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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
The Heart of a Heartless World
Summer 1996

Opposite my house, in the center of the square, stands a Victorian Gothic church, a building of some grandeur, which soars upward with immense confidence. Its interior is unspoiled, its stained-glass windows magnificent. It is almost always empty.

The architect, when he built it, could only have supposed that he was expressing in stone a faith that would endure forever. He could not have imagined that, a century and a quarter later, the established church that commissioned his splendid building would be on the verge of extinction, its bishops straining vainly after modernity by signing on to the fashionable sociological untruths of a couple of decades ago or by suggesting variously that Jesus was a homosexual or that he was not resurrected in any corporeal sense. Still less could he have imagined that members of the Synod of the Church of England would one day express more interest in Third World Indebtedness or Global Warming than in Sin. In its characteristically lukewarm and timorous fashion, the Church has adopted (and diluted) the liberation theology that has so hastened the erosion of Catholic hegemony in Latin America.

But the Church of England is a broad church, and the vicar is a survivor of the days when God was still on the side of the upper classes. An ex-army man, he wears a monocle and has a twinkle in his other eye. He is a most amusing dinner guest, far too urbane to bring religion into the conversation. He won't have anything to do with his Bolshevik of a bishop; and he still believes in good works at the prompting of a kind heart, now deemed a most retrograde, even reactionary, conception of charity. He once found a job in the church for a patient of mine, an alcoholic ex-prisoner who wanted at last to go straight: he said, with an amiable laugh, that if the Church couldn't give reformed sinners a chance, who on earth could?

Still, the vicar's tolerant and restrained kind of religion is not the kind to spark a revival, and he knows he is almost the last of his breed. The hold of a church over its society is like the bloom of a grape: once gone, it is gone for good.

Belief in the supernatural, however, has not necessarily gone the same way as attendance at the Church of England. Until quite recently I had rather casually supposed that the English, being among the least religious of people, had somehow become indifferent to the superlunary world of angels, devils, evil spirits, and so forth. I was disabused of my too-easy assumptions by a television discussion program on the practice of exorcism, in which I was asked to participate on the panel, representing Science—or at least Rationality.

The other participants included a self-proclaimed bishop who had set up a Catholic Church in opposition to the one ruled by the impostor in Rome and an active member of the British Humanist Association of the type who spends wet Sunday afternoons at Speakers' Corner, preaching fiercely anti-God sermons to a congregation of one.

Next to me in the studio sat a man who had served several prison sentences for crimes of violence, obviously a psychopath who, however, had reformed ever since his exorcism, in the course of which he had vomited up a little green devil into a plastic bucket. He had served no sentences since, and I was asked—as the sole legitimate representative of Reason in the studio—to comment.

Of course I found myself unwilling to humiliate the exorcised psychopath in front of 10 million viewers. The argument went by default; and what surprised me was the reaction of the audience, bused in from a local factory for the evening. It regarded the little green devil theory of this man's former misconduct as perfectly plausible, not as inherently absurd. I was surprised.

Since then, I have taken more notice of the symptoms of religious revival in the city. Large (and competitive) signs exhort the passerby to read the Holy Quran, God's Last Testament, or to Read the Bible Before Christ Comes. In the Yellow Pages there are, amazingly enough, half as many places of worship listed as pubs—including the President Saddam Hussein Mosque, to which the city council recently granted $75,000 to extend its parking lot, which is now, presumably, the mother of all parking lots. The Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim, on the other hand, is omitted from the list because it has no telephone—though the Chief Apostle has a portable one. The Eternal Sacred Order's chapel, as it happens, is not more than 200 yards from the church opposite my house, and though the building somewhat lacks grandeur, still displaying architectural features of the cold, Gradgrindian school hall it once was, there is no mistaking the warmth of feeling that suffuses it during a service.

I first encountered the Eternal Sacred Order in eastern Nigeria, near the city of Port Harcourt, where the order was founded. Every Sunday large numbers of the faithful, dressed in long white seraphic robes, trooped down a path of beaten red earth through the lush undergrowth to a large church built of cinder block, where they sang and prayed lustily, forgetting for a while the insecurities of life in a country in which the police and soldiers hired out their weapons by the night to armed robbers, and where at least one of the Four Horsemen was never far off.

Two hundred yards, then, from the church where the religion of the English upper class genteelly sighs its last, an assembly of Nigerian immigrants (all from Rivers State in eastern Nigeria) don their robes (now satin), sing, and shout hallelujah. The air in the chapel is thick with incense and rent by urgent prayer. The police in England don't hire out their weaponry to armed robbers, at least not yet, but life is still full of insecurities for these immigrants. By no means welcomed with open arms by the local population, they find the climate cold, the cost of living unexpectedly high, and the moral dangers for their children manifold and pervasive.

