I was recently asked to preach at Kensington Unitarian Church in London. The church community there were very welcoming and it was a real privilege to worship with them on 30 November. My sermon and the rest of the service can be heard on a podcast available on the church’s website.
The text of my sermon is below. Although I know the spoken version deviated from it at times, the gist remained the same.
I would like to introduce you to Harry Stanton. Not personally, because he’s been dead for a while, but as a historical figure. Harry was the son of a blacksmith from Luton. He was a Quaker. In 1916, at the age of 21, he was conscripted into the army. Denied exemption as a conscientious objector, he was forced into the army against his will where, like many others in the same situation, he refused to obey orders.
Harry was imprisoned as a result – as were about 6,000 other British pacifists over the course of the war. But thirty-five of these pacifists were forcibly taken to France, where they could be deemed to be on “active service” and therefore shot if they continued to disobey orders.
Taken before a court-martial, Harry knew that his life was in their hands. But he refused to plead, because he would not recognise the right of any military body to exercise authority over him. He gave a speech in his defence, in which he said that “all warfare is contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ”. He said that when the claims of the state conflicted with the laws of God, “I must obey the higher authority”. Along with the 34 other British pacifists in France, Harry was sentenced to death.
Campaigning back in Britain thankfully had an effect and the sentences were commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.
One of the comments I hear most often about religion is the phrase “religion is dangerous”. It is true that religion is often violent and oppressive. I agree with people who want religion to stop being violent and oppressive. But I do not want religion to stop being dangerous. I suggest that religion is supposed to be dangerous.
Most religions speak in some way about transcendence. They speak of God, the gods, the Truth, the Divine, the Ultimate Reality or the Power of Love. And once you speak of God, or the divine or transcendent, you imply that God, or the divine or transcendent, should have our ultimate loyalty. If I seek to follow God, then my first loyalty must be to God. Therefore no king, no government, no army, no nation-state, no church can claim my ultimate loyalty.
This is why so many kings, governments, armies and churches have sought to equate themselves with God. When Henry VIII claimed that his thoughts were directed by God, he made clear that loyalty to God meant loyalty to the king. The claims about the Japanese emperor’s divinity had a similar effect. It is no surprise that people make these sort of claims. For if we are serious about placing our ultimate loyalty in something other than the governments and structures around us, we become a threat – a threat to convention and, if we persist, like Harry Stanton, a threat to authority.
If anyone can choose to follow God over following human structures, the consequences may depend on their view of God. Take Yigal Amir, a Jewish fundamentalist who assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Amir said he was acting “on orders from God”. Other murders have been committed on the basis of similar claims.
But a god who orders murders is a god whose values are all too close to those of the world around us, rather than the principles of a higher power. People of many faiths emphasise that faithfulness means acting with compassion. Some religious groups, such as Quakers and Rastafarians, have developed communal practices for exploring an individual’s feeling of being led to a particular course of action by God. Faith is not about certainty.
Let’s take a look at the passage we heard earlier about paying taxes to the emperor – Luke 20, 20-26. It’s a passage that’s often used to encourage Christians to be loyal to the state. Those who want us to obey authority are more likely to quote this passage than the many examples of civil disobedience that run through the Bible. However, many biblical scholars challenge the common interpretation heard in churches.
Luke tells us that the spies sought to trap Jesus by what he said, so that they could hand him over to the governor. In other words, if he had said that taxes should not be paid to Rome, they would have got him arrested.
Jesus was no doubt aware of this, and chose his words carefully. He responds by saying “Show me a denarius!” Why does Jesus have to be shown a coin? Why doesn’t he have one with him? Well, many devout Jews, even those who reluctantly used Roman coins for buying and selling, avoided carrying them, because they regarded them as idolatrous. The coin portrayed the emperor as a god. As Jesus does not have a coin himself, this suggests he was one of those who avoided it as idolatrous.
Jesus asks “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s”. Jesus thus draws attention to the idolatry, already highlighted by the fact that he’s not carrying the coins.
He then gives an ambiguous answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ listeners were “amazed” by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about. What he does instead is dodge the question with a statement that encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s. As the biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it, Jesus “is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites”.
The Greek word “apodote” translated as “give” also means “pay back” or “return” – “Give back to the emperor that which is the emperor’s”. There are many ways to read this and I don’t claim for a moment that my interpretation is the only valid one. However, I suggest that Jesus is advocating something more radical than simply withholding tax: he is saying that the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome. By saying it in an ambiguous way, however, he avoids the trap.
Jesus encouraged his listeners to think for themselves about how to make decisions. It seems to me that ethical decisions are about where we place our loyalty, our trust, our faith.
What’s the sin mentioned most often in the Bible? It’s idolatry. We tend to think of idols as statues, but this misses the point. An idol is something that people put in the place of God. An idol is, on some level, not real; at least, we ascribe a power to it that it does not have.
Politicians today talk about “not upsetting the markets” as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. In reality, markets were created by people. People can change them, run them differently, or get rid of them. We make an idol of the market when we talk as if it controls us. Really, we control it.
In the same way, we are encouraged to be loyal to “our country”. Countries are things that we have created, yet we speak of them as if they were natural. We demand loyalty to this abstract concept. It is a short step from idolising nationality to idolising armed forces. For much of the time when British troops were in Afghanistan, there were constant debates about whether they should be there. Much of this seemed to involve the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?”. Should we be in Afghanistan? And I would think, but I’m not in Afghanistan. Why do we describe the armed forces as “we”?
Whether we speak of the power of love, or the Kingdom of God, or of practising active nonviolence, we are talking about choosing to live by faith in a different power to the powers of markets and military might.
It is often said that we no longer have conscription in the UK. It is true that our bodies are not conscripted into the army. However, our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, when we speak of “defence” and mean warfare. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and to regard as natural a situation in which millions live with hunger in a world that has enough to feed us all.
We need to be conscientious objectors today just as much as Harry Stanton was – although the risks for most of us are unlikely to be so great. We can object by how we talk, how we think, how we regard ourselves and others, how we make our decisions and – first and foremost – by to what we give our loyalty and our faith.
Of course, it’s easy to talk about living with a different loyalty. It’s a lot harder to do it, or even to know how to do it. We are all part of unjust economic and political structures. We participate in them even as we seek to resist them. At times, we benefit from the injustices that we oppose. We too commit the very sins that we speak out against.
It is vital that we are aware of this and equally vital that this does not stop us speaking out and aiming to live differently.
We glimpse the Kingdom of God not through a set of rules but in a way of living. For most of us, this way of living is not consistent and we often fail to follow it. Nonetheless it is there and can be seen. From small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. In people imprisoned for peace protests, in people choosing to buy Fairtrade tea, in those determined to see that of God in their neighbour and both the good and the bad in themselves, in hesitating steps towards prioritising love over legalism, in the courage to speak up for what is truly in our hearts and not what the world tells us should be there – in all these ways people proclaim the way of love, a challenge to the powers of this world. Sometimes, the way forward seems clear. At other times, we’re struggling in the dark.
My own commitment to love, to justice, to active nonviolence is much, much weaker than I would like. But I would rather stumble on the road to liberation than walk firmly down the road to oppression. If we know where our loyalty lies, if we know that we are aiming to live by a different power than the powers of this world, a stronger and subtler power, then we may have confidence that we are at least facing in the right direction. I pray that we will have – in the words of a song by the band Jars of Clay – “days that are filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from our souls”.