Archives for posts with tag: rule of law

Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.

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Sermon for Mattins on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 15th November 2015 – Security or Liberty?
Daniel 12:1-3 ‘There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was ..’
Mark 13:1-8 ‘Such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet’

‘For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows. But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten:…’

That’s the end of our Gospel reading this morning, and the verse after. It might be a description of what it feels like to be a Christian in Iraq, or Syria, or anywhere else where so-called Islamic State is operating. It’s not safe to be a Christian there – and many Christians have become refugees.

And now, in Paris, that violence, that terrorism, has come out of the Middle East and is on our doorstep. Hundreds of people have been killed and maimed by suicide bombers with Kalashnikovs in that lovely city, where we all have treasured memories, of happy days, beautiful sights and wonderful meals in fine company.

We are horrified. We feel for the poor people of Paris. How frightened they must feel. If these terrorists could do it once, can they, will they, do it again? It could be London next time. How can we deal with this terrorism?

I was already thinking about this earlier in this week, before the terrible news from Paris arrived. Mohammed Emwazi, ‘Jihadi John’, the IS terrorist with a British accent, who appeared on several of their awful propaganda videos and appears to have murdered several innocent people, was killed in Syria earlier this week by a missile fired from an unmanned aircraft, a drone. Or rather, the Americans, whose missile it was, say they are ‘99% certain’ they killed Emwazi. And several other people were in the same car and were killed when it was hit by the missile.

You may remember the case of Derek Bentley, condemned to death – and executed – in 1953 – for the murder of a policeman. He was a 19-year-old with learning difficulties. During an attempted burglary, his partner in crime, Christopher Craig, who was under 18, shot a policeman after Bentley had called out ‘Let him have it’, ‘it’ being the gun. The prosecution alleged that ‘Let him have it’ meant ‘Shoot him’, and the judge directed the jury to find that interpretation. Bentley was hanged. He has since been posthumously pardoned, and his conviction quashed.

Bentley’s case was one of those miscarriages of justice which persuaded our parliament to abolish the death penalty. At least, to abolish it when we bring an alleged murderer before the courts.

But what if the alleged murderer is a terrorist? Do you remember ‘Death on the Rock’, the ITV documentary broadcast in 1988, about three IRA man who were shot by the SAS in Gibraltar?

Or Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent man shot nine times by policemen on a Victoria Line tube train?

Or even Osama bin Laden, shot by the US special forces in Pakistan at his home? None of them was tried. But they were all killed, killed by the forces of law and order. Was that right?

There is a difference in legal interpretation between us and the USA in this context. They characterise these operations as being part of a ‘War against Terror’, an actual war, in which the terrorists are combatants, soldiers. We, on the other hand, see terrorists as criminals, to be brought to justice in the courts.

In general, in war, subject to the Geneva Conventions, it is lawful to kill enemy soldiers. Therefore if Mr Emwazi was a soldier and there was a war, in principle it would have been lawful to kill him.

But if there wasn’t a war, at least a war in the sense that Mr Emwazi was a soldier in an army belonging to a country which was at war with the United States, then he was simply a criminal who should have been brought to trial. Incidentally, murder is one of the few crimes which the British courts will try, irrespectively where in the world the offence was committed.

So was it right, or lawful, to kill him with a missile? Nobody is sure even that it was indeed him who was killed – let alone whether his fellow-passengers were in any way sufficiently culpable in order to deserve the death penalty.

Compare Jihadi John’s case with Derek Bentley’s. Bentley was tried. He had the benefit of counsel. There was a jury. The judge was experienced. But they still got it wrong.

Here, we don’t even know for sure whether it was Jihadi John that the missile hit. We don’t know who the other people who were killed were. The missile was fired by the US Army at a car in a town in Syria, Raqqa. The United States is not at war with Syria. Dare one ask, on what legal basis could the strike be justified?

Now I know that you will have listened to me saying that, and you’re probably thinking, ‘That must be wrong’. Wrong, in the sense that ‘of course it was the right thing’ to get rid of Emwazi. He was a ‘dangerous terrorist’. The Prime Minister, I believe, has said that killing him was a question of self-defence.

