Friday 13 January 2012

Observing the hypocrites: Tesco and the wrath of God

Today the Guardian reported that 'fringe Christian pressure group' Christian Voice had attributed Tesco's falling profits to divine retribution for the supermarket giant's decision to sponsor a gay pride festival.* First of all, kudos to the folks at the Guardian who used 'fringe' as the very first adjective to describe Christian Voice. But even though the group makes a lot of noise for a bunch of people who wield little influence within British Christianity, their culture-war obsessions are unfortunately more widespread (as shown by Anglican Mainstream and the Catholic Herald on the same subject).

Christian Voice consider gay pride events 'divisive' and 'depraved', and have engaged in prayer that God would 'humble proud Tesco' through 'confusion in the Tesco boardroom' (says their chairman). What's so astonishing here is the total loss of perspective. There are three passages in the Bible that unambiguously discuss homosexuality - Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, and Romans 1:26-27. (That's three more than we have about abortion, incidentally.)

There's little there to suggest the idea of a dire homosexual threat - the Big Gay Menace - presaging the imminent downfall of western civilisation. What's so odd and hypocritical is that Tesco is indeed engaged in sinful practices, of a kind the Bible condemns hundreds of times. I don't just mean their strange failure to distribute all their assets to the poor, as demanded by Jesus.

No, as an international business Tesco routinely, systemically engage in exploiting and expropriating farmers at home and, more significantly, in the Global South, blackmailing them into accepting low prices and forcing them into chronic dependency by the threat of starvation (as exhaustively documented in Joanna Blythman's Shopped). They overwork and underpay their employees to secure fat profits for their shareholders. And while of course capitalism didn't exist in biblical times, the apparent ability of oppressors to live healthy, wealthy lives caused even the prophet Habakkuk to doubt God:
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
   and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
   and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
   the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
   like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
   he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
   so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
   and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
   and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
   and mercilessly killing nations forever? (Habakkuk 1:13-17)**
It wasn't God's failure to punish gay people that caused the prophet's despair: it was the fact that cruel empires apparently enjoyed the fruits of their depredations, living in wealth, luxury and security while a good God, supposedly the protector of the lowly, seemed to do nothing. (Similarly, Jesus had exactly nothing to say about homosexuality, but quite a lot about those exploiting religious sentiment for their own ends.)

Where is Christian Voice's anguished cry over the misery of the wretched of the earth that Tesco preys on? Why do so few modern evangelical leaders see fit to echo Habakkuk? His confusion showed his humanity. Rather than rejecting his honest enquiry, God answered that the oppressor would not live in security forever, that the apparent triumph of the wicked was an illusion:
Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
   to set his nest on high,
   to be safe from the reach of harm!
You have devised shame for your house
   by cutting off many peoples;
   you have forfeited your life.
For the stone will cry out from the wall,
   and the beam from the woodwork respond.
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
   and founds a city on iniquity!
Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts
   that peoples labor merely for fire,
   and nations weary themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled
   with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
   as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:9-14)
Christian Voice's obsession with homosexuality and indifference to Tesco's real inhumanity is thrown in sharper relief by their other campaign: their Islamophobic attempt to brand halal meat as 'ritually slaughtered'. Despite their protestations - which they almost certainly believe themselves: the religious right are nothing if not good at convincing themselves they're reading the Bible literally - Christian Voice don't care much about what the Bible actually says.

Their hateful rhetoric is not biblical but plainly reactionary: they want a society in which we can all pretend all those gays and Muslamics don't exist. The call to love one's neighbour implies that that neighbour is different, seemingly alien, perhaps upsetting to your personal sensibilities: else the commandment would be unnecessary. God's wrath is reserved not for oppressed minorities (which Muslims and LGBTQ people most certainly are, whether we agree with them or not) but for the powerful exploiters, and it takes a degree of moral perversity to read the Bible any other way.  

*A decision which, for the record, was achieved by grassroots pressure from LGBTQ employees.
**See also, for example, Psalm. 10, 12, 14...

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