Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Liberty of Choice

"So now appoint a king to judge us, like all the nations". It was wrong in Samuel's eyes that they said "Give us a king to judge us" and Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, "listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me whom they have rejected from reigning over them" Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people...He said "this is the protocol of the king who will reign over you; He will take away your sons and place them in his chariots...he will confiscate your best fields, vineyards and olive trees and present them to his servants...He will take a tenth of your sheep and you will be his slaves" 1 Samuel 8:5-17

Well what a week it was for politics. Some have gone as far as saying that our entire political system has been changed as a result of the vote to raise tuition fees. I am unsure if this really is the case, if anything, what has happened this week has only served to clarify a situation that has been present for many years now, the unfortunate reality that all our political parties are more or less just differing shades of the same colour.

I can well understand the anger of many Liberal Democrat voters who feel that the party they voted for has betrayed them by reversing clearly stated electoral promises, and this anger of course is not only to be found amongst Nick Clegg's voters but can also be found amongst those who voted for Britain's (supposedly) Conservative party. This I am sorry to say is what coalition politics is all about, a situation that would most likely become a permanent fixture of our public life if the voting reforms that the Liberal Democrats (and Cameron?) wish to bring about become a reality.

The state is a looming enemy of human liberty. As the passage from 1 Samuel illustrates, ideally there should be no rule other than the rule of God in the heart of man. It is this self governance that is the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst, a Kingdom of conscience which Jesus is alleged to have declared as being;

"not of this world" John 18:36

As soon as human beings exercise dominion over their fellows, the faint spectre of enslavement appears on the distant horizon. Democracy however is a defender of political liberty by limiting the power of the state and empowering its citizens, but for democracy to thrive then authentic choice must be present. And for choice to be possible then there has to be differences and divisions.

It is stating the obvious that people have fundamentally divergent views about pretty much everything. It has, however, taken millennia for us to find ways to deal with this simple and obvious reality, and history shows us that we have, during times in our past, tried killing those who differ in opinions, branding such people heretical, removing their civil rights, finally settling upon creating a society where everyone has their say, with the will of the majority governing, with protection for those who dissent from the majority. This system is not perfect but it is the best we have. Sadly over the last few years the range of views represented by our political parties have diminished ever further so that now there is very little difference between them, and the burgeoning social trends that strive to shut down debate around issues as unrelated as Global Warming to same-sex marriage, is a further diminution of choice, and a great concern.

Who shapes our political landscape? We have the Tories, whose leadership have come to believe that in order to gain power the party must be "of the left", and which has fallen over itself to distance itself from conservatism. Only recently senior Tories have expressed their desire to continue their unholy matrimony with the Lib Dems even after the next general election as clearly they find a great deal of commonality with them.

We have the Liberal Democrats, who have been prepared to junk their stated promises and principles, in order to get their feet under the political table from which they have been absent for a good many decades, and who now argue with a great deal of conviction and with a straight face in favour of policies that only a few short months ago they would have denounced as "reactionary" and "right-wing" with equal passion.

We have the Labour party, which simply doesn't know what it believes in anymore, and half heartedly opposes policies with which it actually agrees and would not undo if it were in power, simply for the sake of opposition and the courting of easy popularity.

On issue after issue the leaderships of these parties agree with each other, differing only on minor details and thereby leaving themselves with no coherent vision to offer the nation, and reducing their campaigning to giving us bribes of our own money to convince us to vote for them. The age of idealistic or even utilitarian politics seems to be well and truly over. Although it is important to point out that there are still principled voices in each of the parties whose examples offer us hope.

