God & Caesar in a Turbulent World

When Sir Thomas More refused to swear an oath of Allegiance to King Henry VIII as the Head of the Church in England, he knew what he was doing but this was not as straightforward as Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons, would have us believe. This was not a last-ditch defence of Catholicism in England; Henry could have changed his mind at any time, had the political weather changed. We know this because it was only his own death in 1547 that prevented Henry completing negotiations to bring the church back into the Roman fold. So when I say that More knew what he was doing, I mean that he was prepared to assert a Christian over a civil ethic, as was Becket, even though his curious cause celebre was, paradoxically, church courts.

There is a long tradition in Western democracies of Christians being ambivalent about their religious and civil ethics. Examples include: the stance of American Roman Catholic Democrats on abortion; conversely, the substantial Republican opposition to abortion but support for the death penalty; widespread support on both sides of the Atlantic for imprisonment; a mediocre record on pacifism; and our pretty well universal love affair with liberal capitalism, regardless of any consequences, mitigated at most by our low taxation levels and the tithe. We might sum this up in the proposition that there is an almost complete fusion of the Christian ethic with civil contingency which is why it has been so easy to amass the record which I have just listed in part; and why More's gesture appears to be either heroic or disproportionate.

At the centre of our confusion there lie two fundamental ethical flaws, one specifically Christian, the other more general. The Christian flaw is the failure to separate Church and State. We might, for example, accept that it is necessary for government to establish codes of civil justice with deterrence and punishment because it has an obligation on our behalf to deal with those who interfere with our rights and freedoms. The state might quite properly decide that the only form of deterrence is fining or imprisonment rather than, for example, simply shaming us by publishing court findings; and we may decide that as good citizens we can participate in this civic enterprise by being policemen, witnesses, lawyers or prison officers; but that is not to say that such judicial systems have anything to do with Christianity. They don't!

We can see the dangers of civic/religious entanglement from the church perspective in the recent case of a 9-year-old Brazilian girl, raped by her step-father, whose family was excommunicated for arranging an abortion for her. The issue was largely discussed in terms of the failure of the church to excommunicate the rapist. The Church replied that murder is a more serious crime than rape. The obvious reply is that the church does not routinely excommunicate murderers. The church reply was that foetuses are defenceless. The obvious response to that is that many adult murder victims are defenceless. But, overall, the real problem here is that excommunication, to be consistent, has to determine a level of defencelessness that justifies it. That, in turn, involves being in court rather than reading media accounts and that, in turn, involves making a judgment about ethical behaviour on the basis of outcome rather than motive; it involves putting the church as a moral judge between the supposed sinner and God. Of course the irony in the Brazilian case is that the authorities made a gross error in their understanding of Roman Catholic teaching: the girl was entitled to an abortion to preserve her life.

The more general ethical flaw, on which I want to concentrate in this talk, is our contemporary tendency to externalise responsibility for social failure. For years I have had fantasies about a Cabinet Minister going onto the Today Programme and saying, when asked what the Government is going to do about rising crime, that the only people who can cut crime are criminals. But what we are experiencing today is past a joke. Let me try to put this simply, parodying Groucho Marx who said he wouldn't join a club that would let him in; I wouldn't join an organisation that thinks its members need an ethical code; such organisations give shelter to people whose conduct is regulated, as a matter of contract, by a rule book. This approach has got us into our recent, terrible financial situation. It has, of course, turned out that a man with the improbably appropriate name of Bernard Madoff, has broken the law and it may turn out that Sir Alan Stanford has done the same; but the vast majority of those who have got us into the current financial crisis, obeyed the rules. It follows, in some circles, then, that the rules were wrong. I would draw precisely the opposite conclusion, that the rules were, and should be, irrelevant.

Yet our sense of denial goes further. We now talk about "institutional" and "systemic" failure as if disasters are brought about by impersonal forces. Who, we should ask, designs the institutions and systems? The obvious answer is that we do. "Institutional" and "systemic" should simply be descriptions of chronic and deep-seated problems which should, in turn, put the ethical problems back with individuals. We are supposed to make our own ethical decisions and we might be forced to do this against the majority view or even the view within our own believing community. Thinking for a moment about Bishop Bell's opposition to carpet bombing in the Second World War, there would have been no point in relying on the regulators because they were all in favour of the bombing; and there was no point in adhering to the majority view, nor even the Christian majority view. Bell took an individual decision.

At this point we should note a critical paradox, on the one hand, society claims that systemic failure is not a matter for individuals; on the other hand, there has never been a time when individualism has so possible and so strongly asserted. We are responsible for ourselves but not the social structure within which we live.

The whole tendency of disjuncture is becoming so dangerous that it will soon, paradoxically, make governance impossible. The more we expect government action to mitigate social ills, the more we will abandon personal responsibility; and the more we abandon personal responsibility, the less capacity Government will have to do anything. In the end, dissent is a small price to pay for good government and personal abdication is the principal precondition for government failure.

