Sunday, 21 June 2015

Hapax legomenon

Apart from being probably the best answer ever given in University Challenge, this is something that has some significance to those who study the Bible, because the Bible contains a number of these.

Hapax Legomenon

 For those who cannot be bothered to read the wiki link, the basic meaning is a word that is only used once in a context. So a word used only, say, in one of Homers poems and nowhere else would be difficult, if not impossible, to translate. The best anyone could do would be to look at the word in context, the structure of the word, see what clues can be obtained to the meaning. Using all of these skills, an idea of the meaning of the word can be arrived at - but it is not definitive.

In terms of biblical studies, this is significant, because it means that certain words are meaningless, as we have no definitive idea as to how to translate them. In fact, the problem is wider than just words that are used only once, because words used 2 or 3 times can be challenging. The context is important, because a word used in, say formal written texts may have a different sense or meaning than the same word used in a less formal letter.

As much of the New testament is written in koine Greek, we need contexts that are also in the same style, the same type of writing. As this style is not very formalised, it could vary across usages (not unlike someone writing with a regional style - using the same words, but with different, cultural meanings).

What is interesting is that, in 1890, there were some 300 such words. Today there are just 25, meaning that more recent translations of the Bible are important, because they may genuinely be more accurate to the original meaning. Of course, it is possible that the translators of earlier version were divinely inspired to choose the right word, but that is a matter of faith, not scholarship. My understanding of the Bible needs both - good quality scholarship, and faith that work can help me to understand the meaning of the passages.

It should be pointed out that these 25 are the words that have just one occurrence. There are others whose meaning is still not definitive, because there are still just a few references. The issue of unusual and rare words is still a major one, despite improvements in our understanding in the last century - the issue is still there, that we don't actually know the meaning of some of the words in the Bible.

One of the more significant is in the Lord Prayer. The phrase "Give us today our daily bread" is actually unclear - the word "daily" is unique in ancient writings (ἐπιούσιον). It may mean "daily", but maybe "bountiful", and maybe, for all we know, "mouldy, dry, scummy and poisonous".

And yet, there is from this the idea that we should "Read the Bible, Pray every day". The interpretation of this word as a daily need to feed ourselves is given Biblical backing. Now I don't have a problem with daily routines as a good idea, and, as it happens, I do tend to read the bible (or some meditation on a passage) on a daily basis. But I do this because it works for me, not because it is a necessity.

For me, that is the core issue. Too many doctrinal positions, fervently argued positions, and expressions of hatred to others come from small passages of the Bible. Far too much is put on far too little, whereas real Biblical doctrine is well supported throughout the Bible, and not just dependent on a few passages (especially not a few passages that may have unreliable translations). It doesn't mean that these ideas are necessarily wrong, just that claiming them as "biblically inspired" is mistaken and dangerous.

And just to be clear, there are plenty of Biblical exhortations to care for the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed, the widows and children, with good, solid translation behind them. Maybe we should start by concentrating on these - the areas that are relatively clear, well attested challenges, before we start making Christianity about daily Bible reading. OK, it means some harder work, some proper study of the Bible (not just wordsearching something that sounds good), and some real challenges to our lifestyles. But then, I always thought that was what it should be about.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The detectives

This was a series on BBC recently over three days, following the Manchester Police Sex crimes team. I was, in case you missed it, nothing to do with the Jasper Carrott spoof series.

There were a number of really interesting aspects of this show, not least the real challenges and difficulties these teams face. They have to deal with immensely traumatic situations, and they have to approach this with a different approach from most other detective work. It is not for everyone, and it is not easy work, even by comparison with other detective work.

There is another aspect that makes this work very difficult, which is the the high incidence of these crimes, and the low conviction rates achieved. They said that about one in ten investigations results in a conviction, which means that nine of the investigations they work on - and often put a lot of time into - will not result in a satisfactory result. This figure is, I believe, taking out those accusations that are not pursued by the officers at all.

There is often a complaint from women who say that they are not always believed. Alternatively, there is a complaint that the police do not always take complaints seriously. The truth is that often the police know that there is no chance of a conviction, for all sorts of reasons. Crucially, an inability to obtain a conviction does not mean that the complainant is lying. It means that formal legal processes are unlikely to produce a satisfactory result. For the officers involved, putting complainants through what is often a harrowing process without a chance of a positive conclusion is a bad idea.

