Thought for the Day by Robin Fishwick
Although Joram and Ahaziah are clearly the villains in today’s reading from Kings, I can’t help but warm to Joram’s attempt to warn Ahaziah of the plot against him. It is an act of loyalty and of outrage at disloyalty. And yet I am wary of the idea of loyalty; loyalty is something that can have great power over us, but itself is a pale and flimsy kind of virtue.
In times of uncertainty it is often loyalty which becomes a guiding force, The English Civil War in the mid Seventeenth Century arose at a time of huge religious and political upheaval. We are often led to believe that people took sides according to their own views on what sort of power the king should have, but this is a very flawed reading of history. The reality is that for most people, they were recruited into their local regiment, in the pay of their local aristocrat or worthy, taught how to use a pike, cannon or musket and told why the side they were fighting for was right. It was local loyalties determined which side people fought on. Then, as often before and to this day, loyalty of a soldier to their own immediate comrades would even then have as strong a pull as allegiance to their cause.
Even in recent years, I have seen how loyalty can punch above its weight. In the 2016 referendum we were bombarded by competing claims from each campaign and in the confusion many people took the lead from their peers in the voting. Psephologists noted how local loyalties affected voting patterns, with people voting in geographical clusters accordingly. Why, though, am I so wary of loyalty? One reason is that loyalty can be manipulated by others to evil ends. How much institutional abuse has gone unchecked because of misplaced loyalty preventing offenders from being “grassed up”? Loyalty, though, does not just affect our behaviour, it affects how we think. If we make decisions based on loyalty we might be blinkering ourselves to a greater truth. For the Christian, all action should arise from our best attempt to discern the “will of God”. We should therefore reject anything that compromises that process of discernment .
Patriotism and Nationalism are forms of loyalty that exist on an industrial scale and forces that Christians should be especially wary of. “Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes.” So reads one of our Quaker advices, but it is only setting out in black and white what deep down every Christian knows to be true. In the Nineteenth Century, European states trying to suppress unrest would routinely deport Jesuits because of their “questionable” allegiances. And of course, in the last century Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the conflicts between patriotism and serving God.
For all its flaws, though , there is a reason why loyalty is an attractive quality. It is a selfless quality – the person acting out of loyalty is prepared to put themselves out in some way or other. The abuse of loyalty , however, can result in others being harmed – being loyal to a can result in unfair treatment of b. So how can we prevent loyalty from being abused? “Let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes”. What a useful word that word “first” is! Bonhoeffer grew up believing that being a good German was part of being a good Christian. In later life he realised that by placing God first, he became a better German. Believing that your country comes first, or your colleagues, or your friends, or your loved ones , even loyalty to what you have always believed, can all result in self deception and unjust action. It is, to put it bluntly , an idolatrous way of thinking. In seeking a relationship, first and foremost, with the ultimately reality, what we might call “The Kingdom of God”, we are more likely to find all our other relationships fall into place.