When I was about eight years old I had my one and only run in with authority in school. Every recess two teams of boys would play a game that involved throwing a small ball across the playground with the aim of hitting the wall or the fence behind them. I loved it, so much so that each recess, I never wanted the game to stop.
One chilly English winter day the ball I had brought from home to play with everyone made its way by accident onto a low part of the roof of the school. At the end of the day, as the playground was clearing of kids and their parents, one of my team mates, John Rowkins, offered to climb onto the roof of the school to get my ball back if I would keep a look out for teachers, which seemed eminently reasonable to me, given that I was both afraid of heights and a poor climber. So up he climbed. He quickly got the ball, threw it down and we went on our merry way.
It was the next day that the summons came. “Mainwaring. Rowkins. Headmaster’s office now.” Our headmaster was a curious sort of fellow. He had very little hair and for a headmaster a most excellent name for his particular line of work: ‘Mr. Cross’. The name bore very little resemblance to reality. He was generally a rather kind man. That said, the thought of receiving a few hits on the behind with the tennis shoe sharpened my mind.
As John Rowkins and I made our way to the Head’s office, John said to me that if asked, I should say that I climbed on the roof too. I agreed and when asked, I promptly lied to Mr. Cross, our kindly headmaster, who gave me five of the least painful tennis shoe strikes that a child has probably ever felt.
Looking back on that now, a couple of things stand out. First, how readily I was willing to lie for John. Second, why. In the two or so seconds that it took me to tell John Rowkins that yes, I would tell Mr. Cross that I too had climbed onto the roof, three thoughts crossed my mind that made me do so. First, preservation. Everyone was a little afraid of John Rowkins at school. He didn’t smell quite right and had a wild look about him. All the same, I quite liked him, yet was under no allusions that if it were a toss up between the ire of Mr. Cross our haplessly benevolent disciplinarian Headmaster or Rowkins, then Rowkins would win every time.
The second reason was more to do with what seemed fair. John had done something for me. He had recovered my ball. Back then, a boy’s ball that he might bring to school for recess was a prized possession. Schoolbooks and slips to take home from the teacher were two a penny, but a ball for recess was the closest 8 year old boys had to gold. John had rescued mine from an eternity of English weather on the roof and I could not dishonor his valor.
Some 32 years later, I look back on that episode as one of the first tastes of what it felt like to truly want to walk alongside another human being. It is a profound feeling. I imagine that soldiers feel that kind of desire to walk alongside their comrades in arms with a particular intensity. Indeed, we are made, I think, as human beings, to feel a deep and powerful connection to others when we face down adversity with them. They say that one of the reasons why the transition to power for black South Africans from white apartheid rule was so successful and without the disintegration of that country into civil war as had happened across the African continent, was because many of that first members of the government of Nelson Mandela had endured together the long walk to freedom as prisoners on Robben Island. They had walked a hard way together and they wanted, deep within, the keep on walking that way, come what may.
What is it, do you suppose, that the men who fight for ISIS, carrying out terrible atrocities across the Middle East that makes them so thoroughly committed to walk lock-step with one another in the pursuit of cold-blooded murder? What is it that makes a person so utterly committed to walk that kind of path that the prospect of losing their own life is apparently of secondary importance?
We might wonder at such radicalization of human endeavor, such criminalization of religious fervor, yet it has not been so very long ago that the rhetoric of our own religious faith and scriptures have been employed not only to justify acts of violence and war, but to serve as vehicles for inspiration in conflict. This was literally true in the First World War, when Anglican clergy could be found preaching sermons quite literally at the edge of the trenches, designed to stir the spirit of English souls for victory over the enemy. Going back further, Christian history’s dark shadow of religiously motivated terror casts itself across the centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Crusades.
What, then, are we to do, here and now, with our own inklings of religious fervor? When we declare that our hearts are filled with the love of God and that we should offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’ should we pray such prayers with one eye open for the person in the room who takes those sentiments too much to heart? Richard Dawkins, my one time professor of evolutionary science and militant atheist, would be quick to say that, yes, we should pray with both eyes open, or better still, not pray at all, because religion’s track record – whether it be of the Christian, Muslim, or Hindu variety – is not a good one when it comes to actually practicing peace on earth. However, the fundamental flaw, for me, with professor Dawkins’ view of faith is that he sees it primarily as an explanation for reality when in truth it is more akin to the experience of reality than anything else and that experience is so often had in the company of others. For it is in our solidarity with the other, our desire to walk with the other that we have the capacity to nurture a deeper understanding between one another. And as we elect to walk with one another, we are gifted the possibility that a third pair of steps joins us, one whose grace is wider that all of our sectarianism, whose love binds up the broken hearted, even and especially those of those who would do others harm. There are no guarantees that such experiences of solidarity won’t urge certain people to commit terrible acts in the name of that One, but a resignation to isolation will get us no closer to peace. The vocation is simply to walk with one another. It is how the Savior I know came to meet his followers on the road. Who knows what we too will discover on that Way.