Some General Reflections

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Some General Reflections

From W. T. Stead, The Story that Transformed the World or the Passion Play at Oberammergau 1890 (1890), ch VI. pp. 158-160

I shrink from setting down exactly what I thought during the Passion Play and what I have thought of it since. But if I may be pardoned for describing an experience that although personal is at least genuine, I may as well set down what it suggested to me. The story of the Passion has ever been real to me in another than a Catholic sense. It has been the perpetual re-incarnation of the Divine story in the history of our own times that has absorbed my attention. These ancient figures on the stage of New Testament history were but of importance in so far as they lived again in our own life. Of their mystical theological significance I am, of course, not speaking. That is a thing apart. But the perpetual re-incarnation of God’s Messiah in the great causes of Justice, Freedom, and Humanity, it is that which has made the Gospel story ever new to me. Hence when I saw the old personages walk on the stage in their ancient conventional garb, I was for a time almost puzzled by the confusing multitude of associations which they awoke.

One of my earliest recollections, born as I was in the house of a Nonconformist minister, was of the struggle of the Nonconformists against all manner of religious disabilities inflicted and enforced by the State at the behest of the Established Church. The first Annas and Caiaphas whom I remember meeting in daily life were Anglican Churchmen who thrust Quakers into jail to extort payment of Church-rates, who barred the doors of the Universities against Nonconformists and then taunted us for our ignorance, and who even at the graveside insisted upon depriving us of the last poor consolation of a parting word of prayer by the grave of our dead. The Sanhedrim was Convocation, and the priests and Pharisees were the Established clergy.

When a mere schoolboy, Annas and Caiaphas passed into the secular sphere. The American war was raging, the end of which was to be the extirpation of American slavery. The war for the Union became, in Lowell’s phrase, “God’s new Messiah,” and all those who aided and abetted the South and helped it, as did Mr. Roebuck by his speeches, Mr. Laird with his Alabama, or the Times by its constant taunts levelled against the North, seemed to be only too faithful followers of those who, nineteen hundred years ago, had betrayed Jesus of Nazareth.

When I entered journalism, the supreme crime which tempted the English to ruin was war with Russia. When the Russo-Turkish war was over, and the Jingo fever was at its height, I remember writing a leading article entitled “Reflections on Good Friday,” in which I set out, in plain outspoken Saxon, my reasons for believing that if Lord Beaconsfield were permitted to plunge us into war in order to prevent the liberation of Bulgaria, we should, as a nation, be more guilty, because sinning against greater light, than were the Jews who crucified Jesus, or the Romans who allowed him to be put to death. So strongly was this impression upon me that, when Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea got up and left the Sanhedrim rather than share in the blood-guiltiness of those who pressed for the crucifixion of Christ, I was reminded irresistibly of the great struggle of 1878, in which Lord Carnarvon and Lord Derby played the rôle of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, leaving the Cabinet which Lord Beaconsfield then seemed to be hurrying into war as resolutely as Caiaphas pressed forward the Crucifixion.

After I left Darlington and came to London, the causes which have seemed to me to have most of Christ in them have been the cause of Woman and the cause of the Poor. The struggle against injustice the most foul, and of hardships compared with which those of men seem trivial, has had many vicissitudes, and is still far from being fought out. But I felt somewhat as if an injustice had been done when the same crowd that acclaimed Christ’s entry in Jerusalem was brought on to the stage—even the children—to demand His crucifixion. Jerusalem was big enough to afford two crowds. I remember not so many years ago a cause which was cheered from Hyde Park to Charing Cross, shortly afterwards being hooted from Bow Street to Clerkenwell gaol. But it was not the same people who cheered in the one case and hooted in the other. Incidents in the struggle for the cause of woman would form as effective illustrated tableaux leading up to the incidents in the Passion as any of those which Herr Daisenberger selected from the Old Testament.

There was one scene in the Passion Play that reminded me irresistibly of Trafalgar Square. When the money-changers were cleared out of the Temple, they rushed indignantly to make complaint to the Sanhedrim, where they poured their sorrows into the sympathetic ear of Nathanael. It was just like the deputation of Charing Cross shopkeepers to the Home Secretary, which led to the filching of the Square from the people. And when watching the development of the drama, how often it reminded me of what passed three years ago at our very doors. Balbus and Malchus hustle Christ roughly along to the guardroom, pretty much as Sir Charles Warren’s Endicotts marched off the victims of Bloody Sunday to the nearest police-station. But our police were more brutal than the soldiers of Ober Ammergau. And even the scourging seemed to recall memories of the Black-hole in Scotland Yard when on the night of Bloody Sunday the police entered the cells where the prisoners lay helpless and bâtoned them until they were black and blue and bloody without any redress ever having been afforded them from that day to this. Our Pilates and Herods and money-changers were well content that such things should be. It was well that the mob should be taught a lesson. As it was in Palestine, so it is in London, and so it ever will be where helpless justice pleads in vain before the insolent tribunal of wealth and power.

The cause of Ireland is another of those Christs of to-day which were brought vividly before me at Ober Ammergau. Nathanael, the fierce, bitter, unscrupulous foe of the Nazarene, who went out and suborned false witnesses to come and testify against the accused, was he not the very image of the Times newspaper in a horned hat? It was the Parnell Commission all over again, with half-a-dozen Pigotts all in a row.

