Chapter 4

The Noonday Plague

Psalm 91 assures us that in God's keeping we shall not fear the hunter's trap by night nor the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness nor the plague raging at noonday. If we were to transpose these situations to the hell of the twentieth century, the hunter's nocturnal trap could be likened to the Nazi secret police, who knocked on the doors of the houses of their victims in the middle of the night: their footsteps instilled panic in all who lived there. The daytime arrow could be associated with the cowardly attack by a "freedom-fighting" terrorist. The pestilence stalking in the darkness would find its manifestation in dread venereal diseases, notably AIDS, that followed indiscreet sexual exposure, or drug addiction with its degrading effect on the personality. But what about the noonday plague? It could easily be identified as the darkness of perdition masquerading as the light of reason sufficient to deceive all but those whose sight was clear and unobstructed.

The prince of darkness identified as the Antichrist works to perfection when he espouses causes of moral rectitude. He then affects a guise of virtuousness, and the populace can project all their own unconscious darkness on to the special targets of their execration. The social activist, for example, works, at least to his own satisfaction, for the alleviation of injustice and the fair apportionment of resources. The end in distant view is the truly egalitarian society echoing Karl Marx's words, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". The vision of this earthly Utopia is so splendid that its very brilliance shields the inner sight from contact with the difficulties in the way of its fulfilment. Instead of a candid, truthful appraisal of the facts, the blame is categorically laid on the shoulders of a special class or income group. On these privileged people - now rendered in vengeance lamentable in the extreme - full blame and opprobrium are heaped. Once again the Antichrist has attained a stunning victory by filling the world with hatred, but this time in the cause of social justice. If the fascist way is primarily one of virulent persecution of defenceless racial groups, so that its underlying evil is apparent to all uncommitted people who use their native powers of discernment, the communist approach is much more subtle. It affects, even to its own conviction, concern for the underprivileged members of society. But it acts essentially to undermine and ruthlessly destroy all that opposes its views, and this in the name of solidarity with the masses. There are few more persuasive ways of world domination than this, since its visionary message appeals to the hearts of all men of goodwill. So they become guileless sponsors of a new society no longer controlled by the power of the mighty rich. But the whole population is often sadly diminished in the heat of the transaction. We often unleash the worst evil when we are intent on serving a favourite cause, for the ego consciousness tends to take command, dictating how matters should proceed and how any opposition is to be met, crushed and eliminated. This, to the lesser extent, often occurs in the pursuance of personal objectives. How much more terrible does it become when matters of political importance are involved, whether local, national or international!

And this is the root of the evil: it lies not in the cause so much as in the people who control it. A cause, after all, is an idealistic mental construction, as full of glory as the Tower of Babel that ambitious men were all set to complete. It, in itself, may contain the seeds of enormous philanthropic vision, but it is corrupted by the darkness lying in its founders. The uncomfortable observation that strikes the dispassionate reader of Mein Kampf, Hitler's blueprint of the ideal Germany he aimed at creating, is the moral rectitude of so much of his vision. The sad degeneracy of the Germany of that time was so intolerable to any right-minded person that the Nazi scheme, aimed at the restoration of traditional values by a radical regime of self-discipline and national regeneration, seemed so, obviously right. Such self-discipline seems very clearly preferable to self-indulgence, until we begin to look behind the noble mask at the hideously poised devil grinning with the face of unmitigated evil. Then the truth shows itself uncompromisingly: discipline can be the most dangerous type of indulgence when it simply boosts the individual so that he feels superior to the lesser mortals who still grope in the mud of flesh and blood. How much more dangerous indeed is the complacent, righteous Pharisee than the degraded publican in Jesus' famous parable - and that even before the publican's conversion to God in a blinding awareness of truth! It is evident that the Antichrist can pervert that which is basically good, as well as harness the evil emotions that lie dormant in all of us. It is no surprise that a number of Jesus' parables exalt the sinner above the coldly virtuous person, the loose-liver above the morally scrupulous. The sinner has the potentiality for repentance and healing when he comes to himself in abject humiliation; the virtuous person, without the experience of life in its manifold dimensions, can live so comfortably in his ivory tower of excellence that he is impervious to the grace of God and therefore the love of his fellow creatures. Indeed, his moral excellence is his god; which ousts the Living God from his life. It is such a person who is especially liable to explode in violence when his manifest goodness seems to bear scant reward, and then the devil enters the vacuum and wreaks enormous violence and havoc. We have already considered the shadow that lives in all of us as a concatenation of savage impulses barely kept in control by a superimposed moral prerogative, but liable to erupt at any moment when we feel cheated or rejected by life, so that we can blame other people for our discomfiture and humiliation.

