In Britain, we have two national acts of civic remembrance within a few days. These early November events are the only two – save occasional royal nuptials or wartime special anniversaries – where we publicly participate in secular ceremony.
One of them – the latter, today – is also joined to churches, or more truly, the [reluctant capital] Church, for it is very much a civic show in those Anglicans designated as such. I don’t know about other faiths, but I do know that the Christian denominations I’ve experienced – which is most – mark this Sunday nearest to the 11th of November each year. If the 11th falls on a weekday, there is an additional marking, with a 2 minute silence that is even announced on trains and in work places. There is also the wearing of a poppy, which I have remarked on before. This year, it feels comparable to the wearing of a mask, which we can suffer for socially: Where’s yours? Why isn’t it red?
I only wear white (for peace) and purple (for animals in the war) and I’d like a yellow one – for the conscientious objectors. They too feel contemporary, because those of us not complying during this war-like event of covid are increasingly feeling a sense of persecution, or fear of it. We note that in both cases, that official resources are found to fight your own – not just ‘the enemy’ – a foreign body, in one sense or the other. This clearly casts suspicion on the justness of the conflict, and whether we can trust authorities we are meant to submit to.
I’ll be getting to that passage in Romans anon.
Armistice Day is the annual remembrance of a war that ended 102 years ago. Note that no veterans of the first world war – and very few if any of the second – are still with us. It is meant to be broadened to all conflicts, but we recall those especially.
Bonfire Night on the 5th is about an event 415 years ago and it is marked in a very different way. For the war, those with uniforms don them – boy scouts and girl guides, military personnel past and present, mayors and clergy. They parade solemnly through aisles and down streets to the secular altar of war memorials and lay oblations with slow speeches, lone bugles, and bowed silence. It is in the late morning – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. 11:11:11 has a meaning in numerology which I’ll be referring to in my next piece on that date/time, but it was unlikely to have formed the decision for ceasefire, allowing shelling and killing right up to that last moment.
Bonfire or Fireworks Night is by its nature a nocturnal affair. It requires dark for the fireworks to be seen against the sky. Participants wrap up warmly but – except for the poppies they may have already donned in anticipation – there is no dress code. It is noisy, with amplified music and fairgrounds perhaps; and the fireworks themselves let off with alarming bangs, distressing humans and animals alike. Indeed, this period around the 5th is one that sensitive beings dread, as families, fellowships and cities mark this day on a rolling basis, which can mean 10 days worth of skyward explosions as each group’s night fits in their show, in their garden, park or town square. As well as the misuse of fireworks, there are the misfiring of them, and I’m told that hospitals and police are busy – right after Halloween’s unwelcome import.
Why the explosives and the fires on this night? In Britain, we have but two other annual occasions: our local festivals, and new year. We may end a large party with them. But the most common time for incendiary incandescence is something that, via a rhyme, we are told to remember. Not an independence day, like America, but the day that someone who, along with 12 others, tried to fight for theirs by blowing up our parliament and was stopped and executed as a traitor.
“I can think of no reason why this should ever be forgot” goes the well recited rhyme. Gunpower, treason and plot. We’re just missing the gunpower this year.
Not just because in England – the setting of this treasonous tableau – has just gone into a second national lockdown, thus spoiling the opportunity to mark either event, but because the other two words are so apt to what is happening.
When covid was new I posted the first of several articles on it, comparing it to V for Vendetta, which swiftly came to mind as the virus was announced. I am not alone in seeing that comparison. It enjoyed a brief return to the cinema last week because of its timeliness. Now our cinemas are to close again.
I have seen the film – and read the script and graphic novel it’s based on – several times in the 14 years since the film was released. (It just missed the quadcentenary). But it was never more chilling than now. New likenesses have appeared since I wrote that early March piece. I am not going to incite further fear by enlisting them, or in predicting further stages. I do note that this story has been prescient in its timescale. The film mentions 2015-18 as years of comparable freedom and joy… and then a series of horrifying events occur which leave England in stultified acquiescence for a decade and a half, whilst America simmers in insignificance, civil war and poverty.
