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Auden at Easter: With Best Wishes from Your Headmaster


[7:19 AM, 4/11/2020]


FROM: Mr Steve, Principal, Lukenya British Curriculum, April 2020.

This is Easter Sunday, near the start of the regular school holiday.

TOPICS: Love as Respect for Each Other; Sacrifice, the Wider Meaning of ‘Friendship’, and Charity; Justice and Goodness in the Face of Difficulties; Easter.

ON THE DAY on which the Second World War was declared, one of my favourite British poets, W.H.Auden, sat in a seedy American café and wrote ‘September 1, 1939’, a poem hoping that the war would swiftly end. It contains the line, ‘We must love another or die.’

The war did NOT swiftly end.

Auden later claimed not to like this poem, but literature has a habit of living on regardless of what its author wants, and that line remains as one of the most simple and urgent in twentieth-century poetry: ‘We must love one another or die’. It is a straightforward and possibly even naïve cry of the poet at a time of great danger, at the outset of great death across the world from Europe to Asia to America to, almost inexplicably, our East Africa. Auden was a poet of real conscience. Year 10 and 11 Literature students: Auden was a contemporary of George Orwell, whose novel ‘1984’ we’re studying, and the two writers shared many social views, even if they didn’t ALWAYS get along.

‘We must love another, or die’. Although Auden strongly believed that by the twentieth century poetry had lost its old power to influence the world, he still believed, as he ALSO writes in this poem, that those he called ‘The Just’ had an obligation to continuously communicate with each other about their HOPES for the possibility of peace and justice in the world. Regardless of all the difficulties, violence, cruelties and injustices of his troubled age, Auden told us that we each of us, even in our SMALL WAYS, have the duty and the ability to say and do the right thing while wars rage and hatred seems to triumph.

Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’ is a simple and wise message, but it’s NOT an easy thing to do. For example, during a time of conflict, who amongst us is strong enough to really argue for peace, when armed men in uniform are patrolling the streets? Or when the perfectly innocent are being discriminated against just because of their religious beliefs, skin colour, gender or politics, who amongst us is really strong enough to even QUIETLY raise our voice in support of those people, when everyone else is shouting abuse or throwing punches? It’s easier to reach for the stone, to join in with the wrongdoing. In schools we call that pressure ‘Peer Pressure’, and we always hope you can resist it.

Stop, and take a deep breath… Take a minute, and ask yourself: ‘Am I strong enough? Am I, when wrong is happening, able to stand up to say and do the right thing, to be counted amongst the wise, just, kind and good?’ It’s not easy.

Easter is now upon us, and I hope that you all have an excellent time with your parents and other family members, whether you’re gathering together or whether Easter this year is a little stranger, a little more restricted and solitary. As excellent young people, you deserve to have fun, and to spend time with those who matter to you. I wish you fun, I wish you laughter, I wish you HUGE amounts of chocolate!

Now, in the Christian tradition Easter is a time when Jesus voluntarily gave up his life on behalf of others, in order that THEY might not die.

At Easter, I’m often reminded of John 15: 9-17 – yes, I know you think I don’t know my Bible very well, pupils, but you can’t be a student of the history of English Literature without knowing that book very well indeed! In this section of John, Jesus is reported as saying, ‘Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…Love each other’. And the type of ‘Love’ that he means here isn’t ‘romantic love’ or anything like that; rather, it is what the Greeks called ‘Agape’, or the unconditional mutual ‘embracing’ that people might have for each other even if they personally don’t know each other. It is a brotherly and sisterly love of the sort that transcends superficial differences of class, gender, race, creed, and so on. It is exactly what Auden meant with HIS use of the word ‘Love.’

