I went to public school, so I know a thing or two about bullying. The crucial thing is to develop the collective impression that the person being bullied deserves it. Once this is established, the bully can clothe themselves in a peculiar form of moral righteousness. The witch is persecuted, because she deserves it. The Jews are persecuted, because they deserve it.
And it’s not just the physically weak who are targeted for collective punishment, it’s anyone who refuses to go along with the hive mind. In times of group stress, the need to find scapegoats, and thus collectively express our pent-up anger and frustration, is all the greater. It is not just the virus that is highly contagious at the moment, so too is what the French anthropologist/theologian René Girard called “the scapegoat mechanism”. And, of course, doubly so in the highly mimetic environment of social media.
And boy does Cummings deserve it. After all, wasn’t he the person who practically re-invented populist politics for the twenty-first century? And what is populism other than the harnessing of the ‘mob spirit’ for the intensification of politics? Cummings, the master-manipulator, deserves everything he gets. Those who seek to manipulate the wild eddies of popularity must not be surprised when they too get sucked under by its dangerous currents. It’s a kind of poetic justice.
This is why morality is such a surprisingly tricky business. Because, among many other things, morality is a way of speaking about who deserves punishment. Which is why, at its most dangerous, morality can be a kind of exoneration of collective bullying. Cummings is guilty, he broke the rules, he lied, he deserves it. Morality often gives the bully their justification.
Let me be clear. I have no love in my heart for Dominic Cummings. I have never met him. And while his politics do align with mine in some respects, I don’t expect we would get on. Moreover, I don’t buy all of his story.
Nonetheless, I can perfectly understand why a desperate parent would drive to the other end of the country to make provision for the care of his child. And the anger now directed towards him is out of all proportion to the severity of his offence. Those who shout at him outside his home, hound him in the streets with glee; the collective pile-on; the viciousness of the public hatred directed towards him — here lies the far deeper moral failing. And a society that is content to see this happen even to its pantomime villains is weakening its resistance against public hatred being directed against the innocent.
It is precisely because of this that the guardians of public morality — the bishops — have to be especially careful in their public pronouncements. Yet, in recent days, and under the guise of brave-sounding phrases like “speaking truth to power”, several of the bishops of the Church of England have become — or have foolishly allowed themselves to become — cheerleaders for the spirit of collective bullying that has seized our common minds. At least a dozen of them, some very senior, have made unprecedented criticisms of Cummings and the Prime Minister.
I like many of these bishops. Some are friends of mine. I have no doubt that they felt they were being terribly brave in speaking up against some sort of moral corruption at the heart of the Government. But in truth they were speaking into a potential whirlwind of collective anger, looking for an outlet, looking for a way to express itself.
I don’t have a problem with bishops speaking up about politics — they should do it more. Perhaps if they did it more, it wouldn’t all be from a depressingly predictable angle. As if the purpose of our Lord’s astonishing intervention in time and space, his death and resurrection, was to usher in the kingdom of some benign Liberal Democrat toleration. Unfortunately, the age is over when we had firebrand bishops on the Left castigating Mrs Thatcher for her treatment of the miners, or even those on the Right banging on about the need for personal morality — all that has collapsed into the safe soft managerialism of the narrowly centre ground.
Today, the bishops seem a bit too much like health and safety officers, agonising over public compliance. It all feels a long way from a man hanging on a cross.
Whatever one’s politics, the Christian mind has to be continually informed by the recognition that Jesus himself was destroyed by the dynamics of mob hatred, a collective power that was so strong that even Jesus’s most trusted followers could turn against him and deny knowing him. The first Pope was St Peter. Yet even Peter denied Christ, slinking away when called to stand up and be counted. If that isn’t a reminder that even the most spiritually elevated amongst us can succumb to the fear and fury of the mob, I don’t know what is.
During the great liturgies of Holy Week, the congregation in church begins by lauding Jesus as a conquering hero. “Hosanna”, we shout, waving our palms as he triumphantly enters Jerusalem. Within days the same people are shouting to have him strung up. This is why populism is so dangerous. And Holy Week, by making one face one’s own capacity for persecution, is supposed to be some sort of inoculation against the pitch-fork mentality.
That is why the job of bishops is not to say things that are popular — something Rowan Williams regularly chastises as “cost-free wisdom”. Nobody needs that, and politicians can do it better. Indeed, as the Peter story demonstrates, popularity is a kind of kryptonite within the Christian story. No, a bishops’ job is to be hated. To say things that no one wants them to say and no one wants to hear. And particularly, to speak up for those that collective moral righteousness has condemned.
Remember, the Gospel stories are often about the people you hate, not the people you love and agree with. The Good Samaritan is so powerful because the audience for this parable won’t have had a good word to say about Samaritans. And we have heard “love your enemy” so often, we can forget what shockingly counterintuitive advice it is. By contrast, the New Testament is very down on religious professionals, and those who are publicly associated with ‘doing God’.
When I was at St Paul’s Cathedral, there was a phrase that was regularly bandied about that I came to absolutely hate: “reputational risk”. People would say things like “Be careful of this, it carries reputational risk.” You now hear it more and more in church circles. And I get so annoyed. Christianity is all about reputational risk. Indeed, it is absolutely supposed to court reputational risk. Jesus deliberately stood alongside those people who were a constant risk to his good name. If we don’t risk our reputations defending the unpopular, we might as well give up on the whole Christianity thing altogether.
The bishops seem to think that because Cummings is powerful, they are being brave in having a go at him. But this is the sort of bravery of being in a crowd of many thousands, all angrily saying the same thing. So unfortunately, what I see isn’t bravery but a capitulation to the spirit of the mob. Simone Weil put the Christian vocation frighteningly well: “Whoever takes up the sword shall perish by the sword. And whoever does not take up the sword (or lets it go) shall perish on the cross.”