A Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely
Could Paul really have been writing to the Christians in Rome without irony when he penned his directions on obeying the law of the land?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.
Anyone who has read Professor Mary Beard’s recent book, SPQR, will know that life for Romans who did not enjoy the privileges of the upper echelons of society was often harsh. Access to justice was dependent not just on getting your plea onto the right desk, but on getting it read. The imperial terms of office of Claudius (41-54 CE) and Nero (54-68 CE), when Paul was writing were perhaps not as sensational as the more lurid passages of Suetonius’s biographies of the Twelve Caesars suggest, but neither were they models of the just society. Even at the top, fairness does not seem to have come into calculations routinely. Professor Beard magnificently brings to life the complexities of ensuring a line of succession, which mainly involved adopting adult men into the reigning emperor’s family. It makes modern adoption systems look simple. And nobody adopted babies in any case. If you wanted a baby, you could choose from the large numbers of infants discarded on rubbish tips because they could not be supported by their families, or were physically impaired or perhaps of an undesirable gender. Then there were the marriage alliances that held together the intricate Roman power network. Divorces and remarriages, often to people who had been commanded to divorce their existing spouses, produced an imperial family tree that even an expert historian finds difficulty in drawing. Political enemies could be removed if one had gangs of armed thugs. Emperors’ careers did not always end quietly in bed after long and useful lives either. Claudius appears to have succumbed to a poisoning plot designed to put Nero in power, and Nero himself committed suicide after being declared a public enemy by the Senate.
So what sort of authority was it that Paul considered good enough to be regarded as a servant of God? He clearly didn’t think the law was a bad or corrupt thing in itself. After all, it was the law that he had appealed to when he proclaimed his Roman citizenship in self-defence against beatings and floggings (Acts 16.37-38; 22.25-29; 23.27). The law provided a system of protections – the greater difficulty appears to have been access. Furthermore, there was a long history of hostility to popular reformers, going back to Gaius Gracchus (c. 123 BCE), whose concern for the common people was generally regarded as dangerous rabble-rousing.
Is Paul describing something more sophisticated than a one-way traffic of justice that trickles down to the citizenry, and proposing something more like a contract? You could interpret his advice negatively as an encouragement to Christians to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. But you could also read it positively, as a statement about what it meant to be a Christian citizen, entering honestly and trustingly into a relationship with the civil law. This comes much closer to a modern sense of participation in society and possibly even hints at notions of the common good, though it is never wise to assume exact matches between situations widely separated by time and culture.
Paul is certain of one thing: that all human institutions are subject to God and that God can bring good things out of them. It was, after all, in the scriptural tradition he would have known from his rabbinic training. The verses from Isaiah which formed the first reading are widely understood as referring to the nation of Israel, even though a tradition of reading them as pointing to Jesus, the Messiah who suffered for his people, grew up very quickly (e.g. Acts 8). The prophecy is addressed to the part of the population who had been marched off to Babylon in the early 6th century BCE. Their call is to be faithful. God has held them by the hand and called them in righteousness, in order to make them a sign to nations who do not yet believe in God. Their exile was part of that sign, though apparently there was some danger of the ones who had settled down and started farming becoming too comfortable and not wanting to go home to rebuild Jerusalem.
God, as the reading from the Holy Q’ran told us, sets laws not because we are righteous, but to teach us how to be righteous. The Bishop of London disconcerted me a while ago when he told me that he had seen all my duplicity revealed on stage at the Barbican. I discovered that he meant that he had attended a performance of Henry V as part of the 500th anniversary of Agincourt. My 15th century predecessor as Bishop of Ely, John Fordham, gets a bad press for tax avoidance. All of us need to learn righteousness and exercise vigilance over ourselves and the systems for which we are responsible.
We live in a world where life is so often held cheap, by gang masters, traffickers, abusers and extremists, and at the softer edge, by administrations which manage to lose sight of the poor, needy and vulnerable in the convolutions of their own bureaucracy. Being ‘modern and tolerant’ does not automatically mean that any of those things are affected. We need to move away from what is familiar and comfortable in order to bring about transformation in the flourishing of all people. At the very least, tolerance must be strengthened by honour. We can be ready to tolerate other religions and moral systems which do not impinge upon our lifestyle. Actually, we need to be ready to honour people of difference in ways that challenge us. We must get beyond acceptance to a profound embrace. St Paul’s guidance to bear with one another is not out of date. It also means extending grace (more than forgiveness) to one another. Being patient would be better translated ‘great-spirited’.
I was once interviewed by Lord Philips of Worth Matravers in Dorset, the first head of our Supreme Court, to be on the board at Bryanston. I must have passed muster because we proceeded to lunch in Middle Temple Hall. Surrounded by the panoply of the law, I was taken back in time to be an undergraduate studying medieval English history. We were encouraged to read a novel by Diana Norman, the late wife of the film critic, Barry Norman, called FitzEmpress Law. This remains the best introduction to Angevin justice in the mid-twelfth century. It illustrates that medieval kingship was judged by the access to the law of the poor and under-privileged. With characteristic energy and verve, Henry II developed Anglo-Saxon justice to bring the courts close to local people. I would be careful to make a direct link between the Angevin Empire and the European Union across eight hundred years. Nonetheless, we need to be rightly concerned about our access to what ‘great-spirited’ means in relation to guaranteeing the direct human rights of every adult and child in this country in perpetuity. I suspect that very few people have a clear view of the benefits or defaults of our leaving the European Union from an economic point of view. What we do need to consider carefully is our future relationship with the European Courts of Justice. Much is said about the sovereignty of our nation. As Christians, our national interest is always going to be overturned by our dual citizenship within the kingdom of heaven which asserts the rights of individuals and groups because we proclaim the irreducible value of every human being under God. In America there is a danger that alienated and dissatisfied citizens might adopt the belief that the best way to combat extremism is to define yourself over against others, like judging Mexicans who cross the border into the USA. As Pope Francis has said, you have to build bridges and not walls to be a Christian. As we approach Passiontide, we are reminded that Jesus refused to be defined over-against anybody in Israel and so took all the violence of the world into himself. He took all this and more to the cross. Candidates to be President of America or victors of referendums are all to be judged by their commitment to radical access to justice, which always says more about the judge than about the plaintiff.