Is virtue then to be derided? Are the loose-living members of society our paradigm of the good life? Surely not, but we have to distinguish between a virtuousness based on the complacency of a comfortable life style far removed from the temptations of the multitude, and one that springs from compassion and humility. The first is cold and can easily be taken over by the dark forces. The second is of Christ and works towards the healing of the world even to its own death, remembering that the greatest love is prepared to give up its life for its friend. And love of this order transcends individual persons while embracing them all in a totality of relationship. In other words, when we know truly how to love, no creature can be excluded from that love. It is this thought that convinces me that all material things are fashioned in order to be resurrected into eternal life by the One alone whose creative Word brought the cosmos itself into existence. Love cannot exclude anything from its caring, no matter how unreceptive the beloved one may be.

How different all this is from the terrible history of the communist revolution in Russia! It aimed at eradicating the appalling cruelty of the Tsarist regime (allied to a compliant national church). This tended to concentrate all the resources in the hands of a powerful ruling class. But the revolution was also cruel; its zenith was the horror of the dictatorship of Stalin, whose brutality far outdistanced anything the people had previously experienced. It is estimated that the dictator killed about seventeen million people, which makes Hitler's murder of six million Jews a quite moderate slaughter by comparison! All who disagreed with Stalin's policies, including the peasant class (the kulaks), were mercilessly destroyed. The dictator was quoted as saying that scum populations do not disappear voluntarily, a sentiment that his ideological adversary Hitler would have heartily endorsed. But the most revealing evidence of the Russian dictator's perfidy is embodied in the terrible "purges" of his peers that he engineered during the period of the thirties. They were all forced to confess to crimes of disloyalty under conditions of subtle torture, and then brought to public trial where they were convicted of treason, much to the righteous indignation of the spectators, before being shot dead. One of the most important novels of our time, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, describes the procedures of these "Moscow trials" in stark detail. He wrote out of inside knowledge of the events, not merely from an author's fertile imagination. In the end the most auspicious founders of the communist state could be persuaded to admit their complicity in the most compromising acts of treason. But one of the most potent allies of the torturing inquisitors was the guilty conscience of the accused: they too had earlier connived at the deaths of colleagues whose common decency had caused them to question the morality of a state that showed arrant duplicity in its relations with fascist groups in the west. Indeed, there is a telling point of contact between agents of the extreme right and the extreme left. This is their mutual disregard for all moral scruples in the pursuance of the immediate advantage for their cause. Expediency determines morality in their scheme of action.

And so we read of the central character of the book, Rubashov, carrying on a communication with his neighbour, a royalist counter-revolutionary, in a code of graded taps on the wall of his cell. He is, in fact, the only decent character in the novel apart from the old porter, Wassilij, still a Christian albeit a clandestine one, who remembered Rubashov as the bearded Partisan-commander of the days of the revolution, before his meteoric rise to national distinction as one of the leaders of the government. Now he has fallen out of favour with the leader, and is subjected to three trials, whose outcome is a foregone conclusion, before his inevitable execution. In the course of the tapping conversation the man of traditional allegiance defines honour as the willingness to live and die for one's belief. To this Rubashov responds with derision: honour, to him, is to be useful without vanity. The one equates honour with decency, the other with usefulness. Rubashov further declares that the regime has replaced decency by reason, and he apparently approves of this change, at least at that point in his trial. Subsequently he is to be interrogated by Gletkin, the personification of all torturers throughout the ages of men's belief. He has his counterpart in the officials who questioned Jesus prior to handing him over to Pilate, and the inquisitors who did not flinch from breaking a heretic's body in the service of his immortal soul - and also that of the Catholic Church. His cold brutality is unfortunately typical of the demeanour of intense, humourless people who are prepared to save the world according to their private beliefs. He defines truth as what is useful to humanity, whereas falsehood is what is harmful. But in both this definition, and that of Rubashov, the human is acting without any special reference to the divine principle and therefore perhaps impeding it. Are we any closer to the enigma of sorting out the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil now than in the days of our allegorical ancestors Adam and Eve? In the contemporary dictatorial mode moral values are compromised without scruple for the sake of expediency, and the human is demoted to the role of a computer that can be programmed to respond to the demands of his immediate superiors who, in turn, direct their loyalty to those in higher authority. This is the way of life of the person who has turned his back on the divine image within himself, and works with bovine indifference to the higher calling of the human race. This calling has been shown to us in the lives and teachings of the world's spiritual geniuses throughout the ages.

