Cambridge City of Sanctuary: With just a wooden sword, the folly and the power of the “as if”

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

An brief introduction to the Cities of Sanctuary project: Last week an initial, exploratory meeting of this group was held in our church (attended by thirty people from a variety of faith communities) to see how we can take the project forward in Cambridge.

A prayer by George Kimmich Beach was read before the address:

God of justice and love, may your spirit be strong among as this day. The human needs we see about as are so many, so diverse, so weighty, so complex — leaving us to wonder: am I, or are we, strong enough to face all this? No, we are not ... and yet, how can we not not be? God, may your spirit be our strength. 

When weariness overtakes us, we need your spirit to rekindle our hearts with compassion. When confusion besets us, we need your spirit to renew our minds. When strife and self-defeat stop us, we need your spirit to help as find a way to reconciliation, confidence, and peace. 

We know. As people of faith we have seen and felt these self-recognitions of heart and mind. We come together to be reminded that, together. we can accomplish wonders. We join together this day to celebrate the strength we have found in this dedicated voluntary association that is our community, to remember the people whom we serve, to thank those who have given generously, that our community may be large-hearted in its caring, and to thank those volunteers among us who, most of all, have helped make good things happen time and time again.

God of justice and love, for all this and more, we thank thee, each of as in the understanding of our faith. Amen.



Last week I brought before you the thought that a certain kind of symbolic non-doing can be a very effective way of persuading people to change their minds and behaviour on important matters of religious, political and social justice. Remember this was not to advocate doing nothing at all but it was to advocate seriously considering the thought that we might get some important things done by engaging in highly visible and powerfully symbolic non-doings (—things that seem to people held in the thrall of the current status quo ways of viewing the world to be pointless, meaningless and futile, such as doodling in the sand, sitting quietly behind one’s desk smiling and thinking and apparently doing no work at all, and of pushing TVs around the streets in prams or wheelbarrows).

Today I’d like to remind you of something connected with this way of proceeding that lies at the birth of our own liberal religious movement in Poland some four hundred years ago and which, to my mind, helps show that a concern to help the refugee and asylum seekers fleeing violence, war and oppression is, or should be, central in our institutional memory.

This address is an attempt to jog to that memory and to do that I want to start in what may seem to be an unusual way . . . 

Like many people I have very fond memories of playing with a wooden sword when my friends and I would fight imaginary battles against each other and imaginary dragons in the back gardens of our respective homes. That was jolly good fun but the most fun I ever had with a wooden sword was being allowed to play with it in a ruined castle, Caernarvon I seem to remember, whilst on a long summer holiday in Wales, a veritable wonderland of filled with dragons.

In the late 1960s and early 70s I had to bring with me my own homemade sword or, failing that, I needed to find the least knobbly stick to hand and work hard, very hard, at imagining it was in fact a slender and shining sword. However, as many of you will know, these days at many castle ruins you will today find well-stocked shops full of sexy gifts ranging from the more-or-less pointless to the highly educative and, occasionally, even genuinely useful. Somewhere in between there are, yes, you've guessed it, wooden swords. Really good ones too, along with shields, bows and arrows and even costumes and plastic armour. In many, many ways I regret the way the heritage industry has begun to sanitize and commercialise our ancient history but I must admit that I never pass through a shop in one of the new gleaming visitor centres without looking longingly at those wooden swords.

Some of you may remember that three years ago I finally succumbed to temptation and bought one, not at a castle, but from the toy shop here in town; a bargain at four quid. I bought it on impulse, ostensibly for my wife Susanna’s grandson Harrison but, since I still haven't given it to him I clearly bought it for myself.

Now, what has all this to do with our religious community and it’s relationship to refugees and asylum seekers? Well, as many of you will know, our church's chief forebears were the sixteenth-century Polish Brethren, often called Socinians after their leading theologian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604). Socinus and his uncle were religious and intellectual refugees from Italy who, driven out by a fear of persecution and even death by the Catholic Counter Reformation who feared their liberal and critical ideas they eventually found sanctuary in a community of Polish mystical, pacifist, anabaptists. We are, therefore, rooted in a strange and wonderful mix of Renaissance Christian humanism and mystical anabaptism that might be described as being a community of “free-thinking mystics”.
This community was formally founded on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny following what became known as the first synod of the "Minor Reformed Church of Poland". It was convened after Peter Gonesius (Piotr of Goniądz) had spoken out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in Secemin in January of the same year.

In addition to their well-known affirmation of Jesus' humanity and the unity of God (which is why, of course, we needed up with the name of “Unitarians”) they affirmed a number of important things which, today, we still affirm. Namely, the complete separation of church and state, the equality of all people, an opposition to social privileges based on religious affiliation and last, but not least, a passionate commitment to non-violent means of protest and political action. In the case of our forebears this latter belief primarily played out in connection with their opposition to military conscription and it was here that that they made a wonderful symbolic intervention.

