THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
FACE TO FACE WITH CHRIST
The superb Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach are familiar to those who know their choral music, but not so well known outside that circle. What the public is beginning to appreciate is something more accessible – the story of Christ’s Passion represented, and even reinterpreted, as secular drama.
The ability of drama to enliven and project religious messages was expressed in the Middle Ages in the form of the medieval mystery plays, which were suppressed at the Reformation, only to be rediscovered in the modern era. In this edition of The Tablet, our film critic, Francine Stock, describes the phenomenon of the Port Talbot Passion, which was a success beyond expectations when performed in the Welsh town of that name last year, and has now been made the basis of a film to be shown in cinemas this week, called The Gospel of Us. It is a modern story, but follows familiar steps: it speaks of presentday Port Talbot, but also of God’s care for humanity. Meanwhile, in a dozen locations round the country, Passion plays of various styles are being performed by mixed amateur and professional casts. One of them has even been scheduled for BBC television. They are proving so successful that this could easily become an exponential growth industry in years to come. Many church groups, particularly ecumenical bodies, look for some way of commemorating Good Friday by a joint act of public witness, such as by re-enacting the Via Dolorosa – a public procession centring on the carrying of a large cross followed by an open-air service. It is not difficult to imagine progressing from that to a full-scale Passion play. Good Friday processions can have a public impact, but do not plumb all the depths of meaning and mystery of the whole Passion narrative.
It is hard to find anything in ancient literature to compare with the four Passion accounts in the gospels, which are intriguingly different yet similar. Passions like the famous Oberammergau event and the medieval mystery plays – which usually included a Passion – tend to be eclectic in their treatment of the material. There is indeed no one narrative on which all four gospels concur, and to make a coherent drama out of the accounts takes some creative cutting and pasting with the texts. But the effort has proved well worthwhile.
The story is strong meat, everything a theatrical producer could wish for. There is conspiracy followed by betrayal, a court scene with cross-examination and a conviction based on perjured evidence, then an electrifying admission of the offence alleged, condemnation and torture, the prospect of reprieve, the vacillation of Pilate, the fury of the crowd (bribed, quite possibly) and then the final procession, humiliation and execution. The plot explores the mystery of suffering – why did God not intervene? – with profoundly disturbing themes at many levels, from abuse of power and the victimisation of the innocent, to the anguish of the victim’s mother, the desertion of friends, the sense of abandonment. It is a story of steadfast courage and dignity in the face of evil. The audience suffers with the victim but also shares in the guilt of the perpetrators. To take part in the Passion, even just as a watcher, is to be both harrowed and liberated – and, quite possibly, transformed. There is clearly an evangelistic tool here of enormous potential.
CASE OF JUST WAR
By any utilitarian calculation, the Falklands War was not worth fighting. Victory brought no advantage to Britain, only the expensive requirement henceforth to maintain an enlarged garrison and airbase. Combat cost many lives, ships and aircraft on both sides. The prize in dispute, the Falklands archipelago in the South Atlantic, was of little economic or military value. About the only gain for humanity was the overthrow of the military dictatorship in Argentina, when the population turned against it after losing the fight.
The islanders, around 2,000 of them, simply regained what they had already – British citizenship, and the human and civil rights that went with it. But few in Britain now question the morality of the military response to the Argentine invasion, which began 30 years ago this week. The consensus is that the government of the day had little choice, just as successive governments have been ready to defend the islands militarily again should the need arise.
Defence of the principle involved – the “right of selfdetermination of peoples” enshrined in the United Nations Charter – was expensive but necessary. That right was the basis on which Britain withdrew from its empire as its colonies lined up to demand independence. Those left, the Falklands included, are those which prefer to linger in what remains of the British empire, in most cases because it is preferable to other conceivable fates – such as, in the Falklands’ case, being absorbed into Argentina. Argentina bases its claim on disputed historical circumstances as to how, when and by whom the islands had been settled (or abandoned) 180 years ago,
and the argument that after its own self-determining revolution at the start of the nineteenth century it succeeded to the territorial possessions of the previous Spanish empire.
The right of self-determination trumps all claims based on historical possession. On the basis of occupation by conquest, few nations could feel entirely comfortable. By what right did Spain dispossess the Amerindians, who occupied the whole South American land mass before the conquering European colonists arrived? By what right, indeed, did Argentinian military forces capture, kill or expel the native peoples who had scratched a living in Patagonia since time immemorial, in the notorious Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s?
In answer to the right of self-determination, the Argentinians simply challenge the Falkland islanders’ claim to be called a “people” in terms of the UN Charter. There is no legal definition, although Britain has twice started proceedings under international law – in both cases frustrated by Argentinian non-cooperation – to clear up the point. The only real issue is whether there are enough islanders to constitute a people. They have their own identity and internal self-government, their own flag, stamps, currency, history, schools, health service, industry, media and law enforcement; they are economically self-sufficient. Nevertheless, there are still only about 3,000 of them. Whether they have their own culture is a moot point – Port Stanley has been described as a miniature Sussex seaside town, which is not necessarily a compliment.
But the islanders’ right to be a “people” is solid enough to make Argentina’s claim to sovereignty manifestly unreasonable and unjust. It does Argentina no credit. It should move on.
2 | THE TABLET | 7 April 2012