Fifty years ago, just about everybody in Britain could recite the Lord’s Prayer. It was still routinely said every day in school assemblies and it contains that crucial line “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Religious Education was still heavily scriptural, the significance of Good Friday understood and the importance of forgiveness, motes and beams, judge not lest ye be judged and blessed are the merciful was central not only to Christianity but to the British outlook on life, which was still largely based on its teachings.
The decline in biblical literacy since then is widely lamented on many grounds, by no means all religious. How do you understand Shakespeare, let alone Milton, without recognising the references? How do you understand the Reformation or Laud’s reforms?
Knowledge, however, is rarely an end in itself. We obtain it in order to apply it whether in medicine, science, historical analysis or in what we put on our plates, and the marginalisation of Christian understanding has led to dramatically changed social values.
Most commentators focus on the rise in materialism and on what is called the me, me, me society, but the biggest impact has been in the slow but severe erosion of forgiveness, mercy and redemption.
Today, if a public figure falls from grace he or she is relentlessly pursued thereafter. The footballer Ched Evans was released from jail (after a rape conviction) at the appointed time and tried to return to his usual profession, doubtless under the fond illusion that he had paid his debt to society and was entitled to start again. Instead his every attempt to sign up with a team was turned into banner headlines.
Jeffrey Archer pointed out recently that no interviewer ever asks about his work for charity but only about his time in prison.
Now roll back 50 years and consider John Profumo. Not only was he allowed to get on with his charity work in peace, but he was to be decorated for it and the highest echelons in society were proud to be associated with him.
Unfortunately the modern capacity for vengeance is not confined to the fates of the famous and high achievers: it is now commonplace and encompasses all in its dreadful deluge of hate and vindictiveness.
Recently a young woman of 23 crashed her car while drunk. Nobody was hurt and no other vehicle was involved, but that is no excuse and she deserved to be punished. She was. She lost her job, was banned from the road for three years, was named in all the papers, sentenced to 150 hours community service, subjected also to a suspended sentenced and made to pay costs.
That should have been enough, but it wasn’t for various campaigners and pressure groups who, with depressing predictability, claimed that she should have been sent to prison.
“Pure evil” or “lock them up and throw away the key” are now the staple comments of victims, their friends and families. Worse is the tsunami of nastiness released by Twitter trolls at even the smallest misdemeanours or expression of opinion.
Each and every one of the above examples is the hallmark of a society whose citizens have lost the capacity for mercy and restraint because they themselves fear no judgment and believe their own sins to be of little consequence.
Some time ago a prominent judge came out of a side road without looking properly and caused an accident. Right on cue came the demands for everything from bans to imprisonment. Of those who were shouting so loudly, I wonder how many have had those heart-stopping moments when they have stood on the brakes or avoided an accident by a whisker – an accident that had it actually happened would have been their own fault? How many have never made a mistake on the road? Never exceeded the speed limit by even a mile per hour?
None of this is a call for softer sentencing. I believe in appropriate, considered and above all proportionate punishment not only on the part of the courts – which by and large mete out just that – but in the minds of citizens who should think “There but for the grace of God go I” rather more often than they do.
Once we all believed in allowing people space to live down their past rather than attaching it as a millstone around their necks. But that of course was when we also nearly all believed that our own sins had crucified Christ and even those who did not think that found the Sermon on the Mount a pretty good prescription for leading a decent life.
In order to think that you do, of course, have to know what the Sermon on the Mount actually said. So here is your starter for 10: recite the eight Beatitudes.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister.
This is the first of her monthly columns for the Catholic Herald.