THERE IS NO right life in a world of falsehoods.
This acknowledgement – one of Theodor Adorno’s best – is not a moralistic condemnation of the state of things. It is more like a statement of the facts. When one’s world is a tissue of falsehoods, intended and unintended, it is mistaken to imagine there can be a right way to live in it.
Authors have tried to get around it. The scene at Maycombe jail in Harper Lee’s romantic fantasy To Kill a Mockingbird is a nice example. A white man courageously reads a newspaper outside the cell of Tom Robinson, a black man awaiting trial. A mob of white men (not an angry mob – organised murderers) relent because a white girl says to one of the murderers, tell your son ‘hey’ for me.
It is reminiscent of that other romantic fantasy, Genesis 22, in which a man commanded by God to kill his child lowers his knife because he hears another voice – not God’s – that tells him not to.
This is not typically how things play out.
Wilfred Owen offered a less wholesome assessment in 1918:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Tom Robinson is convicted in court by an all-white jury against the evidence. Trying to escape, he is shot by officers of the law, as reluctantly as a lawyer shoots a sick dog.
These are tissues of falsehoods, in which God commands a father to cut the throat of his child, in which a black man confronts his three choices: to be hanged illegally, to be hanged legally, or to take his chances of being shot in the back.
There is no right life in a world of falsehoods. There is no right solution, no romantic denouement where everything works out for the best.
This week a young black man diagnosed white nationalism masquerading as feel-good community spirit.
He diagnosed it publicly on Twitter.
A mendacious, middle-aged white man with a history of racist public statements in a position of great power suggested that it would be rather nice if everyone embraced some feel-good community spirit. A nice man, an old man, a man at the end of his long life, a war hero, walked in his garden to raise money for NHS Charities Together. Wouldn’t it be nice for the nation to applaud him?
A young black man called bullsh*t. He said, I’m not going to embrace your feel-good community spirit. This is white British nationalism.
This was risky.
It is risky to call bullsh*t on a sitting Prime Minister.
It is risky to publicly call bullsh*t on the majority.
And it is risky to make claims briefly, without explanation.
The black man’s name is Mr Robinson-Brown.
There was the predictable Twitter storm. When black voices call bullsh*t on white nationalism there is often a furious reaction. After all, there was a furious reaction when people chucked the statue of a slave trader into a river. Furious reactions are du jour.
But Mr Robinson-Brown is also about to be a clergyman in the Church of England.
The Church of England is the state church (at least in England – things are messy). Its head is the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not so long ago its head was Empress of India. Senior posts in the Church of England are decided by Number 10 Downing Street.
Now everyone can agree that a black man can in principle call bullsh*t on a racist Prime Minister. And everyone can agree that a black man can in principle set his face against the white majority and tell them – in unvarnished terms – that what they take to be their community spirit both expresses and masks their white nationalist fantasies.
Such a man can expect furious reactions. He got them.
But not everyone agrees that a black clergyman in the state church (at least in England) can call bullsh*t on the leader of the state’s executive. And a large part of the white majority are quite sure that a black priest cannot tell them that their feel-good fantasies are linked to white nationalism. No, he cannot tell them that. And if he does, then he must be punished.
How should he be punished?
He should lose his job!
He should be impoverished.
He should be put in his place.
What is the place of a black priest in the state church, employed by the state church?
This is a nice question.
Unfortunately for Mr Robinson-Brown, it is a question decided by bishops whose own jobs are decided by Number 10 Downing Street. Such bishops did once stand up to the Prime Minister, back in the 1980s. They were punished. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury.
So what did the Diocese of London do, when a black clergyman called bullsh*t on a racist Prime Minister, and told a substantial portion of the white majority that their feel-good celebrations were an expression of white nationalism?
I am a theologian. So if you were curious you could ask me whether I think it is consistent with the calling of a priest in the Church of England to speak out in this way. I think it is. Is it consistent with the gospel message of good news? Yes. There’s a long history of this. We teach it to those training for ordination to the priesthood. We encourage it.
I am not a canon lawyer. One could ask such a person whether it is legally permitted for a priest to speak out in this way. That is a ridiculous thing to do, by the way. Of course it is legally permitted.
There are guidelines for digital engagement. These have a force different in scale and scope from the declarations made by ordinands when they are made priests in the Church of England. But they exist. There is also a Digital Charter. They differ in their focus. The first has a focus on being respectful and honest. The second has a focus on being kind and welcoming. They overlap though. The second is the kind of thing you can sign. Mr Robinson-Brown has agreed to sign it, although he is not required as a priest to do so.
Mr Robinson-Brown has thus declared that he is committed to truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration, togetherness, and safeguarding.
It’s an interesting list. The last has legal force. The others… well, who could be against those?
So how do you call bullsh*t on a racist Prime Minister and tell the white majority that their feel-good community spirit masks their white nationalism, but in a way that embraces kindness, welcome, inspiration, and togetherness?
The Diocese of London is in a right pickle. Or, helped by Mr Adorno, we could say that it finds there is no right life in a world of falsehoods. No right life for Mr Robinson-Brown. No right life for the Diocese. Either way, it cannot sit on its hands.
Mr Robinson-Brown has received not just a furious reaction, but a furious racist reaction, indeed a furious racist homophobic reaction. The Diocese of London ought to say something about that. Something unequivocal. Perhaps it will.
Mr Robinson-Brown has spoken truth to power. Very risky. The Diocese of London could consider whether what he said was indeed true. It won’t do that. I cannot imagine anyone in authority saying either that it was true or that it was not true.
The Diocese’s first public judgements are that Mr Robinson-Brown’s comments were ‘unacceptable, insensitive, and ill-judged’. Well of course that is what is nearly always said when black people accuse white people of racism. The Diocese will have to do better than that.
The Diocese of London is conducting a review, led by the Archdeacon of London, Luke Miller. If you pray, you should pray for Fr Luke. He will need a great deal of wisdom for this task.
The Diocese of London probably thinks that there is a review into the actions of Mr Robinson-Brown. But that is romantic nonsense.
It is a review on at least three levels. The first is what Church of England clergy can and cannot say publicly. The second is into the Diocese of London, and how it handles the case of a black priest who speaks truth to power. The third is into the Church of England, and whether its recent positive noises about diversity and race are just hot air masking white nationalism.
There is no right life in a world of falsehoods. But there are wise actions, at a human scale, that protect the vulnerable. Mr Robinson-Brown is very vulnerable indeed, and he was vulnerable long before he tweeted.
I stand in solidarity with Mr Robinson-Brown.
So should the Bishop of London.
She should not stand by while others shoot him ‘reluctantly’ in the back.
God is not calling her to slit this young man’s throat.
© Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham.
This article first appeared on a Facebook page, and is republished by agreement.