A former law professor at the LSE, a very old friend of mine, said that the special circumstances, in effect, justified the killing. ‘Imagine you have him in your sights, knife poised over neck of a captive… Do you shoot, or ring 999 and hope for the best?’ It is the same sort of reasoning which is sometimes used to justify torture.

Well, some lawyers at least certainly disagree with those suggestions. The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham, Sir Tom Bingham, in his very fine book ‘The Rule of Law’, quoted Cicero, De Legibus (‘On Laws’),’ Salus populi suprema lex esto’, (‘let the safety of the people be the highest law’), but said that he preferred Benjamin Franklin’s view that ‘he who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

The early Christians had a hard time. As we read in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was preparing the apostles for persecution. What he warned them about indeed sounds like what is happening to the Christians in the Middle East today. But remember what St Paul said, in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

And let us remember what Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount.

‘I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Jesus had no use for military intervention, let alone a ‘war on terror’. In the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’. Love your enemies. Love your enemies! This is revolutionary stuff. How can we handle it?

Surely we cannot just stand aside and let IS run amok all over the world? Can we? Last week I preached about how ‘Thou shalt not kill’ had evolved into the doctrine of the Just War, and how in modern times the rules sometimes allowing for warlike acts had been agreed in the United Nations Charter. The war must be in self-defence, or to give effect to a mutual protection treaty, or if the United Nations to has sanctioned it.

This is presumably why the Prime Minister has made reference to self defence, in seeking to justify the drone strike which probably killed Jihadi John. But it is at least arguable that there is no war; there was only terrorism, which in this country is a criminal matter, not an act of war.

In that case, whether or not the action was in self-defence is not relevant, in the sense that the Battle of Britain was fought in self-defence by the RAF. Even if it were, it is highly unlikely that Jihadi John was in any meaningful way a threat to the existence of this country.

We need to pray for guidance, and for our leaders to have wisdom and discernment where terrorism is concerned. It is no use our getting involved in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. We should remember that ‘He who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

Truth and reconciliation are far more likely to lead to long term peace. Let us pray that they are forthcoming.

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 Evensong at St Mary’s on the Sunday before Advent, 24th November 2013
1 Samuel 8:1-20, John 18:33-37 – What it is to be a King

‘He will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.’ Confectionaries – from our first lesson, from the First Book of Samuel. I love the idea of one’s daughters being makers of confectionery, sweeties; Yum Yum.

But we’re not talking about the Mikado, but rather, about kings. This is the Sunday next before Advent, when we also celebrate Christ the King, so our hymns are all about crowns and kingship, and the second lesson has Pontius Pilate asking Jesus whether He is a king.

The relevance of this is in the very interesting conversation which Samuel the old prophet has with the elders of Israel, about the best form of government. At that stage in their early history, the tribes of Israel did not have an overall leader, a king. They just had their tribal elders, and they had judges. The judges did what judges do today. ‘Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life, and he went from year to year in circuit, to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places’. [1 Samuel 7:15f]

When Samuel got old, he appointed his two sons as judges under him. This is a forerunner of what we understand as the rule of law. Moses had received the law: the prophets and the judges who came after him interpreted the law and prayed directly to the Lord.

So in this discussion between the elders of Israel and Samuel, all sorts of things come up, which are still directly relevant and very topical today. You will remember the interview that the comedian Russell Brand had with Jeremy Paxman recently, when he said that he didn’t think there was any point in voting. There’s a lot of disillusionment with politics today.

It’s interesting to look at the list of things which Samuel brings up for discussion in this context. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your way’. The sons were corrupt: they ‘turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement.’ So the elders said, ‘We don’t want the judges any more to create policy for us: we need a king.’ I think they were proposing something like what Bismarck arranged in Germany and what Garibaldi arranged in Italy – and perhaps what the Romans did in relation to the city states of the Greeks.