The show also demonstrated the real challenges of performing these investigations.When there is an act of personal violence, there are usually signs. Even historically, there are likely to be medical reports, hospital admissions or doctors notes. When there is damage to property, this is normally visible; in cases of theft, often there is some evidence that a crime has been committed.

The problem with sexual crimes is that there may not always be clear evidence of an offence. In the immediate aftermath of an attack there may be evidence of sexual activity. The problem is that an offence in this case is about consent, something that can be one persons word against another. Proving that consent was not obtained can be complicated, in particular if drugs of any sort were involved.

I should point out at this juncture that I am NOT suggesting for one moment that significant numbers of women lie about being raped or assaulted. I will return to this later, but the issue in this program was about obtaining legal convictions. When I say that "proving consent was not obtained", this is not saying that the women making these claims are lying. It is saying that getting legal proof is complicated - and legal proof requires something more than one persons word against another.

I want to return to an important point made earlier, because there is another facet I want to explore. One woman who had testified about historical abuse found that the particular charge relating to her accusations resulted in an acquittal. Because this was one of a large number of charges, the accused would not have received any different sentence if her charge had been proven. And yet she found the acquittal hurt and disconcerted her. The weight of her attack, which had been reinvigorated by the investigation, was not lifted because he was acquitted. I do feel for her, because what she wanted was not so much the sentence, but the conviction, the proof that she was telling the truth.

And yet she almost certainly was telling the truth - I have no reason to doubt her story. Yet he was acquitted, one presumes because they were not convinced "beyond all reasonable doubt" that he was guilty. The reason here was lack of evidence.

There was another case of a women who claimed she had been raped outside a nightclub. The problems started because she was intoxicated, and could not clearly remember what had happened. Additionally, there was a witness who gave a different account of the events. Finally, they contacted the accused, who gave a different story again. There was also some CCTV footage that supported some aspects of some of the stories and negated others. In particular, the claim from the accused that he had left her happy and content was clearly mistaken.

This case demonstrates the real problem of this type of conviction: there is a lot of evidence that they had sex together, and both accept this. The problem is whether there was consent, and the woman could not be certain due to her intoxicated state. In this case, he was acquitted of the charge.

Here is the point. The legal process seeks an answer to a specific question: is this person guilty of this specific and defined charge beyond all reasonable doubt. In fact, there is a subtle variation on this, because we should add that this guilt or innocence is based on the broad weight of evidence. It is rare in these types of cases that the guilt or innocence is absolutely clear - there is often some conflicting evidence or testimony. Someone can be found guilty even if there seems to be evidence indicating their innocence, that nobody explains or refutes, if the broad weight of evidence is against the accused. The process is not scientific, in that there is no need to explain anomalous results or information.

A verdict of guilty means that the evidence is sufficient that the accused committed an offence. It doesn't mean that they are an evil person, a regular rapist or abuser. It may be that they lose control when they are drunk. It may be that they misunderstand the signals. This is not to dismiss the crime of rape, it is to say that the action is not necessarily premeditated, that the convicted person may not have realised that they were doing something wrong at the time. It is a simple statement that, all the evidence taken into account, that act constitutes rape (or abuse or whatever). Let me be clear: the simple message is "don't rape women", but maybe I would add "don't rape women, even accidentally".

A verdict of innocence - whether this goes to a court of law or not - does not mean that the person did not commit a crime. It means that there is insufficient weight of evidence that the accused committed that specific crime. It may be that the accused is lying about what happened, but it may also be that their memory and recollection of the events are flawed - memory is imperfect. Again, this is not to excuse the person, it is that there is insufficient evidence from a legal perspective to convict.

As a final comment, if a woman feels that they have been raped, then I am minded to accept that as fact. Rape is an act on the mind as much as anything else, and the sense of having been violated is sufficient for me to accept their perspective. However, this doesn't mean that somebody else is (legally) guilty of rape. It means that someone else has not listened or taken notice sufficiently. Somebody has done something wrong. But what they have done wrong may not constitute a legal definition of "rape".

Sunday, 7 June 2015

What do we do now?

Following a disappointing election result, the next question is, what now?

