Authority and Conscience

Sunday 1st July 2018
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Jeremiah 11.1-14
Romans 13.1-10

Less than two weeks ago, no less a person than the United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited our Second Reading as a justification for supporting the Trump Administration's anti-immigrant policy which separated babies and young children from their parents and put them into wire cages. He said that as a legally constituted government it must be obeyed because Romans 13 said so! He is only the latest of a long line of authoritarian rulers who have quoted this passage, perhaps the most notorious being Martin Luther who used it to justify the bloody suppression by newly Protestant German princes of the Peasants Revolt of 1524-25. This understanding led, shortly afterwards, to the assertion by monarchs in Protestant and Catholic Europe of the "Divine Right of Kings".

The most important thing to note is that this passage's author, Paul, at the time of writing, was systematically defying the civil and military authority of Rome by refusing to worship state Gods, including the Emperor, and it was for this that he would, according to tradition, die as a martyr; so the passage cannot mean that we must obey the state unconditionally; and yet, given that the role of the Roman state was primarily to guarantee the Pax Romana in an agricultural age defined by wars for land and civil wars, you can see the point. As the Roman state was only interested in good order, taxation and state religion, you can see the point of the first two; and you can see why so many Christians died because of the third.

In our own day, because we live in a democratic state, our immediate response to our relationship with the state is that if it does things we don't approve of, we can vote against it. But this might not be enough. What, for example, do we do if all the political parties agree on a policy which contradicts Christian principles? The ballot box cannot be enough.

And so, in the face of Jeff Sessions' support for what can only be described as a white supremacy policy in a country entirely constituted by immigrants and their descendants - except for First Nation Indians - implemented through de-humanising immigrants, mirrored in the outright policy of the new Italian Government and long supported, but in a much more elegantly cruel way, by Her Majesty's Government, what are we to do?

If we accept that obedience to authority is in some ways conditional, our starting point is Paul's own behaviour, reinforced by Jeremiah's pronouncements in our First Reading; we are always to rank our faithfulness to God, expressed in human society in love, above the decrees of the state. When you ask people whether the cause of a phenomenon is this or that, they usually reply, a bit of both; but this evasion is not possible for Christians when the state contradicts their principles. Obeying our Christian conscience must always be ranked above obeying the state.

Now let us combine this principle of putting God first, for which Paul died, with the situation where democracy cannot solve our problem, then what? In the case of immigration, all the political parties are frightened to do anything to help refugees. When the crisis became salient at the Sangatte refugee makeshift camp - scandalously dubbed "The Jungle" - our Government promised to take in a tiny number of unaccompanied minors but five years later we have not fully honoured our promise. At the time, a Church of England vicar from the West of England organised food and clothes parcels for the refugees of Calais but quite specifically said that this had absolutely nothing to do with the political question of immigration. So here we are with multi-party unshakeable support for a policy which refuses Christian love and hospitality to immigrants. Now what?

In the first place, we simply have to be honest with ourselves. If we really are hostile to increased immigration we must carefully analyse how this squares with what Jesus says in the Gospels. Secondly, if we find a stark contradiction between our politics and the message of Jesus we are required - we have no choice - I say, we are required to say so even if this upsets our friends; if we can't tell the truth to friends then they're not much use as friends.

Thirdly, we must protest in other ways than waiting for an election which cannot, by definition, change policy. And we must do so in a Christian, not a party political context. We may believe any number of political theories, based on evidence, our temperamental preference or - the old cliché - a mixture of the two; but we must, as the great theologian Karl Barth said, read our Bible with a newspaper in the other hand. The idea that religion and politics are separate is a pro status quo con. Jesus was by far the most radical person in the Bible but not for the sake of it, not to fulfil some sort of political ideology but because to base a society on the then radical concept of love, rather than military power, demanded radical implementation.

We have, today, as we do at every Evensong, sung the Magnificat, Mary's song, which proclaims God's justice, anticipating the Good News of Jesus but my worry is that this is the most said but most disregarded prayer in the Prayer Book. I sometimes wish, even though this is my favourite prayer of all, that we could drop it from our liturgy because it makes hypocrites of us. We have not put down the mighty from their seats; and we have certainly not sent the rich empty away. In almost a decade of austerity we have not filled the hungry with good things nor exalted the humble and meek. Quite the opposite. And if we have not managed to do any of this for our own people, it is perfectly clear that we are not going to do it for immigrants.

I therefore urge us to consider our stance with care. The Magnificat ends with a reference to God keeping his promises, which echoes Jeremiah; but to what extent are we keeping ours?