But Koestler himself quotes a terrible passage from De schismate libri III, written by Dietrich von Nieheim in 1411:

When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as the end, the use of every means is sanctified, even cunning, treachery, violence, simony, prison, death. For all order is for the sake of the community, and the individual must be sacrificed to the common good.

Nieheim was Bishop of Verden, and he had no doubt that the Church embraced the common good so absolutely as to be inseparable from it. The same argument would undoubtedly have been used by Hitler, Stalin and every "freedom-fighting" terrorist that stalked the earth. It is terrible to find the Church included in such company, but the truth cannot be evaded. The Antichrist has been especially active in the counsels of the Christian faith since her leaders aligned themselves with the political power of the defunct Roman Empire, which thenceforth was described as Holy. The third temptation of Christ in the wilderness, to attain absolute worldly dominion at the price of worshipping the prince of the world who is the devil himself, though successfully parried by the Lord, was not so easily withstood by his distant heirs some four hundred years later. And the devil laughed as the prelates fondly believed they had attained the means of a universal proclamation of the Faith and a subsequent enforcement of it. It was the power that inflamed their passions rather than the Cross that chastened their souls. In the celebrated words of the first Baron Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Yet without power nothing is achieved, and an otherworldly Church is not only impotent but also complacent. The work is to bring heaven down to earth, in other words to inspire the secular arm with such goodness that the government approaches, at least haltingly, to something of the kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim in his great work of healing and deliverance. Jesus taught his apostles unceasingly that the master is the servant of all, that he came on earth to serve and not to be served by others. Those who take the highest places at a banquet are liable to be unceremoniously shifted down in rank as more celebrated guests arrive, whereas the genuinely humble person who, as a matter of custom, abases himself, will be exalted. Indeed, as we enter the kingdom of God all thoughts about personal status recede into the background. A gratitude that we are counted worthy to be present fills us with amazed awe - and then we are overwhelmed to find our peers there also. This delight turns to speechless joy when we find others present whom we would scarcely have recognized in our earthly circumstances. By contrast, the Antichrist inflates our own personalities, making us feel that we are special and above our fellows in importance. Of course, each of us is special in his own right, but our importance depends on the use we make of our unique gifts and talents in this life on earth. Those who seem to be nature's failures, like for instance the mentally defective and those who are born physically incapacitated, have their own contribution to make as pure witnesses who stand and wait in hope.

In the end we should neither covet special favours nor disport an abject humility; both are aspects of self-inflation. We remember Jesus' strictures on those who make a great show of their piety at street-corners and places of worship, who make their pious fasting plain for all the world to see by their gloomy countenances. They are no better than those who trumpet their gifts to charitable causes so that their generosity may be widely known (Matthew 6). We have, by contrast, to forget ourselves sufficiently to serve God in the sanctity of the present moment. In such needle pointed dedication to the eternal presence of God there is no chink in our spiritual armour where the evil one can gain a foothold. In the promise of the third Beatitude, meekness aimed at having the earth as its possession is a seditious ploy of the ego consciousness. But if the gentle spirit is authentic, it finds itself unimpeded in possession of all things. Needing nothing, it possesses everything. Once we desire any finite quality we immediately exclude the One beyond all qualities, and then the forces of evil find a welcoming point of entry. We remember, ruefully, Jesus' words, "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father" (Matthew 7:21).

In one of W. Somerset Maugham's later novels, The Razor's Edge, the narrator envisages Christ repelling the devil's three temptations in the wilderness but then being confronted by a fourth, far more subtle, one.

He said, "If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross, thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Jesus fell, and the devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil that men would commit in the name of their redeemer.

Maugham goes on to meditate on the cruel wars that Christianity has occasioned, the persecutions, the tortures Christian has inflicted on Christian, the unkindness, the hypocrisy, the intolerance, and he imagines the devil considering the balance sheet with complacency.

And when he remembers that it has laid upon mankind the bitter burden of the sense of sin that has darkened the beauty of the starry night and cast a baleful shadow on the passing pleasures of a world to be enjoyed, he must chuckle as he murmurs: Give the devil his due.

