Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Warm blossom time

For in the Romans there is an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape.  Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indisciminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea.  A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power.  They are the only people on earth to whose covertness both riches and poverty are equally tempting.  To robbery, butchery and rape, they give the lying name of ‘government’; they create a desolation and call it peace.

I’ve been returning to a famous quotation in Tacitus’ life of his father-in-law Agricola.  We can make obvious inferences about Roman power from the little which is known about Pilate as Governor of Judea at the time of Christ, but it is all spelt out in the detailed account of Agricola as Governor of Britain forty years later.  And Tacitus imagines (rather than reports, I assume) how a particular British leader would have excoriated his conquerors and what was just being coined as Pax Romana.

Three things strike me re-reading this quotation in the time of Black Lives Matter.

The first is that a campaigner today chanting ‘No Justice, No Peace’ is saying roughly the same as ‘they create a desolation and call it peace’: it is not peace if there is no justice; it is not peace if all opposition has simply been crushed or swept aside.  Tactitus gives us the earliest account of what a native inhabitant of these islands would have thought, so the whole history of reflection in Britain is bookended by cries that the absence of conflict is not in itself real peace.

The second is that, quite unexpectedly now I notice it, Tacitus, a member of the Roman elite, exhibits a remarkable level of empathy and self awareness in giving this account.  Put in our terms, his privilege has not blinded him to the way that privilege crushes those who do not share it.

The third is how almost integral self-interest is to having absolute power (to being ‘top nation’).  One could almost plot onto this quotation things like our own past subjugation of Ireland, slave trading, and making war to enforce drug use on China; our exploitations which we lying told ourselves was good government.  One could almost plot onto it our immediate future’s helplessness to preserve any control of security of the internet, to retain our established levels of environmental and animal welfare, and to prioritise adapting to forestall the climate emergency; our capitulation to the desolating conditions on which we will be allowed to trade peacefully with those now powerful in our place.

I wove the first two of these three striking things into a sermon on Sunday, adding there a third which was the positive possibilities of what looks almost like the first experiment in what being sent out by Jesus should mean (Matthew 10.5-14): don’t rely on having resources to deploy; name and intend peace at every stage; announce God’s alternative way and approach as being within reach; act it out in reconciliation, in bringing new life, in casting out the destructive; don’t be downhearted by the failure of this robust just peace to take root, but dust yourselves down and try planting it again nearby.   

I’ll have to wonder why I sketched out a different third point for this blog post.  It may simply be that I’ve been trying to juggle with some over simplified historical perspective.  

Just as the Hundred Years War of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries was not a continuous conflict but rather a regular flaring up of a single theatre of conflict over more than a century, I wonder whether history will see the conflicts roughly beginning with German unification (1871) and ending with German reunification (1990) as a single ‘Hundred Year’s War’.  

Did Britain, whose Empire had been at its zenith in 1870s, find itself in the 1970s, in the last stages of that war, settle down to a new normal with both the disposal of the final remnants of that Empire and with taking a new part in the close economic and political alliance created by the main protagonists of that single continental conflict in which it had been caught up for those hundred years?  

And, does it now find itself a generation or more later, stepping out (without either Empire or close continental alliance) almost innocent of what being subject to the powerful self-interested misrepresenters of what political peace and freedom will mean?

Meanwhile, the picture is of newly discovered fireblight in our small orchard of fruit trees, widespread and incurable, so the trees will probably need to be taken out, and with much care.  Apparently fireblight doesn’t usually taken hold this far north because it requires sustained warm weather at blossom time, so our wonderful May was not quite the blessing it seemed.

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