Rule of Law Service | Salisbury Cathedral

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Rule of Law Service

Preached by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP  

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Rule of Law Service

Posted By : Guest Preacher Monday 16th March 2015

Preached by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP


When the High Sheriff asked me to preach at this service, I could not refuse. I feel a deep debt to him. As my fag at school he kept my shoes highly polished, to a degree never again attained. Now is payback time.


This service honours the rule of law. In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus is seen as the great judge at the end of time. I am sure that the judges present will agree that he has chosen a fine role model! This judge distinguishes between the sheep and the goats. According to the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the Sheep in England, but in America it is the year of the Goat. Chinese, it seems, does not distinguish between sheep and goats. Let’s hope that God is not Chinese, otherwise we may end up in the wrong place! Though it might be my best last chance!


In the Christian tradition, justice is to give each person their due: Suum cuique. In the gospel this means that the naked must be given clothes, the hungry food, and the thirsty drink. But the the stranger, the prisoner and the sick are due something even more fundamental: recognition. ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me…I was sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to me.’


The most fundamental human need is to be seen and acknowledged. Among the Zulu, when you meet someone you say: ‘I am here to be seen.’ And the reply is Sawubona, ‘I see you.’ Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, believe that it is feeling that one is invisible, unacknowledged which is the root of most violence and war.


The Magna Carta was sealed 800 years ago. It was a demand by the barons for recognition. We are free people, and not the slaves of the king, subject to his arbitrary rule. Freedom was in the air. A year later, 1216, the Dominican Order was founded, with its intensely democratic government. A few years later, while this cathedral was being built, St Thomas Aquinas was born, whose whole theology celebrated that we are all called to be free and happy.


800 hundred years later, our society is suffering from a profound crisis of recognition. For the first time, more than half of all human beings live in sprawling cities, places of anonymity and invisibility. Here few people know your name; you have no neighbours. You are not recognised in the street. This is felt as a violence against one’s humanity. On the street angry people say ‘Don’t diss me.’


Father Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest who works who works with drug gangs in Los Angeles. They spend most of their time writing their names on walls. His first job is know their names. He greets a kid by his nickname ‘Lula’. ‘You would have thought that I had electrocuted him. His whole body spasms with delight to be known, to be called, to hear his name uttered out loud. For his entire trip through the crosswalk, Lula kept turning back and looking at me smiling.’


In London, 14% of young people think warmly of ISIS. I don’t suppose that they are really in favour of violence. Some of them are looking for a cause; some just want to be someone, become celebrities, the highest form of existence. Look at me! I do not have to write my name on a wall. It is there in the papers. Unless we build a society in which people feel honoured and acknowledged, seen, then we may face an explosion of violence that all the imaginable laws will not be able to contain. What could be the Magna Carta for such a world? We need a Magna Carta not just for the barons but for the small people who feel that they are invisible.


This gospel contains an even more extraordinary demand for recognition. The great judge says: ‘whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.’ The prisoner may be guilty of terrible crimes but he or she is somehow Christ. 


It was said that in our society everything is permitted, but nothing is forgiven. People must forever bear the burdens of their failures. But we believe that though they may have committed murder, or acts of terrorism or paedophilia, they cannot be reduced to being just and forever murderers, terrorists or paedophiles. Each of us is the image of Christ.


My favourite murderer was called Rocco. He died recently. He used to be a Mafia hitman, a professional murderer. In prison in Massachusetts he discovered Christ and become a Dominican layman, saying his prayers. He joked that this tough old lag had ended up a nun in a monastery. His hidden identity at last became visible. He is a child of God.


Thomas Merton became a Cistercian monk because he wanted to escape from a world filled with wicked people. But a few years of religious life, he went to the local town one day to have something printed, and the scales fell from his eyes. He wrote in his diary, ‘Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts... the core of their being, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed.[1]

This perception is given to few of us, but the gospel invites us to believe it and act as if it were true. May we do so!

[1] quoted Willam H..Shannon Seeds of Peace: Contemplation and non-violence New York 1996 p.63