Archives for posts with tag: human-rights

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 26th July 2015 

Job 19:1-27, Hebrews 8 

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. We are all very familiar with these words, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: …. For now is Christ risen, from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ The first bit comes from our Old Testament lesson, Job chapter 19, and the second from 1 Corinthians 15. The link between the two was made by Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, who was of course no mean theologian. He made a link between the ‘Redeemer’ in Job and Jesus Christ, whom we often refer to as our Saviour and Redeemer.

But I think that it’s at least arguable that Job was not in fact referring to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, the chosen one of God, coming to save Israel. I think he had a narrower perspective. He simply thought that his troubles had been caused by God; that they were unjust, but that God would eventually be there again, to vindicate him, to defend him, to redeem him from the unjust punishment which he was suffering. 
He had done nothing wrong, and therefore what his Job’s Comforters, his friends, were saying about bad people wasn’t to the point. Just before Chapter 19 that we heard, Bildad the Shuhite had said, 

He is driven from light into darkness

and banished from the land of the living.

He leaves no issue or offspring among his people,

no survivor in his earthly home;

in the west men hear of his doom and are appalled;

in the east they shudder with horror.

Such is the fate of the dwellings of evildoers, … (Job 18:18f, NEB)

In this lively debate between Job and his so-called friends there is an unspoken assumption that Job is suffering because in fact he has done something dreadful: he has brought his suffering on himself: he is being punished for something which he has done. It is a terrible punishment. Everybody is alienated from him:

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away, 

my retainers have forgotten me;

… My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family. [Job 19:13f, NEB]

In the to-ing and fro-ing between the Friends and Job, the friends seeking to justify poor old Job’s sufferings, on the basis that they are the sufferings that wicked people deserve, and Job stoutly defending himself, at one point Bildad, his cheerless friend, says, 

How soon will you bridle your tongue?

Do but think and then we will talk.

What do you mean by treating us as cattle?

Are we nothing but brute beasts to you?

There is one standard for animals, and one standard for humans. Humans, by implication, have rights: human rights. But if one treats them like animals, one is not doing justice to them.

On Friday, the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ popped through my letterbox as usual, and I was brought up short by the main headline on the front page: “‘They treat us like animals’ say travellers”. It was a piece about the Gypsies who had arrived and spent a few days by the war memorial on the Tilt. Tom Smurthwaite, the Surrey Advertiser’s reporter who covers Elmbridge, and who impresses me with the quality of his reporting, had been to interview the Gypsies, the Travellers, and there was a very moving extended quote from his interview with one of the group, John Lewis, who spoke of the ‘tough life’ he experienced as a Traveller. He had said, ‘When councils ask us to move, they know a lot of us are not well educated. They give us the paperwork and it hasn’t got a county court stamp on it. They treat us like animals and look at us like we are foreign insects – it’s not right in the eyes of God. Everyone is a human being.’

That rang a bell with me. On Monday I had been to a lecture at the Cathedral by the Master of the Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones, on Magna Carta. A very good lecture, explaining how Magna Carta had been the foundation of the rule of law which we enjoy in this country. The Church, in the person of Archbishop Stephen Layton, had been at the heart of the negotiations. 

The principles of the rule of law are enshrined in Magna Carta. The rule of law: for example, that ‘no free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ – that’s chapter 39 – or chapter 40, ‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’ This was what Job was hoping for – a fair trial with someone to argue his case for him, his Vindicator, his ‘Redeemer’.

The rule of law involves a powerful set of principles, a heady brew, which I had been reflecting on: it came to a sharp focus in the moving cri de coeur of John Lewis, the spokesman for the Travellers who had stayed for a few days on the Tilt.

He said, ‘Although some people understand our culture, and have been very sympathetic… People see us come into a community and say, Oh my God, here come the Gypsies; my lawnmower is going to go missing. … This is not the case; we don’t bother anyone. Our children go to the local swimming pool and are told they are not welcome, and pubs turn us away.’ 

