The Christian & the State

Sunday 28th June 2015
The Third Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Romans 13.1-10

It is all too easy for democrats like us to be glib about the virtues of our system; but it is as well to remember the chaos which ensued in Yugoslavia after the death of its dictator Tito and, since then, we have caused havoc through our overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Colonel Mohamar Gaddafi of Libya which leaves us making spurious calculations about whether the overthrow of these last two cost or saved a net number of lives or, to put it another way, we ask how many lives would have been lost if we had done nothing compared with the number lost when we did something. But, then, the hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean can be divided between those escaping dictatorship, like the Eritreans, and those escaping chaos, like the Syrians.

But if we think that such discussions today are just a little complex - maintaining Churchill's position that democracy isn't perfect but it's the best system of governance there is - it was an absolutely vital topic in the post Reformation 16th Century when our Second Reading from the beginning of Chapter 13 of Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans was the most prominently discussed text after the critical texts on justification by faith in Chapter 2 of Galatians and Chapter 3 of Romans. Throughout the Middle Ages there had been dynastic disputes over land which had led to wars, notably the "100 Years War" between England and France but the Reformation set off a series of civil wars over religion, beginning in Germany less than a decade after Luther's break with Rome which found the great reformer siding with the aristocracy against the peasants and using this text to do so. Rulers in turn based their new nationalist power on this text and then evolved it into the theory of the "divine right of kings" which did not save King Charles I because the Puritans claimed he was a "godless ruler" exempted from the protection of Saint Paul's statements.

Saint Paul was writing his letters during a period of relative stability in the Roman world, only broken by imperial succession crises which rarely spilled over into the Eastern part of the Empire; and so it seems that Paul's aim was not so much one of pleading for political stability but, rather, was an attempt to distinguish between his new Christian sect and the Jews who were regarded by the Roman authorities as decidedly awkward, anomalous and, if you thought the Emperor was a god, idolatrous. If this was the case, the fine words failed. Within a decade of Romans being written, Christian martyrs were being thrown to the lions in Rome.

These martyrs drew a sharp line in the sand of the arena; they said the state had no power over their religious belief; and we must not forget that there are martyrs today, notably in the 'Middle East' saying the same thing. But the question for us is whether we think there is a line to be drawn. At  one time Christians would have drawn a line about divorce and re-marriage but the sand has been swept; the same thing has happened over abortion and, more recently, homosexual relationships. We seem not to have been too concerned to maintain an absolute link between biological parenting and child rearing; and we are now confronted by multi-parented children whose biological parents may or may not be undertaking the child rearing; and what are we going to do about assisted dying? Most people, including Christians, I think, will say that matters of life and death are matters of individual choice, not public legislated morality; and some people, including me, would say that it isn't the act that counts but its motive; is this or that act generated by selfishness or love? And this thought brings us much nearer to understanding our relationship with civil government.

When I was a child I took it for granted that political parties of the 'left' were highly principled, morally upright and altruistic; but the long view we can now take, encompassing the 2015 General Election, shows that the Labour Party thrived when it represented an interest group, the working class, which was quite properly, but certainly not altruistically, advancing its own ends; but as Labour grew less distinct its power to deliver seemed less potent; thus the switch of many Labour votes to UKIP.

Now I'm not making a party political point but simply drawing the conclusion that it's all too easy to turn self interest into some bogus principle and, conversely, it's very difficult to support a cause which does not involve our own self interest. Altruism is at best sporadic; and when idealists have tried to construct political systems on altruism they have crashed, usually hurting most those they were constructed to protect. Nonetheless, a system largely based on cynicism and selfishness, as ours is, urgently requires love and altruism; and it's our duty, not our right, nor our choice, to supply it. Who will champion the poor and the weak? Who will champion the welfare of the yet unborn? Who will say that we should pay higher taxes and give more to good causes? Who will, above all, care for the unloved and the unlovely? As a society, as we become less morally driven - such that bankers now need ethics codes - we become more punitive; as the crime rate falls, prison sentences get longer; as money runs short, people like me with disabilities are dismissed as scroungers; and this is all part of the general theory that the poor are to blame for their own poverty.

We should not confuse comfort with well being; and we should not be complacent about the proper relationship between the Christian and the state. We say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance but, for the Christian, the price of love is eternal vigilance, prayer and sacrifice.