I had one of those moments on the bus earlier on reading these words from Aleksandr Solzhenistyn which are taken from one of his books ‘The Oak and the Calf’.
(I wasn’t reading them in that though. I was reading them in a study book by Os Guinness which I had grabbed quickly of a shelf in one of those moments when you feel that you you should buy something to show support for the small shop that you had wandered into)
‘From dawn to dusk the correction and copying of Gulag went forward; I could scarcely keep the pages moving fast enough. Then the typewriter started breaking down every day, and I had either to solder it myself or take it to be repaired. This was the most frightening moment of all: we had the only original manuscript and all the typed copies of Gulag there with us. If the KGB suddenly descended, the many throated groan, the dying whisper of millions, the unspoken testament of those who had perished, would all be in their hands, and I would never be able to reconstruct it all, my brain would never be capable of it again.
I could have enjoyed myself so much, breathing the fresh air, resting, stretching my cramped limbs, but my duty to the dead permitted no such self indulgence,They are dead. You are alive. Do your duty. The world must know all about it.
They could take my children hostage – posing as “gangsters,” of course. (They did not know that we had thought of this and made a superhuman decision: our children were no dearer to us than the memory of the millions done to death, and nothing could make us stop that book.)’
It was those last lines about making a ‘superhuman decision’. One of the questions Os Guinness asks is:-
‘ What was Solzhenitsyn’s decision about his children? How does this compare with the common modern maxim that “work” never comes above “family”? Which of the two is closer to the teachings of Jesus?’
I was staying at my sister-in-laws over the Christmas holidays and noticed some ‘light’ bedtime reading by the bed in the spare room, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature‘ by Stephen Pinker which I was sort of fascinated by. Then last week there was a copy in the library which I’ve brought home and have started to read.
It is a very long book. Well, not very long, but long enough for me. And he is a very good writer so I am reading it and enjoying it.
But it feels like a much more dangerous book for a Christian to be reading than some of the books by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins because
a) I enjoy his writing
b) He is very good at pulling out studies and burying you under a weight of smartness which you can’t be bothered to check out. You are just swept along by the writing
c) He shoots Christianity down, but doesn’t do it in a way that makes you particularly annoyed. Instead of trying to prove that he thinks it’s all wrong like Hitchens and Dawkins and that you should believe that it’s wrong (which gets your back up) he just gets on with assuming it’s all wrong and writing about the book.
So that’s what I’m reading at the moment. One thing I’ve noticed is that about a quarter of the book through and I don’t remember there being a definition of violence or what he means by violence.
I’m not sure what I mean by dangerous book for Christians to be reading. That sounds like my teenage days talking when people used to say that you couldn’t listen to rock music as it was from the devil.
I was reading this book in Belfast today as PSNI choppers hovered above, riot police blocked roads with white landrovers and ‘peaceful’ protesters went protesting about east Belfast with a healthy slice of rioting and destruction.
I am trying to deal with contempt for these people, to understand their issues or show compassion but it’s hard as most of you will probably understand.
At one point I was imagining the police helicopter armed with Hellfire missiles to fire into the streets of east Belfast and unleashing something that would really encourage people to give up and go home.
Still, violence isn’t going to halt violence.
This testimony from a medic serving in Syria during World War II reminded me of that, maybe also of my responsibilities if I claim somehow to be a Christian. If we can’t offer something radically different from an eye for an eye then what’s the point?
‘Once we heard of someone giving information about us to the Germans. We thought we knew who he was, so my gang went and captured him and brought him in front of me. He was very frightened. The boys said, ‘Let’s beat him up.‘ I had absolute power over this man and I felt the desire rising up inside me to smash him, to break him. It was really a terrifying feeling because it went against all my instincts, a violence erupting out of the very depths of myself. And I came to realise that this was the Hitler in me. That was a fundamental, mind-changing thing. I suddenly knew that the violence I was fighting against – the concentration camps, the sadism, the torture – was boiling up inside my guts. That has been a profoundly important insight for my life – that one should recognise the darkness. I sometimes feel that if you become a total pacifist, the danger is that you begin to think that you haven’t got these things in you. You become very gentle and smiling, but underneath you’re boiling away’
(Bishop) Stephen Verney, medic with HSU, Syria