Posted by: owizblog | February 23, 2013

Prophecy in the Public Square: Sermon, Langside Parish Church, 14 October 2001

To all the exiles whom I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce; marry wives and beget sons and daughters… Seek the welfare of any city to which I have carried you off, and pray to the LORD for it; on its welfare will your welfare depend…

I

The passage we heard read from the book of Jeremiah takes us back to a very particular point in time, a point at which the horizon of the future is dark and lowering. A new superpower has arisen. The Babylonian empire is set to flourish again, and for the last time in the great city’s history. Already, the tiny kingdom of Judah has felt the weight of Babylonian power, and Babylonian claims. A mad bid to resist has led to a group of leaders, political, artistic and cultural, to be deported to Babylon, and a change of regime has been imposed. Politics in Jerusalem has become polarised, split between a faction who want to try to work with the Babylonians, and a faction who want to resist. And they want to offset the power of Babylon by working with the other regional superpower – Egypt.

Rational… Makes sense…

And Jeremiah is in big trouble. Because he is saying that God is not neutral in this. That God is actually asking his people to embrace a really difficult and painful political option. Not just embrace it, but settle down and build lives in it. To be at home being outsiders, exiles. And Jeremiah’s book is the story of how he suffers for not shutting up about what God wants to happen in the realm of politics. He suffers far, far worse in the Judah of the seventh century B.C., but it’s worth remembering that even in our liberal democracy, he’d have been thrown out of many a pub for saying what he does…

II

When I was the Minister of Colmonell, I’d drop in to the Boar’s Head, or the Queen’s Hotel occasionally for an Irn Bru and a chat. And the landlords of each would suspend half the usual pub rule for me. You know the one – talk about anything but religion or politics. Religion was OK if the Minister was in. Politics was still taboo. This meant that I found myself in some fascinating debates about all sorts of subjects. I was always amazed at how often people talking religion in a relaxed environment eventually get on to the subject of the Big Bang! I noted also how quickly religion and politics tended to coalesce, and how adroitly Tony Bowsley, in the Queens, in particular, used to step in to head this off at the pass. “Let the vicar have his drink in peace!” (His counterpart and his wife at the Boar’s Head, the Rosses, were more minded to let these things develop, within limits!) But the kind of talk about religion and politics you’d get, when the two subjects started closing on each other, was really talk about values. What our society believed in; where, collectively, we were going.

Now, I had an enormous respect for both landlords, and I can see the utility of a ban on talking about religion and politics in a pub, certainly without the presence of a clergyman to moderate the debate. But if you want to talk about religion and politics in a pub, bring the Minister along and keep him fuelled with Irn Bru…

But what I do find very worrying about our society is that we can’t find ways of talking about politics and religion at the same time. It isn’t just the landlords’ assumption, that you can’t bring these two things together without their being trouble. It’s that I think that’s right, and that worries me. It’s that to say that we can’t find ways of talking about politics and religion at the same time is the same thing as saying that we can’t find ways of talking about values and politics  across political divides.

III

Ever since September 11, we have heard a great deal about liberal democracy being under attack. We hear the words – but maybe we hear them only as a slogan. Liberal democracy – what’s that? That’s us! That’s what our country is – and America too! So liberal democracy is obviously good. And whatever’s trying to attack it is obviously bad!

Now I want to head something off at the pass. You may think that you know where the Minister’s going with this one. And you may be wrong. I am not about to launch an all-out attack on the idea of liberal democracy. I am a very qualified supporter of liberal democracy. I agree with another very qualified supporter of it who said this: “Democracy is a very bad form of government. It’s just that the others are so much worse…” That person was Winston Churchill.

Liberal democracy works like this. It takes each individual human being, it separates them from everything that makes them individual – colour of hair, colour of eyes, colour of skin, race, creed, family background, sex, personal history, wealth, education, talents, everything – and it reduces them to a single digit, a point. And then it confers on that single digit, on that single point, those abstractions which we call “human rights”. It treats everyone as absolutely equal. Which sounds absolutely marvellous.

Until you realise that everyone is not equal. We don’tall have the same wealth, the same inherited position, the same gifts of mind, or of leadership, or of artistic or other abilities. To make a society that’s fair for everyone is a terribly hard thing. Especially if you’re not allowed to discuss what makes people individual, what it is that might make your life good, which may very different to what might make my life good. You might not be satisfied short of running a chain of fast-food outlets. I might think that I was fulfilled if I had just enough income to let me live in a cottage and fish a river every day. What your family or mine might think of either of those ambitions is another matter again., and just goes to show that we decide on what is good in our lives on the basis of beliefs that we have, as to what has value. What is ultimately important in our lives. Where we stand on the meaning of our lives.

And these are the very things that a liberal democracy isn’t allowed to discuss. Living in a liberal democracy is a bit like living in a pub, in which you’re not allowed to discuss religion at all, and you’re only allowed to discuss politics in ways which suit the landlord.

IV

Now, as I said, I’m a very qualified supporter of liberal democracy. Because it seems to me that a society that is dedicated to treating all within it in roughly the same way, a society based on fairness, and above all, a society in which you have a say in who governs you, is a good thing. Our Reformed tradition sees it as a gift of God’s “common grace” – it doesn’t save us, only the grace of Christ does that, but it makes life livable.

