Paul Griffin muses on a remembered example of heroism and on the philosophical nature of our selfishness
Long years ago, someone called Richard Harries wrote an article in The Church Times saying that the Self was much maligned: we should all give more attention and care to our Selves. I cannot remember whether Richard Harries was a bishop at that point, but my dander was up, so I wrote somewhat scoldingly to say how dangerous this talk was. Here were we, struggling to set ourselves aside, put aside our deep, almost universal selfishness, take up our cross, et cetera, while a reputable churchman was encouraging just the opposite. Then, the other day I found myself wanting to say almost what his article had said.
It is, I suppose, a matter of the dual nature of man, with our one foot in heaven and one elsewhere. ‘Looking after Number One’ is at the same time the cardinal sin, and the virtue on which the Church was founded. We talk about the cross being the ‘I’ crossed out, but if Number One was that unimportant, we should not believe in the resurrection of the body. Instead, we should assume that our souls were going to be hoovered up at the Last Day, and incorporated into a sort of World Soul or Marxist heaven.
The survival of Me, Me, Me is at the same time the vital hope which Jesus gave us at his resurrection, and the evil motive at the heart of human history. The difference comes in that very word ‘survival.’ When the early Christians refused to sign up to the worship of Caesar, they can have had no illusions about their chance of consequent survival, for the lions were growling it out in the next cage. Yet they also believed that the only assurance of survival in the best sense was to suffer and die. How hard it is to understand the force of the Christian message in the days when the risen Lord and the apostles were only a generation or two away!
There have been men and women in our own day and all through the ages who have preferred torture and death to the making of admissions they felt to be wrong, but I wonder if any of them have had quite the purity of motive of those early martyrs. Presumably if these had signed on the dotted line, and offered the necessary grain of incense, they would have been physically secure enough, even if their doing so had discouraged their friends and families. I imagine everybody could have made an empty admission of what was not true and subsequently been left alone; but they refused. In our own time, accepting the likelihood of torture and death has generally had greater social implications on this earth, in that it would have exposed families or comrades to more of the same treatment.
A man who storms a machine gun post is presumably disregarding his own safety at least partly in the interests of the survival of his fellows. That other factors may be involved was shown by the behaviour of Michael Allmand, a devout Roman Catholic member of my battalion, who won the VC for just such a deed. I have never stormed a machine gun post, and it may be that some of those who do are the victims of idées fixes, attention-seekers, psychological messes who need Help, rather than philanthropists or saints. However it is, I admire them and the heroes of the Resistance immensely, as I do those early Christians. They have survived in two senses: in the Kingdom of God and in our own memories. We remember their names with love and admiration as we do not remember the names of those of us who stuck it out in a weapon pit and hoped for a turn-up.
Have I conceded another point to Richard Harries? For there is this sense in which heroes have achieved the feat of surviving in our world as opposed to the next. No, it is a tenuous sense, not I imagine among the motives guiding those who challenged death. I doubt if Michael said to himself as he hurled himself into action: ‘I do this because I want my name to go down over years.’ It was incidental that he gave us an example to remember, as the holy martyrs did. Anyway, their bodies are in the grave, if they had any grave; it is their names and actions only that have survived.
So I do not regret arguing with the putative Bishop. If we can concede that the health and security of our souls must be a main concern, this concern is not one that can be called selfish in any general usage of the word. The word selfishness should be kept for something that is easy, general and disastrous, and to give any impression to the contrary can only damage the main object of our mission.
I am fascinated by martyrs and heroes, because I cannot conceive of myself acting as they did. Of course, it may be said that anyone who adheres, as we do, to a belief that has effectively been abandoned by the Church to which we belong, is something of a martyr. Many priests have abandoned hope of preferment for this belief, and even we laypeople are conscious of distaste in the eyes of our more liberal colleagues at the local chapter or synod. We are felt to have ratted.
Before we congratulate ourselves, however, I think we should remember a factor that may well have assisted the achievement of Michael Allmand vc, and many of the rest: it is called ‘the joy of battle.’ There is that in us that does love a fight, and we cannot say that this is entirely creditable, even though St Paul seems to commend it.
St Paul was human, and so are we. Our motives are never unmixed, and that probably applies to saints. ‘No one is perfect,’ as Canon Chasuble so memorably reminds us; ‘I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.’ Only God knows how many saints and heroes acted entirely to preserve the ‘I’ that must at all cost be preserved, and not that other ‘I’ that is the root of our troubles. Only God can help and forgive us there.