I think that V for Vendetta, by David Lloyd and Alan Moore, shows us what could happen, and I hope that flash of scrying mirror into our possible future makes us not wait almost a score before settling it with tyranny. The film doesn’t make clear what inspires V to act this particular Guy Fawkes Night. For he – Guy – has been the unnamed elephant thus far. Some of us drop his moniker from our November 5th hot chestnuts and soup fuelled firework viewing, but there is a horrific re-enactment element to this event. The bonfire sometimes has an effigy on it – his effigy. This is the man who history has blamed for the attempt to blow up London’s houses of Parliament and its Scottish king, James I/VI (depending on which side of the border you are). The high heeled Stuart had united the warring neighbours, but forsook his homeland to travel to the big and aggressive sister to rule from there henceforth. Many Scots felt – and still do – that he betrayed them.
V of the film title wears a mask that deliberately emulates and pastiches this early 17th century man from York, who is portrayed as a wicked traitor, and whose like we must never allow again. The film decries V as a terrorist – a title which he doesn’t try to throw off. Filmmakers make clear that they see this unnamed masked titular character – played with such a beautiful voice by Hugo Weaving – as a complex antihero. They do not suggest that his behaviour is always right; they do not justify his assassinations or his bombs or general violence. They certainly do not exhort that we follow him in those ways.
Here I approach a V of my own, in logic of which narrative path to take next. I want to tell you that what we in Britain and beyond popularly know of this story is carefully curated. A few years ago, Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame brought an alternative story about his forebear Robert Catesby to the screen. He showed that the throne game wasn’t what we got told in history books, and that Guy may not have been the ring leader. It is the story of a harsh Protestant king squashing Catholics as much as would-be regicidals. This same king had a Bible put out in his name, often touted as the true Bible in English, and one of our great literary works, comparable to contemporary Shakespeare. In this tome is a particular rendition of some infamous passages, one which I will share and discuss shortly, which underpins a vital point in V for Vendetta’s world and our own.
My other V was to contrast Guy Fawkes with William Wallace. Both died a traitor’s death for fighting the government and crown based in London. But whereas Braveheart is famous as a hero, with a large monument in Stirling, and a well known movie – made with an Australian star (as is Hugo as V) – Guy is denounced. Note that the Scottish/English factor is reversed: William Wallace fought the English king trying to take over their land, but King James is a Scot who took England – not by battle, but not by referendum either. William Wallace, a bloody fighter, is seen as a warrior for freedom who was martyred by an unjust king; Guy was rightly put to death for what he was going to do to the parliament and king. We celebrate the thwarting of his wickedness and the victory of the King.
I note that V is a story about England – Scotland and Wales aren’t mentioned – although apart from the location of Larkhill camp near Salisbury and the Valerie flashbacks, everything takes place in night time or interior London. It makes London the synecdoche for England, which provincials are annoyed by. We’re supposedly a united island – with Northern Ireland – but since covid, we’ve largely devolved into our four countries and we’ve all got strong identities. England has the least, so it’s interesting that the comic and film made ‘England prevail’ rather than Britain. A quick moan: that this film is made by Americans is clear from slips such as the pronunciation of ‘lever’ and ‘standing in line’. We queue here, Natalie, James McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers. And V’s underground lair – like Lex Luthor’s in Superman The Movie – wouldn’t have natural stone in it if in was anywhere near London, for London doesn’t have natural stone – and there’s none nearby that colour. And Lewis Prothero, Voice of London on the official British Television Network, is more of an American or Australian style talk show host than anything I’ve seen here.
Gripes over…. I’ve more important points to make, and I’m going to the Bible now to make them. A little exposition is coming…
Romans 13 is famous, or infamous. It says – or appears to say – that we should submit to authority. No rebellions, then. No questioning. It’s God will and way.
I note that Americans on both sides of their revolution used those verses – mostly 1-7 – for each of their positions. I note that some of the advocates for the alternative version come from the more conservative Christians, which I am not. But despite big theological and moral differences on many other topics, I am pleased to see that this end of the Christian spectrum is speaking out and thinking for itself, and thus I claim them as brothers and sisters.
I feel that skewing of this passage happened in the King James Bible. Note that it appeared just 6 years after the Guy Fawkes incident. It suits our leaders – who were then as now closing down playhouses due to the plague – to have us not question but obey them. In response to those outraged by recent US immigration policies, Jeff Sessions took this passage in a speech to basically tell Christian critics to shut up and let them continue to split up families at the border.
There is argument about the meaning of the Greek word for ‘power’ in Romans 13, and it is often rendered in English as ‘higher power’. Hence, it’s taken beyond earthly authorities to spiritual realms. Some commentators list the use of this word throughout the Bible and point out that the word sometimes rendered as ‘obey’ doesn’t mean that, and that another word could be used instead if that was what was intended. They urge us to be familiar with the preceding chapter of Romans, and the Bible as a whole. They remind us that Christian heroes went to prison because they upset the authorities. In Acts, Peter – champion of the established churches – told the court he was dragged before that contrary to their bidding, he would not cease to teach about Jesus. Paul – author of this letter and much of the NT – was martyred by the authorities, as were other apostles. Those who built the early church were often in prison, as have more recent believers been. They saw it as a proud duty to have put their faith and principles first before an unjust government – and not only over freedom to worship and preach. (C of E and Hillsong, take note). In the century of James and Guy Fawkes, many Christians were in prison or in threat of it because they weren’t Anglican – from Quakers to Baptists to Catholics. The famous German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned during Nazi leadership, and he criticised those Christians who obeyed Hitler and allowed those atrocities to take place.
So there is a strong precedent of Christian non submission, despite that verse. I also remind that Daniel and his friends in the book of that name in the Old Testament defied rules, and showed incredible courage in the face of furnaces and lions – and were delivered from both. And in the end, a hand wrote on the wall denouncing the tyrant king and ‘requiring his soul’. It was taken that night.
This is obviously a story which our Jewish friends share, as you do that of Moses who asked Pharaoh to let God’s people go – or face the plagues. Note that it was God who made the demands and exacted the punishment on the unjust earthly ruler.
There is also the argument that ‘what God ordains’ is more like God saying: I foresee and allow some people to take their place on the world stage. I don’t think that God creates them and plots them, for that takes too much freewill from us and makes God tyrannical. But with the authorial point of view which I spoke of in my Easter sermon, he can see that these sorts of leaders are not only possible with the choices given to humans, but drive the human story forward.
I think that they’ve driven it long enough. I’m told that we’re at the end of a multi-millennial cycle. The abuse of power and the lust for it is not going to serve or be possible for much longer. It’s in its death throes. Sometimes we need the most of extreme circumstances to take action and break free, as happens in V for Vendetta.
God pushes us to make us what we need to be to become heroes of our own story and of other people’s. That’s what is meant by God ordaining those powers.
Personally, I believe that the Bible does not have to be an eternal mandate to us all – for Romans was a letter to one young church – and that Paul is not all wise. I am appalled that he did not speak out against slavery and thus his words about obeying masters were used to justify this unspeakable system. But if we do wish to follow Paul’s ideas, I am interested in the argument that he is saying that a good prince is he who inspires fear only in the wrongdoer. Thus those of us who do good and keep the Biblical commandments which he goes on to enumerate should not fear our rulers; if we do, then something is wrong with the rulers. In the Wycliffe Bible – the earliest translation into English – verse 9 and 10 of Romans 13 read:
…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [note the ‘as’] 10 The love of thy neighbour worketh not evil; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 11 And we know that the hour is now that we rise from sleep… 12 we cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light (cf Ephesians 6).
