Monday 8 December 2008

The church and Britain: a homily for Christ the King Sunday

A guest-post by Andrew Brower Latz (Ben’s note: Sorry, I’m a couple of weeks behind with this – but I still wanted to post this excellent sermon, which Andrew Brower Latz, an F&T-reader, preached recently for Christ the King Sunday)

Today is the feast of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, the last Sunday of the Christian year. It was established by the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century in response to the rise of fascism. It proclaims, in the words of Paul, that Christ is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.’ Powerful stuff, but what does it mean for us today, living in a 21st-century liberal democracy?

Let me begin with two examples from the media, one recent and one not so recent. The first, on Thursday on Radio 3, was a discussion with Trevor Philips, director of the Commission for Racial Equality; someone towards the left of the political spectrum, who describes himself as progressive and libertarian. I should point out that I’m not criticizing Philips; I think Philips’ views are intelligent and well informed and that he deserves to have more influence on the politics of our country. He was asked: what do we do at points of irreconcilable difference? For instance, what do Catholic adoption agencies do when faced with a law that compels them to act against their beliefs and adopt children out to homosexual couples? (Whatever we may think about adopting children to homosexual couples is irrelevant to the point I’m making.) His answer: they must do what the law says and act against their beliefs (as the law will in fact force them to in a couple of months’ time). In the end, the law is the ultimate authority and arbiter of actions, and therefore of ethics. In saying that, Philips is simply repeating a central tenet of liberal democracy, one espoused clearly by John Stuart Mill, the founder of much of the theory of our society and government. The nation-state of liberal democracy, at points of irreconcilable difference, demands obedience to itself.

Liberal democracies prize autonomy, in the form of freedom from constraint, above almost everything else. We are free to do whatever we want as long as we do not harm others or impede them in their projects. Again, that is straight out of Mill: not being harmed is the most important feature of our life together, and harming others is what justifies state intervention in our lives. That seems sensible as far as it goes, but notice that in order to secure our freedom, the state takes on an absolutist form. The state is justified in limiting absolutely the freedom of any of us in order to ensure the safety of others.

This is the paradox and irony of liberal politics. Hence my not-so-recent media item. After Rowan Williams made his much misunderstood speech on Sharia law, one of the commentators in the Times newspaper, completely in keeping with the ethos of liberal democracies, said that if it comes down to it and we need to choose, we must obey the state rather than religion. This is because the state keeps us safe from the violence of religion. He gave an example of an English army Major in the 19th century in India, encountering some people who wanted to practice suttee, the ritual in which a Hindu widow throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to burn to death. The Major did not approve of this and commanded it must not take place. When the people protested that this was their custom he responded, with characteristic 19th-century wit: ‘And in my country it is our custom to hang those who kill widows. You may follow your custom; we will follow ours.’

The irony of the commentator’s example, completely unnoticed by him, is not only that the English Major was in India as a colonialist, but that it is the nation-state that demands we kill others, whereas the church prohibits killing. Yet such nationalist acts do not count as religious violence; instead, religion is somehow violent, and it is that from which the state saves us.

What do our Scriptures have to say about all of this? They say, in short, as Paul liked to suggest, that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not; or, as we might say, Christ is Prime Minister, Brown is not. Christ is King of his own people, of his own city. There are two cities, that of whatever governments exist, and that of the church. The church is not one group amongst others in civil society, all of which must submit to and be unified by the nation-state; it is its own public, an alternative society, on a par with the nation-state.

We might even say, there is not ‘the church within Britain’ but ‘the church and Britain’. There are two cities, two spaces, two publics, two politics. It is helpful to think of them not as two institutions but as two performances, two sets of practices; the one based on the desire for domination, the other based on love; the sort of love taught in Mt 25.31-46 and lived out in Jesus’ death and resurrection, in God’s self-giving for the church. What the church’s way of life together, or its ‘politics’, shows, is a way of living in community based on love rather than the myth of inevitable violence. And that shows up the state as not a real public at all; it shows up the state’s politics as a poor second. As God’s people, our first allegiance is to Christ and the church, and only secondly to the state. As Ephesians tells us, God placed Jesus above all rule and authority whatsoever; we obey Jesus first.

So we have two publics or societies, each with its distinctive performance and practices. What does this look like in real life? Allow me three examples.

The UK government enacts an immigration policy that is hostile, inhospitable and regularly violates people’s human rights; repeatedly sending people back to danger of torture and death, based on a system that is systematically stacked against the asylum seeker. And the government does not allow asylum seekers to work or be active citizens whilst their claims are being assessed. All of us here have seen that in the lives of members of our own church. It seems appropriate that the word Matthew uses for ‘stranger’ in v.35 of our reading is ξένος, from which we derive our word xenophobia. The church, by contrast, should enact practices of hospitality, welcome, and help towards asylum seekers. The church should welcome asylum seekers as active citizens in her own public life.

Second example. The UK is engaged in two wars at the moment. The church, rather than supporting the wars, should enact practices of peace and reconciliation, perhaps by supporting peacemakers, and through links with churches in Iraq and Afghanistan; showing itself to be a universal, catholic public, wider than national borders, thinking of the common good rather than national interests.

Third, the government says it is our responsibility as citizens to spend money in order to stimulate the economy – because the economy must grow, it cannot stay the same size or decrease. The church should ask itself whether it treats the accumulation of capital as an end in itself or whether it uses money as a means to an end. Does the church need to perform differently with its money? We could do worse in looking for clues than to read the Matthew passage we read today.

Jesus, in that passage, is not only the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy of God himself ruling his people, but Jesus is identified with the poor, weak, sick, needy and imprisoned. God’s politics is exercised through Jesus’ self-emptying, and ultimately the cross. Matthew teaches that every time we encounter another person we encounter Christ, our judge and our King. As we share the Eucharist together we once again encounter Christ giving himself to us; and it too is a judgement, it proclaims Christ’s death until he comes.

We have gathered together to open ourselves to that judgement, and so we have already confessed and will again ask for God’s mercy. But let us remember that while our need to repent is real, the Holy Spirit has gathered us here to cleanse us from our sin – and that the purpose of God’s judgement is always to open our life to his, to give us true life. That is why we call this the Eucharist, the ‘giving thanks’. And, Ephesians says, God ‘has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.’


Brandon Jones said...

Thanks for this post. I especially liked the correction between the church in a nation-state to the church and a nation-state.

S. Coulter said...

Important sermon topic! I wish our church had recognized this day on the calendar. I should mention it to our worship committee for next year.

Anonymous said...

A fine sermon, Andrew. How did the congregation respond? If the people said, "Amen!" - great! If the people walked out - great! Or was it the deadly, "You've given us a lot to think about, vicar"?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim,
one or two told me it was good. To be fair to the congregation, they do a pretty good job of working with asylum seekers already, though they're still thinking through how they might improve that. And they're pertty generous with their finances too, both individually and 'institutionally', as it were. Only one person made fun of me for being a Christian socialist, so I guess it's not too bad.

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