Whereas in the time of Moses, the nation of Israel was made up of the 12 tribes, and there was no overall leadership, now Samuel is being asked to appoint a king, who will oversee all of them together, so that collectively they can be stronger.

Notice that there’s no discussion of democracy. Democracy came pretty late. It’s usually said that it started in classical Athens around 500BC, whereas this discussion with Samuel took place before 1,000BC. Interestingly, the ancient authors were not particularly enthusiastic about democracy. They thought it had tendencies to be populist, rabble-rousing rather than a wise way of governing.

So here the difference was between having a king, a monarchy, an absolute monarchy, and continuing in their small tribal units. The Lord told Samuel that the Israelites had rejected Him, the Lord; even though He had saved them from the Egyptians, they had turned aside and worshipped other gods.

Just as these ancient Israelites didn’t know about democracy, we don’t really know about theocracy; theocracy, which is, being governed by God. In the ancient world, nobody would do anything serious without consulting an oracle, or in the Jewish tradition, without consulting a prophet, to find out what the will of God was: whether in fact the proposed course of action was what God wanted.

The Lord accepted that the people of Israel were not going to continue to come to the tabernacle and worship in the old-fashioned way. The people of Israel were rejecting the idea of trying to discern the will of God as their main method of government. They simply wanted a king.

Today we in the west try to keep a separation between matters of religion and matters of politics or government, although the line does get blurred. In France they are very keen on saying that they have a secular state – but the state pays for the upkeep of the churches. In this country, of course, the Church of England is the ‘established’ church, the state church, and the Queen is the head of the church, so church and state are very much bound together.

God tells Samuel to warn the elders of Israel about all the things that could go wrong if they had a king over them. This is where ‘making your daughters to be confectionaries’ comes in. More seriously, he will ‘appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties … He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and olive orchards, and give them to his courtiers. He will take one tenth of your grain, and of your vineyards, and give it to his officers and his courtiers.’ The King would lord it over the people.

Now we have Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman agreeing with each other to turn their backs on politics. I wonder if there could be the same sort of conversation if we had a prophet today, or if Jesus himself came among us and saw how we were getting on. Would the rulers of the world today, and in particular our rulers, be guilty of any of the things that Samuel was warning about? Or does democracy tend to rule out the worst excesses of an absolute monarch? Did King John at Runnymede get it right in Magna Carta, with the separation of the powers?

With the movement to have independence in Scotland and the popularity of UKIP, wanting to pull us out of the European Union, are we yearning for an era where we were like the tribes of Israel, small, standing by themselves with no overall king?

Remember that what was wrong with the Israelites at that point was that they had forgotten that they did have a King in heaven, that God was their King, and that they were supposed to worship the one true God alone. They had forgotten that, and they were worshipping all sorts of other gods who were not real.

So then we come to Pontius Pilate’s famous dialogue with Jesus.

‘So you are a king?’ ‘Art thou a king then?
‘Thou sayest that I am a king’. You say that I am a king.

Jesus points out that if He were the sort of king that Pontius Pilate had in mind, then his followers would be fighting for Him, to stop Him from being handed over to the Jews. Instead of which, of course, His followers had melted away: none more so than St Peter.

I wonder if Prince Charles is thinking about all this. Or Prince William, indeed. What is it to be a king today? Perhaps it’s sensible for anyone who is going to be in government, in any way, to think about all the reflections which these passages produce.

The government has a balance of power with the rule of law, the judges. It’s important that judges should not be corrupt. It’s important that the rulers shouldn’t oppress the people – take their sons and put them in the Army, forcing them to fight wars. Will the government take your daughters to be confectionaries?

What is the right tax rate? One tenth of your grain and in your vineyards to go to the civil service. The best products that you make, the Rolls-Royces, the Jaguars, pressed into government service. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Do we think that Russell Brand was being somewhat prophetic, and that perhaps the original conversation between God and Samuel is the one to listen to – that the best way of government is a government that listens to God and forsakes all other gods?

As Jesus said, ‘For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Let’s hope that our leaders will listen too.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!