Scipture tells us that when God created the world He did so by making many distinctions; day from night, upper waters from lower waters and sea from land, which is something we ourselves can witness all around us in nature. There are distinctions in all aspects of life and each and every day we come across them. Latter in the Bible's narrative we meet the commandments of the Almighty which give rise to a moral vision that makes ethical distinctions, that makes clear the fact that there are actions that are good and actions that are bad, and then we are told in words so powerful in their eloquent simplicity that we as human beings in the image of an unconstrained Divinity have freedom to choose:

"See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love the Lord your good, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances.....therefore you shall chose life" Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Freedom to choose is at the heart of our humanity and fundamental to our relationships with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. With great danger do we walk a path that seeks to limit the freedom of choice of our fellow human beings. Only when there is a strong consensus that a choice is fundamentally over the moral line, or that it poses undeniable threats to others should we dare to prohibit other's freedom. It is no surprise to me to see that those regimes that fear human choice the most, tend to have the largest amounts of blood on their hands, for despising something so central to our humanity inexorably leads to hatred of humanity itself. I see this trend even in the Green Movement, whose intolerance of differing beliefs and human choice itself, has lead to a growing anti-mankind sentiment eloquently illustrated in the disgraceful advert produced by green activists, that had people including children being blown up for not burning with enthusiasm for the green faith.

Differences and divisions so necessary for human choice and liberty have themselves been targeted by the well-meaning in a bid to increase unity and equality. Moral relativists have strongly undermined moral systems based on conceptions of a division between right and wrong. Educationalists have sought to obfuscate the natural difference of abilities between students in order to ensure that "all can have prizes". Supra-nationalists seek to erase valuable differences between nations in the hoped for desire to bring an end to conflict. Then there are those who in the name of tolerance seek to be all things to all people. Of course all these attempts have largely failed to bring about the huge improvements imagined.

We need difference! It is only when we make space for difference, and recognise it for what it is, that we allow unique voices to contribute to the human conversation which boosts our collected wisdom. We must not fall into the trap that Howard Jacobson expressed, of celebrating everything that makes other cultures and beliefs what they are while disparaging the difference and uniqueness of our own. If we lack a unique voice, a unique message then we can hardly expect people to listen to what we have to say. This I believe is one possible explanation for the lack in growth of UK Unitarians in our present era. It is one thing having a multiplicity of beliefs, but if there are no unifying elements then you have nothing. Principles such as tolerance and openness are, without concrete expression, too nebulous to serve as a unifying structures, and can often be found in the wider society thereby removing the need to attend a church to experience them. What are we offering people that they can't get from a multi-faith group of friends? What is our message of faith? Our numbers will not grow until we seek to answer these and other questions.

As with all things however, there is a darker side of difference and division, one which is all too apparent in the conflicts of our world and the bigotries that often fuel them. How easy it is for differences to become the ideological and emotional crux of hatred and total separation. "Us and them" mindsets are the universal outcome of the deep human recognition of difference that is present in the very youngest of children. So how do we safely embrace and validate difference without falling into the ever prevalent traps of rejection and hatred? Again an answer is in my opinion offered in the creation narrative of Genesis. Despite all the division and separation manifested in the acts of creation, the mind behind the process was One. It was the same One who created the darkness and the light, the sea and the land, life and death, health and illness, strength and weakness, thereby revealing that all the divergent forces in creation are ultimately the realised will of One God. (This is the reason for the use of the Hebrew word Elohim literally "powers") as one of the appellations for the Divine. Likewise the genuine differences between the members of mankind should not lead us to forget that we are all children of one Father, who loves each and every one of us. It was to teach us this revolutionary truth say the Sages of Israel, that the Bible informs us that originally God created one human being. Despite our differences we all come from the same source. A consciousness of difference is only safe were there exists an over-arching unifying identity. The nation of Israel was only given the instruction to march as individual tribes, complete with their own unique tribal banners, after the construction of the Tabernacle was completed. Only when the nation had a focus and centre, could individual differences be celebrated without such a focus the probability of fracture becomes too high. This is one of the reasons I am a supporter of our constitutional monarchy. Our Queen, separated as she is from the tribal battles of party politics, can serve as a unifying focus of our national identity.

