“How like kingdoms without justice are to robberies. Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on.
“If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.
“Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
City of God by Saint Augustine via Kindle.
Hundreds of years later, France occupied Augustine’s homeland, which we know as Algeria, to get rid of the Barbary pirates, and less officially, to occupy the fertile land ‘by the addition of impunity’. Brute force. Alexander’s pirate was right to say that the Emperor was another hostile pirate, while the French occupation of Algeria would descend into bloody conflict during the 1960s.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:3.
At the Last Supper scene from Strasbourg Cathedral, Judas is to the right of centre, grasping his moneybag. He has just received the piece of bread from Jesus, to the left, who has his hands clasped, his eyes turned heavenward. How did the betrayal that is about to occur come about? It doesn’t feel to me like just one more venial peccadillo, but perhaps it did to Judas. Maybe the venial peccadilloes, his stealing from the common purse, paved the way for the big one.
Here is an extract from Boswell, reporting a conversation on Skye in which Dr Johnson, The McCleod of McCleod, Rev Donald McQueen, and Boswell himself discussed human wickedness.
JOHNSON. ‘Cunning has effect from the credulity of others, rather than from the abilities of those who are cunning. It requires no extraordinary talents to lie and deceive.’
This led us to consider whether it did not require great abilities to be very wicked.
JOHNSON. ‘It requires great abilities to have the POWER of being very wicked; but not to BE very wicked. A man who has the power, which great abilities procure him, may use it well or ill; and it requires more abilities to use it well, than to use it ill. Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing. It is much easier to steal a hundred pounds, than to get it by labour, or any other way.
‘Consider only what act of wickedness requires great abilities to commit it, when once the person who is to do it has the power; for THERE is the distinction. It requires great abilities to conquer an army, but none to massacre it after it is conquered.’
From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.
More than once I have heard a preacher say that Judas was taking a short cut, contriving a showdown with the authorities that Jesus would surely win, a coup d’etat. But Jesus was not one for political short cuts; he was not a lazy thinker. Thirty pieces of silver could have been earned by hard work or by betrayal. Perhaps the moment of truth for Judas came as he kissed his master, and suddenly realised how wrong a turning he had made.
There is a monotony in the affections, which people living together or, as we do now, very frequently seeing each other, are apt to give in to: a sort of indifference in the expression of kindness for each other, which demands that we should sometimes call to our aid the trickery of surprise.
The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas
Yesterday the church celebrated the Annunciation, when the Angel told Mary that she was to become the Mother of our Saviour, and tomorrow in the United Kingdom we celebrate Mothering Sunday, Mother’s Day.
One image sticks in my mind from twenty-something years ago: seeing a car pull up beside a drift of daffodils, the driver getting out and hurriedly picking a big bunch of the flowers for his mother. Not quite what Charles Lamb meant by the trickery of surprise, though I was surprised and the motorist was certainly tricky.
I’m sure we’ve all got something planned, surprising but not alarming. A happy Mother’s day to all mothers reading this post!
The Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
94. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wisdom 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
There is a verse suppressed in modern editions of the Victorian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’, which runs:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
It was a struggle, led by the churches, to establish the right to universal education in Britain, a struggle they are still involved with elsewhere. ‘Instructing the Ignorant’ is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which together with the Corporal Works of Mercy are long seen as a distillation of Christian living. Ignorance, that is lack of education, orders the lowly estate of many people.
Wilberforce spent some forty years working for the Abolition of Slavery, which was achieved in the United Kingdom in 1833. In the previous century, Samuel Johnson was a prominent figure against the trade and the institution of slavery, as recorded here by James Boswell.
In 1756 he described Jamaica as ‘a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves.’ In 1759 he wrote:—’Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty.’ In the same year, in describing the cruelty of the Portuguese discoverers, he said:—’We are openly told that they had the less scruple concerning their treatment of the savage people, because they scarcely considered them as distinct from beasts; and indeed, the practice of all the European nations, and among others of the English barbarians that cultivate the southern islands of America, proves that this opinion, however absurd and foolish, however wicked and injurious, still continues to prevail. Interest and pride harden the heart, and it is in vain to dispute against avarice and power.’
