Systemic evil and Christianity

Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, England, explores the question of why "biblical religion that sees every person as created in God's image so easily become a sponsor of human rights violations in the area of sex and gender?"

Reflecting on today's conference – Faith, Homophobia, Transphobia and Human Rights 2009 at the Institute of Education:

In my view, there are two contributing factors. Both respond to the fact that biblical religion acknowledges a "size gap" between God and creatures: God is very, very big, and we are very, very small.
First, through the ages theology has attempted to bridge the size gap by
using social analogies to conceive of who God is to us and who we are to
The second contributing factor is the appeal to tradition. Biblical religion
can no more do without tradition than human children can rear

Read it all here.

Comments (13)

This article is a disappointment in that it sheds little light on why religion and theology promote the violation of human rights.

The following sentence is a good example of the learned author's failure to reconcile the gulf between the claims that all people bear the image of God (as if there were some kind of imprint that needed to be recognized, read) and the justification of inequality: "Both respond to the fact that biblical religion acknowledges a 'size gap' between God and creatures: God is very, very big, and we are very, very small." The sentence almost reads like a parody of theology, this whole God veddy veddy big and we people veddy veddy small. The problem seems more that in the realm of religion nothing can be proven and that claims are made because they have always been made. Those who make the claims say they speak for the veddy veddy big God, some of whose glory has rubbed off on them, even though they be veddy veddy small.

The claim "God is very, very big" is no real claim because it cannot be asserted from within language, unless one claims to be also on the other side of language. As Wittgenstein said, one cannot get outside of language by using language.

It would make more sense to throw away theology and simply argue that only a tradition which can be tested should be followed.

Gary Paul Gilbert

All this "veddy, veddy" business notwithstanding, Dr. Adams is a Yank.

Jim, yes, Adams is from the United States. The chair she occupies is an anachronism even among the faculty of theology at Oxford. Going back to the days when Anglicans lorded it over Oxford, it is one of three chairs which must be filled by an Anglican priest, clergy from a province of the Anglican Communion, or clergy from a church recognized by Canterbury and eligible for and willing to submit to Anglican ordination. It is a vestige of the establishment of the C of E. She gets to represent the establishment as a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford at a time when the C of E, to put it mildly, is less than popular.

The comments at the Guardian are almost all very negative on her piece.


She has written much better stuff before on the dangers of creeping centralization in Anglicanism. But her specialty is the Middle Ages.

Gary Paul Gilbert

However Gary, God veddy veddy big and we people veddy veddy small is racist on its face, which makes you appear a crank squawking at the ceiling.

When speaking with a veddy veddy British accent becomes NOT an asset for employment in a US Anglican pulpit, I'll believe that alluding to it is somehow racist. (The Brits are a race?)

Murdoch Matthew
Gary's spouse

David Allen,

I responded to Adams's text, which you seem not to have read. If you had bothered to read it you would have picked up on the "very very." Since when is doing a Noel Coward impression racist? Coward, after all, was doing an impression of an uppuh clahhs accent and getting paid to do the performance full-time. Was that racist? In a sense he was parodying the upper classes and yet he was also internalizing the dominant dialect, becoming colonized by the hegemonic culture. He was vampirized by the Queen's English while at the same time calling it into question. Adams as an American seems to have picked some Oxford dialect.

Perhaps you want to shift the focus away from the content of the piece? Perhaps you are the racist because you see the English as a race. Or are Oxford and the C of E races. To attack Oxford and the C of E equals racism?

My target is the dualism Adams sets up between language and reality which would somehow exist in a pure form independent from language.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Not having ventured farther away from home than portions of the US of A and Vancouver & Toronto Canada, and so certainly not an expert on English dialects or accents of the world, and very self conscious of my own accent when speaking English, your God veddy veddy big and we people veddy veddy small strikes me as mocking the English possibly spoken by the less educated folks in the former British colonies of the Indian sub-continent; Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, with the bad grammar and the letter sound mispronunciation.

I think that is what came to mind for just about anyone else who read your comment who has seen episodes of the Simpsons or South Park.

And that is racist.

(Murdock, I hope that you have an identity beyond Gary's spouse!

Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

BTW, yes I did read the piece. I would never presume to comment, had I not.


We are separate people, actually. Gary signed into these comment threads first, and I've found it easier just to use his access. I got biographical in a previous comment argument: see 9 May 6:02pm,

Cheers, Murdoch

My intention was to mock the uppuh clahss accent and the whole public school system of segregation of England. At the same time I confess to being an Anglophile and a democratic monarchist in spirit. (My family goes back to Canada.) I very much appreciate the many different varieties of English spoken in many parts of the world which were once controlled by the British Empire. English will no longer be controlled by England or even the United States but is a living language adapting to different contexts. India is one source of linguistic renewal and invention.

