Thursday, June 14, 2007


The recent Church of England strop over Sony using part of Manchester Cathedral as a backdrop to the game Resistance: Fall of Man echoes back to Canterbury Cathedral's wrangle with Koch over one called War on Terror exactly a year ago. My London housemate Mark Clapham, a good urban atheist, has written an eminently sensible piece to add some 'insider' context. You can find his article ('Reality Bites') here. He points out that even Tony Blair has now felt the need to chip in on the debate, adding: "Doesn't he have packing to do?"

Mark observes: Regardless of the legal merits of the case, discussed widely on this site as well as legal blogs, the Church's position is far from incomprehensible. A church is, after all, a place of peace, and it is understandable that the sight of such a building as an arena for a gun battle - no matter how fantastical - might cause offence, especially considering problems with gun crime in the city.

I suppose you could say that Ekklesia's response (Church on the wrong track in suing Sony over war-game, says lawyer - scan to the end) has been a little less sympathetic. The Established Church frequently lauds its links to military endeavour. Its buildings are, as I pointed out in my comment, stuffed full of insignia and memorials. I've no objection to that. It's part of history and it serves as a useful reminder of the traumas and tragedies that are part of all of us, in different ways. But it also reminds us that the Church has, on many occasions, wrapped itself in the flag, sought the comfort of arms, and blessed all kinds of dubious weaponised conflicts. It is far from innocent either of organised violence or its imagistic perpetuation. When striking a righteous pose, you'd think it might just be a bit mindful of this. But that connection just doesn't seem to occur. Why not?

The answer, partly, is the overwhelming 'Christendom mindset' (the assumption that what the church wants and values is what everyone else should be made to want and value). This entices church leaders to reach immediately for their high horses, dictats and lawyers, it seems. The tenor grates with many people, myself included. When the Canterbury row surfaced (May 2006) Ekklesia did some radio and newspaper comment, having written to the Dean and Chapter suggesting that a more positive media strategy could be pursued - in everyone's interest. Emphasise the positive: use the 'Warrior Chapel' for an exhibition on conflict mediation/transformation, invite the games company to support it (or make it refuse to do so); try an approach which is a bit more imaginative and community-focussed rather than instantly confrontational. We got a note saying they'd get back to us. They never did, and the case itself was dropped. Little has been learned, apparently.

From a strictly legal viewpoint, it's hard to see that the Cathedral and the Church are going to get very far with Sony. That isn't to say that there aren't interesting and even significant issues involved; just that the balance of forces in an adversarial process will struggle to surface them constructively. Moreover, rather than merely trying to 'defend' its symbols, buildings, texts and trdaitions as 'intellectual property' (a commodity to be fought over), might the Church not be better seeking to develop those resources positively as cultural and spiritual resources for the twenty-first century?

To put it another way: The Gospel message is about the power of love subverting the love of power. I'm not clear how throwing legal threats around is designed to demonstate this. And they're darned expensive. On the other hand, try to scrounge a few quid from church institutions for peacebuilding initiatives in Somalia (let's say), and you'll find "sorry, there's just no money". What was it Jesus banged on about? "Where your treasure is, there too is your heart". Hmnnn...

Mark Clapham (whose roll back... and mix blog is here) also draws an interesting distinction about the Sony game here. "This is fantasy games violence, heroic rather than criminal." Good point. And one which nods in the direction of 'just' rather than 'unjust' violence, upon which the Church pinned its doctrine in defence of the Christian Empire it became identified with. But of course 'heroic' killing is much more dangerous than the criminal kind, because it enshrines what theologian Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence" - the idea that slaughter aimed at making people good (or at least bad and dead) is normative, efficacious and morally fruitful. That's the unhelpful - and in many cases disastrous - lie that human beings have been telling themselves, with sanction from both religious and non-religious ideologies, since ancient Babylonian times.

Wink's own view is that TV and gaming simply institutionalises this myth as entertainment. To an extent that's obviously true. But it's also in danger of becoming a rather two-dimensional argument. Fantasy violence has cathartic properties too, and learning to distinguish between imagination and reality (though the two can never be separated) is a vital part of learning how to think and behave responsibly. Philosopher and intellectual guerilla Jean Baudrillard famously stirred the hyperreal plot by suggesting that, in a sense, the first Gulf War "didn't happen", because most of it was actually played out as a real-time computer game. And wouldn't it be better, he added, if we abandoned actual killing and handled all conflict 'virtually'?

It's a tantalising thought that begs a lot of further questions. Violence and revenge are primal urges built into our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Civilization is about learning to reframe and re-channel (rather than simply deny or suppress) them. That's why conflict transformation rather than "resolution" is what is needed. And why the Christian tradition speaks of 'redemption' (literally re-deeming things) as a relational process of moving from anomie to connectedness. Not banning things. (The Decalogue is a description of the commitments that make a moral community possible, not an arbitrary set of prescriptions to be imposed).

So... reality and fantasy does, indeed, bite. And in ways which are more interesting and challenging than a slightly naff spitting match between C of E Plc and an entertainment giant.

Don't play the game, people. Change it.

Also on Ekklesia: Canterbury Cathedral invited to turn tables on war games (29/05/06); Canterbury Cathedral urged to turn wargame row into peace pledge 26/05/06; Religion not solely to blame for global conflict, says WCC chief (08/07/07).

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