An address for the end of Refugee Week 2018—“When the law of the strong, and of natural selection, took the place of the word of love, it became apparent that giving up the Bible is not always enlightened: Nero’s torches can burn all the brighter for it.”—Ernst Bloch (1885-1977)

The cover of TIME magazine this week
I imagine that, like most of you, I have been truly shocked by the events taking place on the southern border of the USA where, until Thursday morning, the children of asylum seekers and refugees were being forcibly separated from their parents with the open support and encouragement of the neophyte dictator Donald Trump. That policy has been paused, thank heavens, but the new (really the status quo ante) policy is, in truth, really no better. About it I am almost at a loss for words and certainly deeply shocked and angered. But I am as equally shocked and angered by what is happening to asylum seekers and refugees across Europe on a daily basis, a situation that is worsening every week, notably at the moment in Germany as the far right party in the coalition, the AfD, begin to flex their muscles and also in Italy where, under the directions of the clearly neo-Fascist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the move against asylum seekers and refugees has taken an additional and even nastier turn against the Roma people. I’ll leave aside today mentioning what is happening elsewhere in Europe and here in the UK.

This morning I don’t want to rehearse the details of these shocking events but, instead, bring before you something I have been thinking about more and more since 2001. It’s to do with the willingness or not to use, and the efficaciousness or not of using, the Biblical text in challenging the regressive political, religious, ethical and moral forces that are being slowly marshalled throughout our once liberal-democratic culture.

I bring this up today because last week in the USA the Biblical text was used in a very high profile way by two senior, public-facing members of Trump’s administration — namely the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who chose to cite (or, in the case of Sanders, support the citation of) the opening half of Romans 13 in order to defend, not so much the specific policy of separating children from their parents, but the right of all “higher authorities” to have their laws obeyed without question at all times. Here, to remind your is the whole of Chapter 13 of the Letter to the Romans, chapter 13 as translated by David Bentley Hart.

Verses 1-7
 
Let every soul be subordinate to higher authorities. For there is no authority except under God, and such as exist are subordinated to God. So he who opposes authority has opposed God’s ordination; and those who have made opposition will invite a verdict upon themselves. For the rulers are a terror not for the good deed, but for the evil. Do you wish not to dread authority, then? Do what is good, and you will receive its praise; For it is God’s servant to you for the good. If, however, you do evil, be afraid; for not without a purpose does it carry around a short-sword. For it is God’s servant, exacting justice against the practitioner of evil, on account of outrage. So, to become subordinate is a necessity, not only on account of outrage, but on account of conscience as well. So, then, pay taxes also: For they who attend constantly to this very matter are God’s ministers. Render to everyone the things owed: to whom tax, tax; to whom dues, dues; to whom reverence, reverence; to whom honour, honour.

Verses 8-14

 
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for whoever loves the other fulfils the Law. For “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” along with every other commandment whatsoever, are summed up in this saying: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does not work evil against the neighbour; hence love is the full totality of the Law.” — This, moreover, knowing the time: Now is the hour for you to be roused from sleep, for our salvation is nearer now than when we came to faith. The night is far advanced, and the day has drawn near. So let us cast away the deeds of the darkness and don the armaments of the light. Let us walk becomingly, as in daylight, not in revels and inebriations, not in copulations and debaucheries, not in strife and envy; Rather, array yourselves in the Lord Jesus the Anointed, and take no forethought for the lusts of the flesh.


What is clear is that from an historical point of view the first half of Romans 13 has been used many, many times over the centuries for repressive ends by those in power. This use of the Bible by actual and/or potential oppressors can, and should make us sick to the bones. Indeed, historically, it did just this and this served to encourage the attempt to remove from our secular culture’s general, background mindset the idea that the Bible has (or should have) any normative authority over us. As the twentieth-century German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) says, in this move the “real complaint was about the way the Scriptures were twisted to serve the exploiters and the drudge-merchants” and that the push against the Bible was an example of the common people’s will to speak for themselves, they were “finished with being struck across the mouth” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity [1968], Verso Books, 2009, p. 8). I’m sure most of us here today will all be minded to say an “Amen” to this.

Strongly connected to this move against the Bible — especially in Europe but to a much lesser degree in the USA — we are now only encouraged to speak in the civic space (about public matters such as those connected with refugees and asylum seekers) using technical, legalistic, financialised and bureaucratic kinds of language. But the problem with this is that it has increasingly served to stop us from openly, and with real committed ethical and moral passion, addressing our existential fate as human beings. Although this change of language has clearly had certain benefits it has also allowed a significant, unforeseen problem slowly to develop. Here is how Bloch puts it:

“When the law of the strong, and of natural selection, took the place of the word of love, it became apparent that giving up the Bible is not always enlightened: Nero’s torches can burn all the brighter for it” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity [1968], Verso Books, 2009, p. 9).

Over the past few decades in both Europe and the USA the word of love has increasingly lost significant ground and who among us today can doubt any longer that Nero’s torches are burning brighter than they have done for at least seventy years? The pressing question is surely then, what kind of language have we available that is able to resist the law of the strong and of natural selection and which can help to restore the word of love to the centre of our culture?