But Jesus goes further than Auden; to be fair, prophets USUALLY go further than poets! Auden gives us a pragmatic, ‘We must love one another or die’, almost as a warning, as a way to avoid future war. It’s an important message, yes; but Jesus goes further and tells us that sometimes the very greatest love MIGHT BE to offer yourself to save somebody else. I don’t think he’s expecting us to do this every moment of every day, or that we should all go around offering our very LIVES, but he IS suggesting it as the IDEAL when necessary, as the ultimate form of Love, and it’s worth reminding ourselves this Easter that this is exactly what Jesus DID later do, according to the Bible: by his own example, he lived that ideal and he laid down his life for his friends. And by ‘friends’ he didn’t just mean his listening disciples; rather, he meant EVERYONE, and indeed the New Testament is full of examples of people acting altruistically and lovingly towards people other than ‘their own’ – the Good Samaritan is a classic example. In the Christian tradition, everyone is capable of being a ‘friend’ in the sense that Jesus meant: an equal, a brother, a sister, a fellow. In John, Jesus extended the idea of friendship to include EVERYONE, even those who according to the societal structure of his age would have seemed to be ‘lesser’ than him.

According to the Christian tradition, Jesus laid down his own life for EVERYONE, then, on behalf of all of us, his ‘friends’. And he did this so that we might not have to always make quite such a grand self-sacrifice ourselves. He bore the burden himself. He achieved the ideal that he spoke of: according to the story, he laid down his life for his ‘friends’, for US.

But most readings of John 15 don’t leave things there, with Jesus’s later death. Most interpreters of John still remind us that the ideal, that which we should always aim for, is the desire and the practice of doing the very best for OTHERS, even if we don’t personally know them, and even if this means some sort of sacrifice from us. Jesus’s death wasn’t the end point of his lesson; rather, it was the start of what we ALL have to do. We MUST ‘Love each other’, as Jesus stated, and we MUST be willing to demonstrate that love, even in the hardest of times, even when the world would have us do the WRONG thing. This is the message in John, and it’s the wider message of Easter, Christianity’s most important festival. Maybe this is what the ‘resurrection’ means, in a sense: the living on, after his death, of Jesus’s love for humankind…

TODAY, and throughout this Easter period, we are probably with a small group of people we know, who are our relatives and friends, and who are therefore ‘us’ in some sense. Now, sharing with ‘our own’ is always easy. And at different times, we ALL occasionally retreat into cocoons of ‘our own’: our own family, our own close friends, our own ethnic group, our own estate, our own language group, our own countryfolk, and so on…

That’s not the end of the world, and there’s no fundamental problem with that; after all, your family matters. HOWEVER, there IS a problem if we ONLY respect, accept and love ‘our own’, because that’s lazy – that’s such a lazy and ‘small’ type of love that it’s almost not love at all. NO, as I mentioned in my first Sunday chat, the challenge and the joy and the triumph is to love in the sense of ‘agape’ ALL people, regardless of how distant, different or ‘other’ they might seem to be. The willingness to speak up or act with and on behalf of people we don’t know, and who are suffering, is the greatest thing a person can do, because it is to treat other people, even apparent ‘enemies’, as friends, in the way that Jesus advised and that Auden suggested The Just always should.

Perhaps, then, Easter is the perfect time to reflect upon CHARITY, especially at a strange time like this, when COVID-19 is seeing many people, especially the poor and disadvantaged, struggle. Numerous people have lost their jobs, or have had to endure pay cuts; the poor when urged to stay at home in ‘lockdown’ or under curfew, suffer much more than we do in their densely-populated slums and shanties around the world; and, generally speaking, the poor if they have jobs are labourers, meaning that they can’t safely ‘work from home’ in their multi-roomed houses when you and I as the more privileged sometimes CAN; plus, the increase in food prices and the costs of other essentials at a time like this always affects the already-poor more than it affects the rest of us, those few of us who can temporarily cushion ourselves.

