Sir Thomas More: You threaten like a dockside bully.
Thomas Cromwell: How should I threaten?More: Like a minister of state, with justice. Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.
More: Then I am not threatened.
This memorable exchange from the movie “A Man for All Seasons” (1966) between St. Thomas More and a henchman from the court of King Henry VIII reveals an all too familiar pattern in statecraft and, frankly, the schoolyard. More is trying to do his job and be a good citizen. Legislation has been passed that has nothing to do with justice but with the preservation of a certain social order, in this case, a monarchial one. The king wants to produce an heir and fears the pope will not grant him a divorce from his second marriage (his first, from which he was canonically released, had proven infertile). Political handlers, essentially bullies such as Cromwell and even the archbishop of Canterbury, fear dynastic wars among the barons. They live in fear themselves and therefore resort to it when they become desperate.
First they come up with legislation authorizing the king to write his own decree of divorce. More will not sign it for reasons of conscience. That, at least, is his argument. More does not reveal the foundation of his refusal: that the law is abhorrent to the law of God. He seeks, rather, to use reason, his best legal and logical skills to avoid a direct confrontation with the authority of the king or of Parliament (the legislature). He uses a legal maxim – that silence betokens consent – to justify both his silence and his refusal to sign. He follows the law. The king and his advisors want more: his verbal consent to their actions. They want conformity. Since More will not submit, they resort to threats and, ultimately, violence. More will lose his head on the false testimony of one trumped up “witness.”
Of all the unspeakable “f-words” in the English language, none is more pernicious than fear. Fear itself – that of which President Franklin Roosevelt famously opined as the only fear we should be afraid of. Fear has always been a political commodity, a tool of tyrants, to impose behavioral conformity. It can take on many forms, some quite blatant, others more subtle.
The movie tracks one example of the evolution of this process. The Gospel narrates another.
The activities Jesus and his disciples both practiced and refused to engage in were a source of dismay and anxiety for the political figures of the time. The crucifixion was, finally, a political execution, the ultimate terror, or instrument of fear that the Roman State was exquisitely apt at employing. Even as threats to life and limb loomed throughout the life of Jesus – from the flight of his family into Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod to many potentially violent mob actions that Jesus escaped – the Gospel message remains essentially one of freedom and liberation from fear and its ultimate weapon, violence.
“Fear not, I have overcome the world,” Jesus says (Jn 16:33). And, in another place, “Fear is useless. What is needed is faith” (Mk 5:36). Jesus counseled against being more concerned about those who threaten bodily harm, than the Evil One who attacks our very soul.
St. Thomas More had no ambitions to become a hero, let alone a martyr. He was a practical man who sought to live a peaceful life in accord with the blessings and talents God gave him. Robert Bolt, the author of the screenplay of the movie cited above, considered himself an agnostic and does not set out to portray the sanctity of More. Rather, he sees him as a champion of conscience.
Many are inclined to view the conflicts in our society in theological terms, conflicts between good and evil or, more dramatically, God and Satan. Of course they are! This has been going on since the Garden of Eden. For Christians, however, there is an even deeper reality, the conviction of the faith that the battle has already been won. As much as Satan and his minions might appear to be in control at times, his game is ultimately a charade, a lie.
We do not minimize the tragic effects of violence and oppression, the suffering that it brings to so many throughout the course of history and in our own time, from the womb to the tomb. Nonetheless, we will not submit to fear or those who deploy its many dark and devious devices.
If anything, it is a good way to gauge whether a movement or a messenger is from God or the Evil One.
In the words of the dialogue above, if God threatens, or appears to threaten, it is always with justice and goodness. Like Thomas More, then we are not threatened. If one is in a situation wherein he or she feels used or intimidated – as happens in all incidents of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or by gossip and innuendo in the neighborhood or workplace – take courage. One thing Evil cannot stand is exposure to the Light.
It might sound trite and simplistic to some, but the words of St. Francis endure: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” The “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, remains music to the soul. She had a special love for missionaries, for whom she prayed and sacrificed, offering up her little daily chores for them, sending her heart on an awesome journey by which she could unite with them and connect with their global mission.
Each of us, as disciples of Jesus, is on a heroic mission, to make Christ’s presence felt in the world. Wherever Jesus is, there is peace. That is his enduring gift to his disciples, to those who trust in him. Embrace it. Nurture it. Let it fill your heart. “Lord Jesus, I trust in you!” This is the echo of the prayer of the martyrs, those witnesses for whom nothing would separate them from the love of God – not fear, or even fear itself. Fear not! “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).