A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Ephesians 6: 10-17
In 1915 the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe how the nervous system of an animal’s body responds to threats. Quickly the insight was applied to human reactions in a much wider context. Almost instantly in the face of danger, we decide whether we can overcome it, and thus fight, like a cat raising all its hairs and arching its back in the face of a fox; or whether we can escape it, and thus hurtle away, like a child leaping its own height over the wall back to its own garden having fallen foul of the neighbourhood bully. More recently physiologists have started to talk of a third instinctive response, known as ‘freeze,’ when the antelope totally shuts down in the face of the lion and pretends to be dead, only to slink away as the lion goes to fetch its family to dismember what it took to be a carcass but was in fact still alive.
When we speak of war, we get in touch with the same level of visceral reactions. A company of soldiers in the First World War trenches being commanded to go over the top must have felt exactly these fight-flight-freeze responses, as they saw the enemy so close, recognised little or no chance of avoiding their guns, had nowhere to hide, and faced a court martial for even trying to do so.
A hundred years ago war was a largely male preserve, but as we reflect on the last century we must all place ourselves in the position of such a foot soldier, and of the country as a whole, and wonder if we might have done any differently, let alone any better. While the much-quoted poets instil a conviction of the folly and futility of war, we nonetheless ponder the courage and resilience of those who had no choice but to face such danger and suffering.
War impoverishes human life. One way it does that is to reduce the options to just three – fight, flight or freeze. War is the name we give to what happens when the rule of law has broken down, and, with no recourse to (or respect for) an impartial and objective justice system, individuals or nations take assertion or resistance into their own hands, largely regardless of consequences.
But when the rule of law is universally or at least widely respected, a wider set of options emerges. I vividly recall being about 13 when the doorbell rang and my mother showed into our living room a family of five people and sat them down and asked me to sit with them. I must have sat with them for about an hour and a half. I didn’t really know what was going on. I later surmised that my mother couldn’t square the family’s well-dressed appearance with their plaintive request for a large amount of money, and was trying to track down my father to discuss what to do. She thought it was a scam, and she put me in the living room to watch the family and to see if they had the patience to wait for her to respond. I have no memory of what conversation took place; all I recall was my parents’ gratitude when the intense waiting was over. They said, ‘You somehow found it in you to just stay there.’ That night I learned something important about what it means to say, out loud or silently, ‘I’m watching you.’
On a grander scale, inspired by St Oscar Romero, the Catholic priest Ray Bourgeois and a small group of supporters began in 1990 to hold an annual vigil on November 16 outside Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, in protests at the murder, rape and torture perpetrated by Latin American soldiers trained there by the American secret services. The vigil falls on the anniversary of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University in El Salvador. The power of these vigils is the appeal to the rule of law. The protestors are calling on the American public to recognise that training soldiers to commit terrible crimes in their home countries is the moral if not legal equivalent of committing the same crimes in America, and should not be tolerated, let alone perpetrated by the American government itself. My own humble experience as a teenager was a passive one; the witness of the School of the Americas Watch is a much more active and courageous one: but they’re both saying the same thing: ‘I’m watching you.’
What our four speakers tonight have offered us is an absorbing exploration of the extensive hinterland of appropriate confrontation and holding to account in the face of situations of tension and sometimes discord. Civil society is built upon these kinds of practices and judgements about how we find a way to exist alongside one another even when we don’t see eye to eye. All around the world today in so-called democratic countries people are recognising that the rule of law can’t be taken for granted. Forces undermining this backdrop to all our activities seem more assertive than for a long time. Normal life seems less normal – it’s beginning to seem privileged, and precious, and precarious. Which, in truth, it is. Upholding it isn’t as simple as it seems.
The 1997 documentary, Hands on a Hard Body, later made into a musical, portrays an endurance competition that took place in Longview, Texas, in 1995. The annual competition sets 24 contestants against each other to see who can keep their hand on a pickup truck for the longest time. Whoever endures without leaning on the truck, or squatting, wins the truck. Five-minute breaks are issued every hour, and 15-minute breaks every six hours. The 1995 competition lasted for no fewer than 77 continuous hours. The point is that the exercise is a lot more difficult than it looks. It requires patience, vigilance, and concentration: the people who drop out do so because they forget to keep a hand on the truck when for example they sneeze, because they get angry with the other contestants and can’t stand their company, or because they physically can’t stand in hot weather for that long.
Patience, vigilance and concentration are among the qualities required for sustaining witness in the face of tension and conflict without resorting to violence and war. They’re about using our eyes and ears to the full before using words. Being a faithful disciple in the face of tension and conflict means resisting the instinct of fight or flight, and finding ways to be present and stand still and hold fast without simply freezing. ‘Here I stand,’ said Martin Luther, famously. In the end fight, flight and freeze are all forms of avoidance or escape. To destroy your enemies isn’t the solution, because there will simply be more people with whom you’re in tension and conflict and you can’t simply go on destroying all of them. You need to come up with a more sophisticated plan. Running away is obviously not that plan. Neither is freezing and implicitly hoping someone else will come along and solve the problem for you.
Christians follow in the footsteps of Jesus. In Jesus, God did not fight us, destroying us because of our endemic enmity; neither did God run away, retreating to a secure heavenly realm. In Jesus God was utterly present to us, beholding who we truly are and saying ‘I see you,’ and walking right into the Fort Benning of his day and paying the price in his own body for representing the full presence of God in the face of the unswerving brokenness of a government that paid only lip service to the rule of law. Every time we stand when we’d rather run away, every time we find ways to dialogue when it would be simpler to despise, every time we enter into the reality of another and wait patiently to find an outcome that works for them as well as us, every time we restrain our desire to destroy and stay still until the storm has passed, we walk in the footsteps of the one who died that we might live.
How do we sustain such witness? Ephesians says, all we have is truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the word of God. That’s all. The Christian faith is simply this: to believe that that is enough.