Another member of the group, Lisa Green, described as the group’s ‘matriarch’, said, ‘Everywhere we go, it’s as if we are aliens. People threaten the travelling community and try to run us out of town. There are lots of green spaces in Surrey,’ Miss Green said, and councils should be able to provide sites that are  of the way. ‘It would be better for residents and the travellers – councils don’t care as long as we go, that’s the truth. If they could tell us where we would be able to settle, we would gladly go. The Romani-Irish groups need to be recognised as a community,’ Miss Green believes. ‘It’s our way of life,and we are not going away. We are not dirty people… Everyone has their own rights and cultures, and you are never going to get rid of travellers.’ Of course the last person who tried to get rid of the Gypsies was – Hitler.

When I was little, I remember that my grandfather read me stories from a book by G. Bramwell Evens, who gave nature talks on BBC radio – the Home Service – using the pen-name ‘Romany’: because he was at the same time a Methodist minister and also, by birth and upbringing, a Gypsy. Romany paved the way for people like David Attenborough. His stories were very beautiful and showed a real sensitivity and understanding of the countryside. Some of his books are still in print, although he died in 1943.

But I realised that, apart from hearing ‘Romany’s’ stories, I had never really encountered, let alone talked to a Traveller, to a Gypsy. I have always been somewhere else, or even walked round the other side and avoided any kind of meeting. I vaguely remember people coming to sell clothes pegs at the door to my mother. She said that they were Gypsies. But I have never really met one.

At the talk on Monday night about Magna Carta, there was a question whether Magna Carta was related in any way to the Human Rights Act. The learned speaker asked a member of the audience, Lord Toulson, one of the Law Lords, who happened to be there, to answer the question. Lord Toulson referred to a book called ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham. [Bingham, T., 2010, The Rule of Law; London, Allen Lane] 

Lord Bingham, another eminent Law Lord, the former Master of the Rolls, had written in his book that in his view there was a direct line of history between Magna Carta and the principles of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention upon which it was based. 

Indeed Article 6, the right to a fair trial, and Article 7, no punishment without law, are direct descendants of Chapters 40 and 39 respectively of Magna Carta. Lord Bingham has written in his book, ‘.. the rights and freedoms embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, are in truth “fundamental”, in the sense that they are guarantees which no one living in a free democratic society such as the UK should be required to forgo’ [Bingham p.68]. In other words, they are rights which we enjoy simply by virtue of our being human.

We are not to be treated as animals: but that distinction, which came up in the debates in the Book of Job, is still a live issue today. ‘They treat us like animals’, said the Travellers, here on our doorstep.

Of course, in a sermon in the parish church, as this is, I shouldn’t cross the line into anything political, but one has to note, in passing, that our local MP, Dominic Raab, is now a junior minister, and that one of his jobs is to progress the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’. This has, of course, been widely challenged, not least by many members of the judiciary and legal profession.

In Lord Bingham’s book, which came out five years ago, he says this. ‘Over the past decade or so, the Human Rights Act and the Convention to which it gave effect in the UK have been attacked in some quarters, and of course there are court decisions, here and in the European Court, with which one may reasonably disagree. But most of the supposed weaknesses of the Convention scheme are attributable to misunderstanding of it, and critics must ultimately answer two questions. Which of the rights … would you discard? Would you rather live in a country in which these rights were not protected by law? I repeat the contention [that] …. the rule of law requires that the law afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. … There are probably rights which could valuably be added to the Convention, but none which could safely be discarded.’

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth. I know that my Vindicator, my Defender, liveth’. Who is to stand up for, to vindicate, people like the Travellers? You might say that there is an atmosphere of lawlessness about Travellers; that they don’t play by the rules. I’ve no idea whether this is true, but it is something that you hear.

