November 5, 2013

No Man is an Island

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

On November 5th, 1622, 391 years ago, it was a cold Tuesday morning much like this one. The occasion happened to be the seventeen year anniversary of the infamous Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James I. The place was St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. The Scripture reading was from the book of Lamentations, and the Rector was a certain priest named John Donne.

The Gunpowder Plot that his sermon commemorated is a stain on the history of the Church, and is the direct result of the power struggle between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth, who, it should be noted, both executed a near equal number of dissenters during their reigns. Elizabeth solidified Protestantism as the English religion, and upon her passing James I took the throne in 1603. James was initially more lenient than his predecessor, but the nation’s Catholics still lived in fear for their lives. The memory of the nearly 300 Catholic deaths under Elizabeth was no doubt burned in the minds of those who plotted to kill James I.

Of the plotters, Guy Fawkes is the only one to have achieved immortality. Due to his military experience, he was tasked with setting the explosives beneath the House of Lords. Fawkes’ likeness, in the form of a mask, has been made popular by the film V for Vendetta and the anarchist group Anonymous. Indeed, in an ironic twist of events, anarchists the world over have adopted his distinctive face as a symbol of their cause, as though Fawkes were a fellow anarchist raging against any established order. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plotters fought not because they hated order and establishment, but because they believed in a different order and establishment. Unlike the modern anarchist who destroys for the sake of destroying, Fawkes only attempted to destroy so that he could build something he thought to be better on the ashes.

If Fawkes had been successful in reducing the House of Lords to dust, we have no reason to believe that he would not have wept upon those very ashes. Such is the Christian response to tragedy. We mourn for our countries and we desire what is best for them. Even if we disagree with all the practices of the age and can clearly see the terrible ends to which it all leads, we take no pleasure in seeing the destruction finally come. This is the theme of the book of Lamentations. The prophet had long warned his people of their need to repent, and he saw clearly the destruction that awaited them. For a time, he was successful, and together with King Josiah he made many good reforms and led the people back to God. But after the good King’s death it was not long until the people returned to their wayward practices. Jeremiah could see clearly the destruction that awaited his country, yet his foresight did not spare him from grieving his for his people and his country.


John Donne is best remembered for his poetry, but few realize he was also a priest in the Church of England. In fact, his two most recognizable lines did not originate in one of his poetical works, but in one of his meditations. The first, that “No man is an island,” is one of those sayings that was first said with great cleverness and theological depth, but has since been repeated stupidly by lesser men who do not even know its origin. The second, “For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” owes most of its renown to Ernest Hemingway, who used the line as the title of a novel that, in an otherwise heroic tale, told of a man fighting on the wrong side of a tragic war.

Of Donne’s sermons, however, few are better known than his Gunpowder Plot Sermon, delivered in London on the anniversary of the failed attack. The Scripture reading of the day included Lamentations 4:20, in which the prophet described the Jewish King as “The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord,” and lamented how the King was defeated and “was taken in their pits, of whom we said, under his shadow we shall live among the heathen.”

Donne begins by noting there is great debate regarding which king is the object of Jeremiah’s sorrow. The obvious answer would seem to be the good King Josiah, yet it is possible the text was written about the downfall of the evil king Zedekiah. However, Donne tells us that the object of the lamentations is irrelevant to the larger message. We may place either King as the object of the lamentation, because both were anointed of the Lord, “and therefore both are to be lamented when they fall into dangers.”

The point Donne wants us to see, is that the prophet did not “divide the king and the kingdom, as if the kingdom could be well and the king in distress.” Both the people and the government are bound together. In modern times this connection should be even more obvious, for when the people fall and lose all sense of piety, the government soon follows in their debauchery. Bad rulers can lead people astray, and bad people can destroy good governments. Both are intertwined, which is why when evil kings fall, the people “still lament the calamities of the kingdom,” just as David lamented the death of Saul.

The duty of the Christian citizen should then be obvious. He is to live uprightly for the good of the whole. Any evil action he takes is not just a private decision or a mark against his own soul, but has far reaching implications for society around him. No man is an island, we must therefore strive to “live peaceably, live honestly, live industriously; all this for him, for the sins of the people endanger the prince as much as his own.”

Donne obviously condemned the actions of those who sought to kill his King, and rejoiced that the people of England did not have to lament like Jeremiah. Donne used the occasion to teach that whether we agree with the current government or not, we still have a duty to the country God has placed us in. Grant it, the position was an easy one for Donne, a conforming Anglican who feared for neither life nor limb. Yet his larger message remains ever pertinent for Christians today who find themselves increasingly surrounded by a hostile culture. Donne ended his sermon with a call to piety as the best means of ensuring the good society. Kings and governments, both good and evil, will come and go. We may rightly lament the failures of our current government and society, but it is all for nought if we are not leading by example. We must all do our own duty and live as best we can.

“These things are to be done on our part. First, let us return to God, so as God may look upon us, clothed in the righteousness of Christ; who will not be put on, as a fair gown to cover course clothes; but first put off your sins, and then put on Him.

Do not think that your Sunday zeal, once a week, can burn out all your extortions, and oppressions, and usury, and bribery, and simony, and chambering, and wantonness practiced from Monday to Saturday…. Not only upon your allegiance to God, but upon your allegiance to the king, be good. No prince can have a better guard then Subjects truly religious.”


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One Response to No Man is an Island

  1. william says:

    Fascinating history. Did not know much of this. Well written. We should consider much of this reflection in the US where our country is slowly being torn in half by left vs right. Wh at will survive and what will get destroyed by such divide between us?

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