Well, one thing at least is clear: it is that our technical, legalistic, financialized, bureaucratic kinds of languages have not been able to do the job of extinguishing Nero’s torches. In fact we find that these kinds of language are now actually helping them to burn more fiercely. Why? Well, it's because all kinds of people — including many of us here today — are finding that we have been utterly disempowered by such languages and, on a daily basis, are discovering we have less and less confidence that we are being heard by any earthly higher authorities as being real, living human beings with real existential hopes, joys, concerns, fears and needs. We are discovering that we’ve become merely anonymous cogs in the neoliberal, semiocapitalist machine — and if we, relatively speaking, very privileged people, are feeling like this then imagine what it feels like for the way more marginalised members of our societies and also the millions of refugees and asylum seekers around the world.

Given this situation it seems to me, as it did to Ernst Bloch, that giving up the Bible has not, in the long run, proved to be the enlightened decision it was once thought to have been and that perhaps we really should revisit the decision in some fashion.

Of course, in saying this I want to be absolutely clear that I recognise the biblical text has been, is, and undoubtedly will be used again and again by the powerful as a cattle-prod to use against the marginalised, poor and down-trodden as Trump, via his Attorney General, has done just this past week.

But as Bloch also made it abundantly clear, “There is only this point, that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same.” By extension this means the nationalist, racist, religious right and the Bible are not one and the same.  Bloch continues: “The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity [1968], Verso Books, 2009, p. 9). By extension this means the Bible has also always been the nationalist, racist, religious right’s bad conscience and, therefore, we can use it against them in their ongoing attempt to grab power.

Bloch then states the following:

“The point, however, to be made against all pseudo-enlightenment which sees religion as a spent force caught between the alternatives of Moses and Darwin (and also to be made against all misty ambivalence) is this: the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is precisely why it has always been suppressed or distorted, from the servant on. It was the counter-blow that gave the Bible its popularity and its appeal” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity [1968], Verso Books, 2009, p. 13).

This seems to me a vital point really to get a hold of and think about because the technical, legalistic, financialized, bureaucratic kinds of languages we for the most part are quietly forced to use today in the public space have been shown again and again not to contain a counter-blow to the dreadful and increasingly totalitarian uses for which these languages are now being employed. But the Bible has always contained such a counter-blow and this week we saw a hopeful and uplifting glimmer of it being wielded on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers.

When the Attorney General cited the first half of Romans 13 to justify the appalling policy of separating children from their parents on the basis on needing to follow without question the laws of the higher authority that is Trump, Christian leaders across a surprisingly wide political and religious spectrum — black, white, Asian, liberal and more broadly conservative (for example see this video clip) — immediately responded with horror and passion and said “No!” and then went on immediately to cite the second half of the same chapter which is clearly filled with the spirit we identify with the teaching of Jesus — something which, notice, Trump et al never quote:

“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for whoever loves the other fulfils the Law. For “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” along with every other commandment whatsoever, are summed up in this saying: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does not work evil against the neighbour; hence love is the full totality of the law” (Romans 13: 8-10). 
     
And remember our neighbour includes not only the brutalised and injured person from outside our own religion and region as Jesus clearly taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but also our enemies.

The same spirit of Jesus which I invoke in this church at the end of every service — and to which I encouraged us to re-commit last week — simply and immediately calls upon us existentially and actually to side with the “other” and to speak truth to power, as did Martin Luther, saying “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” It also helps us to engage when necessary in actual, immediate acts of solidarity, resistance and civil disobedience as did that other great Martin Luther, Dr King. Here’s how he used the implications of the second half of Romans 13 in his famous and influential letter from Birmingham Jail, Alabama in April 1963:

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

If and when a person is able to commit existentially to the word of love and justice found in the teaching of Jesus (and whether you commit as a Christian a-theist like me or as a person of more traditional, theistic Christian faith — such as the splendid and brave Representative Ted Lieu from California’s 33rd District did on Friday on the House floor) then a deep and abiding sacramental energy is made  immediately available to you and you find that the counter-blow against unjust higher authorities is always ready-to-hand.

But now think how we, in the hyper-secularized context of modern Europe, are so often forced to go about attempting to access this same sacramental energy — the spirit of Jesus — via the use of non-biblical, technical, legalistic, financialized, bureaucratic kinds of language. We find that the counter-blow against unjust higher authorities we seek is never quite ready-to-hand because the lawyers, bureaucrats, technicians and bankers continually show themselves always to be prepared to filibuster endlessly on behalf of the higher authorities. (We find we are left, as Bloch observed, at best in “misty ambivalence”).

I hope you can see that this latter way of proceeding (when it does proceed that is) is always going to take an interminable length of time which we — and certainly not the refugees and asylum seekers — almost certainly no longer have. Indeed, the likelihood is that if we continue to follow this route, before we could ever come to a proper, committed ethical, loving and just decision, we will all have died the death of a thousand cuts and to have reentered the kind of world which, until recently, we believed had long gone.

As an avowed Christian minister (albeit, following Bloch, of an unusual atheist variety) I believe a liberal yet radical church tradition such as our own now has a duty very carefully to consider the implications of Bloch’s point I quoted earlier and, with his words, I conclude:

“When the law of the strong, and of natural selection, took the place of the word of love, it became apparent that giving up the Bible is not always enlightened: Nero’s torches can burn all the brighter for it”
(Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity [1968], Verso Books, 2009, p. 9).

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