As it’s Good Friday, good Christians everywhere should be eating fish and following the Stations Of The Cross. I’m not any sort of Christian, good or bad, but even so it’s a good day to think about self-sacrifice for The Cause, whatever that happens to be.
Of course, whether that’s what Jesus did is a moot point. It’s debatable whether the crucifixion even happened; even if you believe it did, was it more an act of self-sacrifice or self-promotion? An awful lot of Jesus’s acts in Scripture have an air of deliberate planning about them. The prophets had said: the Messiah will go out and do X; therefore, Jesus went ahead and did those things. He was like some modern evangelicals and millenarians, deliberately trying to push history into a sudden new phase by carrying out others’ prophecy.
So, self-sacrifice, self-advancement or self-promotion? You could ask the same question about Malcolm Kendall-Smith, dismissed from the RAF and sent to prison yesterday after he declared that as he thought the Iraq was illegal, he would not fight in it. The judges at his court-martial, however, ruled that by the time he received his orders the legality or otherwise of the original invasion was irrelevant.*
Kendall-Smith has sacrificed himself, and his career – he said himself that the RAF was one of the great loves of his life. The judge, however, accused him of being more interested in self-promotion: of trying to make himself into a martyr for the cause. I’m not in a position to judge this myself: my own best guess is that he wasn’t, but he should have realised that that accusation would be made. Whichever is closer to the truth, it’s a strangely apt story to appear in the headlines on Good Friday.
* The Guardian article suggests in one paragraph that the judge ruled that members of the services aren’t allowed to dispute something’s legality: if the government says something is legal, those orders must be followed. However, that wasn’t something that the ruling itself relied on.
As it’s Sunday, let’s think about religion for a moment. More specifically, let’s think about Norman Kember, the peace activist rescued last week after spending several months as a hostage in Iraq.
The big news story since his release, of course, is that he didn’t seem particularly happy to be freed. His gratitude to the SAS seemed rather forced, and he repeated his anti-war position. And that, in itself, is an admirable thing – I’d respect him much less if he had switched to say: “actually, now, I think the SAS are doing a damn fine job out there.”
Whether he was right or wrong to go out there is something that can be debated for hours, but it isn’t what I want to talk about. I’m more interested in whether he wanted to be rescued or not, and how that might be down to his religion.
There’s no doubt that Kember was deeply religious.* His behaviour, it seems, is classic for deeply religious people – it’s a case of self-martyrdom. Since the earliest days of Christianity – well, since the days of St Anthony, at least – the devout have flocked to non-deadly varients of martyrdom. St Anthony himself favoured hermeticism, but not all of us, particularly today, could cope with living on our own in the depths of the desert. So, people have found other ways to suffer in the name of Christ,** particularly by self-denial and “mortification”. Kember accidentally found an excellent modern way to suffer and mortify himself, and serve his favourite political cause along the way: be a hostage. No wonder he didn’t particularly want to be rescued.
* And the two Canadians who were captives along with Kember look, in the pictures shown on the BBC site, to have a bit of a fanatical gleam in their eyes.
** The best-known being the Stylites, probably because they sound rather silly.
As I drove to work this morning I was listening to Today on the radio, and I heard them play the sound from the video of UK troops abusing Iraqi civilians.
The soundtrack, and the voices of the British soldiers on it, were self-evidently sadistic. Moreover, they weren’t just violent; they sounded as if they were enjoying it. The unseen soldier sounded to be getting a thrill out of humiliating his helpless captives. This was his way to have fun. It sounded to me as if he’d be replaying the scene over and over again in his mind, to get every little bit of pleasure back again. Replaying it over and over, faster and faster, in his own private time.
Or maybe that’s just my own interpretation of it. Getting pleasure from people like that without their own agreement is always wrong, whether you enjoy it or not.