June 6 is Sweden’s national day, and a public holiday. As on all important days in Sweden (not least of which are the days when Örebro football club plays at home) the buses will fly Swedish flags today. The dramatic yellow cross on its brilliant blue background will be blowing in the breeze atop every flagpole across the nation – Swedes love flagpoles.
It is said that the Swedish flag originated from a vision that the Swedish king, Eric the Holy, had of a golden cross he saw in the sky as he landed in Finland during the first Swedish Crusade in 1157. Wikipedia says simply that he saw it as a sign from God. The history of the twelfth century is of course shrouded in mystery but tradition says that Eric was unpopular with the Swedish nobles of the time because he demanded that a tithe be paid by all to the church. As a result he was accosted as he left mass on Ascension Day, 1160, dragged from his horse, thrown to the ground, ridiculed, tortured and beheaded. He was later proclaimed a saint but was never officially canonised by the Catholic Church. However, a casket said to contain his skeleton can be seen in Uppsala Cathedral.
How much Eric’s life was shaped by faith and how much by politics is hard to know. The twelfth century was a rough and violent time, and the crusades are acknowledged to be a time when the name of God was often used in vain, to justify the most horrific of acts. But there were surely people of faith even then, people for whom doing battle in the name of God was motivated not just by selfish ambition and lust for power, but by a sincere belief that this was how the kingdom of God was to be established on earth. Few people had the privilege of being able to read the Bible as we have today, so their understanding of God’s purposes and methods was often dictated by men of power who manipulated and used them. Visions and dreams, with all the uncertainty inherent in their interpretation, sometimes controlled the fate of whole nations: think of Joan of Arc. Men and women of faith made decisions and went to war in the name of Jesus, and as often as not lost their lives for it. Were they then martyrs, or just misled? That is not easy to know, though it is easy to judge, with the benefit of hindsight.
I read today about the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 6:8-15), a “man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs,” a man who spoke “with the wisdom the Spirit gave him.” Stephen was not a warrior in the traditional sense. He spoke words that offended those in positions of power and he was crucified for it. Just as Eric, even if he was king, spoke words and made decisions in the name of God which challenged the status quo, and was crucified for it.
Sweden today is the second most secular nation in the world after France, according to the Ipsos Social Research Institute (reported in Amos magazine, nr 3, 2011, p16.) Many proudly announce that they are atheists. And yet the church and the faith is an established part of Swedish culture and consciousness. Last week we had a public holiday for Ascension Day. Yesterday I saw that a Bible for non-believers has recently been published (The Good Book, a Secular Bible, AC Grayling). In the Swedish church as in many other churches around the world there are liberal priests who do not believe in God.
We who believe not just in God, but in the power of the Spirit, in signs and wonders, in the reality of visions, and in the occasional necessity of dying for the faith, for what we believe in, are seen as quaint and odd. Our position is thought by many to be outdated, unscientific, intellectually bizarre. But today as I see the yellow Swedish cross fluttering in the warm winds of early summer, I refuse to worry about what people think and remember who really holds the world in His hands.