Jesus in Bongo-Bongo Land
From Brother Ivo:
Jesus was not a politically correct teacher. On occasions he could articulate a popular prejudice, before demolishing it and building it into his teachings or parables to draw or even shock his audience into engagement with deeper truths.
The hero of his story about one who confounds prejudiced stereotypes was a much disrespected Samaritan. The degenerate prodigal son, who is welcomed back home by his patient grieving father, had sunk as low as sharing the food of pigs (how low can you get?). And the Syrophoenician woman, who claims the fallen bread for the 'little dogs', is feisty enough to recover from being initially rebuffed. All of these are concerned with matters of ethnicity - 'Rabbi in racist taunt scandal'.
Perhaps the most powerful rendering of Jesus' seeming PC insensitivity comes when he accused his detractors of being that most terrible of all PC creatures - the hypocrite.
Jesus had lived very close to the Graeco-Roman city of Sepphoris where he probably worked as a carpenter. That Roman imperial town had a theatre where the actors performed in masks hiding their true identities, so when Jesus castigated his opponents, telling them that they could not mask their true selves from God, he hit them with a stinging racial simile. Adopting the term 'hypocrite' he was effectively saying, "You are not really living up to your God-fearing Jewish heritage: you are just like those.. Greeks!" How un-PC is that?
Language is a complex and confusing medium. The same words mean different things to different people: there are implications, nuances, 'dog whistles' and coded meanings. Few prejudices/agendas hide in plain sight more successfully than 'Politically Correct' - the clue is in the title.
We have constant news stories centred upon what can or cannot be said. It has always been like this - rather like the poor, the politically correct - the thought police - have always been with us.
Godfrey Bloom of Ukip has inflamed our latest incarnation some with refererance to 'Bongo-Bongo Land', a term he borrowed from the late Alan Clark. Tottenham MP David Lammy objects that the fans of his local football club proudly commemorate their anti-racist pro-Jewish associations by calling themselves 'Yids'. A black American singing group once outraged people by calling themselves 'Niggas with Attitude' - a discomfort richly exploited and explored by comedians like Chris Rock and Reginald D Hunter. We should not imagine such language is the sole preserve of the white cultures: 'cracker' and 'kuffar' are two obvious examples from wider afield. It remains, of course, perfectly respectable to use that abusive epithet 'Tory'.
Our friends at the BBC devoted time to the issue of Mr Bloom's chosen mode of expression, eliciting two interesting contributions. An 'anti-racist campaigner' told us that 'intention is irrelevant to the outcome of prejudice', whilst the Shadow Minister for Overseas Aid proffered the example of Ghana as a a good example of foreign aid, but gave no acknowledgement of the existence of bad examples.
Had she been less quick to rush to the studio, she might have reflected upon the behaviour of the ruling family of Gabon's President Bongo, whose use of that country's wealth does seem to go some way to strengthening Mr Bloom's case. Apparently Bongo-Bongo Land is a real location situated somewhere in Paris.
It is, however, the earlier criticism that catches Brother Ivo's attention: 'intention is irrelevant to the outcome of prejudice.' Really? Does no good ever come of confronting, exploring and transforming the language of division?
The speaker was plainly much younger than Brother Ivo, who was around at the time that Western society began to address the ways in which prejudice was fortified through race and gender language, and he can say with confidence that plain speaking on issues can and does have its place.
Occasionally, Brother Ivo goes back to the library of his youth, which includes a collection of the routines of the late Lenny Bruce, whose libertarian impulses were a forerunner of many modern comedians. It cannot be said that he should be given unqualified approval, but his instincts in areas such as this are worth considering.
In the early 60s, in a divided nation split into racial ghettos, Lennie Bruce prised apart the fencing and got them laughing at - then with - each other. It was important and healing work, yet it would never be allowed under the language rules of the Politically Correct. The PC brigade of his time prosecuted him, spied on him, broke his career and contributed to his death in drug-abused loneliness.
Lenny was an anarchic performer who could soar or crash. He attempted to associate disperate ideas freely and spontaneously, and this was a dangerous art on many levels - legally, artistically and culturally. He said the unsayable, which could be both offensive and liberating. He loved free-form jazz and sometimes tried to employ a similar approach in his humour.
In one nightclub routine he addressed the issue of race. He did so using the models of an auction, a poker game and a drum solo in which he converted racial epithets into rhythms which subsumed their hurt into a gumbo of meaningless sound whilst allowing the audience to laugh together at the absurdism of the performance, and thence the absurdity of their initial discomforts.
Surveying the room, he picked on the collective minority nature of his audience.
Imagine the shock as he asked "Are there any niggers in here tonight?" He stroked the prejudices by saying there's at least one working amongst the hired help, and then (shock) identifies two more - paying customers no less - sitting with a kike.
Soon he is raising them at poker with a mad invented currency comprising Micks, Spicks and Pollacks before auctioning in a volley of bids, upping the price in increments of Kikes, Hicks and Greaseballs.
His diverse audience was thus drawn together in tension as he pooled their prejudices and insecurities, until finally he releases them from their guilty laughter by making his point that 'the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness'.
He does not quite say "Your racist sins are forgiven you", but that is almost the subtext. The audience have had a shared experience of discomfort and catharsis as they faced what they thought of others and what others thought of them, and yet they were bound together in the enjoyment of Lennie Bruce's mischief making.
Jesus also used absurdity to challenge and transform. He talked of planks in eyes, camels going through the eyes of needles, and even fed multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. He provoked his Jewish audience by siding with the Samaritan until he transferred their disapproval to the great and the good - the priests and the Levites (aka the 'Politically Correct').
Where prejudice was concerned - whether against Samaritans, Syrophonecians or Romans - Jesus began with the prejudices of the people as they gathered, but transformed it, working with the grain to take the audience to a better place.
This, in a way, is what Lenny Bruce and his free-thinking followers like Reginald D Hunter and Chris Rock also do, confronting the unsayable and the PC police who deliberately seek to shape debate according to their rules, even if the mavericks might be heading in a similar direction.
It is, of course, a foolish and doomed enterprise. When children were told they must not call their fellows 'stupid', they cheerfully appropriated the preferred PC term 'challenged' as their insult of choice. Insulting language, like water, shifts and finds its own level.
Unfortunately, although Godfrey Bloom may present as a bar-room bore who enjoys the rough and tumble of controversy, he was making two fundamental points that were completely ignored by those rushing to defend their control of language. For the PC, that is the priority. But it is not everybody's, and it is certainly not Brother Ivo's.
It is legitimate to question whether a country with massive debt should have its (often wealthy) politicians deciding that its poorer taxpayers should be transferring wealth abroad: that is doubly the case when the UK taxpayer of modest means sees that aid either directly abused or rulers such as President Bongo exploit his country's resources for his own enrichment. His is not a unique example.
Where was the outrage at this?
One cannot help thinking that Godfrey Bloom, Lenny Bruce and Jesus of Nazareth will be on the same side of the issue.
It is outrageous when rulers steal the children's bread.
That should be the greater story.
Brother Ivo invites those huffing and puffing over Mr Bloom's preferred style of delivery to get their priorities straight and to follow the advice found in the Book of Ecclesiastes Chapter 7 verse 16:
"Be not righteous, overmuch".
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers.