Saint Thomas Sunday 2004
Where I work at my day job we have, as in many other work places, we have had a number of re-organisations in recent years. Many of these have resulted in employees - some who have been employed by the institution for many years – being made redundant.
Redundancy is a painful process – mostly for the individual concerned and his immediate family, but also for those work colleagues who are re-deployed: jobs, reporting lines, daily routines all change – change is a painful process.
One former colleague had worked in more-or-less the same role for nearly twenty years when he was made redundant. It took him nearly ten-months to find work again. Fortunately for him his redundancy package gave him a whole year pay, even so it was a very harrowing time for him, especially as he -and his former colleagues felt that his manager had not been entirely honest with him.
Now this was interesting in that the manager concerned insisted that he had been quite honest in his process of making this person redundant. The process was fair, regardless of the outcome for the employee being made redundant. The way in which the manager dealt with his member of staff was fair because the process had been followed - and who could argue with the process?
The rules say so-and-so, so it must be right! I was sure that what I was doing was right, so it must have been! I was told to do this by my manager - complain to him if its wrong! Haven't we heard phrases like this many times before? How many times have we been told that we must think for ourselves? Just because we are told to do something by a superior doesn't make it right does it? Well that is a very curious thing.
Not that long ago - for those with long memories - we had some "war crime" trials held at the end of the War (that is, World War II). The ones that are most remembered were those held at Nuremberg in Germany, which put on trial those accused of various atrocities perpetrated during the course of the war. Time-after-time, junior (and not so junior) military personnel said that they "were only following orders". The judges decreed that each one of us has a responsibility to ensure that such orders are morally right (another curiosity) and so "following orders" is not a proper defence.
In days gone by it would have been a rare event for anyone to have seriously doubted the moral authenticity of what they were being asked to do. The decision by the judges at Nuremberg is intriguing on at least three counts.
Firstly, they assumed an absolute standard of moral correctness. In these, so-called enlightened times, we are taught that there are no moral absolutes. There are barely 60 years between the Nuremberg trials and to-day: yet in that short span of years, the notion of there being absolute moral standards, which had been taken for granted for millennia, has been swept away.
Secondly, they assume that each one of us has our own moral gyroscope which keeps us on the straight-and-narrow - and that our individual moral gyroscopes are aligned with the moral absolutes I mentioned just a moment ago.
Thirdly, their decision implied that each individual is capable of rejecting the wisdom of a superior - if we detect that that person's moral gyroscope is starting to wobble about a bit.
It is this third aspect which is most curious. If the judges decided that there really is a moral "gold standard" by which all decisions can be measured and that we can all check our selves, why would we question orders which have been given to us? Even today we are expected to respect our elders/superiors - admittedly not to the same extent that those in generations past did. I often read stories in newspapers – or hear them on the radio or television – of people who have obeyed orders which have not been right, either in the eyes of the law or morally. “Whistleblowing” legislation has been passed here and overseas to help protect people who believe that they have been asked (or have observed their superiors) to break some law or another. Even so, the expectations from Nuremberg and that of the framers of the various laws are not being met. People still presume that when they are asked to do something by a superior that whatever has been asked for is “right”.
Monastics (monks and nuns) live under the obedience of their superiors – though in the West things aren't quite what they were. You may recall that in the West, the “father of Monasticism” is Saint Benedict. The "Rule of Saint Benedict" mentions obedience a number of times. Saint Benedict even wrote a rule "If a brother is commanded to do the impossible".
Chapter 68: "...let him receive the order of his superior with perfect gentleness and obedience...let the subject realise that it is better so...trusting in the help of God, let him obey."
But, you know, Saint Benedict lived some fifteen hundred years ago. The rule of life he developed for monastics (or “religous” as the Roman Church calls them nowadays) eventually spread through the whole Western world – many priests in the Western Church “wore the Benedictine habit”. The teaching and basis of Saint Benedict's rule are not founded on themseleves, Saint Benedict didn't make them up on his own. Saint Benedict got his inspiration from the Bible – I think you'll find that he also got it from – what we would to-day call “the Fathers”, those who the Church holds in high regard for their teachings, writings and/or acts. The way we think about taking orders has very much to do with the way our cultural memory has been influenced by people such as Saint Benedict.
You may well ask: if the way we think and act has been so heavily influenced by people such as Saint Benedict, how much more has it been influenced by God Himself?
You could argue that there are now so few in our society who really to do believe in the Christian faith that surely such a memory doesn't exist and “who is this God person anyway?”. What about horses?
Horses? What have horses do do with it? In our society – and British societies in general we have an aversion to eating horses. It's something that sets us apart from, say, those on the Continent – and the French in particular. The British mindset (whether you be English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish is irelevant) has a distinct aversion to eating horse-flesh. Why?
Well, you have to go back a long way. If you look back into the pre-Roman civilisation in Britain you'll find a pagan cult devoted to the godess Epona. Epona was the godess worshipped in many parts of Britain – and she was the horse godess. Horses were sacred. Much like cattle are in India to-day. Horses were certainly not eaten. That religious memory is with us to-day – nearly two thousand years after the Christianisation of Britain.
Christianity spread throughout Britain quite quickly. The Holy Trinity was particular amenable to the Druidic mindset of the British peoples – as was the resurrection. These two important parts of Christian docrtine were pre-figured in the pagan religion in Britain at that time.
The British people two thousand years ago were told about Christ, they were told the Good News and they believed. Unlike Saint Thomas who needed to see to believe, our ancestors accepted the Christian faith on the authority of those who evangelised Britain.
Today, “Low Sunday”, or “The Sunday of Thomas” in the Eastern Rite, we recall Thomas's need for empirical proof. We read that those who believe without seeing are blessed. Are we blessed? Are we like Thomas? Or don't we care at all?