I think that there is something in our New Testament lesson, from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is worth considering in this context. I don’t think I would make quite such a simple move as in Handel’s Messiah, from ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ to identifying that Redeemer with Jesus Christ, but I do think that there is a very relevant contrast in Hebrews 8. 

The writer to the Hebrews contrasts the first Covenant which God made with his chosen people, which has become redundant, has died out, if you like: it lost its force ‘…because they did not abide by the terms of that covenant, and I abandoned them,’ says the Lord.

The new covenant would not depend, for its effectiveness, on whether it was observed by the people: ‘I shall be their God, and they shall be my people. … For all of them, high and low, shall know me; I will be merciful to their wicked deeds, and I will remember their sins no more.’ 

This is the essence of New Testament theology to me. On the one hand, the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; albeit a fair system of justice – no more than an eye for an eye – but certainly not much room for generosity or forgiveness. In the New Testament, by contrast, Jesus’ rule of love, the rule of the Sermon on the Mount, rules out retaliation and goes by love. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of ‘They treat us like animals’ there could be a headline, ‘We know that our Redeemer liveth. So we are safe and welcome here in Cobham.’

Sermon for Education Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 27th January 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 – Supererogatory Goods

For over 100 years the churches in England have recognised the ninth Sunday before Easter, which is what today is, as ‘Education Sunday’. It’s a Sunday in which we celebrate the work of all the various educational establishments, and of course in particular, the teaching that comes from our church, either directly here in church, in Bible study or sermons, and in our church schools. Here in Cobham we have St Andrew’s School, who are coming to lead our service at 10 o’clock.

The lessons, that we have set for today, have been chosen with Education Sunday in mind. In Nehemiah and in our gospel reading from St Luke, we have a picture of someone in the synagogue taking down the scroll on which the Hebrew Bible was written, unfurling it and reading from it. Both in the Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah and in the gospel, after the Bible has been read, then there’s a session of teaching.

Indeed on one level, on Education Sunday, we can just celebrate the fact that there are teachers, and that education is a great good. We can reflect that it is a very good thing that the churches are very deeply involved in the whole process of educating children and young people.

Indeed it would be perfectly sensible to have services once a year on Education Sunday that just simply give thanks to God for the fact that God has given all the various talents, all the various complementary skills which St Paul picturesquely describes in our lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, about the different parts of the body and the fact that each of the bits and each of the body’s faculties – the hand, the foot, the hearing, the sense of smell – have their real purpose in the way in which they relate to each other in the one body. It’s an allegory for the church. The church depends on people with all sorts of different skills and aptitudes and gifts to give. Among those talents there surely is the talent of teaching.

It is, however, worth pausing at this point just to review certain things about the educational landscape as it confronts our children, and ourselves as parents, today. There is some controversy about so-called ‘faith schools’. The argument, the controversy, is whether there should be a stripe running through the whole of a church school, a colour of Christianity. Wouldn’t it be better, some people say, if schools were all completely secular – even so, perhaps children could be taught about religion, or the various religions, as an academic subject, but not as a rule of life. They argue, what about children who come from unbelieving homes, or homes where people actually believe in a different religion?

Obviously there are standard answers to that, given by the church, that in fact there is no undue bias towards churchgoers in allocating places in church schools, that there is always provision made for those who declare themselves to be either unbelievers or believers in a different faith, in the form of separate assemblies or just being able to skip going to Christian worship and attending lessons where Christianity is taught.

Anyway, the churches have a good story to tell about their openness and their inclusiveness in the church schools, and the controversy, if there is really one, is all about the fact that church schools on the whole are very good schools, and obviously more people want their children to attend them than they actually have places for. So although the church has set them up and sustains them in many important ways, non-believers resent this and demand that they should have equal access for their children.

