Well, we kick off with something you might not expect to find in a Billy King Colm but here goes -
Bible stories for the modern era
It has come to our attention that some young people, in Ireland and elsewhere, are sadly unaware of their European Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage. This is not a question about proselytising but rather about awareness of the Christian past in Europe and its contribution to culture, art and public life, something referred to by Christian leaders who feel that this is denied or swept under the carpet. So, we decided to assist in this matter with an occasional series on ‘Bible stories for the modern era’. To make them comprehensible to the young person of today, some of stories have been adapted slightly but they seek to remain true to the biblical themes and idiom.
Please note that while general principles can be gleaned from the bible stories and their adaptations, theologians and biblical scholars generally consider it mistaken to apply these too literally to modern times, so readers should not look too readily for current parallels.
Our first story is a modern adaptation of
Joseph, the Seven Years of Plenty and the Seven Lean Years (Genesis Chapter 41)
A long time ago, in days of Nore, the people of Ire lived in poverty and tribulation, almost two times forty years did they live in the wilderness, searching for the promised economic land, surviving on manna, manana, potatoes and whatever else they could lay their hands on. There was no milk and no honey and no honey nut corn flakes to eat. And the young people of Ire went into exile.
After the two times forty years, because of all manner of things, but largely because of good fortune, milk and honey began to flow and the people said, Verily, never have we had it so good, this cannot last. The leaders of the people at this time were Bartholemew Bar Tea and his chief servant at the treasury Brie an Cohen, both of the tribe of Benyamin (which is understood to mean the ‘Tribe of Ben, Ye Mean’, or ‘The Tribe supported by Ben Dunne’, this was the most soldierly of the tribes and they even considered themselves soldiers of destiny). And Bar Tea and Cohen said the milk and honey could and would last and they gave orders that those who built houses on sand should be recompensed from the public treasury. And lo, lie the fields of Athenry, soon there were houses built on sand everywhere, and store houses, and inns, and all manner of buildings. And those who organised the building of these, or owned them, met up with the leaders of the tribe, with Bar Tea and Brie an Cohen, in tents, in an intense experience, and made offerings of gold (even though, frankly, it did not make sense and no one seemed to demur), or passed it to them discreetly in packages wrapped in brown.
But there were prophets in the land including one whose name was David, though he was not of mighty stature in the thinking of Bar Tea and Cohen. And David spoke and said – I have had a vision, and done my homework, and seven years of plenty will be had followed by seven years of famine and hardship, or was that seven times seven? The ship of state and its wealth is built on sand, he said. Be prepared! And the last he said because he had been a boy scout.
However Bar Tea told David it would be better if he drowned himself in the river than question them and cause disquiet among the people. And Brie an Cohen said there would be no end to the good times, to the days of wine and roses, of poetry and proses [Wrong Cohen? – Ed]. And Bar Tea decried that every corn store should have deep pile carpet laid at the top of any stairs, so that there would be a soft landing. And this was all they did, they did nothing else to protect the people, even though their advisers warned them; they had no need to act like Joseph did in Egypt, they said, storing corn from the plentiful years for the lean years because of the soft landing they predicted if the good years did come to an end. And Bar Tea and Brie an Cohen laughed all the way to the treasury.
It did indeed come to pass, as David had foretold, that the good times came to an end, and hard times fell on the people of Ire, and a soft landing was nowhere to be found. The houses, the inns, the buildings that were built on sand came crashing down mightily in price, if they were not simply abandoned. And there was weeping and gnashing of teeth which was sad because dentistry was too expensive anyway. But Bar Tea was not around as leader anymore because he had kept his gold in his sock drawer [Some anachronism? – Ed] and was too busy with matters to do with excavations as he had been involved in ‘dig outs’ as they were called. And Brie an Cohen was now leader of the tribe and country and asked, When did anyone tell us that the years of plenty would come to an end, no one told us, there was nothing we could have done. But the people did not believe him.
And Brie an Cohen was forced to go to the leaders of neighbouring countries, cap in hand, to ask for corn. And the rulers of the neighbouring countries said – surely, but at a price. And the price was high. And the treasury of Ire was sore afflicted. And the people of Ire thought it was a corny joke and they were sick, sore and tired of the devastation which had been wrought by the tribe of Benyamin.
And so Brie an Cohen was quite claraly told by his tribe to take an offaly long holiday and he departed for the political wilderness. And Bar Tea’s chances of becoming pharaoh were grievously dented. And the people of Ire smote the tribe of Benyamin severely at the polls and the tribe named Fine Mess took power in the land. And the young people of Ire continued to pour into exile again.
