Sermon for Matins (at St Margaret

4 July 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 4 July 2004, St Margaret’s Church
by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

This week the newspapers carried the text of a letterfrom the Archbishops of Canterbury and York written to the Prime Minister after the recent meeting of all the Church of England bishops ( For the text of this letter, click here). Such a letter, written with the support of all the bishops, is, to my knowledge unprecedented, though in former times it might not have been leaked to the press as this letterclearly was. It is not a teaching document. It expresses concerns about political events based on Christian teaching. You could call it a prophetic document, but if so it is a very Anglican form of prophecy, supportive of positive developments, such as the recent resolution of the United Nations Security Council in which an international consensus was expressed about the importance of the transfer of sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government, and restrained in its language where it is more critical about recent events.

Above all the letteris written in support of the maintenance of the rule of law, both in Iraq and in the international community of nations. It does not address the question of the legality of the invasion of Iraq by Britain and the United States, but it does address what it calls ‘the apparent breach of international law in relation to the treatment of Iraqi detainees’ and what it calls ‘the appearance of double standards’ and ‘the risk to our own integrity if we no longer experience a sense of moral shock at the enormity of what appears to have been inflicted on those who were in the custody of western security forces’, a remark which would not, of course, only apply in Britain. The letterhighlights the role of Britain in proposing UN Security Council 242, which it calls ‘the reference point for all attempts to provide a settlement to [the Israeli/Palestinian conflict] since 1967’, on the basis of which British representatives have been able to act as ‘honest brokers’ as they work for a settlement to the dispute. Resolution 242 requires Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied at that time and still continues to occupy. The recent shift in American policy away from supporting this position is clearly the background to the archbishops saying that support for resolution 242 must not be ‘eroded’.

The Archbishops also turn their attention to those who see current conflicts in ‘crude terms of religious confrontation’, highlighting the work that is done in many British communities by church leaders in partnership with Islamic leaders to build trust and understanding. They particularly highlight the work that is to be done in what they call ‘the wider Christian community’ to ‘counter those interpretations of the Scripture from outside the mainstream of the tradition which appear to have become increasingly influential in fostering an uncritical and one sided approach to the future of the Holy Land’. Here they clearly have in mind those Christians who support the expulsion of the Palestinians from the entire borders of what is currently Israel and see in this a fulfilment of promises made in the Old Testament.

The Archbishops conclude by saying that, ‘In our view the way forward is to give a lead in showing that respect forhuman dignity, the rule of law, and religious freedom are indivisible.’ In so doing, they are using the language of secular political thought, not the language of the Bible, but each of these concepts, which are vital for the building of a stable, just and peaceful international order, can be traced to roots in Christian theological thought, and it is important for us to see why they lie at the roots of what the Archbishops want to say to the Prime Minister.

First, there is respect for human dignity. To speak of ‘human dignity’ is to speak of ‘human worth’. The conviction of the dignity of each human being is the conviction that lies behind the concept of human rights. The rights we recognise for each human being are a measure of the value we find in each human life. We spell out our understanding of human dignity in terms of human rights so that we have a clear measure of how humans should be treated both individually and corporately. It is, of course, a human right, spelt out in Article 5 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not to be subjected to ‘torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’. This is to put the point negatively. To put it positively is to say that human beings should be treated with respect for their dignity at all times precisely because they are human. It is out of respect for the dignity of each human being that we seek courtesy in all our dealings with one another, regardless of the status, gender, ethnicity or situation of the person with whom we have to deal. I say ‘seek’ because this is an impossible standard to maintain when we are dealing with people who are violently hostile, but such people still have human rights and, when they are reduced to a position of vulnerability, it is vitally important for our own humanity that that there is no exploitation of that vulnerability through torture or the visitation on them of all sorts of indignities, from name-calling, through to photographing them as they are in fear or in pain. We need to remember that those who suffered such indignities in Iraq were the very people we came to liberate, whom we expected to welcome us as friends.

