Sunday, 31 August 2014

Deserve the truth

"What is truth?", as Pontius Pilate asked Our Lord. I can only assume from his question that he didn't wash his hair in TréSemmé shampoo, because they've got the answer written on the back of their bottles, as I keep seeing every morning in the shower. TréSemmé's "philosophy," they write, is based on a "simple truth:" "every woman deserves to look fabulous, like she's just stepped out of the salon." Well, that's that one sorted, then, Pontius. Look no further. What is truth? Every woman deserves to look fabulous.

Except: hang on a minute. Really? Every woman deserves to look fabulous? What - Myra Hindley? Does she "deserve to look fabulous?" Rose West?

No? Then, we'll have to modify that "simple truth" a bit, won't we. Maybe, "some women deserve to look fabulous," then. But I don't think that will quite do, either, actually. It's the word "deserve" I'm having trouble with: in what sense do women "deserve" to look fabulous? In the sense that a dog deserves a biscuit for doing a trick? Presumably not. I suppose that's where the "every" comes in: every woman deserves it because looking fabulous is a basic, fundamental right for all women. Not sure where that leaves men - perhaps we have no right to look fabulous - but that's the philosophy. Every woman has a fundamental right to look fabulous.

Well, it's rubbish, isn't it: because actually, nobody has any right whatsoever to "look fabulous," whatever the pronouncement of some PR guru at TréSemmé. And actually, I think this "philosophy" of deserving, of having a right to something, of the world owing you a living, is quite a serious problem. Because despite it being really quite obvious that we don't have any right to anything, it's a philosophy that is pretty much considered common sense nowadays in the western world.

A lot of this comes from the doctrine of human rights, developed in the mid-twentieth century for very good reasons: an agreement to make sure that those with next to nothing would no longer be abused. This is, of course, quite right and proper. But there are two problems with it. First, there's the problem that it leads to a mindset of entitlement: "I know my rights."

But second, there's the more fundamental problem of who exactly came up with this agreement in the first place. China, for example, when accused of human rights abuses, points out that this supposedly universal truth, that everybody has certain fundamental basic rights, actually originated from a bunch of academics in Europe, all from a Judaeo-Christian background. Nobody else had a say. So why should they listen? And they've got a point: actually, there is nothing fundamentally true about human rights at all. They're a useful collective fiction, maintained by consensus if at all. But perhaps it was naive (and a trifle arrogant?) to suppose that a bunch of westerners could solve the world's problems by getting together and making up a system of universal moral truth.

I think it has to be said, that although there was considerable input from churches in the formulation of the doctrine of human rights, and although it's grounded in a clearly Christian set of ethics, it doesn't actually always sit very well with the teaching of the Gospel. I think that churches should rally behind the banner of human rights as a convenient ally in improving the world, but we also have to be careful that we don't make an idol of it, and we need to be ready to be critical when the ideal is abused, when it stops being about the genuinely needy and starts being about "everybody's right to look fabulous," or to have a wide-screen TV, or to go on foreign holidays, or whatever.

That idea is quite the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do today: to deny ourselves and take up our Cross. The truth is not what TréSemmé thinks, but the very opposite. The truth is that we do not deserve anything at all. The truth is that we do not have any right to anything. Everything that we have, whether it's our looks, our money, our talents or whatever, everything is a freely given gift from God. Our duty and our joy is to learn to be thankful for this and to use it for the sake of others and for the growth of the Kingdom: and never to expect it as a right.

And isn't that what the Eucharist teaches us, too? We come to this altar only when we have repented of our sins, acknowledged our unworthiness to receive the body and blood of Our Lord. Yet God forgives us always, He cleanses the Image in which He made us and makes us worthy vessels for Christ to offer Himself through us, and for us to receive the overflowing goodness of His love. It's the Christian life in microcosm: repentance, forgiveness, self-offering, receiving the free gift of God's overwhelming love, and going out to let that love overflow to those around us. This altar is where real truth, goodness and beauty reside: not inside a bottle of shampoo.

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