Mark Hannam


Is God a democrat?

Printable version

My Philosophy


Blaming Ourselves

Good Customer Service versus Bad Regulation

Learning from Gandhi:
addressing the current
dilemmas in microfinance

Hinduism and Microfinance

The Financial Crisis
of 2007-2009:
A Sketch of a Credible Explanation

Money Market Funds, Bank Runs and the First-Mover Advantage

The Morality of Money Lending

The Case for Central Bank Liquidity Facilities for Institutional Money Market Funds in the Offshore Market

Creating Sustainable Micro-lending in London

Darwin and Philosophy

Financial Inclusion
and Equality

David Hume's "Of Suicide"

Is God a democrat?

The Risk Premium
for Commodities

Modern democratic government dates back to the second half of the eighteenth century, around two hundred and fifty years after Martin Luther's declaration of independence from the Catholic Church. While Luther's objectives were theological the consequences of his rebellion were political. He did not intend to precipitate a renaissance in democratic politics but that is precisely what he helped to do. As the English historian GP Gooch observed, "Modern democracy is the child of the Reformation, not of the reformers."1

What was it about the Reformation that led, in time, to the rebirth of democracy? The Catholic church stood for the interpretation of Scripture through tradition, for the experience of salvation within the community and for the authority of the Pope and his Cardinals. By contrast the new Protestant church stood for the personal response of each reader to the message of the New Testament, for members making their own contribution to God's church as equals and for the authority of the individual in matters of faith. Luther's writings led to the demand for religious freedom and religious equality. In turn this led to the demand for political freedom and political equality.

Luther drew a distinction between inward freedom and outward obedience.2 The Christian enjoyed the inward freedom of faith, which could not be subjected to external authority or restriction. However, the Christian was bound to show outward respect to the civil authorities, whatever their character might be. Basing his argument on St Paul's Letter to the Romans - which had been written at a time when the early Christians suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities - Luther writes that all authorities are established by God and should be obeyed. The Christian believer combines inner freedom with outer servitude; the state can demand our obedience but it cannot touch the soul.

Luther's writings are concerned primarily with the inner realm of faith. He thought of the external world as a realm of concupiscence and unfreedom: the world is fallen; it is a place of sin.3 Modern democrats might not share this pessimistic view of society but they do rely on Luther's dichotomous view of citizenship: outwardly we must all give due regard to the law and to the interests of others; inwardly we can think whatsoever we will. In the mid-nineteenth century a Chief Justice on the US Supreme Court observed that religious freedom "could be absolute only in matters of belief, not behaviour".4 This seems exactly right for a democracy. What we believe is a private matter between each person and their conscience; how we behave is public matter between each citizen and their government.

The debt that modern democratic thought owes to Luther raises two interesting questions regarding the relationship between religion and politics. First, is Protestant Christianity the only form of religion that lends itself to democratic government? What about communities with different religious traditions: are their religious beliefs and practices inamicable to democracy? Second, are all aspects of the Protestant tradition supportive of democratic government? Luther and the other early Protestant leaders were not sympathetic to democracy, but what of contemporary theologians: is hostility to democratic politics still a part of the Protestant tradition?

In The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu argued that moderate government is better suited to the Christian religion and despotic government to Mohammedanism (or, as we would say, Islam). Further he claimed that monarchy is better suited to Catholicism while republicanism is better suited to Protestantism.5 This latter idea found more forthright expression in the words of John Adams, the second President of the United States: "Liberty and Popery cannot live together".6

The problem with categorical statements of this kind is that subsequent events can easily reveal them to be true only for a passing moment and not for all time. The conditions that favour the emergence of a particular form of government are not necessarily those that will also favour its subsequent ascendancy. Likewise conditions that inhibit the emergence of a particular form of government might not also inhibit its eventual adoption once it has emerged elsewhere. Just as the capitalist model of economic production emerged first in North Western Europe, but has been successfully copied in the rest of Europe, in the United States, in Japan and parts of South America, Asia and Africa; so too democracy has been adopted by communities that do not share the Protestant heritage of northern Germany, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

It is worth noting that the Athenians - who were not even monotheists let alone Reformed Christians - managed to develop a form of democratic government two and half thousand years ago. This suggests that democracy cannot be an exclusively Protestant form of government. And while there is little doubt that the emergence of modern democracy owed much initially to the spread of Protestantism, democratic politics are now well established in countries where Catholicism was the dominant form of the Christian religion (Spain, Eire and Chile, for example) and in countries where Christianity has never been the dominant religion (India, Japan and Turkey, for example).

