Christopher Smith is listening in trepidation for the Sound of the Shell
There are times nowadays when I feel rather as though I’m living through a real-life adaptation of The Lord of the Flies. Not only are we being governed by the diktats of twelve-year-old PPEists, but there is anarchy on the streets. Any minute now I expect someone to drop a boulder on Piggy, or torture the twins, or try to kill someone over a pair of glasses. Where are the grown-ups? Bizarrely, they seem to be so desperate to impress the kids that they have joined the nursery, having been told that silence equals consent, ‘silence is violence’.
Which statue is next to be ritually executed? I have a feeling that, if this recreational rioting really takes off, not one of the statues in Trafalgar Square will survive, and certainly not the one of James II, who, after all, was the governor of the Royal African Company during its grubby engagement in the slave trade. Nobody, of course, cares about the trajectory of history when there is virtue to be signalled. If one must go, they all must go.
I was interested to read some comments by a journalist on the New York Times called Bari Weiss. She is still in her thirties, but evidently a grown-up, and she has tried to articulate the divide between camps at her own newspaper, which is, as far as I can tell, the American equivalent of the Guardian in terms of its politics. The ‘old guard’ at the paper, she said, are ‘civil libertarians’, but the youngsters are not the sort of liberal progressives (using both words in their modern American political sense) that they thought they were hiring onto the staff. ‘The new guard has a different worldview’, she said: ‘Safetyism, in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.’ She’s picking up the kind of thing described by Jonathan Haidt that I wrote about this time last year: a ‘cult of safety’ in which the very concept of ‘safety’ has in fact been redefined so as to be empty of any useful meaning, which has made youngsters fragile and anxious, ‘prone to seeing themselves as victims’. Better to take the statue away than have to confront the reality of the person behind the image and the complexities of his generation.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, the last thing that can be considered important about any of the representations about which so many people are (or are pretending to be) so angry, is their artistic merit. Old James II in Trafalgar Square, which is a particularly fine representation of the King dressed as if he were a Roman emperor and which was made in the workshop of Grinling Gibbons, is (as I write) invisible behind a silver-grey Tardis-shaped box, so that you can neither admire the art nor be reminded of the merits and demerits of his four-year reign as King of England and Scotland, our last Catholic monarch.
In Mexico, during the church persecution of the 1920s and 30s which Graham Greene wrote about so movingly in The Power and the Glory, the authorities ordered the execution of a statue – a large statue of Christ the King outside Mexico City. This was not simply a demonstration of anti-clericalism, although it was undoubtedly that. It was a sign of an awareness that to proclaim Christ as Universal King is to make relative all other authority, and so undermine the claims of any totalitarian regime. Christ is to be our King, and it is Christ who has conquered by his life, death and resurrection.
One feast among many that we have missed keeping together this year has been Corpus Christi, and, in many churches, we celebrate Christ’s reign by adding to mass a procession of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Benediction. We rightly celebrate the continued reign of Christ who is present among us in the Sacrament of the Altar. There is a certain triumphal quality to our worship, denied to us this year. But we also know, perhaps more so this year than for a long time, that God’s glory is often revealed not in triumphalism, but in weakness. The weakness of the cross is often mirrored by our human weakness, in our inadequacies and in our sufferings. Ours faith offers us the weakness of the broken body on the cross as the necessary precursor to the triumph of the resurrection. We cannot avoid the cross if we are to get to the glory.
And then we can begin to make sense of what we see around us, for the only King who can truly identify with his flawed and fallen subjects is the one who has shared their sufferings and lived like them. ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’, call the mocking soldiers, as they offer vinegar when they might have offered water. They are calling upon him to abandon his people, no longer to stand by them in their suffering. But he will not. And still, he does not.
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’, said Shelly’s Ozymandias, now merely a statue reduced to ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’, in the middle of a desert where once his great city had presumably been. He is, perhaps, the perfect example of the temporary nature of earthly power. But the true King of Kings can never be reduced to rubble, even if his statue is decapitated. For, wherever the story is told of the one who stands with us in our suffering, the one who reigns from the cross, the response to ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’ will continue to be, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’