THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
LENT IN A TIME OF AUSTERITY
During the consumer boom, when the emphasis was on acquisition rather than giving things up, Lent seemed incongruously counter-cultural. It pushed against the incoming materialist tide. Things are very different now. Lent and austerity seem made for each other. There were always those who, in the midst of plenty, chose a simpler lifestyle. But it was a voluntary choice, the path of virtue. Many are having to downsize their carbon footprints now, not for love of the planet or of green things in general, but out of necessity. The cup no longer runneth over. But does that invalidate the spiritual meaning of their sacrifices, or is it possible to see necessity as still the mother of virtue?
The fact that Lent comes in early spring may help provide an answer. In the pre-modern era, in the northern hemisphere at least, it arrived at a time when the stock of food stored for winter began to run low, with springtime replenishment still some way off. So in mainly rural economies, Lenten fasting had a certain economic and agricultural logic to it: necessity mothering virtue.
It was also a reminder of our state of ecological dependence – on the seasons, on farm workers – which modern urban living has almost completely lost. Tomatoes from the Canaries, beans from Guatemala, cherries from California, lamb from New Zealand, are shipped in to keep the supermarket shelves stocked regardless of the calendar, regardless of the food miles. One form of Lenten observance would be to refuse to eat anything that had travelled more than 50 miles to reach the dinner table. That at least would reacquaint the menu with the seasons.
Lent is not mere misery for the sake of it, however, but a time of preparation. The spiritual exercises associated with it are focused on the events in Jesus’ earthly ministry as it drew to a close, heading for its culmination in Holy Week and then on Easter morning. The physical deprivations of Lent, mild though they nowadays are, nevertheless represent also a physical preparation: the soul has its sins to lose, the body its fat – all making straight the way of the Lord. If it is a time to repent and visit the confessional, it is also time to repair our bodies and make for the gym. The idea of sin as dross to be burnt away by penance is not unlike a good physical work-out, burning off the calories.
Lent was also a time for alms-giving, and the modern equivalent is to do something for those less fortunate than oneself. If government-orchestrated austerity lowers discretionary spending by 5 or 10 per cent for most people, that is well enough manageable. But there are those for whom loss of employment or reductions in benefits has had a catastrophic impact, reducing their income to a small fraction of what it was. To tell them austerity is good for them would be to add insult to injury. They do not just need philanthropy. They need an economic recovery. One of the faults to be confessed this year must surely be the way the few – and indeed the not-so-few – are having to suffer for the sins of the many. There is penance to be done for that, too.
THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR THREAT
Israel and its friends in the West, the United States in particular, face a huge dilemma with regard to Iran. They believe on good evidence, and despite its denials, that the Government headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel is the most likely intended target. Mr Ahmadinejad’s widely reported remarks in 2005, that “Israel must be wiped off the map”, have not been withdrawn though they were subsequently qualified. There is undoubtedly here a real threat to peace: the issue is how to deal with it.
It is clear under Just War principles and international law that any country under attack may defend itself, and the morality and legality of such action would not depend on United Nations approval. In principle, military action designed to thwart an attack in preparation could count as legitimate self-defence. But that rule is not so easy to apply. For instance, Iran is reported to be about to bury all the industrial plant involved in its nuclear weapons programme inside a mountain, beyond the reach of aerial bombardment. Does that count as a “move preparatory to a nuclear attack” on Israel? Indeed, is there any such intention?
The ideology of the theocratic state of Iran is far from rational. It includes the notion that Satan wishes to destroy the divinelyinspired Iranian revolutionary republic, and America, Great Britain and Israel are Satan’s instruments. There is even an element of millenarianism – expectations of a forthcoming final battle between good and evil.
Asked to explain his 2005 remarks, Mr Ahmadinejad said subsequently that he was referring to “the Zionist regime”, not the entire population of Israel. He said he was talking about changing the character of Israel as a Jewish state. Obviously such a political and cultural change could not be brought about by nuclear attack, though “wiping out” – meaning mass extermination – certainly could be. In any event, what if the Zionist character of Israel refuses to change? What if the intention was to threaten it with nuclear attack unless it did? It is hardly surprising that the Israelis are nervous.
Talk of a pre-emptive strike by Israel applies pressure to the international community to increase the isolation of Iran by ratcheting up international sanctions against it. They will have to be tightened until Iran gives in. Meanwhile, a series of obviously targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists believed to be working on nuclear weapons suggests that military action has already begun, albeit at a low level. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence of a threat under the principles of casus belli for that to be justified.
The most persuasive argument against a large-scale preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is the unpredictability of the outcome. If Iran retaliated, would other Middle Eastern states rise up against Israel in support? Just War conditions require a reasonable prospect of success: to ignite the whole Middle East against Israel would certainly constitute failure. Israel’s intransigent treatment of the Palestinians has won it no friends in the region. One consequence of the Arab Spring is that greater democracy results in official policy moving closer to Arab popular opinion, which is unusually hostile to Israel. Actually attacking Iran could be like lighting a match near a keg of gunpowder. Looking as if one is about to do so, however, could bring results.
2 | THE TABLET | 25 February 2012 COLUMNS
5 CL I F FORD LONGLEY
‘Out of gratuity and fraternity comes trust; without them, trust withers’
1 1 P E T ER STANFORD
‘Confirmation risks being a sacrament of departure rather than deeper commitment’
1 4 CHRISTOPHER JAMISON
‘That the Church is a theological mystery doesn’t justify it being a PR mystery’
1 5 PARISH PRACTICE 1 6 NOTEBOOK 1 7 L ETTERS 1 8 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 1 9 PUZZLES
2 0 J ON CRUDDAS
Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation Richard Sennett
GEOFFREY HEPTONSTALL The Dreyfus Affair Piers Paul Read
KATHY WATSON The Snow Child Eowyn Ivey
2 3 F EATURE
Rick Jones Gábor Takács-Nagy
THEATRE Mark Lawson The Heresy of Love
OPERA Robert Thicknesse La Fanciulla del West
T E L EV I S I ON John Morrish True Stories – My Social Network Stalker
2 5 F EBRUARY 2 0 1 2
COVER STORY 4 Wrong road to Damascus Ivor Roberts
As Syria slides towards civil war and fears of a nuclear Iran intensify, a former British diplomat warns against military intervention
6 A Church in disarray Robert Mickens
Leaked Vatican documents have revealed a series of scandals in the Roman Curia, but Catholicism’s troubles are deeper still
7 Discoveries in a quiet place Sally Read
In the first in our new series for Lent, a convert to Catholicism reflects on the gospel for the first Sunday of the season
8 Shelter from the storm Stephen Bates
Ordinary Christians should take their cue from the Queen’s positive approach to religion, expressed last week
1 0 The unyielding citadel Christopher Howse
On the publication of her latest book, Sr Ruth Burrows talks to The Tablet about what to do when you pray and ‘nothing happens’
1 2 Economics with a human face Johan Verstraeten
Just how much austerity is it right to ask people to take? The revaluation of ethical principles puts the focus on justice
2 7 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Court rules against religious freedom in Canada’s schools 3 0 L ETTER FROM ROME 3 1 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Hierarchies at odds over gay rights 3 4 OBITUARY
25 February 2012 | THE TABLET | 3