But what worries me is the split mind of this society. Where religion is something that’s a matter of personal preference only. Because religion is far more than that. Religion is to do with values, with the way in which we order the good things in our lives, with how we relate to other people. Religion provides us with a framework for understanding everything in our universe.

Religion is what binds us. That’s what the word means.

Once upon a time, in this country, religion simply meant Christianity. Even longer ago, it simply meant the Presbyterianism of the Church of Scotland. Nowadays it can mean many things. Even the Jedi knights of Star Wars are a recognised religion in Britain now. People bound by ecological beliefs, or by forms of Communism, could be said to be religious, as they adopt sets of principles which bind them – often, and shamingly, far more that our Christian faith seems to bind us. And of course, Islam, Sikhism and Judaism are living presences within our parish.

What a liberal democracy seems to promise is that all of us can live together as “citizens” – as long as we shut up about religion. As long as we keep our faith, and the principles and values that fill our lives from it, to ourselves.

It’s worth asking whether some of the present backlash against Islam is down to the fact that Muslims are obviously not about to keep their faith hidden away from the public squares of liberal democracy. And why should they? Muslim is what they are. And Christian is what we are.

It may be worth asking how long it is since Christianity – especially Presbyterian Christianity – was taken so seriously by the world.

V

There seem to be three possibilities for the future of our liberal democracy. One is that we carry on pretending that politics and values are completely separate things. Another, far worse, is that we actually start thinking that liberal democracy is itself a set of values, and that we turn liberal democracy into the religion of the west, to be defended against people who “don’t believe in it” – who are the New Infidels. I think that’s a very real danger at this moment in history.

The third possibility is that we ask who “we” are. Are “we” just the mass of individual citizens of the democracies of the west? Or are “we”, you and me, a different group, at once both smaller and larger than that? Are we not the Church of Christ? When we speak of “we”, don’t we mean “we, who are bound by the faith of Christ?” Shouldn’t we be asking what we might contribute to the life of the world, and specifically to the life of the liberal, democratic west, of which life we are a part, as Christians?

A west which palpably isn’t able to generate values to live by. A west which lives off the riches of a rational, scientific Enlightenment that it doesn’t know how to say “No!” to? How many times have we said that, as far as science is concerned, if we human beings can do it, then we probably will – from human cloning to atomic wars. We – the citizens of liberal democracy – know that there are too many cars on the roads, that fossil fuels won’t last forever, that our western lifestyle is unsustainable, and that we are risking the future of the planet. But we can’t stop. Because the landlord won’t let us discuss politics and religion. But we Christ’s Church know that the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. We know that we are no more than the stewards of creation, not absolute owners.

We – the citizens of liberal democracy – watch as children starve, and millions of tons of food are wasted, and with all our rationality we don’t know how to stop it happening, because we don’t know how to compare the needs of free markets with the needs of children. And we can even anaesthatize our sense of responsibility for what’s happening. We Christ’s church know that these are souls for whom Christ died, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone in the Incarnation, and therefore our sisters and brothers – that these are our neighbour, and that the only question – which the Good Samaritan answered for the clever lawyer – is “How good a neighbour am I”

And we, Christ’s Church, need to speak out about these things.

VI

Jeremiah did.

Jeremiah was bound by the Word of God. To the people who favoured an alliance with Egypt, and worked for it, he said “What you are doing is going to bring destruction on us all. The future lies in Babylon. It’s not an easy or straightforward future. It’s going to involve the destruction of structures and ways of life that you have trusted and believed in. But that’s what has to happen. That’s where God is to be found. That’s where His future lies. In exile.”

Which is what the towering, pre-eminent Christian intellect after St. Paul says. Augustine of Hippo, living at the beginning of the disintegration of the Roman Empire, among people trying to make sense of the barbarian sack of Rome in 410 A.D., was faced with the accusation that the Christians had disturbed the stability of the world, by turning Rome from its ancient paganism. And he said, essentially, we never had a stable home here. This world in which we live, this city which is its sheet-anchor, this is not stability. This is not our home, even if we have the full rights of citizenship (and every free person in the Empire had been a citizen since 212 A.D.) We live here, and we contribute to the fairness and the prosperity of the city, yes. But we are citizens of the City of God, and here we are essentially exiles, wandering citizens of another place, sharing, contributing to the life of the society round about us – but always according to the higher values, the higher standards, of another place, whose laws bind us. That is our religion. That is the binding, meaning-giving dimension of our lives.

Jeremiah says, Jerusalem, because of her defection is not the city of God. You will have to live as God’s people, and find God, in another city, in exile.

We are citizens of a liberal democracy, and we have a religious, binding duty, to make it a better place, to make its democracy work, to make its laws conform to shareable understandings of
the good, ideas that can be subscribed to by us, and by people who don’t share our faith, our starting point, our understanding of being. But the laws we live by are the laws of the City of God. And we are really the exiled citizens of that City over which Christ rules as King.

And, in exile, we have a responsibility for those places where God has us live. Especially our liberal democracy. We have a stake here, and a role. For now, this is where God wants us to be.

And, like Jeremiah, he wants us to be heard.


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