Monday, May 25, 2020

Submission to authorities, part 2

I suspect that not many people were convinced by my blogpost which set out my view that the authorities to which we should be submitting are not any particular political party, but the whole political system under which we find ourselves.
As supporting evidence, I would like to point out some of the people who we Christians tend to think of as heroes of the faith.
William Wilberforce
Martin Luther King Jr
Dietrich Bonhoffer
All of those would be cited approvingly from non-conformist pulpits. There are also non-Christians (or people whose faith is less overt) who we tend to regard positively in the same way, such as:
Nelson Mandela
Mahatma Ghandi
All of them challenged the political system in which they found themselves.
Had we been there, would we have been saying to them, "You need to submit to the authorities - in other words, you can't challenge the ruling parties!" Because that's pretty much what Christian conservatives are telling us today. But with the benefit of hindsight, we look back on what they did and say that they were absolutely right to challenge what they faced.
So, on what basis can you say that they were right and those people challenging the Tories or the Republicans now are wrong to do so? Would we have been wrong to have aligned ourselves with them?

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Submission to authorities

This is a pretty blunt and unambiguous instruction, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. And yet, I’ve been (and still am) pretty vocally opposed to the Conservative party in power. How do I square my commitment to obedience to the Word of God with respect to being subject to the authorities with my opposition to the Tory government?

The short answer is that I don’t believe the governing party are the authority in this country. The actual authority is the whole constitutional system. What do I mean by that? I mean the mixture of laws and conventions that have been established over the centuries. WITHIN THAT FRAMEWORK, the governing party are elected for a period of time to exercise a specific role. They DON’T have the freedom to restructure the constitution, to rule as they would choose – in other words, the governing party is clearly also “under authority”. They are elected to set the government agenda in accordance with their manifesto. They are able to deliver their manifesto, in accordance with their majority within the House of Commons, with oversight from the House of Lords, and subject to the Crown – which doesn’t mean Queen Elizabeth II: it means, in effect, recognising that they are not “in charge”, but have a temporary role in the system. The courts have a part in this as well. The party of government does not have authority which overrides the courts, because the courts decide what is acceptable WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK, and the governing party abide by that. The media have a responsibility as well – it’s not to “capture the mood” of the population, as government-run bots would have us believe at the moment: it should be to report what is happening in a trustworthy and independent way, so that the electorate (who are also a part of the system) can make informed decisions.

All of this is “the authority”; it’s “the rule of law”; it’s the framework within which our country runs. Or should run. Why is this the case? All these checks and balances have grown up over the years to prevent individuals or groups from taking too much power. The concept of free and fair elections is not fundamentally to get the best people into power – if so, why bother with an opposition? It’s actually to LIMIT power. That is the authority that we have – not the governing party. The opposition aren’t an inconvenience: they are part of the system, and the more effective they are at limiting the ability of the governing party, the less permission the governing party has from the system to make changes. That’s deliberate, to limit power, and prevent its abuse. The courts aren’t an inconvenience: they are the system protecting itself from being destroyed or abused within frameworks that have grown up over decades. Press accountability is not an inconvenience: it’s the Fourth Estate preventing the abuse of power.

So what does it mean for me to submit to the governing authorities? It means that I participate in the socio-political process in accordance with what is established. Am I allowed to vote against the government, or do I have to “submit” to them once elected? I can vote. Can I speak out against the government? Yes. Can I demonstrate? Yes. Can I stand as a candidate against the governing party? Yes. Can I write letters, write blogs, try and persuade people of alternative points of view? Yes. All of those things are permitted (at the moment) within the framework – all are legitimate ways of behaving under the governing authority (which is the constitution, not the discretion of the Conservative Party, or whoever else has a majority in the Commons). Should I pray for the governing party - or, for that matter, anybody else with authority? Of course! But that doesn't mean it is wrong for me as a Christian to critique its behaviour - was John wrong to call out Herod's behaviour? Was Jesus wrong to challenge the Pharisees? Was Paul wrong to apply his understanding of Roman law to his situation on multiple occasions?

Can I break the law in protest? Not according to that verse – breaking the law is no longer submitting to the governing authorities. What about if the law demands from me more than my Christian conscience permits? At the moment, that’s not the case in this country – but the Bible and church history argues both as doctrine and from example that where Christians end up in breach of the law, they can expect the authorities to punish them.