19/08/2020
Tani Newton
Opinion
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The Problem with Books

I have a problem that I'd like to share with you. It's a problem that I face from my perspective as a Christian, but I think many people of other persuasions will see a close parallel to their own experience.

My problem is this. I don't know what books to read to my children any more.

You see, I've brought them up on stories of martyrs and heroes of the faith, from Daniel of old, through the catacombs and killing fields of history, to the persecuted church in China and Iran and Sudan and much of the world today. We always trusted that those stories, our family stories and our family history as Christians, would equip and inspire us to meet the unique challenges of our own times.

Now we face the moment of truth, and somehow it's all different. Instead of Roman soldiers knocking on the door demanding that we offer a sacrifice to the gods, we're going to have the New Zealand army telling us that we have to go to a testing centre for medical treatment. We know that it violates every principle of justice and liberty, of sound government and the rule of law, for the army to be deployed against the citizens in this way, or to enforce the things that they are to be enforcing. But when we read the martyr stories, we forgot to notice this crucial detail: that the enemy would be our own friends and neighbours, and their persecution of the innocent would be seen to be for the common good. We have read that many, many times in the Bible itself. But we still forgot that it would be us and it would be real.

The trouble is, the books are only written later, when the times have changed and the world has passed judgement on the events it can look back on. The heroes of the times did not have the luxury of reading their own stories. They had to live them, and when they lived them, they were not stories of heroic suffering. They were stories of petty foolishness, of refusing to be reasonable and tolerate a few insignificant compromises. They were stories of people who embarrassed their families and friends, who made endless headaches for minor officials, who simply refused to listen to reason. They were stories of people with their heads in the clouds, going on and on about silly ideals which might have been alright in other times, but which clearly must be sacrificed just now for some version of the greater good.

And the books often leave out (the Bible doesn't) the most painful aspect of the whole thing: that those who stand for right until they are ignominiously stuck down, who speak the truth until their tongues are cut out of their mouths, are often separated from their own brothers and sisters in Christ, and their dearest friends plead with them to change their minds. Their own churches may denounce them, their own parents disown them.

So I don't know what to read my children any more. I look at the bookshelf and think perhaps I will quietly draw a curtain across it. Perhaps we will play a game of Scrabble.

But it's too late for that. I can't change the fact that I've read the books already. I can't change the fact that I can also read the times I live in. I know the narrative is a crock. I know the future will look back in amazement at how gullible people were in the old days, and how willing to sacrifice principle for convenience, or freedom for the illusion of safety. My children must make their own choices as far as it is their responsibility, but the time has come for me to be one of those silly, silly people who just make fuss and bother when everyone should be uniting to deal with what is clearly a singular emergency. I will not wear a mask. I will not use hand sanitiser. I will not stand on a black X. I will not give details for contact tracing. I will not be tested. I will not be vaccinated. I will not be fitted with any kind of tracking device. My cellphone is lying in a drawer, uncharged.

And I have faced and accepted the fact that I will have to be prepared to stand alone, and I will have to take the consequences of my actions. Family and friends will distance themselves from me. Churches will stand empty and silent, their cold bricks and blank windows registering a passive complicity. Frightened faces will pass me on the street, furtively skirting me in a two-metre radius, eyes averted to avoid human contact. I do not know what will happen. I do not know if we will be able to get food. I do not know if we will be dragged from our home to a concentration camp. I do not know if I will read my beloved books again.  But I know without a shadow of a doubt that, out of whatever record survives and whatever remains from the cataclysms of these times, those who resisted will be judged to have been right. The only alternative is for all the rest of history to have been wrong.

So I will take down a book, while the sun is still shining and my hands are still untied. I will read without cavil, and I hope I may never have to read with shame, of Martin Luther saying "Here I stand"... Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat... Ridley and Latimer chained back-to-back to the stake... Perpetua walking into the amphitheatre... and remember that they, in their own times, were judged to be petty, silly, selfish people who wouldn't give up a little freedom for their own and others' benefit. I will try, by God's grace, to remember that the great martyrs were characterised not only by their unflagging faith but by their unflagging courtesy, even to their tormentors. And I will try to see in their stories what the books often fail to mention - that there were equally good and better people who faced the same circumstances and who made the choice which history has judged to be wrong. That is the deep and bitter agony, for the flawed and grubby saint standing on the martyr's ground - to see truly better and more worthy Christians who have misjudged the times, earning their own ignominy and the shame of their descendants.

And this is what the martyrs were hated for, isn't it? That insufferable arrogance, the intolerable conviction of being right. Not only must they make reams of paperwork for people who have enough to do, they must cast themselves as heroes for doing it. I know how silly and childish it all seems. I know how much embarrassment it causes. I've thought about all that. But, as Martin Luther said, I can do no other. So help me God.