At the root of the Christian conviction about human dignity lies the belief that all human beings have been made by God, that human life is a gift, and that in each human being we can see the ‘image of God’. To be made in the ‘image of God’ is to be made with sovereign freedom for good or evil, and, where that freedom is used for evil, the image may be much distorted, but it is never finally erased. It is not for us to show disrespect for the handiwork of God. This, when Saddam Hussein is imprisoned or comes before a court of law, we are in a sense being judged by the measure of the dignity that is afforded to him, even though such dignity was not afforded to his many victims. We may rejoice in his capture, and the ending of his brutal regime, but not in his public humiliation. Licence to humiliate is contagious, and if a lack of respect for human dignity is tolerated in Iraq it will the more readily be tolerated in Britain. Indeed, I suspect that what we might call ‘a culture of humiliation’ on television and in our popular press has contributed to the reported acts of indiscipline amongst British and American troops. It is the Christian conviction that all human beings are to be treated with the respect due to one made in the image of God.

The Archbishops also point to the importance of ‘the rule of law’. Christians have not always supported the rule of lawin this sense, because of the conviction that God has put rulers in positions of political authority, and it is they who should be obeyed. Nevertheless, the conviction that such rulers should rule in accord with the law of God goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. The shift that has occurred is one by which we now see the mediation of the rule of God through democracy, the rule of the people, and the representatives of the people as being those responsible for the making of good law. We have seen the growth of a body of law, not only nationally, but internationally, which regulates human conduct by standards which are publicly recognised: the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in British law was a major step in this direction.

For Christians, the conviction that good law is founded upon the edicts of God can be traced back to the conviction in the Hebrew Scriptures that the Law to be found there was God’s gift to Israel. It can be seen in Jesus’ saying he came not to destroy the law but to fulfil it. And it can be seen much more fully worked out in the classic theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and Hooker. Anglican thought is founded upon respect for the rule of law, and it is not surprising that the Church of England bishops should see this as foundational within our society. The alternative to the rule of law is, as we are seeing not only in Iraq, but in areas of our own inner cities, the rule of violence. It is vitally important that we recognise and celebrate the importance for human wellbeing of the rule of law, and that we look into the abyss which confronts us if the rule of law is eroded. For Christians, this is nothing less than a matter of fundamental (I say ‘fundamental’ because there are, of course, circumstances of bad lawmaking in which a Christian cannot in conscience obey the law and must make that publicly known) - fundamental obedience to the way God’s sovereignty is observed within the world.

The notion of religious freedomis relatively modern. Its origins lie in the terrible Wars of Religion which divided Europe in the seventeenth century, in which opposing armies fought themselves to a standstill over which version of Christianity was the true religion. Eventually, there was a victory for the virtue of tolerance, and Christians had to rethink what it meant in religious matters to be ‘right’. Slowly and painfully it was recognised that religious coercion was incompatible with the fundamental tenets of Christianity, that faithful adherence to Christ meant bearing peaceful witness to him, which also meant that in an open and peaceable society others would have the right to differing convictions, provided they in turn did not infringe the rights of others. Christians have come to recognise it as a measure of confidence in Christ that this open practice of other religions should be supported where such practice does not offend against human dignity or the rule of law. These are difficult and controversial areas, but the fundamental principle is simple: that it is pointless, and indeed wrong, to attempt to coerce the conscience of a human being, because God has endowed each human being with a fundamental freedom of conscience, and what takes place in the conscience is a matter of that person’s individual relationship with her or his Creator, not with any human being. If God respects a human being’s freedom to be wrong, no less should we.

The archbishops conclude their letterby saying that ‘respect for human dignity, the rule of law, and religious freedom are indivisible’. It is in saying that they are indivisiblethat they bring us back to Christian theology. For the Christian these three are indivisible, because they all have their roots in the nature and will of our Creator. By each route we find ourselves faced with the same fundamental challenge as to whether or not we will obey the will of God: will we or will we not respect the dignity of all human beings; will we or will we not at every level respect the rue of law; will we or will we not respect religious freedom, which means the freedom of others in conscience to differ from ourselves? For a Christian, faced by these searching and demanding questions, it is necessary to add one further thing. It is precisely because we cannot in our thinking and in our political practice consistently answer ‘we will’ to such questions that we need to follow the way of Christ through the moral minefield, for it is Christ who teaches and empowers us not only to respect but to love our enemies; not only to obey the rule of law, but to find forgiveness when we fail to; and never to seek to coerce our neighbour into doing what we think is right, when he or she in conscience begs to disagree.

