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Conscientious objectors

June 22, 2015

The Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More

Monday 22 June 2015               2 Maccabees 6:18,21,24-31               Matthew 24:4-13

Saint John Fisher died on this day in 1535 and Saint Thomas More two weeks later. Bishop John Fisher was 66, Thomas More was 57. They were both martyred on a matter of conscience, defending the Church from encroachment by the secular world, a false idea that the rulers of this world can redefine matters of morality simply by changing the human law.

Why were John Fisher and Thomas More martyred? Because Henry VIII had declared, by Act of Parliament, in defiance of the Holy Catholic Church, that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had never existed. It was politically expedient for the King to divorce Catherine and marry Ann Boleyn because Henry desperately desired a wife who could bear him a male heir.

Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More refused to support a law that tried to re-define marriage in order to achieve a political end. Henry VIII’s legislation was attempting to claim as human territory that which had been ordained by God. Henry ‘drew a line in the sand’ with his legislation. He had had enough of people undermining him. He declared himself, quote, “Supreme Head of the Church of England, and to have authority to reform and redress all errors, heresies and abuses in the same”. The King’s claims to authority exceeded his worldly competence, and went against the consciences of today’s two martyrs. John Fisher and Thomas More crossed that line in the sand and submitted to death rather than go against their consciences to bend their knee to worldly power.

Our first reading today reminds us of an earlier example of a similar situation with the story of Eleazar and the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes. As a matter of interest, it was Antiochus Epiphanes who gave us the expression “line in the sand”. He invaded Egypt, a bit like Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In 169BC a solitary, elderly Roman ambassador intercepted the leader of the invading army and told him that the Roman Senate insisted he withdraw from Egypt. When Antiochus tried to fudge the issue and avoid answering, the ambassador drew a circular line in the sand around the invader. The Roman ambassador then demanded an answer before he stepped out of the circle in the sand. Antiochus capitulated and withdrew from Egypt. Crisis over.

What is very significant is that he story of 90 year-old Eleazar took place within a year of Antiochus being humiliated by that Roman ambassador: to re-assert his power and authority Antiochus picked on a people he thought he could beat – just like Saddam Hussein, defeated over his invasion of Kuwait, then turned on the helpless Kurds. Antoichus turned on the Jews. He outlawed their religious rites and traditions and ordered the Jews to worship only Zeus. It was this assertion of power

Eleazar refused to worship such a false God – eating pork was a sign of abandoning the one true God. Can you now see how this story gripped the imagination of the oppressed Jewish people? A single Roman ambassador can challenge Antiochus and win because behind him is threat of the Roman army; Yet the injustice – only a year later, the elderly, solitary Eleazar, backed by the moral authority of the true God, is martyred.

Eleazar, John Fisher and Thomas More each found themselves in the classic situation of being individuals held in high esteem who find themselves forced by immoral legislation and regulations into confrontation with officials and politicians. The worldly leaders assert their authority but quietly want people in private to compromise. As is usual in these circumstances – people say things like they said to Eliazar – “they took him aside and privately urged him to have meat brought of a kind he could properly use, prepared by himself, and only pretend to eat the portions of sacrificial meat as prescribed by the king.” Note the pretence. With morals, there can be no pretence. Something is either true (i.e. the way it should be) or it is not true but false. You can’t pretend false is true when worshipping and honouring God.

And it’s usually the regulations, implemented by officials, that are the actual point of impact of immoral legislation – we hear all sorts of soothing noises during parliamentary debates about how no-one will be “forced” to do things that go against their conscience. But once the officials start interpreting the regulations, as they say, the rubber hits the road. We need to be ready for the consequences of challenging immoral laws. We have seen things like this before. Stand by for the warning signs: there will be disadvantages for those who do not co-operate with the new law (medics who abide by conscience clauses in the Abortion Act); there will be isolation and exclusion for people who do not co-operate (Catholic adoption agencies); people will plead with us to be reasonable; people will argue that it will all go away. Then there will be denunciations; highly publicized cases; fines; imprisonment. We have been down this road in this country before.

As we heard in today’s gospel, being a follower of Jesus Christ is not an easy path. When challenged, many will fall away and pretend what is false is true; people will denounce and betray others.

We have examples in Eleazar, John Fisher and Thomas More of three heroic examples of glorious memory who serve as role models for us today. And precisely as Jesus told us, those “who stands firm to the end will be saved”.

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