Giles Frasier reflects on the death Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh at the hands of the Islamic State and recalls how saints like Thomas More once sent men to die at the stake.
I wandered down to Smithfield market to get some air. I sat in a posh cafe and tried to picture what the place must have been like when Bainham was killed. Both then and now, death by burning was a staged event, deliberately public, a theatre of cruelty designed for political/religious instruction. In his book on burnings in 16th century England, the historian Eamon Duffy recounts a burning in Dartford in 1555: “‘Thither came … fruiterers wyth horse loades of cherries, and sold them’.” Can you imagine: passing round the cherries as you watch people burn? What sort of creatures are we?
Yes, religion is the common factor here. But if there is no God (as some say) and religion is a purely human phenomenon, then it is humanity that is also in the dock. For when we speak of these acts as “inhuman”, or of the “inhumanity” of Isis, we are surely kidding ourselves: history teaches that human beings are often exactly like this. We are often viciously cruel and without an ounce of pity and, yet, all too often in denial about our basic capacity for wickedness. One cannot be in denial after watching that video.
And yet the thing that it is almost impossible for us to get our heads around is that this capacity for wickedness can also co-exist with an extraordinary capacity for love and care and self-sacrifice. More, of course, is a perfect case in point. As well as being declared a saint, More was famously one of the early humanists, a friend of Erasmus. In his Utopia, he fantasised about a world where people lived together in harmony, with no private property to divide them. He championed female education and (believe it or not) religious toleration.
Posted by Andrew Gerns