused of deicide. The document also condemned all antisemitism. As a child of Vatican II, I was not at all influenced in my thinking by the old tensions between our faiths. No sane Catholic today, hearing these Reproaches — or my “St. John Passion,” for that matter — imagines that they contradict Nostra Aetate; neither would any sane secularist believe them to be an occasion for heightening antisemitism. The Reproaches are a liturgical tool to remind those Catholics, present at Good Friday services, of their own sinfulness.

I am a staunch friend of Israel and a participant in joint Jewish-Christian ecumenical dialogue in the United Kingdom. Ivry’s accusations are therefore both comically wrong and profoundly unjustified. Many of my works are inspired by Jewish cultural practice and theological reflection. My second string quartet “Why Is This Night Different” is inspired by the Seder; my song cycle “Raising Sparks” is based on the writings of the Hasidic theologian Menahem Nahum.

Your readers have been seriously misled, but I hope that they will come to forthcoming American performances of these pieces and especially my “St John Passion” and make their own, more intelligent conclusions about them. Ivry has told them practically nothing about me. The real antisemitic threat today is to be found in the mosques of London and Birmingham, and certainly not in concert halls.

James MacMillan
Glasgow, Scotland



There are those who would keep Catholics silent. We might fear of a newer type of baying mob called into action by a variety of dog-whistles. This is merely one. There will be others.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous James Clark said...

The foolish gentleman concerned also quotes the wrong gospel.

"His blood be on us..." is from St Matthew's gospel chapter 27 v25 - not St John's gospel!

2:17 PM  

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