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Prickly dance of reconciliation

Prickly dance of reconciliation

Readings for the feast day of Edmund, King of East Anglia and Martyr, November 21,

Psalm 21

2 Samuel 1:17-27

1 Peter 3:14-18

Matthew 10:16-22

O God of ineffable mercy, you gave grace and fortitude to blessed Edmund the king to triumph over the enemy of his people by nobly dying for your Name: Bestow on us your servants the shield of faith with which we can withstand the assaults of our ancient enemy; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Edmund was an early king of East Anglia, which is in what we now know as England. Although most of what we know about him is myth and legend, the one thing we are told in vivid detail is his gruesome death at the hands of the Danes.

The Wikipedia description is what really caught my eye. Granted, some of this is rather legendary, and there’s certainly a distinct attempt to connect this story with the Passion of Christ, but the short version goes like this:

The Danes had invaded England in 870, led by the brothers Hinguar and Hubba, and it appears their particular specialty was looting and plundering churches. When they get to East Anglia, they offer to cut a deal with Edmund, which really wasn’t much of a deal. They’d give him a chunk of the loot if he’d admit the Danes were superior, forbid the practice of Christianity, and continue on as a figurehead ruler to keep the peace in the area.

Some sources say that Edmund’s own bishops bailed on him and told him to accept the terms. But Edmund said no, he would not forsake Christ, which, of course, made the Danes furious. So they proceeded to torture and kill him–first beating him with cudgels, and then tying him to a tree and shooting him so full of arrows, as the account by Abbo of Fleury relates, “until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog.” Even then he would not renounce Christ, so Hinguar ordered him beheaded. Edmond called to Christ throughout the beheading.

Now, the historical concept is to look at this in terms of his bravery and faith, but I became intrigued at the way Sam Portaro looked at this story in his book, “Brightest and Best.” A more modern way to look at this story is to back up and see missed opportunity and a chance at reconciliation. Pig-headedly sticking up for our Christian faith at the point of a lance (or a gun) hasn’t really gotten us too far in history–the Crusades being a major case in point–and in societies where church and state were intertwined, the dominant religion becomes an oppressive force, not a healing force.

But it was that image of Edmund being covered with so many arrows he looked like a hedgehog (or, in my mind, a porcupine) that stuck with me–mostly because my own life experience has been that every time I take my ego out on a limb and try to make people see “I’m right,” I also end up covered with a slew of metaphorical arrows. Putting my ego on a pedestal usually only results in having a band of folks dead set on knocking me off.

Also, it’s been my experience that, once covered with arrows, trying to reconcile with the other party starts looking like two porcupines mating. The two parties walk around each other with a cautious shyness, each afraid of the other’s prickly barbs, both desiring to be closer, but not knowing how in the world to accomplish it without being stuck themselves.

So rather than see this tale as an account of Christian bravery, what changes when we see it as a reminder of our own pig-headedness? More importantly, where are the places we need to begin the prickly dance of reconciliation?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Maria L. Evans

Thank you again for your comment.

The question in my mind is “What might have been different if the Danes were actually being earnest about sharing the kingdom with Edmund?” Was an opportunity missed for greater understanding between two cultures that has been lost to history and has been grown into the stuff of legend? Would it have remained an either/or religious proposition with a live Edmund in the story? We’ll never know.

“Not publicly renouncing one’s faith” is, indeed, a virtue of the martyrs–but our weaknesses in faith don’t seem to ultimately scar Christianity, either. One of the first things the early church set about doing was figuring out a means to reconcile apostates who had renounced their faith under Roman torture. I also recall a fellow named Peter who denied Jesus three times, and he still ultimately ended up being the one chosen by Jesus himself to be the rock upon whom the church would be built. I suspect God makes much less of a deal in these weaknesses than we humans do.

Savi Hensman

If he had renounced his faith as the Danes demanded, would this have counted as reconciliation in your view? While there may be a case for submission when it is simply pride or something relatively minor at stake, is that not rather different?

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for your comment, Gregory. My statement is not meant to criticize Edmund’s defense of his faith as “wrong” nor compare the invasion of East Anglia to the Crusades. When I read Portaro’s excerpt in “Brightest and Best,” it invited me to a place where I have to ask the cost of the things to other people I’ve defended to the hilt because I “must” do this. I think seeing the story in a different way can be an invitation to accept the totality of that.

Gregory Orloff

“Pig-headedly sticking up for our Christian faith at the point of a lance (or a gun) hasn’t really gotten us too far in history — the Crusades being a major case in point — and in societies where church and state were intertwined, the dominant religion becomes an oppressive force, not a healing force.”

There’s a big difference between the Crusades and the martyrdom of Edmund. In the Crusades, Christians were the agents of aggression; in the martyrdom of Edmund, a Christian was the victim of aggression. Given that the Danish Vikings didn’t seem to be in much of a negotiating mood — their attitude was pretty much “our way or the highway” vis-a-vis the outlawing of Christianity — one is at a loss, in reading this author’s take on Edmund’s case, to see how he could otherwise remain faithful to Christ, which Christians must do, than by saying “no” to them.

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