The Butterfly and The Cross

Sunday 14th November 2004
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of Remembrance

The Butterfly and the Cross

Once upon a time, perhaps only a few months from now, in Central Park New York City:

  1. A butterfly flaps its wings, diverting a plant spore to fertile ground
  2. It produces a Patagonian trailing creeper which spreads across a path and trips a jogger
  3. As luck would have it, he works at City Hall and initiates a defoliation project
  4. Along with the creeper, its resident beetles are wiped out so the hammer head gannet loses its food supply
  5. The plummeting gannets trigger crash helmet sales
  6. The de luxe crash helmet is made from the shell of the Polynesian back-flip tortoise so its numbers decline
  7. Its shell can no longer be used for lobster pots and substitutes are inferior

    (Are you still with me? Well, I am sure the children are.)

  8. So the lobster population swells out of control and its boisterous activity angers quiet neighbours, particularly the octopuses, who stage a protest sit-in
  9. So many Octopuses gather in the Atlantic to protest that they cut off the gulf stream
  10. The world begins to freeze and Manchester becomes a holiday resort for polar bears
  11. A syndicate of Penguins, which has won the lottery, flies to Manchester, on rocket packs
  12. In Indian airspace the four million penguins swerve to miss an oncoming airliner and knock the top off Mount Everest. The shock wave triggers earthquakes.

This is one unlikely train of events I picked up from the Pennsylvania Institute for Making Stuff Up, to explain Rene Thom's Catastrophe Theory which uses as its emblem the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause an earthquake. In spite of the absurdity of the train of events, this idea that very small events triggering very large events has become extremely popular. Why?

I think that there are two sets of reasons, one secular, one spiritual, which explain why Catastrophe Theory is so popular.

At the secular level there is a whole genre of books and films about what would have happened if some tiny events had been slightly different: if two young people whose eyes meet had not been separated forever by the slamming of the underground train doors

In our personal lives we are used to tiny decisions having major consequences:

But what distinguishes Catastrophe Theory from these events is the chain of causality which goes on after the initial event and its consequence. If our house goes up in smoke, if we are injured in a car crash, there is a short lived burst of concern - or is it curiosity? - and then we are left to ourselves. Only if we win the lottery will we command attention and that will be for the wrong reasons.

In the wider world, we feel that we live at a time when such massive forces are at work - summed up in the word "Globalisation' - that we feel that we can do nothing: That our vote does not count; that what we say does not count; and, worst of all, that what we do does not count.

And it is on days like today that we are surely particularly prone to this feeling of helplessness: How could the terrible First World War have been stopped? How could Hitler have been thwarted? How did we end up embroiled in Iraq? How can we find real peace in Northern Ireland? These are such massive questions that we feel that all we can do is sadly count the lost, those who did their duty, those who were injured and killed, and remember them. We may ritually vow, as politicians did after the First World War, that it would never happen again but we know it will unless something very radical changes in our imperfect world. We will go on being overwhelmed by forces which individual human agency cannot control.

Quite conversely, at the spiritual level, the level beyond human agency, the jolly emblem of the butterfly is not a fantasy escape from our feelings of helplessness, it is compelling because it echoes the message of the holy emblem of the Cross. Instead of Catastrophe Theory, as Christians we have constructive practice.

We understand (although, of course, we do not always act accordingly) the the difference it makes if a vulnerable teenager is treated with kindness and understanding rather than being thrown into a detention centre; we understand what difference it makes if we treat people and speak about them with respect instead of dismissing such caring behaviour as 'political correctness'; we understand the moral significance of forgiveness, the saintly conduct of Nelson Mandela in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa instead of staging mass, revengeful trials with punitive outcomes; we recognise the contrition shown by the German Chancellor when, earlier this year, he attended the D-Day celebrations and when he attended a memorial for the Jewish Pogrom in Warsaw.

We understand the immediate ethics of these situations but we also understand how the good we do is like leaven throughout society.

But to say that we understand and to say that we do good is not to take personal nor collective credit as Christians; what understanding we have and what good deeds we do come from Jesus, from what he said and what he did when he shared our humanity here on earth, living in a land which is now one of the world's most difficult trouble spots, living under hostile military occupation.

Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, came to live amongst us; Jesus came to forgive and to save, not to judge; Jesus understood the significance of being positive rather than negative; Jesus was not an armchair saviour, telling other people what they needed to do while he enjoyed the status of a religious leader; Jesus walked on water, calmed storms, fed the five thousand and cured the sick but he also slept on mountains, chopped wood, planted fruit, suffered temptation, endured insults; he gave everything but took nothing; and, in the end, that everything included giving His own life for us.

That is why we, as imperfect reflections of Jesus, moved by what he said and what he did, are instinctively drawn towards the jolly emblem of the butterfly' but we have the Cross as our holy emblem; the Cross which tells us that every tiny decision we take affects the whole world. Every time we speak up for the poor and serve them; every time we reject racism and treat people we meet as brothers and sisters in Christ; every time we curb our aggression and say a constructive word or perform a constructive act; and, most important of all, every time we do something instead of leaving it to somebody else; every time we ethically affirm in word and deed we are confirming the central Christian belief that we are participating, in our own small way, in the history of salvation here on earth, making progress towards the universal realisation of God's Kingdom.

By ourselves, as earthly, secular creatures, we will always flounder and fail in the face of massive events; we will always feel helpless and hopeless; but with the help of God's Grace, through the example of His Son, with the good Counsel of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer helpless; we are empowered to love, we are drawn toward peace.

Let us then, in remembering all those who died, dedicate ourselves to peace, not as a theoretical concept which is only the business of diplomats and politicians, let us personally dedicate our lives to peace. Let us smile at the jolly Butterfly but affirm the Holy Cross.