Thought For The Day - Michael Banner

Some fifteen hundred years ago (we can't be sure exactly when), probably in north Italy (we can't be sure where), someone (about whom we know next to nothing), sat down and tried to imagine how it might happen that a community would live in peace and concord. He produced a rule for such a community - we call it the Rule of St Benedict - and though we don't know much about the circumstances or character of its author, we do know that he wrote at a time when the fabled pax Romana (the order Rome had brought to the ancient world) had given way to internecine strife and violence, so that peace and concord had become the stuff of dreams.

As we read Benedict's constitution for his community we can see him struggling to balance one rather commonsensical principle with a rather more revolutionary one. The commonplace thought is just that any community great or small, needs to be able to take decisions and act upon them - consequently at the very outset Benedict directs that there should be an Abbot to lead and rule his flock. But no sooner has he directed that there should be an Abbot with such responsibilities, than he lays down immediately in the next chapter that when there is any important business to be done, the Abbot must call together the whole community, and listen to all the voices - even of the most junior. His reason for laying this down is that, as he puts it, "God often reveals what is better to the younger". There must be rule - but because God speaks to all, the whole community must be heard before decisions are taken. Thus the peace of which Benedict dreams is not simply a matter of the absence of conflict (which could, of course, be achieved where a population is cowed or demoralized or indifferent), but rather the sort of peace which emerges where those with power attend to those without, seeking not obedience alone, but consent and consensus. And that's the revolutionary thought - for with the introduction of this new and radical precept, even the pax Romana is found wanting.

Benedict would have known the much-recounted anecdote about a pirate captured by Alexander the Great who when asked by the king - "what are you doing infesting the sea?", answered - "the same as you in infesting the earth; but because I do it with a single craft I am called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you are called an emperor." Fifteen hundred years after Benedict wrote, when modern democracies have violent protesters on the streets and fading dictatorships are descending into civil war, we all have cause to dream of peace - and to wonder what can be done to create and sustain it, within nations and between them. But with Benedict we should surely dream of the right sort of peace; one not founded merely on the imposition of order by means of power, but one which can emerge only where each and every voice has its place and is heard.

Release date: 05 Apr 2011

3 minutes

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