The major religions of the world are not univocal, that is, they tend to support a variety of different interpretations of their teachings and a variety of different political traditions among their adherents. So, for example, in some communities the influence of Confucianism has led to resistance to democratic politics, because of the emphasis on obedience and respect to those in authority. In other communities, the influence of Confucianism has been supportive of democratic politics, because of the emphasis on fair and equal treatment of all.7

It is sometimes suggested that of the major religions Islam is the least friendly towards democratic government and that this hostility is embedded within the teachings and practices of Islam. However, by some estimates8, more than half of the one billion Muslims in the world live in democratic states (such as India and Turkey), or states which have a tradition, if somewhat imperfect, of democracy (such as Bangladesh and Pakistan), or states which have recently become democratic (such as Indonesia). There are of course some Muslim leaders who are vocally anti-democratic, but there is no reason for us to accept their claim to speak for the whole Muslim community.9 No one seriously thinks that the Ku Klux Klan speaks for all American Christians.

Not only do communities not need a Protestant culture to become democracies, in addition those countries that once had a Protestant culture can lose it without also losing their attachment to democratic politics. The decline of religious belief and observance in many Western countries, amongst people whose ancestors were predominantly Protestant, has not noticeably weakened the democratic institutions and culture of those countries. In fact, in the past two hundred years democracy has developed and flourished during exactly the same period that Protestantism has been in steady decline.

There seem to be good grounds, therefore, to think that the relationship between democracy and Protestantism is contingent but not essential. As a matter of historical fact it was in those states where Luther's theological ideas had been widely embraced that democratic political ideas took root in the modern world. The idea that each believer has the responsibility for their own faith was suggestive of the idea that each citizen has the responsibility for their own political opinions. The idea that each believer shared an obligation to participate in the religious life of the church was suggestive of the idea that each citizen shared an obligation to participate in the political life of the community. Once these ideas took hold in the political domain their theological wrappings could be jettisoned.

Protestantism was a highly successful incubator; but once begotten, the democratic progeny was able to dispense with its parent's protective care. From which it follows that the spread of democratic government will not be constrained by the limits of the influence of Lutheranism. There is no reason to think that the versions of democracy that have evolved in the United States, Scandinavia or the United Kingdom are either prototypical or paradigmatic. They were among the first examples of modern democracy but they are not going to be the only examples, nor necessarily the best.

Democracy is a child of the Reformation but it is not an only child. The Reformation also heralded the resurgence of a particular form of religious practice, one that periodically engages in bouts of sibling rivalry with democratic politics. This form of religious practice is fundamentalism. Ernest Gellner described fundamentalists as those who uphold their faith "firmly in its full and literal form, free of compromise, softening, re-interpretation or diminution". He went on to argue that some faiths are more amenable to fundamentalism than others, in particular those faiths that think of religion in terms of doctrine rather than ritual, and those faiths that assert that doctrine can be fixed once and for all time, and then passed on to others in distant lands and in future generations.10

The debate within Christianity between fundamentalists and others goes all the way back to the early years of the church. The former place emphasis on the authority of the writings of the first disciples, collected together in the New Testament, and the primacy of the original message of Jesus; the latter are willing to take inspiration from teachings and ideas that lay outside of the canon and the apostolic succession of bishops.11 Luther's emphasis on the purity of the original Christian message as set out in Scripture was not itself novel; but it coincided with the European invention of moveable-type printing, thereby providing ideal circumstances for the re-emergence of Christian fundamentalism as Protestantism spread across Europe.

Just as the ideas of political freedom and political equality developed from religious precursors, so too fundamentalism in religion can stimulate dogmatism in politics. Those who insist upon the truth of the doctrines of the past in matters of faith might take the same approach in matters of politics. They might be tempted to try to impose their beliefs on the community because they believe these beliefs to be true for all people and for all time.

