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Imagine a national holiday named for a convicted criminal – a guy whose big moment was actually a big failure.
His name was Guido Fawkes. His alias was John Johnson. But he’s better known by his nickname, Guy.
Every year on November 5, Britain celebrates Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires, parades, and fireworks. The explosions that will be heard across England tomorrow will commemorate a big blast that never happened.
Fawkes and 12 co-conspirators, hoping to return a Catholic monarch to the British throne on the opening day of Parliament in 1605, had placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in a storage room under the House of Lords. The blast, it was hoped, would bring down the government and obliterate King James I (the Catholic-intolerant monarch who is nowadays associated with the 1611 King James Bible).
It can be argued that November 5 should actually be called Robert Catesby Day. He was the mastermind of the gunpowder plot. Fawkes was just a flunky whose job was to light the fuse and then get out of town. One of the plotters (whose identity has never been established) was apparently afraid that some Catholics would die in the explosion along with the Lords, and tried to warn them off with an anonymous note. That led the authorities to the storage room, where Guy was found huddled next to the gunpowder on the evening of November 4, his pockets crammed with matches.
Since that awkward moment, Fawkes’ name has always been front and center in the recollection of the regicide plot.
He was taken to the Tower of London, where after two days of “enhanced interrogation” he revealed the names of his fellow conspirators. Within a short time, all of them – including Fawkes – either died resisting arrest or were publicly executed.
In a tradition that is now over four centuries old, whenever a new session of Parliament convenes there is a ceremonial “search” for explosives. November 5 itself has become a national day of thanksgiving. Some children create their own “Guy” with old clothes, rags, and newspapers, and carry it from house to house hoping to receive a penny – a kind of post-Halloween trick-or-treat. Most of the Guys end up in bonfires. In recent years, effigies of political figures like Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson have also gone to the flames.
Celebrants may recite poems, like this one that’s more than 200 years old: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
Interestingly, the legacy of Guy Fawkes currently rests on two things – a word and a symbol.
The word is “guy,” which has come to identity any ordinary person. Whenever you greet a group of your friends (males and females alike) and say, “Hey, you guys!” you’re remembering Guy Fawkes. Members of the criminal underground on the East coast are Wise Guys. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles are finally starting to believe that quarterback Jalen Hurts is really The Guy. And all of us are grateful that one of the world’s greatest hamburger joints isn’t named Five Guidos.
The symbol is a smiling white mask with a sweeping Elizabethan mustache, as seen in the picture above.
The mask, which is a caricature of Guy Fawkes, achieved international recognition through the 2005 movie V for Vendetta. According to the plot, which is based on a 1980s graphic novel of the same name, protesters resist a futuristic authoritarian government in Britain. The leader holds up Fawkes as a symbol of righteous rebellion and declares, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
Guy Fawkes has thus been redeemed. He’s not so much a convicted criminal as an action hero. One pundit has said, tongue-in-cheek, that he’s “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
Protesters around the world are wearing Guy Fawkes masks. In our own nation, the distinction between words like “patriot” and “terrorist” are beginning to be blurred. If people are dissatisfied with the ruling status quo, violence is increasingly understood by some as a legitimate option.
But this must never be true for those who represent the name of Jesus.
When Jesus was confronted by his enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of his disciples resisted. Peter struck with a sword. “No more of this!” Jesus said. “Those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, Luke 22:51).
In one of the most famous “what would you do if you were in his place” moments in church history, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer supported a plot to blow up Adolph Hitler. He reasoned that assassination was a lesser sin than failing to prevent who knew how many from going to the gas chambers.
But here we come up against a major dilemma. How do we reconcile our personal conclusions about what constitutes greater or lesser sins with Jesus’ clear prohibition of resorting to violence?
To put it simply, we can’t.
Thus a number of pastors, priests, and protesters are going a different way. They’re recasting Jesus as a Warrior Savior – a revolutionary who from time to time calls us to use force (if necessary) to overthrow leaders who violate our most cherished values.
The orthodox Christian response has always been straightforward: Our most cherished value must be doing what Jesus has always told us to do.
And that does not mean wearing a mask that suggests violence can ever be a viable option.
That’s the word from the guy who is actually The Guy.
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