Paul asks us to ‘not be conformed of this world’ in the previous chapter (v2).
Remembering that Jesus was killed by the authorities, as was John the Baptist, for speaking out; that another John wrote Revelation as persecution literature from a prison colony, and the Old Testament features prophets and advocates who took risks to speak to ungodly rulers, I find it hard to square a reading of Romans 13 with a mandate to always obey. (I’ll get to taxes another time).
In an intense film of wonderful dialogue, the immense vocabulary of V, and several poignant moments I am spoiled to choose a favourite part of V for Vendetta. Many have already become famous – not least the courageous tagline:
People should not be afraid of their government
Government should be afraid of their people.
But the line that moves me most comes at the denouement of the film. It is indeed the most critical moment. It’s not the beauty of the words – it’s what they signify.
It’s the scene where the army gathers in Parliament square. Thousands, millions, of protestors likewise gathered, as they have around the world – from Indonesia to Nigeria to Nepal – ever since. Yes they even gathered this week, with all the restrictions, including in London which had gone into lockdown again that day.
All are wearing identical caricatured Guy Fawkes masks, just as V himself does. “What do you think will happen?” wondered one police detective to another, seeing the throngs of military in their riot gear, with not only hand guns but tanks and weapons big enough to blow them up. It seems set to be another Tienanmen Square. “What normally happens when people without guns stand up to people with guns.”
But, as the general phones for permission to launch on ‘the enemy’ – his own people whom he swore to protect – the line is silent. The evil leaders are dead.
And so this general has to make his own decision. Will he tell his troops to fire on these unarmed people, close range, for simply standing in the street with a mask on? (note the irony of that this year). No; he will not.
Instead, he shouts: stand down!
And the army lets the myriad masked march approach and pass them without incident. In this way, this Guy Fawkes night is celebrated Remembrance Sunday style – a reverent silent parade, symbolically going in the other direction to the military meant to stop them. They gather, not at a cenotaph for The Last Post, but for a firework display and rousing overture to accompany gazing on an edifice which is blasted away before their eyes, signalling the end of dictatorship forever.
Let us not need a V to galvanise us. Let us not wait until the horrors of the last war resurface, or that we’ve accepted a new normal for over a decade.
Fireworks in the film meant the end of an old era, not the subjugation of those trying to overthrow it. I’m not advocating blowing parliament up, but I no longer see it as the world’s most beautiful building, but the cipher of an empire of inequality and elitism and unjust power. I was moved by the very different ideas behind Scotland’s modern parliament which is the only one I know which displays a Bible verse and mentions love. Outside in the pavement on the Canongate in Edinburgh are other worlds attributed to Paul, in Scots: [from 1 Corinthians 13]
Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels
but hae nae luve i my hairt
I am no nane better
nor dunnerin bress
or a ringing cymbal
But it isn’t living it. None of our authorities are. They’re showing us that despite the promises they may have made to us and the precepts they are founded on, that they are capable of the greatest darkness of the human heart.
Like V, a great game of dominoes has been set up – but the downfall is theirs.
Let us stand up… and let authorities who support those not living in love and truth stand down. Let us live in love, of God and each other, and not be ‘dunnerin bress.’
Let us hear a new sound. This year, fireworks aren’t annoying me. They are the pops of freedom and the bangs of the pangs of a new world birthing and the old leaving.
Here is Isaiah 2:4 – almost the copy of Micah 4 – reworked:
hammer your spears into pruning hooks
your lances into ploughshares
melt your rifles down for kiddie’s toys
your tasers into vibrators [turn the power down]
your spy cameras into plastic alternatives
your riot gear into outré party gear
Let us stand together in love and have this as the anniversary that we remember November for. Let us a year on from now see that world shaping on its first birthday.
You can listen at https://yourlisten.com/BetweenTheStools
The next planned sermon is 6th Dec, for the festival of the 8th