It is characteristic of modern societies - whether democracies or not - that they contain a wide variety of beliefs about what is true, what is right, what is valuable and what the good life consists in. One of the admirable features of democracies is that, in general, they have been far more willing than other forms of government to tolerate this wide range of beliefs about truth, beauty and goodness. While a citizen's behaviour remains constrained by law, in general the public expression of belief does not. In modern democracies, unlike most states that have adopted other forms of government, we really can "think as we please and speak as we think".12

As a consequence in democracies citizens are expected to tolerate the beliefs of others. That is, to show respect to their fellow citizens even when they consider that these citizens' strongly held beliefs are false. So long as a citizen does not break the laws of the community, so their beliefs, behaviour and lifestyles remain a private matter. Toleration does immunise them from criticism: toleration is not the same as indifference or disinterest. In a democracy all beliefs are open to criticism, but generally it is only behaviours that are made illegal.

What then is the danger for democracy? If some in the community take the view that their beliefs are true for all time and that their conception of the good life is the right one for all people, they might be tempted to try to impose their conception of the good on the other members of the community. Why? Because to indulge one's fellow citizens' misconceptions about the good life might offend God; because the pursuit of wrong belief might lead one's fellow citizens into eternal punishment, from which they must be protected; because the toleration of error within the community might act as a distraction or a temptation to true believers, who must be preserved in their faith; and because when you are sure that you are right it is difficult not to want to share this blessing with others.

Let me make this point another way. The word "authority" has two meanings, which are similar but importantly different. The first meaning is to be an authority, that is, to be an expert, whose knowledge about a particular subject is recognized by others. The second meaning is to be in authority, that is, to be in a position of power to make decisions on behalf of other people. In the first case it is the possession of knowledge that gives authority to a person's opinions, in the second case it is the possession of power that gives authority to a person's decisions.13

There are some cases where being an authority might be a reason for a person to be placed in authority: for example we might want the Head of a University Department or the Head Curator of an Art Gallery to hold office because of their expertise in their field. We give them power because we trust their knowledge. But in politics, there is no agreement on what sort of knowledge is appropriate for leadership, nor on how we could identify ownership of such knowledge. So it just is not possible to insist that those who are to have power must also have the relevant expertise.

Fundamentalists seek to force these two meanings of the word authority together. They believe that for those in political authority to be considered legitimate they must follow doctrines that are authoritative. The legitimacy of our leaders, they say, derives not from the manner by which they came to power, nor from an assessment of the quality of the performance of their duties; but solely from their avowed commitment to a set of doctrinal beliefs.

Political participation is not something that can be taught: citizens do not participate in politics some as teachers and others as pupils. Instead all come to the discussion with different views and (hopefully) all learn from talking and listening to each other. Even if some citizens' views are more considered, better informed and more carefully expressed than others, when we come to the vote in a democracy all votes are to be counted as equal. The fundamentalist temptation is to insist that others must be made to do what is right regardless of what they believe, what they say and what they vote for. But if others' beliefs, opinions and votes are to be so easily disregarded, then there is no need for discussion, no need for elections, no need for democratic politics at all.

Fundamentalism is not confined to religious beliefs. The word fundamentalism is most commonly used to describe a particular style of religious belief, but it also occurs in secular forms. Indeed some of the greatest challenges to democracy in recent years have come from non-religious forms of political dogmatism. The problem between democracy and fundamentalism is not that fundamentalism promotes particular sorts of religious beliefs and values; it is not the content of the belief that matters. Many citizens hold unusual beliefs and hold them tenaciously, but that does not make them a threat to democracy. The problem arises when fundamentalists consider themselves entitled to impose their beliefs on the community because they are sure that their beliefs are true for everyone and for all time.

Luther's emphasis on personal faith and the priesthood of all believers became in due course a major stimulus to the re-emergence of democracy, but his emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the truth for all time of the message of Christ became in due course a threat to the very possibility of democratic politics. As far as democracy is concerned Luther's legacy is significant but equivocal.

The relationship between religion and democracy is further complicated by another type of religious belief, often held by fundamentalists but sometimes by others too. This is the belief that God has intervened directly in the affairs of the world in the past, that God will intervene directly in the affairs of the world in the future, and that God does so now in the present. This belief regards God as both transcendent and immanent. In its milder form, it claims that miracles did not just happen in ancient history but that they can and do happen today, when God intervenes in the world and acts to change things for the better, through the temporary suspension of the laws of nature. In its stronger form it leads to antinomianism, the belief that not just the laws of nature might be suspended but also that the moral law, laid down by God for human conduct, might be suspended as a consequence of God's radical intervention in human affairs.

