In dialogue with Socrates 2: Who is an Enemy of the State?

14 October 2007 at :00 am

They risked their lives for something most of us take for granted: a free vote in a free election. I would like to be silent for a moment to hold these brave people in our prayers as just now – morning here, but evening in Burma - they must be going through some of their darkest hours. …

We have been thinking of the brave people of Burma. Let us also remember another man of incredible bravery, whose statue was unveiled not a hundred yards from where I am speaking on August 29th this year. As a young lawyer, Nelson Mandela was deeply impressed by the example of Ghandi and his strategy of non-violent protest. But after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when 69 Africans on a peaceful march were killed by the South African police, and hundreds more were wounded, he came to accept that the ANC would have to embrace violence. The emphasis for Mandela was always on acts of sabotage which would make South Africa ungovernable under an apartheid regime. He sought to avoid acts that would kill and maim human beings, though he knew that was always a possibility. He was arrested and charged, first with sabotage, then with plotting to enable an outside power to overthrow the government, which was treason. He admitted the first and was found guilty; he denied the second and on that charge was acquitted. So, he avoided the death penalty but he was imprisoned for life – that is, until in 1990, having spent twenty-seven years in jail, he had became too important a leader for the South African government to keep behind bars. He was freed, and played a central role in guiding South Africa through the next four years, without a civil war, to free elections. All his life Mandela has stood for freedom, democracy and, with the fall of the apartheid regime, for reconciliation. As long as that evil regime survived he was an enemy of the state. Now he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the rare honour of a statue in parliament square, unveiled in his lifetime, opposite the building which houses the freely elected legislature of the oldest democracy on the world.

With the Burmese democracy activists and with Nelson Mandela in mind, I want this morning to focus on two people who never advocated violence, but were put on trial, condemned to death and executed. Each in their own way threatened the very roots of the society in which they lived. The first is Socrates. Through the four Sundays of October I am looking at the four texts in the Penguin book entitled The Last Days of Socrates. Each of these texts faces us with fundamental questions about what is to be human, and especially to be a member of human society. Today I want to look at the second text, Socrates’ Apologia, the speech he made in his own defence when - about 400BC - he was on trial for his life in Athens.

In the Apologia, Socrates stands accused of being a blasphemer and of corrupting the youth of Athens. He argues that he always maintained a respect for the gods and all he did was to teach some of the very people who have now brought him to trial to ask hard questions in the quest for truth. As the speech unfolds, it becomes clear that Socrates is a profoundly free man. The prisoner on trial for his life is far freer than his accusers. He is free because he doesn’t fear death and he’s prepared to follow truth wherever the quest may lead. He has an inner voice that tells him when he gets off track. As he speaks in court, knowing full well he is likely to be condemned, his inner voice is silent. He is on the right track.

Socrates’ starting point is that he knows nothing. Others consider themselves experts in this field or that and happily accept payment as teachers. They have expertise which is publicly recognised. Socrates has learnt painfully that he knows nothing. He never accepted payment as a teacher and he never will. Real wisdom, he argues, begins with this profound sense of your own ignorance. Having nothing to offer, you just have to ask questions. He compares himself to a stinging fly that makes a horse run faster. He wakes people up by stinging them with troubling questions. The trouble is people prefer to stay asleep, so they call this ‘corrupting the youth’. Socrates refuses to make an emotional plea in his own defence. If the jury remain true to their oath to dispense justice, they will acquit.

Far from being acquitted, Socrates is found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens. His accusers argue he should be put to death. According to Athenian law, Socrates is allowed to propose another penalty to the court. He has no money, so, though his friends might pay a fine, he himself can’t. He has always been loyal to the Athenian state, so banishment would be a nonsense. He proposes that his punishment be to receive a pension from the state – the Athenian equivalent of Mandela’s statue. Even today the gadfly stings: Socrates, as a man faced with execution, makes this extraordinary proposal: to receive a pension from the state. Is it ironic, or is he serious? Whichever it is, he is playing the game by different rules. He stings us into awareness of a troubling question. Which is he? An enemy of the state who should be put to death to protect the youth of Athens or a pillar of the state who deserves the state’s gratitude and honour?

The same question faces us when we think about Nelson Mandela. Which was he? An enemy of the state who deserved to spend twenty-seven years in harsh confinement, or a pillar of the state who deserved the highest honours his land and the international community could confer on him? So with the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy activists, Aung San Suu Kyi. Which is she? An enemy of the state who deserves to continue under house arrest after the seventeen years she has already been confined or a true servant of Burma who should be held in the highest honour? There is no middle way: it is not so much that we judge these great people but they, by their preparedness to lay down their lives for something other than the values promoted by unjust states, judge us.

None of this should come as a surprise to Christians, because this is exactly what we see in Jesus – a fourth enemy of the state. It is John’s Gospel that makes clear how Jesus stands for something other and higher than those around him. As a profoundly free man, morally he towers over his accusers. Like Socrates, he is judged a blasphemer by the political and religious authorities of his time. When Jesus is judged by Pilate, we can see that Pilate is himself judged by the judgment that he makes. Jesus is executed as an enemy of the state, a criminal of the lowest type. Precisely because he is prepared to take the lowest place, to take his place on the gallows, he is, to his followers, worthy of the highest honour, and to his enemies he remains a danger even today. The Gospel presents us with no middle way: either he should be executed or worshipped.

With Socrates there is no question of worship. He would have been horrified at the idea. What he does in his utter fearlessness is to face us with a question. Who am I? A man worthy of my nation’s gratitude – in his case a state pension – or a danger to public morals, an enemy of the state who should be done away with as quickly as possible? If Socrates is worthy of the highest honour, why then is he condemned by the citizens of Athens at the time of its greatest glory? Why did Mandela spend twenty-seven years in jail? And why has Aung San Suu Kyi spent seventeen under house arrest? And why, according to the Gospel story, when the crowds were offered the choice between freedom for the robber Barabbas or the prophet Jesus, did they shout so loud and so consistently for Barabbas?

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