Capo d’Orlando, Sicily, Italy.
The Right Reverend Dr Damien Mead
Long before I became interested in theology, I loved history. I confess that history has remained my first love and a true love. However, I suspect that almost everybody who studies history is only too aware of the oft quoted phrase from the writer and philosopher George Santayana, which in its original form reads “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Sometimes one finds an addition to this quote “… and historians are doomed to watch history repeat itself”.
Driving through Italy and arriving here in Sicily, history has taken on another dimension for me. Names and places that I have only read about have suddenly come alive, and I have marvelled at the sites of antiquity, and will no doubt continue to marvel, at many things on my journey home.
As an Englishman, I am only too aware of the huge weight of the history of my nation. The British Empire, in particular, whether one is an admirer or not, certainly created enormous changes around the globe – some good and some not so good. The monuments and reminders of the proud history of Italy and Sicily remind me of another Empire, that of Rome.
History judges individuals and nations in many ways, as indeed empires too are judged. The evolution of government, democracy, politics, and all the trappings of power. Of wars fought, motives and intrigues, treaties, and outcomes, polarise people in their opinions. Some would protect this history from the dark opinions of others; others would seek to undo the record of history and consign memories and achievements as well as excesses to the rubbish heap.
Today, we are faced with the fall-out of many extreme opposite opinions. The History of the West in the last century and a half has lurched from extreme right-wing to extreme left-wing ideologies and we have experienced the obscene loss of life that accompanies those battles. Opinions have become dangerous things to have and hold onto and giving voice to them is seen as either brave, or reckless – sometimes resulting in overt hatred.
Today, the clouds over humanity seem darker as wars and rumours of wars increase in number and in ferocity. We see the country of Ukraine standing and facing the Child of the wars of the last century which seek to take away its freedom with the worst of both right-wing and left-wing politics. And yet, Ukraine stands fighting back against the polemic of the last century. The Ukrainian fate lies in that same force against tyranny and totalitarianism that conquered the extreme ideologies of both Eastern and Western Europe, seeking to make the best of human thinking by moderation, democracy, and comradeship.
Conflict from even older roots in the Holy Land, show clearly history is always ready to give itself a rerun.
In Holy Scripture we hear St Paul speak of the war that we face as followers of Jesus Christ, and we see clearly how in touch he is with our situation even two millennia after his death. It is not with people with whom we are at war, it is ideology, spirits of seduction and doctrine of devils as St Paul calls them. We human beings are not used to dealing with abstractions which is why we always seek to put a face to what we cannot see. The danger of this is obvious to us – putting a face to something we hate. creates someone to hate. As St Paul explains to us in his letter to the Ephesians, it is principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world and spiritual wickedness in high places with which we are in conflict. None of these have a human face and yet, somehow, we know in our hearts what manner of entities, the great doctor of the Church is talking about even if we cannot give them a name.
The other danger, of course, is to go too far in the opposite direction and create conspiracy theories where there are none. We find ourselves trying to protect those whom we love from imagined dangers, seeing dark ulterior motives even in the kindness of strangers. The enemy seeks to lurk in the shadows and occasionally to present himself as the shadow of a human being, so that Man may focus on that one and seek his destruction. That which is truly evil, likes to stay just out of reach, so that we may fight among ourselves. The risks associated with falling into the trap demonising other human beings, is to miss the real demons who wait in the shadows.
This is why the war in Ukraine cuts across the lives of those so far removed from the action because we need to see within ourselves how political ideologies seek to distort the figures of human beings into playthings of others, or playthings of the state, or playthings of the revolution or counter revolution. God created us, not to play with us, nor to let any other being play with us, but to stand up as creatures of thought, compassion, faith, hope and love. In the very fact of our creation, God has given us a dignity that cannot be taken away – because it is He, and He alone, who has above all deemed us worthy of creation, autonomy, and love.
Reasons for war are always disguised as ‘right’ and ‘just’ and trying to “reclaim that which is rightfully ours”. Maybe the claim is true, legally, but there is rooted something darker in the human soul, namely, the need to possess utterly and completely, which colours our actions, whether as squabbling siblings, or armies massing on borders. In this situation, the human person is too often reduced from his God intended, God given, dignity, to a pawn in a game of political chess. In trying to “reclaim that which is (we argue) rightfully ours” we are in danger of reducing our opponent to a mere obstruction.
Take Marc Antony’s ‘Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,
The context of Marc Antony’s famous line comes when Julius Caesar lies dead, having been assassinated by a group of conspiratorial senators. He states plainly that there is going to now be a war the likes of which no-one has ever seen. He then invokes this image of a general crying havoc and releasing the dogs of war. The first thing that goes in human warfare is the image of God in the face of the enemy – the horror and inhumanity which follows demonstrates this.
We enter war justly only if we hold fast to, and seek to preserve, proclaim and restore the human person to the position of Beloved Child of God. We enter the battle justly, if only for love of God and love of our neighbour, not for vainglory, fame, adulation, riches, or honour, but because we see the souls in peril as having the same worth of our own families: for true love is worth fighting for.
I argue that our common humanity should aspire to this, and we should, whether we be of religious faith, or none, unite in this endeavour. But I equally believe as Christians, whether we be Western or Eastern, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant, we have a unique and important part to play.
Christian Unity is an essential part of our response to God’s calling for each of us who believe in the uniqueness and importance of Christ. Repentance cannot be wholly honest, or effective, unless it includes a recognition of the damage done throughout history of the divisions within the Body of Christ. Perhaps this is why the Christian Church faces increasing hostility around the world, the devil doesn’t waste his time interfering in wicked endeavours but focusses on attacking holy and worthwhile ones.
To aid us in our task, St Paul bids us wear the armour that God gives us in our struggle: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Holy Spirit Himself. Notice how each of these is given in order to expose what is happening in the darkness or in high places. Truth and righteousness form solid foundations for our defence, but these must be acquired through education and learning to live well, seeking the perfection of others – that perfection being God’s purposes. Faith and the hope for salvation help us to take the battering that the forces of darkness deal us while peace allows us to be restored and rested while the storm rages around us. Again, these need to be acquired through learning, but learning about the fundamental good in people, daring to trust and think the best of them. But above all, it is the Holy Spirit who supplies all the spiritual armour that we need, and His presence we know better through Gospel and Sacrament and lives lived in obedience to the Divine Will.
The Christian soul is its own battleground, and it is our lot to struggle with evil alongside St Michael and the Angels in their unseen battle beyond our gaze. It is in rising to this struggle that we develop an authentic life in which the reality of evil is met, confronted, and decisively rejected – rather than covered up, hidden away, or absconded from.
It is the human lot to bleed and die against the battery of the devil, but Our Lord reminds us that it is sometimes necessary for seeds to die so the true growth may occur. We may be citizens of this world, but we are citizens of the City of God more, and it is for this celestial city that our warfare is primarily conducted against the powers of darkness.
As we clad ourselves in the armour of God, we realise that it is not the enemy that has a human face, but rather it is our Sovereign who bears the human face, upon which we must focus our efforts and attention. This completely reverses the enemy’s deceit who would want Evil to bear the human face so that it can be struck, beaten, and trampled underfoot through hatred. It is when we see this face of Christ in others that we have truly learned to fight well for Him.
Ecumenism, true ecumenism, drawing together Christians from the whole Body of Christ and seeing in their faces the Face of Christ is essential for those of us who would engage in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to a dark and challenging world. For, if we cannot see AND be seen to see the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters, how will we see it in our enemies, those also, for whom “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.