Catholic terrorism and its lessons

It is Simone Weil who reminds us that a fault is no less a one for being in the past. The standard that judges human behaviour is eternal. Pain does not change nor pleasure. The eloquence of grief has not deepened simply because we have moved forward in time.

I am reading James Shapiro's accomplished book, '1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear' (ahead of attending a New Year retreat on Lear in England). The book explores how Shakespeare's art, in part, is skilfully woven from the fabric of timely concerns. Two of which in 1606 was the unity of the kingdom (King Lear) (James as King of Scotland and England was seeking an Act of Union) and regicide (Macbeth) (following the Gunpowder Plot). Though the book is a skilful weaving of history and literary scholarship, it has been the history that I have found most compelling.

The Gunpowder Plot strikes me as highly topical - a terrorist attack launched by the disaffected middle class representatives of a religious minority, in this case Catholics. It was a failed attack that was responded to harshly, though the authorities struggled to balance their response. Though Catholics were to suffer increased penalties for recusancy, the authorities sought to ensure that there would be no violent reaction towards Catholic communities as a whole. It is a difficult balancing act, now as then; and, the final target came to rest on the Jesuits and their (alleged) preaching of the wicked sin of 'equivocation' (a word that entered the language only then). This sin was saying one thing whilst thinking something different, even under oath, and if it were allowed to spread, it would become the root of all disorder. (Needless to say 'equivocation' fascinated Shakespeare - drama is after all a kind of deception - and he noticed it as one of the snarling roots of all communication leading often to tragedy).

The planned attack itself was breathtaking in its ferocity - it was not only the King and the members of his parliament that would have been killed, maimed or injured but many bystanders from the force of the 36 barrels of gunpowder packed in such a way as to cause maximum damage. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is a 'non-event' that has continued to linger in the national imagination; and, indeed, the court remained convinced for a long time that no such event could have been planned without support of the local Catholic aristocracy and a foreign power (neither of which appears to have been the case). Conspiracy theory too has long roots back in time.

Shakespeare (Shapiro demonstrates) was not simply interested in the unfolding drama of the Plot and its consequences as a cultured observer alert to the flows of the body politic and what it might mean for his audiences - how you might address them and what you might show forth - but was intimately bound with many of the protagonists (on both sides) for the Gunpowder Plot emanated from and came to its broken conclusion in his (and my) native Warwickshire. It was then (and possibly now) a small place and Shapiro shows how many of the 'actors' had connections with the world of Shakespeare (father and playwright son). If the sources of violence sit in our communities (often in name only) what does that say to our responsibilities?

Aldous Huxley remarked that possibly the only thing men learn from history is that we don't learn from history; but, that said, perhaps there are resonances to contemplate.

The first would to be wary of the disaffected 'middle class' - there may be a connection between social fluidity and indeterminacy with regards to identity and revolutionary acts. The perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11 (whatever the time difference) occupied similar positions within their respective societies. What might it mean to heal people's lack of a sense of place, placing?

The second is that no religion is 'a religion of peace'. At the heart of any authentic religious tradition is peace but occupying the heart is a long, complex praxis in any faith. Most adherents skip it for the compromise of religion as a comfort and a identity. In the right social contexts that reveals a perfectly acceptable commitment to assorted goods. In the wrong social contexts,  one's that are fractured, defeated, uncertain, sadly usually the norm, it reveals every possible reinforcement of the bad indeed as the Jesuit equivocation demonstrates, excuses and justifies it.

Third that we are all potentially guilty - unless we transcend our identities into peace and into the recognition of our unconditional forgiveness that is at the heart of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The horror of violence is with us always as a real possibility and it belongs to us, not to them, because ultimately them could quite easily, with a twist of history, become us. It is 'us'. Ultimately there is no 'salvation' from violence except that we own it in ourselves first, taking 'the shadow' back in the path of a sacred discipline.


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