No miserable sophistry could convince him, with his clear mind and his ardour for liberty, that slavery can be right. ‘An individual,’ he wrote, ‘may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.’ How deeply he felt for the wrongs done to helpless races is shown in his dread of discoverers. No man had a more eager curiosity, or more longed that the bounds of knowledge should be enlarged. Yet he wrote:—’I do not much wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776″ by James Boswell, via Kindle
“Stay Awake” is a good Advent Motto and it comes from the mouth of Jesus. We are not simply waiting for a warm, safe commemoration of his birth, though warmth and safety would be welcome this year, but we are preparing for when He comes for us in death. Over to the clear-sighted Sister Johanna.
You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house.
I have never been happy with the notion of heaven as sleep nor taken much comfort in the prayer, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.” Paradise as a place of eternal rest makes me think irreverently of mattress advertisements. I sometimes wonder why the idea of rest has settled so firmly into the collection of metaphors we use to refer to eternal life.
These are thoughts I’ve been revisiting as I meditated recently on the text of Matthew quoted at the beginning of this post. When we think of death – if we think of death (mostly we try to avoid doing so) – it is hard to view it with anything other than dread: that moment when we are wrenched out of this painful, but familiar, existence where we are at home, and bundled into the next life – a life of which we have no first-hand knowledge. In this parable, the Lord himself brings up that subject we would rather avoid and refers to himself as the “burglar.” He can only be doing this to try to help us to view our death in another light. What is he trying to tell us?
If we are frequent readers of the gospels, this burglar image may have lost some of its freshness and originality for us. But think about it. That the eternally sinless Son of God should use the metaphor of a thief to describe himself is, along with being slightly humorous, also very unconventional. But, if we decide to take his word for it and think of him for a moment as the thief, then what – or who – is the loot? Well, us. We are what he wants to ‘steal’. And his desire for us is so intense that he likens himself to the lawless burglar, who just wants what he wants what he wants, and whose method is therefore to snatch and run with the goods.
But, if we had been awake, the parable implies, we might have prevented this ‘theft.’ I think the Lord may be employing the literary device of irony here. We cannot, in this life, be ‘awake’ enough to prevent this robbery. He will come. We will die. That is a certainty. But, in light of this parable, in no way is death to be seen as a descent into ‘sleep’. On the contrary, the parable makes me think of my death in terms of a diamond heist, with the Lord as its great mastermind, and maybe ending with a thrilling chase scene, in which he gets away with me, his diamond. One can hardly sleep through that.
The Lord’s words about staying awake, then, encourage us to think about what ‘being awake’ actually means. It strikes me that being awake, as we experience it in this life, has degrees. Awake as the mere opposite of being asleep is perhaps the lowest degree. A bit higher is the idea of conscience: keeping our conscience always ‘awake’ so that we never depart from the way of virtue. Better. But not the best. How about this as the highest level: the experience of love? Don’t we feel most deeply ‘awake’ when we love deeply? This deep love awakens parts of our being that had previously been ‘asleep’ and that we didn’t even realise we had. This must be the key to understanding heaven’s type of awake-ness. So, for me, the Lord’s words about being awake are inseparable from the experience of love. Love will ‘open us up’ as it wakes us up in heaven when God surrounds us and we are filled with his loving life, when we see with his eyes and love with our hearts perfectly attuned to his own heart. We do not know the hour when the ‘burglar’ will break in, snatch us, and wake us up to eternal love. Indeed, we cannot know when. But we can know something about what, about heaven’s fulfilment. We can know something – not everything, but something. We know it, even now, when we are awake in love.
Thank you Sister Johanna, I do agree that ‘resting in peace’ does not reconcile me to Eternity and even playing frisbee with golden crowns would pall after a couple of centuries. Let’s wait in hope and see! Will.
"There is not time for us to clasp a thing
and crush it and fling it away to the dust."
from "The Gardener" by Rabindranath Tagore
‘Clasp a thing and crush it and fling it away’ – that is us today. That is exactly what we Turnstones do with supermarket plastic milk bottles. When our milk was delivered in glass bottles to the doorstep, it was often stolen, our children left without milk for breakfast.
So we see sin and the effects of sin: someone clasped our milk bottle, drank the milk and flung the bottle away; we were forced to buy supermarket milk, and crush and fling away the plastic bottle. At least that is recycled nowadays.
Let’s use our time and resources to let the dust bloom, not accumulate our rubbish.
The second part of Rupert’s reflection on the Crucifixion.
The Centurion by Rupert Greville.
Luke’s Gospel records that it was on seeing the signs that followed Jesus’s death that the centurion declared him to be “a righteous man”. It seems likely to me that he might also have witnessed the conversation between the two thieves and Jesus, and that if he had heard it, he would not have been unmoved by Jesus’s extraordinary compassion.