I tend to read ‘in’ books years long after they have fallen ‘out’ of that category, way after they have been fashionable. Recently I read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ which is an intriguing mix of fiction (including elements of ‘science’ fiction) and fact. The question I wanted to consider briefly was whether it does take a passive approach to war which, not having read other books of his, I can’t judge in a wider context, only in relation to the novel novel in question.
Early on in the Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut quotes a movie-maker asking him if it was an anti-war book he was writing, and he replies “Yes, I guess”. The other says “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”, and Vonnegut goes on to say “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.” So, that looks pretty passivist to me.
It does seem on this evidence that Vonnegut was unaware (as of 1969 when the book was first published anyway) of the concept of nonviolence and the non-violent possibilities for working to remove the causes of violence and war – which seems somewhat ironic given the strong anti-Vietnam War movement in the USA of the time he wrote. He died in 2007. But I think it would be unfortunate if we left it at that because what he does so well is the powerlessness which can be felt in war. His hero/anti-hero/main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse 5 is a creature of powerlessness. He travels – or experiences travelling – through time in a way that he does not control to situations where he knows what will happen, an endless predestined almost-reincarnation (since he can experience his own death and come back to another point in life), a peculiar loop to which there is no way out. He journeys through his life in an almost surreal way, rarely affected by the catastrophes befalling him.
But Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim, was in Dresden for the fateful bombing later in the Second World War which destroyed the city and most of the people in it, a bombing which took place on a city with no strategic importance, the aim being simply to kill Germans. He compares it to the bombing of Hiroshima (Dresden was worse, at least in its immediate effects in terms of numbers, and with people left walking ‘on the surface on the moon’ such was the destruction). There can be no doubt that Vonnegut feels the bombing of Dresden was wrong, morally and strategically. There is no doubt that he feels war is hell. It may be unfortunate that he does or did not take a step forward from that to some form of active nonviolence but at least he made the journey to rejection, and his portrayal of war has an honesty, and also an ingenuity, which may cause questioning it as a tool of states or others. Psychologically, too, we might understand Billy Pilgrim’s time travel (and this is only one of a number of possible understandings!) as flashbacks to traumatic experiences and his recounted time on the planet Tralfamadore as caused by the trauma he had experienced in war.
There are many different interpretations possible of “Slaughterhouse 5” but let no one doubt it is indeed an anti-war book. So it goes.
At the Sharp end of the revolutions
Good to see Gene Sharp getting credit where credit is due for his research and writing and in particular his role in sharing information globally on nonviolence and nonviolent tactics. According to Ruaridh Arrow (BBC News website accessed 21/2/11) he is “the man now credited with the strategy behind the toppling of the Egyptian government”; this does sound a bit OTT or possibly OTT but there is still a message there about his ideas being used by activists. Ruaridh Arrow may be on firmer ground when he says Sharp is “the world’s foremost expert on non-violent revolution” – though I think that description is also open to contention he is without doubt one of the leading world experts and even the ‘grand old man’, at this stage, of the field.
Sharp is now 83 and his key work, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, was published in 1973, including his famous 198 varieties of nonviolent tactics (in his historical illustrations he uses a number of Irish examples). It is the fact that this work is descriptive, historical and analytical rather than ideological which is most attractive to people. It is pragmatic recognition of the power of nonviolence. Of course Sharp did not in any way invent the concept of civil disobedience which has been around for an extremely long time (as he details!), and written about by Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’, also known as ‘Civil Disobedience’, as early as 1849. But Sharp documented it in a new way and brought it to a new audience and this has made it more difficult to deny the power of nonviolence.
Ruaridh Arrow has a film coming out this spring, “Gene Sharp: How to start a revolution”, so that should be worth looking out for – see the trailer here Sharp has a number of different books published apart from his ground-breaking “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”; these include “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, “Gandhi as a Political Strategist”, works on civilian-based defence, and his last book (2005) “Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential”.
It would be mistaken to think that Gene Sharp’s work on ‘198 varieties’ is just for revolutionary situations. It is also useful for everyday campaigning and a workshop on the INNATE website shows you just how to use it; see here This takes people through a process of getting to know the 198 varieties (which could also be 1,198 varieties or 198,000 varieties), and personalising them through a risk list before brainstorming actions on the subject that people are interested in. You could see this process as broadening the concept of nonviolence, personalising it and deepening it, before applying it to a real political or social struggle. You can take the workshop away and use it yourself but if you’d like a hand in using it then INNATE would be delighted to assist.
Douglas Adams’ ascribes the numeral 42 as the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” in “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy”. Perhaps we could risk offending Adams fans and saying, no, he was wrong, it’s actually 198 or more.
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Well, that’s me for now, plenty to contemplate on the international scene at the moment, let’s hope people have contemplated 198 varieties and are ready to use them and others. Some of the lessons could be learnt at home as well, I’ll say no more [That’s a relief – Ed]. Anyway, see you soon, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).