Quaker school’s Headmaster, Jonathan Taylor, spoke to the Bootham School community about the juxtaposition of good and evil in those who have fallen spectacularly from favour.
If you were a super hero, what would you choose to have as your special power? Would you want to fly? To climb walls and stick to ceilings? To melt away at will, to avoid detection?
I’ve been thinking about two superheroes this week.
The first was an entertainer, a ‘personality’ – slightly wacky, always cheerful, and a tireless worker for charity and good causes. He raised millions of pounds for hospitals. He helped children who were terminally ill, by arranging outings and visits which fulfilled their hopes and dreams. When he died, there was an outpouring of affection from all generations, and everyone said that we had lost a national treasure.
And then. You know the story – it’s Jimmy Savile’s story: it seems that he wasn’t as nice as we all thought. He was a sexual predator, a rapist, a molester of young girls – so the allegations go, and there are many now emerging from across the country.
What is your reaction to this story?
The cynical response will be to say that every hero is actually hiding something, that no-one is really any good, everyone is on the make, and we cannot trust anyone. It’s the way some people feel about politicians, or the Roman Catholic church. The American cyclist Lance Armstrong has similarly undermined our belief in sporting achievement: the seven-times winner of the Tour de France has been exposed as a mastermind of drugs cheating. Millions of people feel let down.
I hope, though, that an intelligent response is more generous than this. A sceptical response would suggest that we do indeed need to be careful about the idea of ‘heroes’. Only in the world of the comic does good and evil lie so clearly separated. You know that, as a superhero, with whatever special powers you have, you will win, because you are on the side of good, and good triumphs over evil. But the real world isn’t like that.
The real world is full of people whose brilliance and genius in one sphere is undercut by inadequacy in another: the astonishing artist who mistreats his family; the composer of heart-stirring symphonies which will be listened to for centuries whose personal life is a mess; the Nobel prize-winning poet whose politics we abhor.
The other superhero I’ve been thinking about this week is a man who suffered terribly in a war. He was captured by the enemy, and tortured. He suffered slave-labour, waterboarding, sleep-deprivation and appallingly cruel treatment. On one occasion, he decided to throw himself down a stairway in order to injure himself – he decided that time in an enemy field hospital would be the only way he could survive.
Luckily, this man’s side won the war, and he was released from his prison. But he couldn’t escape from the events which had physically scarred him: he was mentally affected, too. He was intensely angry. He couldn’t live a normal, social life. His marriage broke up. In the end – and this was nearly 70 years ago – he decided to undergo psychological therapy to try to deal with all the evil which had left its mark on his life. After many years of treatment, he decided that he must seek out the man who had tortured him.
Eric Lomax – a name perhaps not so well known as Jimmy Savile – met the interpreter who had interrogated him, a man called Takashi Nagase, on the bridge over the river Kwai, which had been the scene of his forced labour. Filled with hatred, Lomax nevertheless pressed on with the meeting, and discovered a route to peace and reconciliation. Nagase himself had been filled with guilt about his part in the war, and had tried to exorcize this through writing a book, called Crosses and Tigers. He had also financed a Buddhist Temple at the bridge by way of atonement. The men became firm friends. ‘Continuing to hate gets you nowhere,’ Lomax said. ‘It just damages you as an individual. At some point, the hating has to stop.’
Two stories about good and evil: in the first, it seems as though the evil is overwhelming the good. In the second, the remarkable turn-around is the good that can surface again, even after such unspeakable evil.
There’s no glib morality about this: just a recognition that the world is more complicated than sometimes we make it out to be. As intelligent, educated and thinking people, we owe it to ourselves to remember that. But is there any conclusion which we can draw; is there anything which the Quaker faith can offer in support?
Perhaps this: look for the good in everyone; draw it out, build on that, and cherish it. Jimmy Savile, it seems, did terrible things, which we condemn. But does that take away from his good works?
Secondly, the exhortation ‘Let your life speak’ springs from the Quaker testimony of Truth. Ideally, we would all live transparent lives, where the goodness is not undercut by evil. Actually, we all know this to be less frequently the case than we might like, and we are all a mix of good and bad. But having an aim to live up to is no bad thing.
And about that super-power you chose at the beginning of this piece. They’re great in comics, and films. But they aren’t actually available to us humans. Unless, of course, we choose a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation.