George Pell is a much hated man by progressives and the anti-religious brigade. This week he appeared on Q&A debating Richard Dawkins. A bit of a storm has arisen. Here is how the SMH describe what was said.
CARDINAL George Pell has moved to clarify demeaning remarks he made about Jews on TV, calling them intellectually lesser than the Egyptians, including Jesus Christ.
He said he was trying to ”make a point about the unique place of the Jewish people in human history as the first to receive the revelation of the one true God while I was being regularly interrupted and distracted by the chairman” (Tony Jones).
In a hole during the debate, Cardinal Pell kept digging, saying ”the poor, the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds” stuck between the great powers of their time such as the Egyptians and Babylonians, and that this reflected their intellectual development.
Okay. Sounds bad. This is what the transcript reflects.
GEORGE PELL: … Normally you go to a busy person because you know they’ll do it and so for some extraordinary reason God chose the Jews. They weren’t intellectually the equal of either the Egyptians or the…
TONY JONES: Intellectually?
GEORGE PELL: Intellectually, morally…
TONY JONES: How can you know intellectually?
GEORGE PELL: Because you see the fruits of their civilisation. Egypt was the great power for thousands of years before Christianity. Persia was a great power, Caldia. The poor – the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds. They were stuck. They’re still stuck between these great powers.
TONY JONES: But that’s not a reflection of your intellectual capacity, is it, whether or not you’re a shepherd?
GEORGE PELL: Well, no it’s not but it is a recognition it is a reflection of your intellectual development, be it like many, many people are very, very clever and not highly intellectual but my point is…
TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?
GEORGE PELL: Exactly.
TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?
GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.
If you’re looking to be offended there is much to be offended by – yet what Pell is saying is not that unusual if you know the story. The foundation of Judaism is the covenant at Sinai. This is how Paul Johnson describes it.
They were a servile people, who rose up against their Egyptian master, the most ancient and autocratic monarchy in the world. They fled into the desert, and received their laws in mass popular assembly, not in some long-established city but on the bare mountainside from a wild leader who did not even call himself king.
So not just shepherds – escaped slaves. Much is made of the slavery in the foundation story.
(From memory – the book is in my office) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan asks the question who would or should a creator reveal themselves to in order to influence the world – a great power or a small people? He says the same sorts of things Pell was trying to say – before being interrupted by Tony Jones. Kaplan was a bit more articulate – but then he wasn’t on national television when he wrote his argument.
The other bit of controversy is this.
… he also suggested that ”no people in history were [as severely] punished as the Germans were”, apparently ignoring the Holocaust, for which the Germans were punished.
The Germans were punished for the Holocaust? Really? By whom? Well, maybe. Fifty years of communism is a huge punishment. But again read the transcript.
TONY JONES: But he chose to intervene at different times in history to save the Jews when they were going over the River Jordan. I mean there are many times when, apparently, God has intervened in biblical times. Why not now?
GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s I think revelation is complete. That’s a mighty question. He helped probably through secondary causes for the Jews to escape and continue. It is interesting through these secondary causes probably no people in history have been punished the way the Germans were. It is a terrible mystery.
TONY JONES: There would be a very strong argument saying that the Jews of Europe suffered worse than the Germans.
GEORGE PELL: Yes, that might be right. Certainly the suffering in both I mean the Jews there was no reason why they should suffer.
The ten plagues were visited on the Egyptians and communism on the Germans. I suspect that is the mystery Pell refers to.
Okay – so what is going on here? George Pell is an anomaly in a secular world and in an anti-religious world. The way to understand Pell is to recognise that he actually believes in God and consequently that the bible and religious teachings should be taken seriously. Now we may disagree on that point – but to dismiss him as being racist or narrow-minded or offensive would be a mistake.