It is important at a time like this (and indeed ALWAYS) to treat the poor and otherwise disadvantaged not only as ‘others’, as separate, but rather as ‘friends’; to treat domestic staff, also, not as servants but as friends. Indeed, this is EXACTLY what Jesus said, word for word, in that same extract from John’s Gospel: ‘I no longer call you servants…Instead, I have called you friends’. And so, we must ask ourselves: ‘WHAT CAN I DO IN TERMS OF CHARITY FOR THOSE WHO SEEM DIFFERENT BUT WHO ARE, LIKE ALL PEOPLE, MY “FRIENDS” IN THE BIBLICAL SENSE?’ ‘Charity’ is a funny word, because we think we know what it means. It seems so easy, doesn’t it? We think it means throwing a bag of maize meal into a supermarket box whenever there’s famine, or putting ten shillings into a tin at the supermarket check-out, or donating a few books to a local school, or passing our old hand-me-down clothes to the maid…

Well, these ARE kindly acts, well-intentioned and presently necessary, and so keep doing it; but that’s not ALL that charity is or should be. True charity means working to improve the world sufficiently so that those poor aren’t quite so poor in relation to us as they ARE, that the inequalities and injustices of the world are solved and sorted to the best of our collective ability. At a time like this, for instance, when across the world we’re seeing the bravery of medical personnel and other essential workers and the importance of functioning National Health Systems, it probably means reflecting upon how, once things return to normal, EVERYONE can better access quality Healthcare, and not just the rich.

Because we’re students, we might reflect upon Education as well. I always feel privileged to be your school Principal, and every day you’re not here I and your teachers all regret your absence, because we entered education to teach and support young people – young people who are not ‘our own’ in the narrow sense of that term. But if schools don’t reopen next term, you’ll at least have much more chance of accessing a continuing quality education over the internet than, say, a child in one of our neighbouring PUBLIC schools. Every minute that the closure of schools continues, children in poorer public schools and poorer private schools in impoverished areas have less of a chance of catching up with their age-mates from richer schools. This is also an injustice of sorts, which a few charitably-donated, second-hand textbooks can’t successfully solve. But how could we, once all this is over, work to create a fairer society in which we all contribute towards a more accessible quality education system for all?

These are not easy things to answer, and it’s not for me to TELL YOU the solution to the question, ‘How, after all this, can we have a fairer society for all in which everyone has decent access to quality health, education and other services?’ It’s for YOU to think, and for you to talk to your parents, who probably have their own ideas. But it IS our job, ALL OF OUR JOBS, to at least ask the question, and to suggest answers of some sort, because in our heart of hearts we all know that buying a tub of Blue Band for our gardener ISN’T the answer to the world’s injustices.

And so, seniors: this Easter, let’s at least ask ourselves the difficult questions raised in this chat of mine, questions that it’s clear poets such as Auden and World Religions from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism to others would want us to ask, and that people of no faith often ask. They include…

‘How can I better respect others beyond those of my own age, faith, fashion interests, gender and so on?’

‘How can I treat distant folk as friends?’

‘How can I become one of Auden’s “Just”, one of Jesus’s Loving?’

‘How, in my own small way, can I lay down my life for those “friends”?’

‘How can I change the world for the better, in smaller or larger ways?’

‘How can I, curfewed and cocooned for now in the chrysalis of my home, emerge after all this as a better person, willing to help and to serve?’

These are BIG questions. But Easter is a BIG moment in the Christian calendar every year, and this period of COVID-19 is a BIG issue that spans the world, as an embrace might also spread around the world – it’s a strange BIG time for you as young people. At BIG times like these, we might as well think what it means to be BIG-HEARTED, what it means to grow up into adulthood. Maybe just a smile and a kindly word; maybe more – maybe, for some of us who want to serve, it will be MUCH more.

But how, in our own smaller or larger ways, can we be BIG enough to live the truth of these two statements?: ‘We must love one another or die’; ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. You don’t have to be a ‘saviour’ or a great poet, or even a great thinker: but you DO need to think, and we ALL need to be better, to be GOOD, or as good and as kind as we can possibly manage.

Have a wonderful few days, students; be well, and know that your teachers admire you.

With all best wishes from Lukenya British Curriculum,

‘Mr Steve’, Principal, and all of your teachers.

Stephen Derwent Partington is an award-winning poet and headmaster of the Lukenya School in Kenya. See his work at The Poetry Foundation and on VerseDaily.