I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.


A Leson in Dignity

Hokusai Kanagawa: The Great WaveNo looting, no shouting, no angry scenes: the dignity and self-restraint of the Japanese as they suffer the unimaginable horrors of earthquake and tsunami, and now the looming menace of nuclear disaster, is chastening. We in Britain sometimes seem to make a virtue of anger and complaint: proof that we are not to be done down or deprived of our rights. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to a culture of blame and a kind of organized selfishness. We invoke the spirit of the Blitz but our response to difficulty or disaster sometimes lacks the substance.

World War II is no longer a living memory except for the elderly. For those of us with no first-hand experience of it, talk of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remote, something that belongs to the past. Looking at the images of devastation in Japan, I couldn’t help feeling that it was very like a re-run of the destruction wreaked by war, but with this difference: here it was the power of nature at work, rather than the power of man. Hokusai’s depiction of a tsunami is powerfully evocative of the terror nature can inspire, yet it is, paradoxically, a calm terror. We see the magnificence of the Great Wave, we know it will destroy, yet there is also tranquillity, acceptance.

According to a Shinto understanding of the world, we inhabit the earth by gracious permission of the gods. They are not particularly interested in us or in what happens to us. Is that the secret of Japanese stoicism, our unimportance to the gods? I don’t know. A Christian understanding of God, one who has numbered every hair of our head, who regards us as the apple of his eye, doesn’t make the terror or the tragedy any less, but it does give hope that death is not the end of the story. As we continue to pray for the Japanese, for those caught up in the strife in Libya, we may need to draw on that hope more and more.


Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.