This condemnation, coming from an agnostic with an acute sense of the divine mystery almost too acute for him to solve his metaphysical problems by a simple submission to any dogmatic faith, should give the believer food for thought. Provided we are open to new insights, our faith will never stagnate, and the Holy Spirit's work of leading us into the progressive revelation of truth will not be thwarted. The sense of sin is real and not to be avoided. It tells us how far we miss the mark of goodness and love day by day in our personal relationships and the work we do. The pagan way has, at its best, a great and poignant beauty, but it ends on a note of extinction. By contrast, the Christian way explores the depths of the personality where sin finds its home, and it works towards the redemption of the whole personality from the thraldom to sinful impulses. The Christian way proceeds to a resurrection of all creatures in the Light of God.

But the accusation of the masochistic delight that many Christians have taken in the crucifixion event, which has far too often been projected as unashamed sadism on unacceptable groups, is too near the mark to be evaded. The emotions that are aroused by the horror of Jesus' crucifixion can so easily find their outlet in attacks on Jews, whose forebears were culpably involved in this terrible miscarriage of justice. In the Middle Ages, and later too, the inhabitants of the Jewish quarters of many cities (the original ghettos) were the victims of savage assaults after the Sacred Liturgy of Good Friday. It is much easier to dwell on the pain of the crucifixion than the forgiveness inherent in Jesus' appearance to the feeble, ungrateful disciples after his resurrection. He came to renew his relationship with them as a preliminary to their continuing his work after his ascension and the pentecostal infusion of the Holy Spirit upon and within them. So here again a nobility of purpose that far out distances the Marxist ideal at its most radiant can also be the point of entry of the dark forces of hatred poised to destroy everything that stands in the path of the vision. Where both the Christian and Marxist ways fail is in the moral inadequacy of their followers: fervent professions of belief do not automatically lead to holiness. But where the atheistic Marxist fondly believes that economic reorganization can change the face of society from darkness to light, the Christian is starkly aware of the inherent tendency to corruption, deeply embedded in the human psyche. This "original sin" certainly shows itself in corrupt political institutions and economic practices, but these cannot be finally healed until there is a repentance, a change of mind (or metanoia), in the individual as well as in the wider community. This follows an openness to God in prayer, for we are justified, or brought into right relationship with God, by faith and not works. These succeed the inflow of the Holy Spirit, and are directed by love not self-centredness.

Such, at any rate, is the basis of truly Christian action, but the history of the Faith, as Somerset Maugham reflects, is less inspiring. This is because, from the time of Ananias and Sapphira, the Christian psyche has been flawed by material interests that have insidiously usurped the place of God as the central focus of life, instead of remaining in their proper peripheral situation. The Incarnation has set in motion a quite new dispensation which is to quicken the process of human development, but it has taken many centuries of painful self-knowledge for the humble disciple to grasp the full measure of this change and to strive to act accordingly. It is not sufficient to affirm Jesus' divinity according to impressive credal formulae. Until that divinity is actualized in the life of the believer, filled with God's grace, his menacing shadow side is left unheeded, and is liable to be projected on to anyone of independent judgement and action who threatens the security inherent in his understanding of the Faith. In other words, Christ's sacrifice of himself to reconcile the world to God can remain a comfortable theological construction under which to take shelter while jettisoning one's hatred on to those who have independent views about the nature of Christ and reality. But that sacrifice can also be the means of growth whereby one eventually attains something of the stature of Christ in one's own being. At this juncture bitter theological dispute gives way to the presence of the Lord in one's life, as love takes precedence over thought. And then the enlightened thinking process blossoms into a theology of resurrection that works towards a reconciliation of opposed tendencies which would previously have warred destructively against one another.

The destructive encounter between the mother religion, Judaism, and its Christian daughter is especially instructive of the way in which the devil can corrupt two very great religious faiths. Christianity itself developed out of an intra-Judaic tragedy in which the forces of darkness used the guardians of the orthodox tradition to bring about the death of the greatest representative of that tradition - and indeed of all traditions that have their end in the vision of God. The Jews assailed the early Christian community uncompromisingly, contemptuously rejecting its belief in the messiahship of Jesus, and pouring scorn on the claims made about his person. In due course, the growing Christian community retaliated with an increasingly virulent hatred against the Jews: the eight infamous sermons preached by St John Chrysostom at Antioch in A.D. 387 formed a culmination of all previous anti-Judaic (a term preferable to the less precise anti-Semitic) pronouncements by the Church Fathers, and were in a very real way the Christian basis on which Hitler could justify his own unassuageable hostility towards the Jews. When an agreement was struck between the Roman Emperor Constantine and the Christian Church, punitive measures were immediately instituted against the Jews. These measures lasted many centuries; even the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, followed the Catholic precedent when he was unable to convert the Jews to his particular system. James Parkes, a modern protagonist of Judeo-Christian reconciliation (himself an Anglican priest), has compared the violence and obscenity of Luther's Die Juden und Ihre Lugen with John Chrysostom's terrible sermons.

