This weekend has seen the British tabloid press at its most unpleasant. As the story leaked out that one of the killers of toddler James Bulger had been recalled to prison, rumours began to leak out as to why.The killer, now a grown man, was a ten year-old boy when he committed the crime. For several days the front-pages of the Sun and the Mirror demanded ‘justice’, sailed perilously close to the wind in terms of contempt laws by speculating about the killer’s new identity and reason for recall, cynically orchestrated responses from the Bulger family*, and compelled politicians to make statements. At one stage Alan Johnston offered the opinion that the public has a ‘right to know’ why the killer was recalled – one cannot help but wonder which understanding of rights could be underwriting this position. Myself, I am quite clear that I have no such right. Anyway, this is all by way of introduction for non-UK readers or those who have been mercifully isolated from exposure to the red-tops. On the issues around the Bulger, I commend this wonderfully restrained comment piece.
Two thoughts occurred to me. First of all, my mind was drawn to Dorothy Sayers’ commentary on Dante’s Inferno. Writing about canto 18, in which Dante describes the punishment of the flatterers (who are steeped in filth), she says:
These too, exploit others by playing upon their desires and fears, their especial weapon is that abuse and corruption of language which destroys communication between mind and mind. Here they are plunged in the slop and filth which they excreted upon the world. Dante did not live to see the full development of political propoganda, commercial advertisement, and sensational journalism, but he has prepared a place for them.
Key here is the distortion of language. Human beings are linguistic animals. Our use of language is fundamental to our capcity to form communities – something the Catholic Dante sees as essential to the human good. The distortion and twisting of language, the use of it to provoke emotions rather than to communicate rationally, is absolutely destructive of real community. In place of this community – the kind of community based on discussion, interaction and mutual respect – we have the manipulated lynch mob. It should be obvious how much of a failure of human flourishing this represents. It should, furthermore, be obvious that this is exactly the game the British tabloid press play day after day. They are an evil, and no Christian – no decent human being, for that matter – should have anything to do with them.
As well as this, I got wondering about how it is that the lynch mob mentality gets hold. I think it probably issues from a desire to feel that one is not all that bad. I can’t be terrible because there are these dreadful people – the criminals (‘beasts’, ‘monsters’) who are in a different league to me. In other words, it is a classic act of scapegoating. The benefit for those participating is that they get to feel good about themselves, and to overlook their own faults. Now, if this is what is going on – and I suspect it is – then there is a very clear Christian response. On the one hand, as Paul puts it in one of the single most mis-used passages in scripture, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’. None of us are perfect. This doesn’t, of course, mean that no person or action is better or worse than any other person or action; murder is worse than making an unkind comment, and Mother Theresa was almost certainly a better person when she died than Hitler was when he did. No, the point is rather more subtle – any strategy, such as scapegoating, which we use to tell ourselves that we are alright really will fail, although not before causing a lot of unnecessary suffering. It will fail because we are not alright. We are in need of being made perfect, of being reconciled with each other and with God. The good news, however, as Paul goes on to say is that those who have fallen short of God’s glory ‘are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. Out of sheer love God offers us forgiveness. If we really took that message on board, how would it affect that way we see ourselves and others, and the way we respond to cases like the one of James Bulger’s killer?
*The extent of the genuine care for the bereaved relatives on the part of the Sun should be assessed in the light of the following evidence. Earlier today, on the Sun’s website, a picture of James Bulger was immediately above a link through to a quasi-pornographic story about the sex lives of celebrities, illustrated with a picture of two naked women.