The Righteousness of God
Given on Sunday 14th August 2011 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
From this evening’s first lesson, Isaiah chapter 33: Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! [v.1].
Tuesday of this week, the 16th, is the anniversary of an event in English history known as the Peterloo Massacre. On that day in 1819, some eighty thousand workers from Manchester and the surrounding cotton districts gathered peacefully in St Peter’s Field, a large open space in the city. Quaintly, they claimed that they met in ‘cleanliness, sobriety, order and peace’, even though they had assembled to protest against Government policies. A local Magistrate, scared of an uprising, rode out and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, he read the Riot Act and ordered first the local yeomanry and then a company of Dragoons – mounted soldiers – to move in. As a result eleven people were killed and over 400 were wounded. That savage incident caused a national outcry. But the magistrate was complimented for his decisive and prompt action. He was also a priest of the Established Church.
This morning I recounted from this pulpit another incident, a dozen years later, when the Vicar of Sherborne, also a magistrate, confronted a mob in Half Moon Street, protesting against the defeat of the Reform Bill in the House of Lords. He too read the Riot Act, only to be felled by a stone. The Vicarage was then ransacked and his furniture looted. Once again the local yeomanry failed to deal with the crowd – they had somehow managed to get themselves cooped-up in the King’s Arms – and a company of Dragoons had to be sent for to restore order to the town. This time the sympathy of the majority was with the Vicar.
The Church has always been involved in political and social questions. Sometimes it has cooperated closely with the state, and sometimes it has opposed the state. One would like to think that, as with the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in Nazi Germany, and the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, shot by Idi Amin in Uganda, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in El Salvador, churchmen have only opposed evil regimes and supported just ones, but sadly that is not the case. Too often the Church has supported oppressive regimes and propped up tyrants. One thinks of the now excommunicated but still maliciously active Bishop Nolbert Kunonga in Zimbabwe, one of Robert Mugabe’s closest supporters.
Of course, the bad choices the Church has made in the past fuel the demands of some that today’s Church should keep out of politics altogether. But that would be to suggest that there are large areas of human life into which the Church may not go and in which God is not interested. Christians believe that God is the creator of all of this world and everyone in it, and that he has a will for society just as he has a will for each individual person. Isaiah in our first lesson offers us the vision of the Lord who is exalted; for he dwelleth on high: he hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness.[31.5].And in that vision ‘the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.’[v.22]. In the same vein, St Paul in our second lesson, Romans chapter 13, declares Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. [v.1]. What he is saying here is not that every government and regime is good, but rather that law and governance – authority in general, in fact – are as much part of God’s creative purpose as are the sun, the planets, the trees, animals and humankind. There is a divinely-appointed interdependence in human society. A 16th century sermon puts it like this:
Every degree of people in their vocation, calling and office hath appointed to them their duty and order; some are in high degree, some in low ... and everyone hath need of the other; so that in all things is to be lauded and praised the godly order of God, without the which no house, no city, no commonwealth can continue and endure or last.
And those resounding Tudor phrases, if you look at them closely, actually stand many of our current assumptions on their heads. Instead of assuming that politics is in principle an activity for specialists, into which churchmen and women pry at their peril, our quotation takes it for granted that politics – the business of ordering the life of the body politic – is an aspect of religion, and that what we believe about God is a key to politics, because the order we seek here on earth is to be a reflection of the order which we believe exists in heaven. As one 19th century bishop put it:
The fashion of this world changes. The balance of empires is readjusted. The watchwords of parties vary from age to age. But the faith which comes from God and looks to God lies far deeper than the troubled face of our stormy life: and it is this faith which alone can inspire, sustain, save.
So you see, the Incarnation, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, hold more than a purely individual message of hope and salvation, glorious though that might be. They also mean than no human system or group or mob, however evil, can ultimately triumph, and that every human system, group or mob, however violent or oppressive, can by the grace of God be redeemed. It was an evil human system and a mob whipped up to demand his death which crucified our Lord, but they were utterly defeated by the victory of his Cross and the triumph of his Resurrection, which enables us always to look beyond the limitations of human history to the coming righteousness of God.
Let me close with a story which illustrates what I mean. During the last war the city of Strasbourg was occupied by the Germans, and a lean time its native citizens had of it. At one point a rumour went round that the great cathedral of Strasbourg was to be taken over by the Nazis and turned into a National Socialist museum. That more than anything depressed the people and destroyed their hope. They remembered the great solemn nave with its ‘dim religious light’, where both young and old had for centuries knelt in prayer, and they wept as they thought of it silent save for the echo of the jackboot. But then they remembered the outside of that great building. Written there in stone on the outer walls is the Christian theology of history, from the beginning in Adam and Eve until the mighty acts of God wrought in his Son. There the events of the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus are portrayed one after another, until high-up on the rose-red walls the saints rise into the air to meet the Lord of history returning to claim it as his own. And the whole cathedral takes up the tale, with its one huge tower becoming like a great clenched fist with its spire a finger pointing to the sky, pointing towards the coming righteousness of God. And the people of Strasbourg realised that this was their hope, just as it the hope of the people of London and Manchester and Birmingham and Bristol and everywhere which has seen the appalling disturbances of the last few days. Within, tyranny may sit on the throne or communities be menaced by the mob. But if we do but see history as God sees it, steadily and whole, we can know that the last word is with him, who in the victory of his Cross and the triumph of his Resurrection overcomes the principalities and powers and establishes the truth and the righteousness of God, the hope of each one of us and the healing of all the nations. And for that, thanks be to God.