"Oh, Lord," sighs the Junior Apostle (the Senior Apostle is away in Jerusalem), "many are widout jobs, many are widout mudders and farders, many are widout homes. We pray thee, Lord, to find dem work, to find dem homes, to bring comfort to dem dat are widout mudders and farders."

The congregation is on its knees, facing in all directions, and unanimously utters a heartfelt amen, with some banging of heads on the ground for added emphasis. Then one of the women in the congregation—which is two-thirds female—comes forward and prays in distinctly biblical language, King James version, for the sick of the world, especially for Sister Okwepho, who is in the hospital with abdominal pain. She asks the Lord to guide the doctors and scientists who are trying to rid the world of diseases, and from thence she moves by natural progression to the Second Coming, when there will be no more suffering or abdominal pain, when there will be no more disease or hunger, no more injustice or war, no more unemployment or poverty, but only goodness, brotherhood, and contentment. Now the congregation is standing, its hands upraised, and it begins to sway rhythmically, eyes closed, already bathed in the bliss of a world without gray hostile skies, a suspicious immigration department, or temptations for adolescents to fall into the wrong company.

The ability to give meaning to the everyday vexations of existence and to overcome them, at least in the imagination, is one of the characteristics that unite the myriad churches that flourish, unseen except when looked for, among the poor. A hundred yards from the prison where I work is another church unlisted in the Yellow Pages, a large octagonal building (an ecclesiastical Benthamite panopticon to match the penal one close by) with a seating capacity of 800, built by subscription of its impoverished members.

They are either Jamaicans or of Jamaican parentage, and they live at the heart, both physically and socially, of the inner-city maelstrom. What remain for me mere events to observe and theorize about are to them the daily problems of life; and two days before I attended a service in the church, a young crack dealer had been shot dead 20 yards from the prison gate in a drive-by assassination, while a few minutes later another dealer was shot dead not a quarter of a mile away. In all, five young men had been shot dead during the previous month, a small tally by Washington standards, perhaps, but still enough to instill fear into the local population.

I had met the suspected killers in the prison the day before I attended the service, three young blacks in their early twenties, to whom killing was no more problematical, morally, than making a telephone call: men who, when I spoke to them, were so convinced of the gross injustice of the world that they were convinced also that nothing they did themselves could add significantly to its sum.

The congregation—perhaps 400 strong and, again, two-thirds female—was all black. The congregants were dressed in all their finery, immaculately turned out in elegant hats and dazzling dresses; the older among them wore veils and gloves. Some might be inclined to laugh at this quaint sartorial echo of the respectability of a bygone age; but I learned long ago, when I practiced briefly in the townships of South Africa, that the yearning of poor people for respectability, their desire to appear clean and well-dressed in public, is not laughable in the least but is, on the contrary, something noble and inspiring. It is the prerogative of the unthinkingly prosperous to sneer at the bourgeois virtues, and I now recall my own adolescent gestures and affectations in that direction with distaste.

The shootings were much on the mind of the congregation, for the victims and perpetrators alike could have been the sons, brothers, or consorts (I hardly dare speak of husbands anymore, for fear of being thought implicitly intolerant) of the women who now sobbed their impromptu prayers facedown on their pews. The preacher, a young woman, called the congregation for testimony to the Lord, and an old lady with a limp, whom I had passed several times in the street, came forward. She thanked the Lord in trembling voice for all the blessings that He had showered upon her, His servant, among which was the great gift of life itself.

"We thank Thee, Lord! We thank Thee, Lord! We thank Thee, Lord!"

It was extraordinary to hear this lady, who in other circumstances appeared retiring and undemonstrative, whip a large congregation into a frenzy of emotion by the repetition of a simple phrase, with a constantly rising intonation. And then, with an instinctive mastery of crowd psychology (which she shared with many others who later came forward), she waited for the hubbub of excited gratitude to die down, choosing precisely the right moment to resume her testimony.

"We thank Thee, Lord, for the gift of healing."

"Amen!" muttered the congregation. "Praise the Lord!"

"Last week I fell down on the stair and cut my leg. I went to the hospital [the one in which I work, several of whose nurses were in the congregation], and the doctor came, and he saw that I was bleeding. And he said to me that he would sew it up, and he sewed it up, but still it was bleeding." (That sounds like my hospital all right, I thought.) "So the doctor said, `I will bind it up with a bandage,' but still it bled right through the bandage. So I prayed a little to the Lord Jesus to stop the bleeding, and do you know? The bleeding stopped."

The congregation was profoundly moved.

