Sunday, September 1, 2013

Conscience and Tyranny

A little while ago, I was hiking up a mountain in Lake George, NY with my father, two brothers, and youngest sister.  Happily the mountain was a very small one, for my father and I probably could have handled little more.  As we huffed and puffed in growing fatigue, my sister, then about 5 minutes ahead of us, waited for us to catch up and then told us about some disfavor she had fallen into at her work.  In response, I told her about a tyrant who once showed a visitor to his garden.  Among the plants in the garden, one had grown above the rest.  The tyrant showed his visitor about the garden and as they approached the one plant that grew above the rest, the tyrant pulled out a machete and quickly cut it down to the level of the others.  The message was clear: no subject must be allowed to rise above the rest.  Tyranny can tolerate mediocrity but never excellence. 

The tyrant in question might have been any number of men over the years.  It might have been Napoleon  Stalin, or Henry VIII.  Robert Bolton captured well the attitude of Henry VIII toward the few men that dared raise their heads above the rest, toward the few plants that dared grow above their appointed bounds.  When Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself the head of the Church of England, he demanded that everyone follow him.  Nearly everyone did—but nearly was not enough.  When almost everyone else went along, Thomas More, did not.  He did not speak or write against Henry, he simply remained silent.  One silent man perhaps should not have seemed too much of a threat to Henry VIII, but Henry did not want More’s silence, but his approval.  When everyone else supported Henry, why should one silent man have bothered him so much?  Bolton’s Henry, speaking to More, gave the answer:
            Because you're honest... and what is more to the purpose, you're known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I'm their tiger; there's a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there's you...

The existence of even one good man is a spur in the conscience of the wicked.  The existence of one good man tells the rest of the world what it should be and that it should not be what it is.  Even schoolchildren know this; it is why they dislike excellence in their classmates.  Henry stood condemned not by any word of Thomas More’s, but by his existence.  He stood judged not by a letter of More’s, but by his very life.  Faced with this condemnation, Henry could have beaten his own breast in repentance, or he could have beaten More’s head off.  He did the latter. 

More was not the first to lose his head to the tyrant’s blade.  John the Baptist lost his head in like circumstances to the same sort of petty tyrant.  King Herod had married his brother’s wife while his brother was still living and John forbade him this.  John was only one weak prophet.  He had no armies and was no threat Herod, save that he threatened his conscience.  But that was enough.  John was a good man, known to be a good man and hence by his very existence condemned Herod.  And so Herod (and his wife) had to destroy John.  If there were only one good man (or woman) in a bad world, the world would have to destroy that one man.  How could it not, when on a gibbet before the nations, it unfurled goodness itself (1)? 

The same persecution is still the case even today.  Many supporters of same-sex “marriage” insist they simply want to be “married” and will leave everyone else alone.  But this is not true.  There are multiple examples of bakeries refusing to make a cake in celebration of a same-sex wedding, and being attacked because of it (2).  Why that should be when many other bakeries would happily make such a cake should now be obvious.  It would not matter if 99 bakeries in a city would happily make a cake for such a wedding.  As long as only one would not, that one would be too much.  If one man only refuses to support same same “marriage” and stands on silence, that one man will be too much and it will be for the same reason Henry VIII could not stand for Thomas More’s silence.  As Bolton’s Cromwell put it, “silence can, in fact, speak--” sometimes too much for a guilty conscience to bear.

(1). Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ

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