Thought for the Day by Richard Barton (All Hallows’)
Reading: Romans 13:1-14
The government are always right! It says so in the Bible!
Ever since the start of the pandemic there has been a predictable debate about the need for government restrictions on movement and freedom. From the hesitation over initiating a lockdown back in March 2020 to the arguments over when full freedoms can or should resume, the debate has been framed largely by the usual political positions. Those endorsing strong state intervention in the cause of public health versus those advocating guarding against the curtailment of liberties and the risk a of totalitarian state, with or without invocation of the issues of the economic declines associated with lockdowns. Indeed, the church or churches have been involved in this debate in terms of what freedoms churches should have in opening their doors during a pandemic. I recall in April 2020 the pastor of an independent small church in London being interviewed about how they were continuing with communal worship despite the pandemic and government regulations because “God would protect them” and that the government had no powers over their rights to worship.
Paul in his letter to the Romans might be understood to disagree with that view “Everyone must obey the state authorities”! This passage has been hotly debated and abused by many throughout history including the support of the South African government’s apartheid regime by the Dutch Reform church. There is also an irony here, as Paul himself was imprisoned in Rome and martyred by the Roman state. Clearly the state does not always get it right.
Perhaps the current pandemic shows the fine balance between state sanction and human liberties.
If you read further in Romans 13 perhaps Paul’s letter should be seen as more as an exercise of a thinking through an issue. In verse 8 he states “the only obligation you have is to love one another”. So yes it comes back to love, yet again! Somehow as complex and diverse modern societies, through the means of democracy, we have to find the right ways to express that love for all people, keeping them safe from infection but respecting their freedoms. In the UK this is the role of the representatives we elect and hopefully trust in this role, but is often compromised by the tendency to polarity.
Perhaps a vision to always keep in mind is a statement made by many politicians but most recently reworked by Jo Cox, MP in Batley, who was murdered in 2016 and who we remembered last Sunday. “There is more we have in common than that which divides us.”
I am grateful to Adriaan van Klinken who used Jo Cox’s words to lead our intercessions last Sunday at All Hallows and reminded me of this powerful quote.