"Doctor Jesus! Doctor Jesus! Doctor Jesus!" exclaimed the old lady.

An excited young man to the right of me—a bit of an exhibitionist, I thought—stood up and spoke in tongues. "Garabalaga ingerolipola singapatola hamagaruga!" he said (more or less). The old lady let him have his say until he ran out of steam, and when he had finished she resumed her testimony.

"But we are all sinners, Lord. Therefore we pray for forgiveness. We do not always follow Your ways, Lord; we are proud, we are stubborn, we want to go our own way. We think only of ourselves. That is why there is so much sin, so much robbery, so much violence, on our streets."

I recalled the faces of the young men in the prison now accused of murder: their hard, glittering, expressionless eyes—young men who recognized no law but their own desire of the moment. The old lady described (and explained) their radical egotism in a religious way.

Murmurs of assent were heard everywhere. It wasn't the police's fault, or racism's, or the system's, or capitalism's; it was the failure of sinners to acknowledge any moral authority higher than their personal whim. And in asserting this, the congregation was asserting its own freedom and dignity: poor and despised as its members might be, they were still human enough to decide for themselves between right and wrong. And they offered hope to others, too: for if a man chose to do evil, he could later elect, by an act of will, to do good. No one had to wait until there was perfect justice in the world, or all the circumstances were right, before he himself did good.

A few hundred yards away is yet another Pentecostal church. On its side wall, in letters three feet high, are painted the words God's Love Is Not A Lottery. Inside, as if to emphasize that God helps him who helps himself, a notice advises congregants not to park in the street but in the church parking lot, where a security camera is in operation.

How necessary, alas, is that advice! The curbsides of all the local streets are sprinkled with the sparkling shards of glass from a thousand thefts of (or from) cars parked there. But such theft is the least of it around here, as I know from my patients. One of them lives in a house within sight of the church, where she is virtually imprisoned by crime. Her car has been stolen, her house broken into three times in the past year, and her daughter, who visits her every day, has bought a mobile telephone in order to call her mother from the bus when she is about to get off at the bus stop. Her mother looks from an upstairs window for potential muggers and gives her the all clear, but even so she runs the 200 yards between the bus stop and her mother's front door. She has been mugged at knifepoint once before; and just as a French victim of the German concentration camps observed that once you have been tortured you remain tortured for the rest of your life, likewise once you have been mugged at knifepoint you remain mugged at knifepoint for the rest of your life.

Also overlooking the church—towering above it, in fact—is a 20-story block of public housing, to which the ironists of the Housing Department have assigned a name full of rural connotations (the more rural the name given to such blocks, I have discovered, the larger the surrounding area of concrete). I know this particular block quite well, having paid two house calls as a doctor there—accompanied by the riot police to protect me, a very necessary precaution as it transpired. Another of my patients who lives there has repeatedly stabbed herself in the abdomen (five times so far) in an attempt, so far unavailing, to get the Housing Department—whose concern for its tenantry makes the average aristocratic landlord of the eighteenth century look positively sentimental—to move her somewhere less violent. The department has so far stuck to its opinion that she is adequately housed, by which it means that she has four walls and a roof that is impermeable to water, if not to noise or intruders.

So I think I know what Marx meant when he wrote that religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the opium of the people. Of course, he misidentified the oppressor: in present-day England it is not the bloated plutocrat; it is your drug-dealing, rock-music-playing, baseball-bat-wielding neighbor. And inside this Pentecostal church the pastor addresses a large congregation that knows only too well what it is to live in the shadow of lawlessness, where psychopathy rules. He quotes the case of a seven-year-old girl, placed on a table in a pub by her mother and sold to the highest bidder to abuse as he liked for the night—a story I should be inclined to dismiss as apocryphal were I not to hear equivalently dreadful tales every day in my hospital.

This congregation has one striking feature: it is half black and half white. This is all the more remarkable because, within a few hundred yards, there are pubs that are racially segregated, where a man of the wrong race is as welcome as a blasphemer in Iran. But in the church the races are united by their mutual experience of the moral squalor that surrounds them and by the failure of the public authorities to tackle it in any way, or even to acknowledge its existence.

Once more they seek assurance that their suffering is not without meaning. Congregant after congregant speaks of delinquency and drug taking, of illegitimacy and domestic violence, of criminality and cruelty. They all pray for the conversion of the world and, exulting in its imminent prospect, speak in tongues. This paralinguistic gibberish is uttered with the deepest feeling: it is a catharsis, a release.

The desperate search for order in the midst of anarchy often renders people vulnerable to self-proclaimed authorities who rush in to fill the moral vacuum. A patient of mine recently revealed to me the world of religious cults that flourishes, anonymously and unseen by the rest of us, in the modern city.

