Now, the 5th of November shows up as problematic for me, as it’s basically an anti-Catholic fire festival. Following the execution of the gunpowder plotters in January 1606, parliament passed a new Thanksgiving Act, an annual church celebration, marked by special sermons, bell ringing, and of course bonfires. It was a celebration that helped firm up national identity, and strengthen the bond between church and state. The Act laid the blame upon ‘devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests’. A thanksgiving for the failure of the plot, that God did protect both religion and King James. A protestant religious holiday, a holiday which signified that the crown of England had the protection of God, and thus divine legitimacy. A piece of masterful propaganda, an annual celebration which affirmed the protestant crown’s enduring legitimacy. It brings to mind the judicial killing of trouble makers, heretics, witches, catholics, the expedient burning of would-be rebels, to keep the masses on the straight and narrow. It’s interesting to think about the 5th of November as Unitarians. On one hand we are the would-be rebels, and yet are we going to sympathise with the plotters? Perhaps it would be more fitting for the day to mark more of an attitude of disobedience, that we might stand up for what is right, despite the consequences, not allowing the established authorities to define right from wrong. Or perhaps the day’s barbaric legacy should have us avoid it entirely. To this day effigies are burnt, of politicians, Thatcher, Blair, the Pope, Guy Fawkes, harkening us back to the popular spectacles of old, public executions, in which men, women, and children would file into public squares to watch the criminals being hung or burned. It links us directly to that dark past. And what of Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes, were their actions laudable? Did they fight for freedom in the face of oppression? Fight against an autocratic, persecuting monarch? Or, are their actions more akin to terrorism? You could certainly make that case. But if you’re inclined to justify some violence, the violence of the state, the violence of an oppressed people, then why not their violence, or attempted violence? History, as they say, is written by the victors.
History is one example after another of violence wrought by one people against another, and then those acts being subverted to serve pre-determined agendas. Their failure certainly could certainly be used to bolster a particular narrative: an anti-Catholic, nationalistic, crown and country agenda. We may decry the fact that most people who went into the park last night to celebrate bonfire night probably didn’t know the true significance behind what they were doing. But if the true significance, as I said, is the legitimation of the status quo, perhaps the fuzzy, secular, spectacle of fun is preferable. The devil is in the details. I am thankful that I live in a world, a country, secular enough and peaceable enough (the world I inhabit is peaceable at least), that I can look upon the development of bonfire night as something of a barbaric oddity, reflecting the normalised horror which characterised the lives of everyone not all that long ago… As we enter into a period of quiet reflection this morning, it is this thankfulness which first comes to mind. Throughout most of human history, we have lived short, desperate lives, in which expressing our own religious sensibilities has been a rare luxury, one that often attracted the persecution of kings or mobs.
A few weeks ago, as most of you know, I travelled up to Leeds, to give a paper at the Unitarian Theological Conference, which will be made available in due course for you to watch or read at your leisure. It just so happens that Guy Fawkes made an appearance in my paper. Part of my discourse was on the cross that Jesus died upon, the cross or crucifixion which lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. I spoke on that subject because it seems to me that the significance of the cross is largely overlooked within classic Unitarian thought. Theologies of the cross, or of the atonement, make us understandably squeamish, and so we downplay the role of the cross. But given the cross’s centrality within the Gospels, the fact that Paul sees the possibility of the new creation arising out of the ending or death of the old creation, an ending Paul sees manifested in the crucifixion, it seems to me that a blithe dismissal of the significance of the cross is misguided. The cross demands a robust theological treatment. To characterise Unitarian thought concerning the cross, I summarised James Martineau’s theological treatment of the cross. His position was that Jesus was, like you and I, a human being, a human being who had a divine mission - to reconcile first the Jews and then all of humanity to God. As a Hebrew man living in first century Israel, he was restricted in his mission by time and space. But through his death upon the cross, in quitting his mortal body, his spirit was able to, in effect, become immortal, and more than that, universal. His prophetic message could be carried by his people across seas, cultural and national barriers, to every corner of the earth. In this way, the cross opened the message of Jesus to the nations, his blessed way after the love of God. The death of Jesus then, as far as Martineau was concerned, was not to be imbued with any metaphysical significance in and of itself. It was not, for example, to be seen as a ransom for the sinful state of humanity, or as fulfilling some kind of predetermined plan. We are as such all called to be his messengers, to embody his truth, and to project it out into the world. The cross in Martineau’s theology merely universalizes Jesus’ message.
I say I made reference to Guy Fawkes: rather it was a modern-day adaptation of the Guy Fawkes story, probably more familiar to my generation than the actual events, that I made reference to. I’m talking about the comic book written by Alan Moore in the late 80s / early 90s called ‘V for Vendetta’, which was adapted in 2005 into a movie starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. It’s set in the near future, in a dystopian Britain ruled by a nationalistic, immigration and Muslim hating police state. In this bleak and repressed society, the only beacon of hope is a vigilante who models himself on Guy Fawkes. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask, he orchestrates an elaborate and theatrical plot to bring down the fascist state. He stands up, in the face of oppression, for fairness, justice, and freedom. Those Guy Fawkes masks from the movie have been notably adopted by the online hacking group called Anonymous. There is a particularly harrowing scene in the movie, in which V withstands a barrage of bullets, and exasperated his opponent cries, ‘Why won’t you die?’ to which V replies, ‘Beneath the mask is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof’. This scene captures perfectly the Martineau–esque view of Jesus. For Martineau the pertinent issue is not so much that he died, but that behind the man there is an idea, a bulletproof idea. And that idea (in Jesus’ case) is love, the sacrificial love of God, the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity, and our individual affinity before God. Jesus points the way towards the Kingdom of Peace, and therefore we as his hands and feet on earth must now strive to make that a reality, first in our hearts and then ultimately in the world.
This difficulty with this reading of the Christian narrative is that this view of Jesus affirms the God of progress, the God of liberal values, the God of peace and kindness; all things which on the surface we would of course want to affirm. The trouble is it robs the crucifixion of any significance in and of itself. It affirms a trajectory towards wholeness and completeness which it has not and ultimately cannot deliver. Worst of all, it gives us a palatable way to frame the crucifixion, and make it all about our progressive ideals. It clarifies our place and purpose within the universe far too comfortably. The death of Jesus on the cross cannot be affirmed as significant because it merely lends weight to what we already know to be true, the crucifixion is supposed to be understood as an affront that ruptures our received wisdom. This Martineau–esque view underplays the significance of Jesus’ death, and fails to help us make sense of the secularizing trends which have swept across our culture, and our own movement. Guy Fawkes in Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ has been reappropriated as a symbol, to represent standing up against oppression and persecution, especially when the odds are stacked against you. The meaning and significance of holidays and celebrations evolves. My guess would be that given the cultural impact of the V for Vendetta film, that this interpretation, this slant upon the story, has probably shaped people’s conception of bonfire night not to an insignificant degree. And if today can be a day to celebrate liberty and autonomy in the face of fear, persecution, and dictatorial regimes, for me that is certainly preferable. You may have noticed I didn’t solve the robust theological treatment of the cross question. But now you all really want to read my paper.