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Get real, Reverend

Denis Solomon • 05 December 2001 • 865 words

Reverend Cyril Paul's special Advent Sunday sermon at the Aramalaya Presbyterian Church was described in Monday's Express as offering "spiritual guidance to the congregation with regards (sic) to the attitude that should be adopted on Election Day, which Paul referred to as ‘a make or break day for Trinidad and Tobago'".

An election is a pretty reductive phenomenon. The range of behaviours open to participants is severely limited. They amount, in effect, to two: vote, or don't vote.

So to offer any kind of advice, let alone "spiritual" advice, on an election is an uphill task, and can only be accomplished by a considerable expenditure of hot air, cliché, and copious self-contradiction. Only a Bossuet could get away with it, and Reverend Paul is no Bossuet.

"It is a God-given right and a privilege, and a civic obligation to vote, so treasure that right and exercise it well on Election Day", said Reverend Paul. To pile cliché upon cliché in a single sentence is bad enough. But to do it and contradict oneself at the same time takes long practice in talking nonsense.

A right is the opposite of a privilege. A privilege is precisely something granted as a favour beyond normal entitlement. So Reverend Paul is at one and the same time inviting his congregation to feel themselves specially favoured by having the vote, and telling them they have no reason to feel so.

He compounds the contradiction by saying that the vote is an obligation. The only thing that makes an act obligatory is punishment for its non-performance. It is an obligation to pay taxes. But it is as much our right to refrain from voting as it is to vote. We are not fined or jailed if we stay at home. If we wanted voting to be an obligation we could make it so, but Reverend Paul probably wouldn't like the result. So if someone has to tell us that something is an obligation, you can bet your bottom dollar it is nothing of the kind, and that the person in question is saying so because it suits his purposes. When it comes from a person in authority, it is nothing but moral blackmail.

I am always suspicious when verbs denoting moral attitudes are used in the imperative. "Love thy neighbour"; "honour thy father and thy mother"; "respect your teachers". The only sense these exhortations can make is if they mean "love thy neighbour even if he plays reggae at top volume all night"; "honour your father even if he abused you sexually at the age of eight"; "respect your teachers even when they are trying to fill your head with nonsense". In other words, take your cue from me and not from your own experience and judgment.

Rights are not "God-given". I know of nothing in scripture that assures man of anything that could be described as a right, especially a civil right. Quite the opposite: as I understand it, the more downtrodden and disenfranchised you are, the more Jesus loves you. No: rights are what people and societies have struggled for, won, and written into a social contract. No more, no less.

"Treasure" is another one of those moral verbs used in the imperative. What it means, if anything, is "if you have any doubts about the usefulness of voting, take my word for it that they are unfounded, and do your best to suppress them."

Reverend Paul went on to urge the congregation to exercise the vote "well". What could he possibly mean by that? Make a neat X? The last time I voted, the X was made with a rubber stamp.

In his efforts to persuade people to turn up at the polls, Reverend Paul bewailed the fact that "too many of our citizens are prepared to allow a small percentage of our population to choose a government". Where has Reverend Paul been for the last forty years? Instead of the Bible, he should read the Constitution. Doesn't he realise that even if there were a hundred per cent turn-out, we would not be choosing a government? That may well be one of the factors that have kept people away from the polls in the past.

The most foolish statement of all was Reverend Paul's exhortation to the congregation to elect God-fearing people. The Express report quotes him as saying "The time has come for us to elect persons on their God-fearing ability". I cannot believe that he really used the word "ability", suggesting the existence of a skill called "God-fearing", on a par with spin-bowling or all-fours. But whatever the wording, the idea is nonsense. Even the most devout (i.e. the dumbest) member of Reverend Paul's congregation must know that we can only vote for the people on the ballot.

Finally, Reverend Paul's political sense is as poor as his logic. December 10, 2001 will not be a "make or break day" for Trinidad and Tobago. The political crisis is not about elections, and the upcoming one will make not the slightest difference. The crisis will be as acute after it as before. And prayer will not help.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top