We led him out beyond the city gate
Onto the hill, where women wept for grief,
And mockers jeered and spat with studied hate;
We nailed him there, with either side a thief.
Our dismal task, on raising up the three,
To watch them writhe and die in sickening pain;
But now a thief, bound fast against his tree,
Enrolled himself in this Messiah’s reign.
A merciless morning sun in that place of death
Had welded wounds to wood; scourged back with torn skin
Glued, then prised away each laboured breath;
Now all was dark. He turned his face to him.
He spoke as one who knew him, one who cared,
And promised paradise with him that very day;
In shameful death he blessed! I stood and stared,
Seized by the power of what I’d heard him say:
Words of life. But I Rome’s servant sworn –
A lifeless soul, unmoved by death or pain:
That cold indifference died, and hope was born
There on that hill and in this man we’d slain.
Rupert Greville is a member of the L’Arche Kent Community.
We are trying to understand what our will is, and are enlisting the help of St. Augustine. Yesterday we were looking at St. Augustine’s notion of the ‘divided’ will. In Confessions he admits that he was enamoured of this idea for a while, because in allowing himself the emotional “leeway” which the idea of a divided will gave him, he found himself in the emotionally comfortable position that comes of blaming something else for his sins and failures. But Augustine ultimately rejected this idea. His relentless pursuit of truth just would not allow him to rest in an untruth. Eventually, he admits that his will was one and that it was whole.
This kind of will – single and undivided – demanded that Augustine take full responsibility for all his actions. In one way, this was a much less comfortable position for Augustine. But by this time, he had found that, paradoxically, a certain kind emotional discomfort is no bad thing, if it enables one to come to a deeper level of personal truth. His words in the Confessions that we looked at yesterday have a modern sound to them. ‘I was the only one involved,’ Augustine declares, in describing his moral wrong-headedness. He is saying here that the desire to blame his wrongdoing on a flawed will is simply a dishonest cop-out. His words also ring with a kind of healthy, joyful spiritual freedom, as anyone will know who has begun the process of accepting the truth about himself and of undergoing a deep interior change. Augustine lived in the fourth century, but his words and experiences are timeless.
I recall the words of a teenage boy I knew when I was a teenager – a boy who had been caught stealing on a rather grand scale. When he finally began to turn his life around he admitted frankly, ‘I stole. I did it because I wanted to and because I was greedy. I deserved the punishment I received.’ The acceptance of personal responsibility for his actions, the complete absence of blaming anyone or anything else for his decision to steal, the honest naming of the greed that impelled him, paradoxically, strengthened him on the level of his will and of his true self. This boy really did turn his life around.
So, what kind of light does this shed on the concept of the human will? The boy’s very conversion of heart was inseparable from something that originated in his will: the act of taking personal responsibility for his behaviour and attitudes. This resulted in giving him a sense of himself not as a thief, but as an honest person, allied to truth and goodness. For this teenage boy, as for Augustine so many centuries before, the will was both the instrument of change and the locus of a new sense of self. Our will, then, is quite an important endowment.
‘Well,’ said Ajax after Will and Abel had taken themselves back to the railway station. ‘What do you make of that story?’
‘I liked Callum,’ said Alfie, ‘but he seemed a bit aggressive to start with.’
‘So, my friends,’ aked T. ‘Which was the real Callum? “Nasty piece of work” or “you made my day”?’
‘I guess if someone expects you to be a nasty piece of work, that’s what they’ll see, but I smelt anger coming out of him,’ said Alfie. ‘That was before we heard about him at school.’
‘And what if Will had been stealing you? Surely he’d have been righteously angry on my behalf?’
‘But you would not want Will beaten up by an angry law enforcer,’ countered Ajax.
‘He was never going to be touched by Callum, except for that handshake. Once Callum knew the dogs were OK, then Will was OK. And when Callum recognised Will he stopped being a cop and became just a human being. Mind, I might get Sergeant Callum to have a word about the way Will lets Abel stuff you with treats when you have perfectly balanced K9Krunchees in the bowls here.’
‘Leave Abel alone,’said Alfie. ‘K9Krunchees are better than certain other scientific foods we all remember. Adequate but incomplete, the old six foods and four drinks, but K9Krunchees seem to give me an appetite for more interesting things that you couldn’t sniff out in your human disguise.’