The simple answer is to protest still in whatever ways are legal, possible and sensible. We have lost the chance to make a point for another five years, but in that time, we need to electioneer for five years. The fight is not finished, it is just starting.

One of Camerons early promises was to scrap the Human Rights Act. I am pleased to see that this proposal has not made the Queens Speech, which means this is unlikely to proceed this year. The truth is that Cameron seems to feel that "human" is not sufficient to grant someone rights. This is wrong. People have rights irrespective of whether they are rich or poor, attractive or not, loveable or hateful. Scrapping the HRA would have meant that abuse of the poor by the rich - something that Cameron clearly supports - would increase.

One aspect of this protesting in whatever way possible is by telling the truth, not accepting the lies. One of the biggest lies is Austerity, but it is important to understand why it is a lie. The word was used deliberately because it has positive associations. When we hear the word, the association are with wartime austerity, the sense of "all pulling together" - that it is good thing we are all working towards as a nation, as a people.

But that is not what the current measures are about. They are completely different. We do not need "austerity" in this country, because there is PLENTY OF MONEY. The problem is that the money is in the hands of the wealthy, and not the poor. The problem is that the distribution of the wealth is wrong. If there was a more even distribution of wealth in this country, we wouldn't need "austerity" measures, because there would be plenty of money to cover the welfare of the needy. If we were to collect all of the evaded tax (that is, the illegally unpaid tax money), then the welfare budget could be increased, not cut; the NHS could be better funded. Even more, if we were to introduce measures to enable affordable housing across the country (and especially in London), we would enable the next generation to have some hope of being able to live.

In truth, if we were to take one of the principles of austerity, and focus on those things that we consider important as a nation: not just pandering to the rich, but supporting the welfare state, the NHS, enabling education for all, a belief in the value of all people. If we focussed on making that happen, we could do it. What is more, I think those values are some of the core British values. I might include a welcoming of strangers, those in trouble, those in need.

So what can we do? Tell the truth, because it is very clear that this government does not tell the truth - they lie to us. Some of their lies are just political manipulation of figures (which means we have to find the truth behind them), but some are just outright lies. Countering these, telling the truth is important. Getting the real story out is important.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Human genitalia are ugly

If your response to this is "mine aren't, let me send you a picture", then please don't, and try not to be so predictable.

Just to clarify what I am saying here, they are erotic, exciting, and so can be very pleasurable to look at. Actually, the naked human form can be very pleasurable to look at, as a whole.

But genitalia are not. They are ugly and functional.That makes sense, because they have a function, and they are very good at fulfilling that function. those functions do not require them to be pretty.

So why am I writing this? Because there seems to be a strange trend of men sending pictures of their genitalia to women, because they are convinced that this will encourage the women to have sex with them. Now this might work for some, but I suspect these are the exceptions. Or maybe these are the women who would have sex with you whatever, they just wanted to be asked.

But there is another reason for raising this, not just because I want to discuss genitalia on the blog. I think the problem is actually more widespread.

Some people are not very attractive.

The usual response to this is that people are attractive in all sorts of ways - people are beautiful on the inside. I think this is sanctimonious drivel personally, because it promotes the core problem, which is that "beauty" is the prime driver that people are valued by. We value beauty so have to identify beauty in everyone.

Whereas I don't think we should value people by how attractive they are, in whatever way. I think we should value people because they are people, made in the image of God, and unique and wonderful as they are. People are not valuable because they are beautiful, attractive, intelligent or whatever. This is as bad as valuing people by their wealth or earning ability. David Cameron's desire to do away with the Human Rights Act is, I believe, because he does not accept that simply "being human" should confer rights. Trying to find "beauty" or "attractiveness" in people is a way of saying that they are not valuable without these qualities.

We are. I speak as someone who is not particularly attractive, outside or inside. I am an ugly person, broken, twisted, damaged and grumpy with it. I am twisted and callused, often stupid and unhelpful.

And God loves me like that.

Some people I find attractive. Others I don't. What is important is that this is not how I value them. Some people I get on well with, others I don't. All are valuable, all are worthy of respect.

So yes, genitalia are ugly, but functional. They don't have to be pretty to be appealing to others, and they have to be functional. Some people are ugly, and God loves them. So I should, and not try to find something worth loving in them.