I am sorry for the confusion. I meant to mock a system of cultural domination which still dominates its former colonies. Canterbury still has an inordinate amount of influence in the Anglican Communion, for example, so I am open to any mocking of the so-called betters who are supposed to be able to tell the Yanks how to do church. I have encountered quite a few Episcopal priests who speak with pseudo-English or softened American accents.

My parody of Adams was supposed to be against symbolic oppression of any kind but particularly of the kind which makes people feel inferior because they do not speak Oxford English.

Diversity in pronounciation I very much enjoy.

The repetition of "very" sounded like a stutter to me, a nice upper class affectation by an Oxford professor. I associate that accent with an attitude of cultural superiority which in this case needed to be punctured, however unsuccessfully, if I may judge from your response.

My approach is more George Bernard Shaw, as in Pygmalion, which makes fun of the notion that a certain accent makes one a better person.

Gary Paul Gilbert


I'm sorry this discussion got started with a misconception. As Gary says, he meant to evoke Noel Coward, not to ridicule people with nonstandard accents. I can only imagine what it's like to negotiate majority culture if you seem different in any way. Two of my kids are black (adopted) but were raised as ordinary residents of a university neighborhood. Still, my youngest has been stopped by local cops for walking while black -- in his own block.

University friends of ours moved back to New York State when they finished their courses. On a visit a few years later, we went with them to a nearby Long Island restaurant. Shortly after we were seated, a busboy dropped a tray of dishes near our table with a great clatter and mess. Our friends (black) stiffened as though the incident were aimed at them. I noticed that the wife used a cold and hostile tone when answering the phone -- not until she recognized the caller did she become her warm and charming self. I was impressed at how they felt they had to go through life with defenses at full ready, but surely their experience had taught them to.

I wonder if you've read or seen The Buddha of Suburbia, about an Indian kid raised in England. (Both the book and the DVD are good, but the boy ages better from 14 to 25 or so in the book; the actor, though appealing, is too old for the young parts and too young for the old ones.) He wants to be an actor and is delighted to be taken into a company where he finds friends and support. But they want to cast him only in Indian roles, and then ask him to sound "more Indian" as he stands embarrassed in his loincloth; he's crushed as he tries to assume a Bombay accent like his associates have heard in Colonialist movies.

We have an Indian friend who is often complemented on her excellent English and asked what her native language might be: "English," she replies, with her Indian lilt.

Gary says you should come to Jackson Heights, Queens, NY -- we have about 175 languages spoken here (mostly Asian, Indian, and Spanish) -- nobody would think you talk funny.

(One more family story: when my English wife and I moved to Arkansas, she was afraid to open her mouth. Hearing her, crowds would gather on the street begging her to "Say something: we just love the way you talk!"

Murdoch Matthew
husband of Gary

Thank you Gary (& Gary's husband, Murdoch) for being open to reexamining your comment post and to someone else's sensitivity to racism and racist comments.

I (with my late partner Roberto) lived in both TX and WA for a few years while attending graduate seminary. We have experienced raw racism face to face on more than one occasion. There were times that we feared for our lives. Thankfully that was not our common experience.

Buen dia chavos.

In my previous post I failed to put my full name.

David, Thank you for allowing us to discuss racism. Some have written that the racism in Jackson Heights, Queens, takes a more muted form. Longtime residents are concerned about the many customers who come from all over to shop at the Indian shops on our 74th Street. The issue here is congestion though sometimes it can serve as a cover for older people who are unhappy the neighborhood is now multicultural. There is a real problem of congestion and a real problem of racism. Both! How Anglican of me to assert two realities!

I know someone from Poland who moved to Denver, Colorado, and says she feels uncomfortable there because people notice her Polish accent. In New York City few people cared about her accent because most people here have different accents. My Mother from Maine, who speaks English with a French accent, loves New York City because nobody cares about her accent. One time I went into a butcher's shop and was asked where I am from. I said the State of Maine and the man behind the counter said, "Oh, I thought you were from Poland." Another time a friend of ours was upset that when she went to the bank to open an account, she was told that she couldn't open an account because she does not have a green card. She was furious because she is a US citizen. I laughed and thought to myself that it cna be cool to be a minority in one's own culture. Queens is strange and combines both old prejudices and a new multicultural pragmatism. Pakistanis and Indians who would be ready to go to War in their home countries here work together in building a prosperous neighborhood.

African Americans are treated somewhat less well in some quarters, however, though the times are changing even in that respect in Jackson Heights.

We are used to living in a neighborhood where Spanish is now pretty much the dominant language. I speak Spanish and can understand much of it because I am fluent in French. Murdoch thinks it is cool that we are living in a place which in some ways doesn't feel like the United States.

Again we are sorry you had to experience unpleasantness when both of you were in seminary.

Gary Paul Gilbert


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