Republic, Socrates’ opponent Glaucon recounts the tale of a Lydian shepherd called Gyges, who steals a ring from the finger of a corpse he finds in a cave. It turns out to be magical, and gives Gyges the power of invisibility - which he uses to seduce the beautiful queen of Lydia, kill the king and usurp his throne. The parallel to Tolkien is obvious, though in this case the ring itself does not corrupt. The point that Plato’s character is making is that, given the ability to get away with injustice, everybody will. Justice is maintained only by the fear of getting caught.
Socrates has none of this. He argues that the person who abuses the ring of Gyges is not in control of himself, but is a slave to his appetites. The just man makes the rational decision not to use the ring and so remains truly free and happy.
There is something of the story of Adam and Eve to this: given the choice to conform to God’s loving will for them or to take the forbidden fruit, they put their own will first. The message is that sin enters the world when humanity thinks that it knows better than God. Thinking that we can make our own freedom by the arbitrary exercise of choice, we ultimately end up enslaved and addicted to a desire for things we increasingly struggle to control.
A modern mythical counterpart to the ring of Gyges can be found in Batman, especially as portrayed in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Like the ring, the batsuit (also kept in a cave) gives Bruce Wayne the power to move silently, almost invisibly, through the underside of Gotham City. He is often tempted to use that power to kill and vent his own anger, caused by the murder of his parents before his eyes when he was a child. The villains taunt him by saying how at heart he is the same as them. Yet as a ‘knight,’ he operates by a strict code forbidding him to use firearms and mostly from killing. He resists becoming a slave to his overwhelming desire for revenge.
Nor does he use his powers to elevate himself. In fact, quite the opposite. In both his personas, he makes himself reviled. As Wayne, he presents first as a louche and decadent playboy, morally bankrupt, and then as an embittered misanthrope. As Batman, even while he saves people from crime, he makes a reputation for himself as a hated vigilante. He resists becoming a hero. His own respectability and glory are completely subsumed to his mission to save and protect Gotham, and all the credit for his work goes to Commissioner Gordon and the forces of law and order.
Last Sunday was the birthday of St John the Baptist, an unusual feast for the Church, which usually recognises only the death days of her martyrs (as their birthdays into heaven). John shares the privilege with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary of having his birthday remembered because of his great importance to the faith. And yet, for all his importance, his hundreds of followers in the desert, he too retreats into the obscurity of a desert hermit so that he can give the glory to someone else. He spends his whole life building up a community of believers only to hand it all over to the one he calls the “Lamb of God,” whose sandal straps he says he is unworthy to fasten. Given the opportunity to take and keep power, he chooses to decrease so that the glory of God might increase - all the way to martyrdom.
How can we avoid being enslaved to the material goods we enjoy, but rather use them justly? And what do we want our lives to point to? Ourselves, our achievements, our desires – or something greater?
Tuesday, 19 June 2018
This Saturday, hundreds of pilgrims will go to a small city north of London to watch giant puppets perform the story of the man whose name it now bears. In Roman times, the city was called Verulamium, and under the rule of Emperor Domitian, to be a Christian there was a capital offence.
One day, a citizen there heard a knock at the door. Outside was a bedraggled foreigner wearing the black robe of a Christian priest. The man ushered him inside to protect him.
Over the next few days, the priest told him all about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - and his chance to share in eternal life.
The next time the door knocked, there were soldiers outside. Instantly, the man donned the priest’s robe and ran outside, distracting the squad while the priest escaped. He was caught instead of the priest. Some say that this priest, Amphibalus, fled to Lichfield and was martyred here, though this may not be true.
Recognised as the Roman citizen he was, the man was given a second chance: to sacrifice to the Emperor and the pagan gods and so be spared. He refused and was executed. His last words were said to be, “I am Alban, and I worship and adore the true and living God.” So, the city of St Albans takes the name of Britain’s first or ‘proto’-martyr.
St Alban’s story is only part of the greater Christian story. Alban gave his life for one stranger following the example of his Lord, who gave his life for the whole world.
The Christian story was until recently our national story, and whether one believes it is true or not, the story of Britain’s protomartyr too might give us pause for thought in this "national refugee week.” One of the greatest British saints earned such renown that his name was adopted by an entire city only because he put the life of a foreign priest of a foreign religion before his own: and that is what all three crosses in the Union flag really stand for.
Monday, 11 June 2018
Today, as I write on 11 June, is the Feast of the Apostle S Barnabas: not his real name, which was the rather more ordinary (but still entirely lovely) “Joseph.” You would be forgiven for thinking that he was given a nickname because there were already too many Josephs on the scene: Jesus’s foster father (actually, already dead by then) and Joseph of Arimathea, to name but two. Actually, though, Barnabas earned his noble moniker, which translates roughly as “the Encourager.” Proclaimed in a suitably stentorian tone, this does make him sound something like a Marvel superhero.
Why the Encourager? Partly, I suspect, because it was he who encouraged the Apostles to accept into their number a certain Saul, better known to us as Paul, who had been a fanatical persecutor of Christians before his miraculous conversion. Also, certainly, because he was a great encourager of people to join the Christian movement, a great evangelist of the Gospel. Like Paul, he travelled far and wide encouraging the poor, women and the marginalised with the message that, because God had come among them in the human person of Jesus Christ, all humans shared equally in the divine image.
“Encouraged,” note: not “forced” or “coerced.” There is a powerful message spreading through the western world, at least, that all religion is some kind of brainwashing. This reminds me of Father Ted’s response when he is accused of fascism: "I'm not a fascist, I'm a priest. Fascists go round dressed in black telling people what to do.”It is funny because there is some truth to it: the Church has, at times, been guilty of telling people what to do and what to think, even sometimes on pain of death. But that was not how the Church started. It started as a movement of the poor for the poor, to the chagrin of the Roman authorities. S Barnabas was only one of the early Christians who died for peacefully encouraging others to the faith.
Would that it were not so today, and we could say that freedom of thought were respected the world over. Yet even now, Muslims and Christians are sent to ‘reeducation’ camps by the Communist government of China. If you want to know what real brainwashing is like, look no further than there, where religious people can find themselves drugged with experimental medicines to cure them of their affliction and bring them back to good, reasonable, indisputable atheism. Of course, there are regimes where atheists are persecuted, and the Christian Church has played its part in that. Then again, one could cite those countries where, even now, bringing the Bible in your hand luggage could get you clapped in irons or worse. The martyrdom of people who like Barnabas dare to challenge the status quo - whether they are Christians, Muslims or atheists - is by no means consigned to history.
The Barnabas Fund is just one Christian group which has taken the name of today’s saint to challenge restrictions on freedom of religious expression, both at home and abroad, so the name of “the Encourager” is still giving hope to persecuted Christians.
If you could pick your own “superhero name,” I wonder what it would be? What do you want to be known as? And how can you make it so, today?
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