To give a name to this set of beliefs I will use the (invented) word "miraculism", which conveys both the sense of something being in contravention of the normal laws of nature and morality, and also the sense of the benefits of God's intervention in the affairs of humankind. Just as religious fundamentalism poses a threat to democratic politics, so too miraculism makes the process of democratic decision making far more difficult.

This is for two reasons: first, because it will be harder to achieve agreement in a political discussion if some participants to the discussion assume the likelihood of divine intervention. Designing a plan to establish food security for a nation of two million people is really rather easy if you assume that every day two thousand loaves and eight hundred fish will be sufficient.14 Second, the expectation that God will intervene to change the world for the better tends to make miraculists much less willing to engage in such efforts themselves: why bother with the political process at all if God can be relied upon to ensure that the appropriate outcome will be achieved?

In the first half of the sixteenth century a number of radical Protestant sects appeared, drawing inspiration from Luther, but convinced that the new church needed to be far more radical than Luther believed. Some practised adult baptism, many were pacifist, often they rejected involvement and compromise with secular authorities and most emphasised the experiential content of faith. In extremis they looked for the imminent return of Christ and in anticipation of his return they set up communities to await him. In some cases they believed themselves duty bound to prepare for his return by setting up his kingdom by force, establishing the rule of the elect here on earth.

One of the leaders of this radical reformation was Thomas Müntzer, who followed Luther out of the Catholic Church but who advocated a more aggressive approach to Catholic doctrine and property. He demanded that the secular authorities impose the beliefs and values of the reformed church by force. When they declined to do so he led an uprising of the poor and powerless against the established political order. He lost. The Peasants Revolt was put down violently and Müntzer was executed.

A decade later, in 1535, another set of religious radicals led by Jan Matthys and Jon of Leydon established the "new Jerusalem" in Munster, a town in Westphalia. Once again, the attempt to anticipate a major divine intervention in human affairs led only to lawlessness, tyranny and eventual slaughter. The mood of this time is evoked wonderfully well by Marguerite Yourcenar in her novel Zeno of Bruges.15 She describes Munster thus: "The small citadel of the Just, encircled by the Catholic troops, lived in a very fever of God".

The feverish excitement of doing God's work in the world is far more attractive than the laborious and prosaic work of democratic politics. The thrill of acting with God on my side is quite sufficient to silence any doubts the believer might have about the precise nature of the actions they undertake: this is the politics of passion, not the politics of reasoned discussion. However, it is also important to note that miraculism has appealed to sophisticated thinkers, who seek to place limits on the capacity of reason to explain the meaning and the value of experience, particularly our religious experience.

According to Søren Kierkegaard: "Faith is preceded by a movement of infinity; only then does faith commence, unexpectedly, by virtue of the absurd".

Faith, he continues, is the "expression of the highest egoism" and at the same time it is the "expression of the most absolute devotion". "Faith" he continues, "is this paradox, and the single individual is utterly unable to make himself intelligible to anyone". Not only is faith not amenable to rational explication, it also falls outside of the ethical realm: God demands absolute love and the pursuit of absolute duty may "bring one to do what ethics forbid".16

In Fear and Trembling, the book from which these words are taken, Kierkegaard considers the story of Abraham, who believes that God has commanded him to take his only son Isaac and to kill him as a sacrifice. Abraham sets out to obey this divine command until, at the last moment when he is about to plunge his knife into his son, an angel intervenes, showing him a ram caught - conveniently - in a thicket nearby that he might sacrifice instead. Abraham is rewarded for his faith in God, manifest in his willingness to murder his own child at God's behest. As Kierkegaard writes, "I cannot understand Abraham, I can only admire him". But whether Abraham's actions are worthy of admiration is clearly open to doubt: reason suggests not but faith, according to Kierkegaard, suggests that they are.

Abraham is an important figure not only in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths but also in the many cultures these faiths have influenced.17 He is the father of the nation, the founder of the Jewish and the Muslim people, and according the Matthew's gospel he is the ancestor of Jesus. He is the man who left his home at God's command to found a people. He is the great man of faith of the Old Testament. He stands in contrast to another of the great men of Jewish history, Moses the lawgiver. While Abraham is remembered for his acts of faith, actions which defy reasonable explanation or moral justification, so Moses is remembered as the man who led his nation out of slavery and exile, and into a new land where he established the laws by which the community would be governed. If Abraham represents faith, then Moses represents politics and governance: the former will kill if that is what God commands, the latter will insist on God's command, "Thou shall not kill".

