Editorial: Speaking ill of the dead
Margaret Thatcher – you didn’t hear it here first – died on 8 April. Two commentators reflect on her regime itself in this month’s Reform, but what caught my own attention was the disagreement between those who opposed her in life about how to respond to her death.
Their reactions varied from glee to pity, from raging against her crimes to focussing on her merits, from “Rejoice, rejoice” to “Where there is discord let me bring harmony”.
The principle “don’t speak ill of the dead” is probably one we all feel in some ways at some times. But why? What, if any, is the reasoning behind the rule, and is it right?
It doesn’t seem like an especially biblical principle – certainly not if we take Jehu’s speech on the death of Jezebel (2 Kings 9) as a lead.
As for the principles of our own age, western culture today has one central overriding moral rule: something is wrong if it harms people. From gay marriage to assisted dying, the fundamental question our society asks is: does it hurt anyone? So it’s a funny old thing hearing people who spoke violently against Mrs Thatcher when she was alive reining in their tongues now that she can no longer be hurt – if she ever could – and graciously muting their condemnation.
“Have some respect,” they say. But for whom? If it is Mrs Thatcher we ought to respect, then surely we should have voiced that respect at least as much when she was alive, not suddenly act on it after her death.
It seems to me, that if we rail against someone while they live and change our tone when they die, we show respect not for them, but for death.
This powerful and divisive figure, the enemy within, can’t be voted out or overthrown, and even medicine and technology can offer no lasting alternative to its regime. Despite the colossal changes to our moral landscape over the last 50 years, and the death of deference towards traditional authorities and mores, our profound and ancient deference towards death is as alive as ever – presumably because it has as much power over us as it ever did.
Again, the biblical writers seem to have taken a rather different attitude. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Less deferential, more positively gloating over its demise.
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There are two new arrivals in this month’s Reform. Christian Activist is a regular column that will be shared by several contributors who campaign on one issue or another. They will take it in turns to tell us what they do, unpick the issues involved, and let us know how we can take part – should we want to.
The other is the Letter, which this month is from Bolivia. Each month we will hear from Christians around the world about what is going on in their neck of the woods, and again, how we can support them.
Then, when I’ve put an exclamation mark on the end of the next sentence, or on second thoughts, maybe just a full stop, we’ll be busy working on a new design of Reform to be unveiled later this year. It’s quite a job, so wish us well.
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.