The text of the Archbishops’ letter to the Prime Minister is as follows:

25 June 2004

Dear Prime Minister,

During their annual meeting earlier this month, the bishops of the Church of England discussed recent developments in Iraq and the Middle East. It was the wish of those present that we should write to you to put on record a number of the points made during the discussion.

At the same time as we were meeting, the United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed Resolution 1546. We warmly welcome the clear international consensus this now expresses on the importance of the transfer of sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government. There are bound to be further testing times before elections can be held there and the future arrangements for governance established. Sustaining a wide measure of international support, under the auspices of the United Nations, should be a key objective during this period.

We believe that the priority now must be to do everything possible to help the Iraqi people rebuild their own country after many years of oppression and hardship. The establishment and maintenance of the rule of law are clearly prerequisites for stability and eventual prosperity. Yet, the credibility of coalition partners in advocating respect for the law and the peaceful resolution of disputes will, we fear, be undermined unless the necessary moral authority is clearly demonstrated at every level. It is all the more important and challenging as a task, when murderous and arbitrary violence, which we condemn utterly, is being used against westerners and others in Iraq.

It is clear that the apparent breach of international law in relation to the treatment of Iraqi detainees has been deeply damaging. The appearance of double standards inevitably diminishes the credibility of Western governments with the people of Iraq and of the Islamic world more generally. More fundamentally still, there is a wider risk to our own integrity if we no longer experience a sense of moral shock at the enormity of what appears to have been inflicted on those who were in the custody of western security forces.

We welcome the assurances of the British and American authorities about their determination to establish the facts and bring those responsible to justice. Nevertheless, there remain serious questions over how such brutal and indecent behaviour could have come about. Since 11 September 2001 the moral case for making counter-terrorism capabilities more effective has not been in doubt. This needs, however, to be achieved in a way that avoids any perception that the commitment of western governments’ to internationally agreed standards on the treatment of detainees is diminished. Perceptions can be as important as the reality in terms of the signals, which they send to members of the security forces about what constitutes acceptable conduct. We cannot afford to be other than tenacious in our commitment to the Geneva Convention and other relevant international agreements.

Among Muslim and Arab opinion, another litmus test of our respect both for human rights and for international agreements, is our stance on the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is of course a matter of historical record that UN Security Council Resolution 242- the reference point for all attempts to provide a settlement since 1967- was a British proposal. The terms of an eventual settlement must, ultimately, be for the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Nevertheless, British willingness down the years to respect the legitimate interests of both sides in the conflict has previously enabled our representatives, in partnership with others, to be accepted on both sides as honest brokers. It is vitally important that this position is not eroded.

International tensions have undoubtedly been exacerbated by attempts to cast many problems in crude terms of religious confrontation, most obviously between Muslims and Christians. In calling on the Government to take the necessary action to counter these perceptions we accept that we too have a part to play. Many of us have been working with Islamic leaders in our own communities, nationally and indeed internationally, to build greater trust and mutual understanding wherever they are threatened. Within the wider Christian community we also have theological work to do to counter those interpretations of the Scriptures from outside the mainstream of the tradition which appear to have become increasingly influential in fostering an uncritical and one sided approach to the future of the Holy Land.

The need for resolve and determination in the face of terrorism is not in doubt. Nor is the need to nurture greater understanding between religious communities and promote religious freedom. In our view the way forward is give a lead in showing that respect for human dignity, the rule of law, and religious freedom are indivisible. As a new chapter opens in Iraq and as the search continues for an end to the present cycle of violence in the Middle East, we urge our Government to keep these principles at the heart of its own policy making.

Yours sincerely,

+ROWAN CANTUAR +DAVID EBOR

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