Not long after Kierkegaard's untimely death, John Brown armed himself and set out to do God's will, just as Abraham had done many hundreds of years previously. Many anti-slavery campaigners in America were wary of Brown's extremism and recklessness, but others saw him as a prophet or an instrument of God's will. In October 1859 he launched an assault on the slave-owning Southern states, leading a score of poorly equipped soldiers against the armoury at Harper's Ferry in West Virginia. His aim was to provoke an insurrection of slaves in the local area, who would rally to his leadership and join with him in the fight to overthrow slavery. Two days later, and at the cost of fifteen lives, John Brown was injured, captured and imprisoned. Soon after he was tried and hanged. The amateurish way in which Brown set about his revolutionary task and his lack of support from other, more thoughtful abolitionists such Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison18, did not stop a wave of sympathy for him and his cause spreading through the Northern states after his death. As historian Sean Wilentz19 points out, even those previously well known for their advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience, such as Henry David Thoreau, became caught up in the enthusiasm for direct, forceful action. For Herman Melville, John Brown was simply "the meteor of the war".

By contrast Abraham Lincoln dismissed John Brown's venture as absurd. He was determined to follow a political strategy against slavery: debate and discussion, election campaigning and votes, the Constitution and the courts would all play their part before the resort to war. In the end, in this instance, the political process was not successful and the dispute about slavery was settled not by force of argument but by force of arms. But from the fact that John Brown was right about the need for force, it does not follow that John Brown was also right that extra-legal and insurrectionary force was legitimate from the start. Lincoln followed the political process as far as it could go before - reluctantly - turning to arms to enforce his electoral mandate. Brown did not bother with political process at all, because he was sure in his conviction that God was on his side.

I do not want to suggest that there is never a time for disobedience against the political authorities, that the law is always to be obeyed and all decisions of all governments are to be respected. It matters whether the government and the laws in question are themselves legitimate; and it matters whether or not there is a political process that could be realistically pursued as an alternative to disobedience.

As a young man Søren Kierkegaard spent his summers at Gilleleje, a fishing village on the north coast of Zealand. Just over a century later, as the German armies advanced through Denmark, Jews from Copenhagen fled to Gilleleje where the local population hid them in the roof of the Lutheran church before taking them by boat to Sweden to escape. Here then is a case of action that was in direct contravention of the wishes of the de facto authorities, action that demands our admiration and support. The bravery of the Gilleleje fishermen and their families in the face of Nazi injustice cannot simply be compared with, or equated to, the bravery of John Brown and his men in the face of the injustice of slavery. Bravery per se is not worthy of our admiration. The context in which bravery is exhibited helps to determine its moral value.

Since Kierkegaard, Lutherans have struggled with the tension between their desire for faith to true to the New Testament accounts of Christ's life and teaching, and their recognition that certain secular values are more admirable than others and that engagement in political activity might help to secure such values for the community. The former position is associated with Karl Barth, whose commentary on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans made the case that for each believer life on earth is a perpetual war between sinful human nature and divine grace. God's interventions in this world - unpredictable and incomprehensible - force us to pledge our loyalty to this world or to the next.

By contrast, in his later work Reinhold Niebuhr20 argued that the early Protestant reformers had showed undue reverence for established political authority, irrespective of its character, by prohibiting resistance. Instead, he went on, modern day Protestants should embrace secular political values such as democracy, liberty and justice since, "a great multitude of diverse, and sometimes contradictory, traditions can serve to illumine the meaning and mystery of human existence".

In brief, the argument is made between those who understand their faith to be extraordinary, something that cannot be bound by human laws and decision processes; and those by contrast who believe faith to be a private matter, separable from public life, who view politics as a worthwhile activity to be conducted in collaboration with those who hold to other faiths or none at all.

Just as fundamentalism is principally a religious phenomenon but one that has an occasional secular echo, so too miraculism is principally a religious phenomenon, but it is not exclusively so. Marxism, for example, has produced a fair number of miraculists over the past 150 years and currently certain elements of the environmental movement - "the Greens" - speak and act as miraculists, with nature taking the role of God in their system.

The problem for democrats is not the fact of faith so much as the unwillingness of those with faith to compromise. It is Abraham's preparedness to countenance murdering his son because he believed that God had told him to do it. It is John Brown's preference for divinely inspired insurrectionary politics rather that Abraham Lincoln's reliance on the slower but surer procedures of democratic politics.21 The problem for democrats arises when Abraham and his type fail to heed the angel's voice and - in the firm conviction of the rightness of their actions - look upon the ram as an unworthy compromise.22

The problem for democrats is not that some people hold strong or eccentric beliefs about the world. In a pluralist society this is only to be expected. The problem for democrats is not the beliefs but the actions that they lead to: it is not what we think or say that matters, but what we do. It is not the content of religious beliefs that matters; it is the unwillingness of some of those who hold them to accept restraints upon their actions.

One part of Luther's legacy helped to prepare the ground for the democratic revolutions that have shaped our modern world. But another part of that legacy continues to pose a major challenge to the processes of discussion and compromise upon which democratic politics is based. In the past religion helped to make democracy possible. Today religion makes democratic politics much more difficult than it otherwise might be.


1 G P Gooch, English Democratic Ideas, Cambridge 1898, Chapter 1.

2 M Luther, On Secular Authority, Cambridge 1991.

3 Whereas Augustine had characterised original sin as pride (superbia) Calvin characterised it as disobedience (inoboedientia). For the reformers the propensity of humanity to sinfulness was manifest not so much in arrogance but in lawlessness.

4 Quoted in R Trigg, Religion in Public Life, Oxford 2007.

5 Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Cambridge 1989. Part 5 Book 24.

6 Reading the papal encyclicals issued in the eighteenth and nineteenth century it would appear that most popes agreed with John Adams. For example, from Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism), issued by Gregory XVI in 1832: "This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone ... Here we must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamour ... The Church has always taken action to destroy the plague of bad books".

7 A debate in the pages of Foreign Affairs in the mid 1990s between Lee Kwan Yew (then Prime Minister of Singapore) and Kim Dae Jong (later President of South Korea) illustrates these different interpretations of Confucianism. Kim Dae Jung, 'Is Culture Destiny?', Foreign Affairs 73 November/December 1994.

8 Alfred Stepan, "Religion, Democracy and the 'Twin Tolerations'", in L Diamond, M F Plattner & P J Costopoulos {eds}, World Religions and Democracy, John Hopkins 2005.

9 On the contrary, empirical evidence suggests that there is little difference between the views of citizens living in secular Western cultures and citizens living in Muslim religious cultures when it comes to levels of support for democratic ideals. See P Norris & R Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge 2004, Chapter 6.

10 E Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, Routledge 1992.

11 For example, Irenaeus of Lyons - a third generation church leader who had been taught by Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been taught by John, one the original disciples - made efforts to establish the authority of bishops based on their acceptance of the authentic teachings of Jesus.

12 Tacitus, The Histories, Book 1, Chapter 1.

13 This distinction dates back, at least, to Cicero. He describes the actions of one Caecilius Metellus Celer, who as consul-designate used his prestige to prevent the performance of some games that had been ordered by a tribune: "That which he could not yet bring about by legal authority [potestas] he achieved by his personal authority [auctoritas]". For details of this reference see G de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Duckworth, 1981, Chapter VI (vi).

14 Matthew 14:13-21. I have probably over-estimated the required amount of food since in the original story we are told that five loaves and two fish provided food for around five thousand men, plus the accompanying women and children. What we don't know is how many mouths in total were fed by this meagre set of ingredients.

15 M Yourcenar, Zeno of Bruges, Harvill 1994. The book was first published in France in 1968 by Gallimand, with the title, L'Oevure au noir.

16 S Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Cambridge 2006

17 This shared interest in the figure of Abraham - or Ibrahim - is explored in an early-1990s opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, The Cave. The dramatic moment when the angel intervenes to save Isaac from his father's knife has frequently been represented in Western art: perhaps most impressively by Caravaggio in 1603 and by Rembrandt in 1635.

18 Garrison described John Brown as "misguided, wild, and apparently insane".

19 S Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, W W Norton 2005.

20 R Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities, Geoffrey Bles 1965.

21 I cannot help but observe, with the benefit of hindsight, that Lincoln's parents should have named their son Moses.

22 A point made by Wilfred Own in "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young", written in the summer of 1918, a few months before his death.

So, Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belt and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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© Mark Hannam 2009

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