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St Stephen

Today the Church commemorates the death of the first Christian martyr – St Stephen. Since then, uncountable millions of Christians have perished for their faith, a pattern that still continues, and most tragically, in the lands where the Faith first took root. The stories of the Syriac and Iraqi Christians who have died rather than convert to Islam remind one of two things: the barbarism of their enemies; and the fact that there are people in this world who will die rather than renounce Christ. One wonders how many in the West would follow that example.

Seldom has Yeats’ The Second Coming seemed more apposite:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Yeats wrote in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Great War. The more time passes, the more it becomes clear how catastrophic it was. It shattered not only the wealth and the borders of old Europe, but also its spirit and self-confidence. The optimism of the Victorian era gave way to a sense of nihilism and relativity; who could say what was right and wrong when those who had given a lead for so long had, in fact, led people into the disasters of 1914-1918? Any sense that there were those who ‘knew better’ and should be deferred to was shaken, shattered, and gradually ebbed away across time. The obvious evil of Hitler and later of Stalin’s USSR gave the West a second wind in so far as the barbarians provided a common enemy against which civilisation could rally, but since the end of the old Soviet Bloc, there has been no replacement for that enemy, and we echo the sentiment expressed by Cavafy in his Waiting for the Barbarians:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
 
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

 

They were, indeed, and 2014 has provided another set of barbarians for us to coalesce against. But it is unclear that our leaders have either the will or the authority to fight these people with any degree of success.

Yes, it is true that the Islamic State has been held, but not that it has been contained. The courage and resolve of the Kurds, allied with air-strikes from our forces, has meant that ISIS has not achieved its objective of a quick take-over of the Middle East, but without the famous ‘boots on the ground’, it remains unclear how it is to be extirpated.

In the meantime, in the lands St Stephen knew, his spiritual descendants continue to give a witness that ought to stir us to action.