But with the freedom to choose must come an equal awareness of the responsibility of choice. The whole scientific method is predicated on what appears to be the causal nature of the created world. One action leads to another. If you find the cause then you can have a good chance of knowing the effect. (Of course there is an element of uncertainty and Providence also plays a part.) Such a world, which the Hebrew philosophers teach is illusory, is the way it is because it gives us the ability to be responsible for our choices. When I throw a brick at a window, I know that the window will smash. Nature's regularity strips from me the ability to say "I didn't know what would happen". It seems to me that responsibility and culpability for our actions are written into the fabric of the universe. Albert Einstein even defined sanity and madness based on the reality of a mostly predictable Universe:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"

This week we have seen wholesale abdications of responsibility and culpability. So many of the students and assorted fellow travellers who again went on the rampage through London, have sought to "wash their hands" of their childish and thuggish behaviour. "Self defence is no offence" I heard one student spokesman say on the TV. Yes because the treasury building was threatening their lives hence they had to smash its windows, the statue of Winston Churchill was posing an intolerable threat to life and limb that justified its vandalism. And Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were so hazardous to student safety that the attack on their car and persons was completely justified under the principle of self defence! Such self serving excuses have no place in public discourse, and are hopefully dismissed by the majority who recognise naked hooliganism for what it is. It was not the fault of the police, the politicians or the royals, that some individuals chose of their own free will to engage in a spree of destruction, which clearly by the smiles on their faces, was greatly enjoyed by those who engaged in it, and the many students that chose not to involve themselves in such negative behaviour are testament to that. At the same time our coalition Government must own up to their own responsibilities. Instead of making claims that they have no choice but to increase tuition fee limits, they should accept that it is one of several possible solutions to the funding problems, and accept that it is their choice to go for that particular solution. As such if all goes wrong, they will have to face the electoral defeat that such mistakes can bring about, after all they themselves never tired of telling us that Gordon Brown was personally responsible for the current financial crisis. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Also this week we have heard Ken Clarke say things which indicate a view that perceives criminality as a disease and offenders as victims, which therefore seemingly removes personal responsibility from the equation. Again over many centuries excuses for human transgression have been offered that transfer culpability variously onto the enemy, the devil, one's upbringing and poverty. Instead of recognising that while outside factors play a part and must be dealt with compassionately and seriously, in essence human wrongdoing is rooted in the desires hidden in the heart of man as was taught by the brother of he who's instruction and example redeems us from lives of transgression:

"Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God", for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed." James 1:13-14

The difference in attitude between someone who recognises his innate freedom to chose, and someone who feels that he has no choice but to act the way he does, is beautifully illustrated in one of the episodes in the life of King David. King Saul felt he had no choice but to destroy David, he would not see that jealousy and denial were the originators of the rationalisations that led him to think of David as a mortal threat to him and his progeny and therefore serve as justifications of his murder. David on the other hand when presented with the opportunity to bring to an end the genuine threat to his life posed by Saul did not succumb to the argument posed by those around him, that he had no choice but to kill Saul:

"Then the men of David said to him, "this is the day of which the Lord said to you, Behold I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you" And David arose and secretly cut off a corner of Saul's robe. Now it happened afterwards that David's heart troubled him because he had cut Saul's robe. And he said to his men "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord's anointed." So David restrained his servants with these words, and did not allow them to arise against Saul.....And David said to Saul "look this day your eyes have seen that the Lord delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you and I said I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed." 1 Samuel 24:4-10

As Christmas approaches we are all reminded of both the freedom and the choices that the Gospel of Jesus presents us with. Now is the time to celebrate and recognise our heritage and the fact that his teachings of our duties to our Creator and fellow man, have made us the unique civilisation we are. We should celebrate this with unapologetic joy.

Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round
Rule in our hearts that we may ever be
Guided and strengthened and upheld by thee.
One with the joy that breaketh into song
One with the grief that trembles into prayer:
One in the power that makes thy children free
To follow truth, and thus to follow thee.

John White Chadwick 1814-1904

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