When the rulers met and conspired together as to how they could destroy Jesus the tableau that illustrated it to me was not the old-world story of Joseph and his brethren, but a scene which I witnessed not many years ago in Basingstoke. The success of the Salvation Army in reclaiming drunkards had so seriously jeopardised the trade of the publicans that they determined to crush the obnoxious evangelists by foul means. In this they found active sympathisers in high places. A brewer was Mayor at the time, and when I arrived in the town I came by the merest chance upon a clump of his friends who were eagerly discussing how to make a put-up job of a riot so as to justify his worship in reading the Riot Act in order to call out the soldiery and disperse the Salvationists. The plan was ingenious and simple, and I afterwards saw it carried out in the full light of day. “You push me,” said one worthy, “when the Army comes along. I will push back. You cry ‘Violence, violence!’ The Mayor will read the Riot Act, and then out come the soldiers, and we shall crush the Salvation Army!” As it was said, so it was done. The publican’s Skeleton procession, with tin kettles and banners of rags and newspapers, marched backwards and forwards in front of the Salvationists’ barracks. The moment the procession of the Salvationists came out the prearranged comedy was gone through; the Mayor read the Riot Act, and in a few minutes a troop of artillerymen, mounted and armed, were trampling their way through the crowd, which fled in all directions. But there is no end to the tableaux that might be prepared from the record of the struggle of the Salvation Army against the publicans and their backers on the Bench. Christ before Herod received quite as kindly a treatment as that which many a Salvationist captain has received from the hands of an English magistrate.

Then the scene changed, and I was in Russia. Whose features were those that I saw under the gorgeous head-dress of the President of the Sanhedrim? Surely, none other than those of the Pobedenostzeff, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, raging in his orthodox zeal against the sectaries who dared to obey Christ in their own fashion. Exile, imprisonment, punishment are meted out by him as by a second Caiaphas to all who oppose the most holy law and the orthodoxy which is the pillar and mainstay of the Russian State. The ridicule and scorn with which Herod greeted “the King of the Fools,” whom he dismissed with jeers from his judgment-seat, were faint echoes of the derision with which cultivated St. Petersburg hailed the propaganda of the Paschkoffski. It is ever so. In England, in Russia, as in Palestine —

By the light of burning heretics Christ’s bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.

It is easy to recognise the traditional and conventional Christ who lived and was crucified in the centuries long since departed. It is another thing to identify Him to-day in the causes which He inspires, and in the great movements which are the Gesta Christi of our time. Most of us who worship Him to-day would make short work of Him if He came to earth once more as He came in Palestine. As an Englishman said to the Tzarewitch, “If Jesus Christ came to the world again, and attempted to deliver the Sermon on the Mount in the streets of St. Petersburg, General Gresser would clap Him in prison in no time.” The Christ is ever in the front. It is as easy to be Christian when Christianity is triumphant as it is to be wise after the event.

For Humanity sweeps onward!
Where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas with the gold within his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready, and the crackling faggots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return,
To glean up the scattered ashes into History’s golden urn.

Thus the whole drama of contemporary history lives once again in these old-world figures. The faces under the head-dresses are continually changing, but the spirit is the same. And only in proportion as I identify these types with the men and causes in the midst of which we live and struggle from day to day does the battle of life have much zest or meaning for me.

Leaving Ober Ammergau, I returned by Switzerland to London. At Lucerne, while waiting for the train, I turned over the book in the waiting-room that describes the construction of the Gotthard Railway. About one thousand tons of dynamite, it is said, had sufficed to pierce the tunnels through the mountain barrier that separared Italy from Switzerland. Blasting powder could never have done the work. That helped to level the military roads for the legions of Suwarrow. It needed dynamite to tunnel the St. Gotthard—dynamite directed by Science—and, as I read this, I fell a-thinking. The old story, that mediaeval Christ in magenta and pearl grey, with his disciples in artistic symphonies of harmonious and contrasted colour, no doubt, transformed the world. But a new world has arisen which sorely needs transforming again, and is it not possible that the conventional Christ, who, no doubt, did mighty things in the past, may have become as obsolete as blasting powder? May we not hope that if the conventional Christ did so much, the real Christ may do much more; that the realisation of the Christ as he actually lived and died amongst us may be as much superior in its transforming efficacy as the dynamite of the modern engineer is to the powder sack of the soldiers who marched under old Suwarrow? Of one thing we may at least be certain, and that is, if every one of those who call themselves by the Christian name could but say one Christ-like word, and do one Christ-like deed between every sunrise and sunset, it would lift a very Alpine mass of sorrow and anxiety from the weary heart of the world. What then might not be done if in very truth, and with all sincerity, we, each of us, tried to be a real Christ in his or her sphere, the sent of God in the midst of those with whom we pass our lives?

One word more and I have done. I have spoken of the endless shifting of features under the same turban. In this also Ober Ammergau supplies a timely lesson. The actors play different parts as they grow old. They begin with being children in the tableaux, and they pass in turn from one rôle to another. The Judas of this year was the Apostle John of 1880. The Apostle John of to-day will probably be the Christ of 1900. When the Christ was selected in 1870, he was chosen out of four competitors. One of the unsuccessful to-day plays King Herod, the other Pontius Pilate. So is it ever in real life. Few indeed are those who are always Christs. When Christians ceased to be martyrs they martyred their enemies. The Church came from the catacombs to establish the Inquisition. In our own lives we may be Christs to-day and atheists to-morrow. Power and opportunity destroy more Christs than the dungeon and the stake. And perhaps one reason why the Ober-Ammergauers have been able to give us the Christ we see this year is because in their secluded valley they have remained poor and humble in spirit, and have never ceased to remember the story that transformed the world.