My patient was brought to the hospital having very nearly succeeded in a suicide attempt. Suicide was the only means, he thought, by which he could escape the cult that he had embraced and that had embraced him in his times of trouble.

"If I couldn't take the church out of my life," he said, "at least I could take my life out of the church."

He was an intelligent man who had left college to marry young. A few years later his wife left him for another man. He began to drink heavily, and before long he was in a desperate state. He had lost not only his wife and child but his home and his job. His parents disowned him because of his inclination to aggression while drunk. He slid down the social scale very fast, and soon found himself in a hostel for men with similar stories.

He was contemplating suicide when he met a young missionary from a cult called the Jesus Army on the street. She took him to a meeting at one of the Army's many communal homes in the city.

The people there seemed deeply contented, happy and laughing all the time; they clapped and sang at their daily meetings. They displayed a profound interest in his welfare and seemed to offer him their unconditional love, which only later was he to recognize as highly conditional, manipulative, and false. When asked to join one of the Army's communal homes, he thought he had found his salvation, and he readily agreed.

Most of the other inmates of the homes had been in similar situations, caused by drink or drugs. And there was no doubt that by joining the Jesus Army they overcame their addictions (thus demonstrating that, pace what many experts aver, addiction is a moral, or at least an existential, question). But life-saving as the Army undoubtedly was, life-enhancing it certainly wasn't.

It attempted to re-create primitive Christian communities in the modern world, taking the Acts of the Apostles as its fundamental text. All goods were held in common, their use determined by the church hierarchs. No one was allowed any money, and even the most minimal expenditure, such as bus fare, had to be justified in theological terms. A request for a bar of chocolate, for instance, would be greeted with the unanswerable question, "What use is it to the redemptive work of the church?" And thus the meaninglessness of pre-cult existence was replaced by the equally dispiriting deep meaningfulness of the most trivial of desires and actions, and the request for a bar of chocolate made the occasion of a battle between the forces of Good and Evil. No entertainment was permitted: no radio, no television, no games, no magazines or books. The church was called the Kingdom, and everything that was not of the church was called the World. Each member had his Shepherd, one stage higher up the hierarchy, who acted as a spy for the church authorities, and from whom nothing was to be hidden. In the Kingdom, no secrets were allowed.

The Army ran its own businesses, including law and medical practices, which outwardly appeared perfectly normal. A patient of the Army's medical practice (funded by the National Health Service) would not notice any difference from any other practice. But the wages paid to the staff of all such businesses and practices, including to doctors and lawyers, went directly into the cult's coffers: the wage bills shown in the accounts were purely nominal. And if an employee of one of the cult's businesses should backslide and opt to leave the Kingdom for the World, he would at once lose his job. Considered by the state to have made himself voluntarily unemployed, he would be offered the most minimal assistance in the way of unemployment benefits, an arrangement that suited the Army's purposes admirably.

Of course, those who enter the Kingdom are encouraged to sever ties with any members of their family who remain in the World. Within a few months, therefore, the new entrant into the Kingdom is enmeshed more thoroughly than any fly in a spider's web. With no money, belongings, job, or family to call his own, it is difficult for a member of the church to leave the Kingdom, whatever his reservations about it. Moreover, if his desire to leave becomes known, he is immediately subject to Chinese thought-reform methods to make him change his mind. He is made to feel a member of Iscariot's party. No one is freed of the cult's power at a stroke: there is always a lingering doubt that perhaps the cult really is the Way, the Truth, and Life, after all. And the backslider has to believe that the cult is not all bad; otherwise he is forced to conclude that he has been a gullible fool—which all of us understandably are reluctant to do.

Several hundred people live in Jesus Army communities in my city. The most visible signs of the Army's existence are the large buses in which its missionaries trawl the streets for the vulnerable. And it is by no means the only such cult in the city, or the most extreme. Another cult sends its Shepherds directly into the sheep pens themselves: a Shepherd is sent to live at a new adherent's house, and the family is held virtually prisoner by him until adjudged sufficiently indoctrinated to be let out on their own.

Despite its appearance of religious indifference, then, our city has an unexpectedly intense religious life. In an age of relativism, people seek certainty; when violence strikes at random, they seek transcendent meaning; when crime goes unpunished by the secular power, they seek refuge in divine law; when indifference to others reigns, they seek community. Everyone to whom I spoke thought there was some kind of subterranean religious revival in our slums. And as far as the Jesus Army is concerned, the more degraded the World, the richer the harvest for the Kingdom. Like Lenin and Mao, it knows the contradictions should be heightened. As Lenin so charmingly put it, the worse the better.

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