Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Prophet of divine vengeance just doing what prophets do'

The Capuchin friar who compared 'sinners' to zombies was following a long Biblical tradition, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Brother Tom Forde
Brother Tom Forde

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's rare to hear a good, old fashioned fire and brimstone preacher these days. Years ago, it was common enough for particular priests to go off on a rant from the pulpit. Now they tend to give wishy-washy orations more akin to a whimsical piece on Sunday Miscellany than an Old Testament dressing down.

That's probably why there was such a shocked reaction to the comments of Brother Tom Forde, who reportedly used his homily at the Capuchin Friary in Co Kilkenny last weekend to rail against the sinfulness of the world, denouncing those who had strayed from God's plan for mankind as "physically alive but spiritually dead, morally rotten or at least infected".

Amnesty Ireland was first out of the blocks to denounce his comments as homophobic, because he included gay people - "homosexuality" was the quaint word Brother Forde actually used - among those who were spiritually dead inside, likening them to zombies. Which doesn't sound great, to be fair. The gardai were even asked to investigate whether it constituted a hate speech.

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It's worth pointing out, all the same, that it wasn't just those in same-sex relationships who were feeling the friar's wrath. He also included those who were guilty of "the abuse of drugs and alcohol, adultery, fornication... as well as in the acceptance of abortion and contraception and in the move to legalise euthanasia". Which, put like that, sounds like almost everyone.

Most people now accept contraception as a legitimate way to have a healthy sex life while limiting the size of one's family, while the legalisation of abortion secured the support of two thirds of people at last year's referendum on the Eighth Amendment. As for the abuse of alcohol and drugs, well, the anti-drinking zealots in the officialdom have certainly done a good job of painting the Irish people as slaves to the demon booze, so it's a bit late to start defending the right to enjoy a quiet drink without being nagged to death about it. Alcohol Action Ireland does it from a "health" point of view, and Brother Forde from a Biblical one, but is one really that much worse than the other?

Amnesty itself isn't averse to a spot of hectoring of its own. To listen to some of its pronouncements, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Irish were equally immured in sin. The only difference is that the sins the contemporary prophets of political correctness want to denounce now include catch-all terms such as "racism", "sexism", "homophobia", "transphobia", "bigotry", all of which are so loosely defined as to be applicable to anyone who happens not to share the painfully progressive values of a particular speaker. If Brother Forde had denounced practitioners of these modern offences using equally emotive language, he'd now be a media hero, rather than a villain.

Admittedly, suggesting that the only way to kill zombies was to "stab or shoot them in the brain" was taking Brother Forde's love of TV show The Walking Dead a bit far.

It's little wonder that the Bishop of Ossory felt the need to show regret for the "inappropriate language and sentiments", and the Capuchins to issue a statement that "all are welcome in our churches, irrespective of sexual orientation".

But since when did genuine blood-and-thunder prophets feel the need to rein themselves in for fear of upsetting the sensitive? Upsetting the sensitive is the whole point of millenarian religion.

The Bible is full of prophets howling in the wilderness against decadence, debauchery and corruption. They denounced kings, emperors, religious authorities, without distinction. Amos is described in one commentary as "an unsophisticated man shocked at urban excess, a shrill man railing against urban lifestyles". RTE would certainly not have been a fan.

God had Ezekiel preach: "Clap your hands, stamp your feet and cry alas for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel! They shall fall by the sword, starvation, and disease. Thus will I spend my fury upon them." It's not designed to bring comfort, but it's undoubtedly stirring stuff.

Habakkuk declared: "Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies! You will be filled with shame instead of glory." Jonah longed for Nineveh to be destroyed, and was so disappointed when the city repented and was saved that he begged God to kill him.

The prophets of old had one thing in common. They were all angry, to an insane degree. Theologians will argue that it was righteous anger, but then that's what Brother Forde would surely claim too.

It hardly matters to him if what he says is popular, or brings him happiness. As the prophet Jeremiah said to his God: "I did not sit celebrating in the circle of merrymakers. Under the weight of your hand, I sat alone, because you filled me with indignation."

Trying to sanitise this impulse to denounce sin would be to turn religion into a branch of the social services. That's what many people who'd never darken the door of their local church anyway would love to happen, and there are plenty in the hierarchy, alarmed at their diminished role in the secular world, who've been seduced into thinking that's the answer.

Even Brother Forde, according to his order, now insists that "it was not his intention to cause hurt to anyone".

It's simply not possible to be Biblical in the modern world without causing hurt to someone. Curiously, though, it's only the comments about gay people which were specifically repudiated. Presumably that means the others who were compared to zombies - the drunks and drug addicts, fornicators and adulterers, and supporters of abortion and euthanasia - will just have to take it on the chin. There were no apologies for them.

Nor are there likely to be any time soon, because the awkward truth is that the Bible does denounce all these things in fairly uncompromising terms. Congregations are free to pick and choose from an a la carte religious menu, ignoring what does not fit with their lifestyle, but it's arguably unreasonable to demand that those who take scripture seriously should pretend that it doesn't say what is written there, just because it makes the rest of us shift uncomfortably in our seats.

Let the prophets of divine vengeance declaim as loudly as they will. It's a free country. Thankfully, that's why ignoring sky pilots whose opinions one finds grossly offensive is always an option too.

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