At that time it was obligatory for every male in Poland to wear a szabla, a distinctive kind of Polish sabre, in order to show their readiness to intervene violently on behalf of the state. Naturally, this presented a huge stumbling block for the Brethren. Their stroke of genius was to agree to wearing swords publicly to fulfil the law but, as you may already have guessed, the swords they then chose to wear were made, not of sharpened steel, but of wood — in effect, they began to wear toy swords.

Though it may have been a stroke of genius it is important to realise that, in their own immediate local context, it was a symbolic intervention which failed. The Polish Brethren were always very small group in Poland and as the Counter-Reformation made advances in Poland their radical, liberalising critical theology and non-violent and tolerant stance towards those who thought differently to them ensured that they were further marginalised by what was becoming an increasingly intolerant and violent society. They did not survive this shift in attitude and their church community was eventually dissolved on July 20 1658 when the Polish parliament (the Sejm) expelled them from Poland. Now stateless they were forced to flee westwards and, as refugees, to seek asylum and sanctuary particularly in Holland, England and later the New World. It was within these communities that many important ideas associated with the Enlightenment and modern democracies were fostered and slowly allowed to develop and mature.

Surely a memory of this traumatic flight from violence and oppression and also its beautiful, liberalising intellectual, religious and political fruit should be predispose us to be one of those communities who, when we are asked in a couple of weeks, will choose publicly to pledge our support to the nascent City of Sanctuary project here in Cambridge?

But I realise I need to acknowledge one common, deeply felt reason for choosing not to get involved in such a project, namely that the resources available to us (material and spiritual) can seem to be too insignificant to make any real difference to such a monumental ongoing situation that, in various ways, has recently begun to  trigger some dark events in the UK and across Europe. The temptation is simply, therefore to do nothing.

But our forbear’s symbolic intervention with the wooden sword has a lesson to teach us on this matter too. Although for our forbears in their own life times there was in Poland no final, decisive victory of peaceful over violent action, they nonetheless remained committed to wearing their wooden swords “as if” this act had already finally overcome the darkness of violence. It is this “as if” attitude that continues to inspire me to try to follow in their footsteps and to behave “as if” it were already true that not only non-violence was the norm but so to was the welcome amongst us of refugees and asylum seekers.

The subtle point I want to make is that many of the political and religious acts we regularly engage in, though valuable and helpful in many ways, often do nothing more than re-enforce already existing status quos — in such acts nothing transformationally important is ever really addressed nor begun. On the other hand "as if" events, those small scale symbolic, gentle, non-violent but nevertheless challenging tries or grasps at creating a better world may not look at all impressive, and may even seem to have failed in their moment of articulation, but, in truth, they often carry within them a truly revolutionary, insurrectionary and visionary power that is capable of bringing to birth the sense that there can be a real radical overturning of our old and violent ways which are real, concrete expressions of the kingdom of God itself. Jesus own life, and the lives of our Polish ancestors, bears eloquent witness to the truth of this.

This kind remembrance always reminds me of a verse in the Bhagavad-gītā:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty (2.47).

And nearly everyday of my life, in one way or another, I ask myself the question posed by George Kimmich Beach in his prayer we heard earlier:

"The human needs we see about us are so many, so diverse, so weighty, so complex – leaving us to wonder: am I, or are we, strong enough to face all this?"

And everyday I answer, as does Beach: "No we are not" and, on my worst day,s I admit that this recognition leaves me feeling utterly depressed and enervated. But, as Beach continues, we are also always forced to ask: "and yet, how can we not be [strong enough]?"

As the Bhagavad-gītā says, and Jesus and the Polish Brethren showed, it is our duty only to try and so I find that, on my good days and the bad, I can only pray "God, may your spirit be our strength” and then, figuratively speaking, strap on my wooden sword and do my best to support and participate in visionary projects like Cities of Sanctuary.

As do so many other vitally important projects concerned with issues of social justice, when viewed in a certain way this project can sometimes look futile; there are few volunteers, few places where refugees and asylum seekers can be housed, it is to push against a resurgent populist nationalism that is beginning successfully to demonise all kinds of “incomers” and, lastly but not leastly, the number of people we might be able to help is so small beside the vanishingly large number of displaced people who exist today in our world. 

Faced with these facts, and others, none of us can live with the certain expectation that the good WILL come to pass and that we WILL overcome — not even Jesus could do that, as his cry on the cross revealed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But, nevertheless, his followers (then as now) continued as if God had not forsaken him, or them. In this tradition we, too, stand.

You may say that living in this "as if" fashion is a folly but did not St Paul point out that trying to create the peaceable kingdom of God on earth by following Jesus in the way of the cross will always seem to many in the world to be a utter folly. However, St Paul also reminds us that this “folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.” And it seems to me that the real power for real change never lies in the sharp, sword-like certainty of belief, nor in traditional strong and often violent political or religious interventions, but always and only in the folly of gentle, non-violent, weak wooden sword-like uncertain interventions of the “as if” — interventions in which people are inspired to live here and now ”as if” the good WILL has come to pass and “as if” we HAVE overcome.


The service concluded by singing together the song "We shall overcome"


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