The proposition that adherence to Christian integrity will support better government is by no means irrelevant but its achievement of justice is more important still. When Christians proclaimed the centrality of social justice in the Millennium Development Goals, their integrity was duly recognised; when we do what we ought to do we - to borrow an aggressive metaphor - punch above our weight. But we must be careful to separate the principle from the practicality; it is dangerous to try to stick a Christian label on methodology; here we might better proclaim our Christian principle and then agree to disagree on the way in which society can implement this in the civic arena. When we become entangled in the necessary checks and balances of civic compromise, that is a totally different level of activity from maintaining our foundational, Christian position.

There is no area where a Christian position is now more urgent than on justice between nations and between generations. In a recent speech, Archbishop Rowan Williams [i] quite properly said that God would not save us from our own folly; and so we have a utilitarian imperative as well as our Christian values to fall back on. There has been something of a silly debate recently about whether re-cycling rubbish makes any difference. The leader of discontent, not surprisingly, is the Daily Mail, which epitomises the contemporary disjuncture between the individual and society by always scapegoating authority for the immorality of individual action; for a pro Tory newspaper it is remarkably Leninist in this regard. Whether our individual actions affect the planet's ecology or not, we ought to consume as little as possible and re-cycle as much as possible; this does not depend upon science nor upon rules set by the Council but upon our obligation to live modestly and justly. If our response to ecological catastrophe is to wait for everybody else to act or to wait until the rules have been agreed, and then symmetrically adhered to, we are doomed. Our attitude to ecology ought to mirror our promotion of the Millennium development Goals: we should establish the principles from a position of individual integrity and then argue in the civic forum about the best forms of implementation. When we get the two processes confused, we end up making the principles subject to the conditions instead of holding to the principles regardless of the inadequacy of the conditions.

Yet the ecological challenge, allied with the current financial crisis, presents some almost intractably complex trade-offs. During the G20 meeting, the Churches combined with other faith groups, trades unions and charities to call for Jobs, justice and a green agenda. Now it should not surprise anybody that these objectives are not compatible. There is a reasonable business case for using public money to support jobs through the development of 'green' products; but the state subsidy of jobs in rich countries will give them market advantage over poor countries; and as the only sustainable way of increasing employment in poor countries is through economic growth, this will affect the 'green' agenda. If, however, you are an idealist and think that the best way to help the 'green' agenda is to cut consumption, this will disproportionately affect poor countries. The only possible ethical solution is to rank objectives so that the message is clear? We don't need to be experts; we need to decide whether our ethical priority is domestic jobs, justice for poor countries, or the retardation of climate change. If achieving our top objective also helps other, subsidiary objects, well and good; but we have to face up to the possibility that to opt for one thing will mean losing another.

While Christians are obliged as citizens, in the civic sphere, to participate in a discussion about choices and consequences, this should not, as I have said, be confused with adopting a principled, Christian position on major issues, nor with labelling methodological solutions "Christian". It might be argued that the two processes are inseparable but I hope I have shown why we need to keep them separate.

It is not a very great step from this position to a recognition that we have a great deal of work to do within our Church to disentangle it from the civic domain. In recent years this debate has been encapsulated in the shorthand of establishment. There are strong arguments both ways in the practical sphere but what we need is a debate about the principle. For what it's worth, when I joined the General Synod I was very much in favour of disestablishment but exposure to the arguments for staying as we are made me waver; but now I have gone back to my original position. The Christian tendency to become entangled in the secular state is so persistent that it should be resisted. If we had properly kept our distance, Bell would not have been so isolated so often.

I think that there are four issues which call for some more clear, Christian thinking; and perhaps you can consider these in detail during the next year:

That is a fearsome agenda but if we argue that the chief components of the Christian mission are worship and justice, then we ought to spend rather more time than we do on justice; and we ought to think more clearly about what we are trying to say.

Underlying all the dilemmas I have posed is the fundamental problem of working out the relationship between the individual and the social. Recently I had a discussion with a Church of England priest who could not grasp the concept that all life is social. You might occasionally find a hermit who only eats what he plants but, even then, what he plants is almost certainly social rather than being the product of nature before the arrival of humanity. The question is not really which aspects of our lives are public and collective but, on the contrary, which are autonomous and private. Alongside this, we need to ask how we make our social rules rather than simply asserting that we need to have them. Who defines boundaries and why? And if we collectively make boundaries, then where does sacrifice fit? And who can demand it? And if, indeed, they do demand it, is it sacrifice at all?

In conclusion, I want to venture some personal observations:

[i] http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2352

[ii] Kahn, Paul W.: Putting Liberalism in Its Place, Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN 0 691 12024 2