History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.
What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.
We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.
But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…
I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?
I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);
John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657
John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630’s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.
He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.
The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.
Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.
He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way. He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.
And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.
John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.
One epitaph written after his death was this one;
Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!
Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…
But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,
For if they ever meet they will fall out.
Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.
I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.
Thank God for dissenters.
And God save us from dissenters.
The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.
But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.