The Jews not unnaturally became even more entrenched in their religion with unyielding tenacity. Indeed, any relaxation might have meant a capitulation to the hated Christians. The impasse began to be unblocked at the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when Reason had its triumph over "superstition". Many sensible people discarded formal religious commitment altogether, but this agnosticism was redressed by the Evangelical Revival in Britain and by Hasidism, a mystical development of Judaism, in Eastern Europe. By the nineteenth century political rights had been accorded to Jews in most European countries outside Russia, but the smouldering anti-Judaism in the emotional life of many Gentiles flared up from time to time in personal victimization. The notorious Dreyfus affair in France was a crucial instance: the unjust conviction of a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, on a charge of treason, and his savage humiliation and imprisonment, initiated the modern movement of Jews back to Palestine known as Zionism (there had been small migrations of Jews there in previous centuries). It seemed obvious to Zionists that no Jew could expect justice in any country other than his own. Our own century has seen the denouement of the matter: the German unconscious darkness erupted into demonic Nazism with its massacre of six million European Jews. After the defeat of Hitler and his allies, the conscience of most of the world enabled the Zionist dream to materialize, and the state of Israel came into being in 1948. Now at last the Jews have a solid base of security. But the resident Arab population has suffered grievously as a result of this massive exodus of Jews to their promised land, and we have not yet heard the last of the story.

There seems, however, to be a growing accord between the two religions: Christians are beginning to trace the roots of their tradition more dispassionately, and can acknowledge their debt to the Jews. hey are now able to recognize the validity of Judaism in its own right apart from its Christian connection. Jews, on the other hand, are now able to mention the name of "Jesus" without bitterness, and the opprobrium of centuries of Christian persecution is being seen in the broader light of universal human tragedy. But only the finger of God can lead them to a full understanding of the man whose death their ancestors decreed, and which in turn brought such great misery upon future generations of his people. It seems that Jew and Christian alike have some distance to travel before either will recognize the face of their Messiah.

The quest for truth inspires all spiritual action. Only when we can accept the fact that truth is never confined to one religion alone, any more than to a particular political ideology, can we become free, and then our will attains a real power to decide according to our own unclouded vision. But when an ideology is identified categorically with the truth, God is gradually eased out as the dogma replaces his presence. And then the Antichrist can come in obligingly to fill the void. Whenever we are set in our ways and refuse to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to a new appreciation of reality, we begin to decay, and darkness finds an easy entry into our souls. The statement of Jesus, "If you dwell within the revelation I have brought, you are indeed my disciples; you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32), is the heart of the matter. This knowledge is not an objective understanding of God so much as an intimate relationship with him, the unitive knowledge of love such as the parents of especially beloved children had at the time of their conception. We think of Abraham and Sarah giving birth to Isaac, or Zechariah and Elizabeth to John the Baptist. In that love all future endeavours find their blessing; and fear of change is cast out.

When Rubashov is finally about to be shot, it is the royalist facing eighteen more years of imprisonment who encourages him with his taps on the wall of his cell. He makes the period of waiting for the arrival of the executioner tolerable as he diverts Rubashov's attention from his imminent execution by light, yet pertinent observations about imaginary future activities and present comfort. He is the only human being in the prison, because he has not allowed his personality to be warped by his gaolers. He has retained his humanity, whereas the servants of the regime are now mere automata without any apparent soul structure. We remember Jesus' warning, in Matthew 10:28, about those who are able to destroy both soul and body in hell, as opposed to the relative harmlessness of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Whether the soul would be eternally destroyed is a matter of debate, inasmuch as God is in command of all his creation, and his nature is love, but it is certain that the work of the Antichrist is to wreak such havoc on man's inner nature that he may cease for a very long time to be an independently functioning person. The royalist retained an authentic soul despite his sufferings, the secret being his inner faith and integrity of purpose. Rubashov attained something of this stature by virtue of his contact with the heroic protester. He was able to die like a man and not a craven, hysterical weakling. And yet the regime supported by this royalist protester was absolutely unacceptable, and any nostalgia for its way of life would have been quite out of place. The tragedy lay in the attitude of its Marxist successors to the things of eternity; once these were dismissed as mere bourgeois illusions, the unimpeded force of the ego-centred human could take charge of everything. But the devil within controlled the new elite.

Chapter 5
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