That brings me on to the second dimension in our lessons today, in particular in the gospel. What should a good school teach? I don’t want to get into sterile discussions about the various politicians’ ideas about what the so-called ‘core curriculum’ should contain. I’m more interested today in what Jesus was doing when he was teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth as indeed, according to the gospel, he regularly did, all over the place. Was he doing the sort of job that Ezra and the Levites were doing in the story from Nehemiah?

What Ezra was reading, and then going on to teach about, was ‘the book of the law of Moses’, the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Old Testament. At the heart of the Jewish law are the Ten Commandments. You will remember all the various Ten Commandments, and you could, if you were one of these non-believing parents, point out that, in a school today, you could certainly teach, in a General Studies lesson, say, the benefits to society as a whole if everyone followed the Ten Commandments.

You would say, as an unbeliever, that the benefits of most of the Ten Commandments would inure, quite irrespective of whether they were the commandments of God as opposed to being just good common sense, necessary for peace and harmony in society.

Obviously the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt worship The Lord thy God,’ doesn’t fit with that; and moreover, if you introduce the Ten Commandments with the story of how Moses came by them, it’s quite clear that the particular context of the Ten Commandments is a context of divine revelation, but it is possible to get most of the moral benefits without needing to know anything about God.

But there are little hints of what’s different, when the teaching is actually about the divine. In Nehemiah, there’s this intriguing last thing that Ezra preaches, that people should eat, drink and be merry: but that they should send a share of their food to people who haven’t got any: those ‘for whom nothing is prepared,’ as the passage says. And that that should be something done on the Lord’s day: ‘send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, because this day is holy to our Lord’. So that suggests that the reason for sending the food parcels to the poor people is because it’s something associated with God: you do it on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s day.

Similarly in St Luke’s gospel Jesus takes as his text the passage from Isaiah chapter 61 which actually describes the coming Messiah, the chosen one of God. Again, the point about that is that Christian teaching is not just about what is good to do – although of course there is strong Christian teaching about it – but at its heart is the question where that teaching comes from, and who Jesus was, in order to do that teaching.

You can see the people of Nazareth resisted stoutly the idea that Jesus was anything special – but that is the difference. A secular set of ethics would come up with something very like the Ten Commandments (albeit minus the first one). Essentially such secular ethics would be based on the so-called ‘golden rule’, do as you would be done by; do to your neighbour, and so on; but where the teaching really comes from God, in the mouth of a prophet like Ezra, and in the mouth of Jesus himself, as in St Luke’s gospel, the difference is that the teaching is not only to do as you would be done by, in the various specifics laid down in the Ten Commandments, but it is also to pursue so-called supererogatory goods, things which go beyond what you are obliged to do. So this is sending food parcels to people who are hungry in the Old Testament, and in Jesus’ teaching, the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile: these are all supererogatory goods, doing more than you strictly have to do in order simply to keep the fabric of society together.

They are the mark of a very special kind of teacher. As Jesus himself says, Isaiah’s prophecy, in Isaiah chapter 61, setting out what the Messiah, the chosen one of God, would look like, now is fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the son of God. He is divine.

That brings me back to what we should be doing with church schools. If all we’re doing – and that’s not to belittle it – if all that we’re doing is teach children things that they could learn anywhere, church school or not, then it’s almost as though Jesus had never come. But if on the other hand, the important thing about a church school is that it’s run by people who recognise the difference between what Ezra was doing, what the OT prophets were doing, what Moses was doing when he collected the tablets with the Ten Commandments: who recognise what the difference is between them and Jesus himself, teaching in the synagogue and actually saying that the world has changed, that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled and the Ten Commandments are no longer the whole story. Jesus’ teaching is a whole big command of love, which enjoins people to do supererogatory goods, doing more than they are asked to do, going the extra mile.

And they are doing that, because it is God who is asking them. Isn’t that just the most important thing that you could possibly teach about, in your church school? I think it is, and I’m sure that Andrew Tulloch, the headmaster, and his teachers, at our church school, are very well aware of that, and they never forget it. Long may it continue.