Friday, September 18, 2020

Liberty as a human good

I know lots of people are vexed over current restrictions on our lives.  For myself, the frustrations fall into a number of categories: that the rules seem arbitrary; that there seems very little evidence base for many of them; that they show a basic misunderstanding of most of the elements of life they are intended to regulate; that they change in unpredictable fashion for no very obvious reason; that they are inconsistent; that they have been imposed without due scrutiny in Parliament...

I could go on, but I guess that makes it clear where I stand.

I know that we will all have different perspectives on this, and many people will feel that the rules are basically justified even if the detail isn't great; others will feel there should be no rules at all, or perhaps just voluntary guidelines.  I get it.  I have to keep reminding myself that although I try to be informed I am really no expert.  Probably neither are most of you.  So my opinion is just that, and there is no reason it should carry a huge amount of weight, and I won't offer any further comment on it.

Where I do want to comment is at the intersection of church and society, and therefore of theology and politics.  Like many people, pastors have been scrambling to understand the new regulations (and given the constantly moving target, this is an ongoing task).  We've been asking each other questions about how the 'rule of six' affects people arriving at worship services; we've been looking for loopholes that would enable our homegroups to meet for fellowship.  On the whole, what we've found is that the regs make it extremely difficult for us to do anything approaching 'normal church'.

So here's the thing: what is a homegroup?  Well, it's an attempt to create community, to share life, in the particular context of the church.  But community and life-sharing are not activities unique to the church.  In fact, in its community and fellowship the church, in so far as it understands itself, will be aware that it is just being human.  Christ is the Creator, and the Lord of the Church.  In the church, he brings his human creation back to itself, back to normality.  So the church's activities are, in the specific context of the community of faith, just being human.  Which means that we need to realise that if we're being restricted from running our homegroups - and assuming we're not being particularly targeted, which we're not - then something fundamentally human is being restricted.  I think our response then needs to be not looking for loopholes to try to maintain our particular activities, but speaking up for the common human need for community and togetherness.  We need to think more broadly than 'government is getting in the way of our programmes and structures' to see that government is getting in the way of being human.  The liberty to come together as people is a human good.

None of this is to prejudge the question of whether and to what extent government is currently justified in restricting that liberty.  People will have different views on that.  I get it.  I just think we need to consider those views in the broader context.

Theologically, I've seen a lot of people rolling out Romans 13 to argue that we must submit to the state - until or unless the state particularly targets Christians to prevent their witness (in which case, Acts 4:19 kicks in).  I think that represents a truncated view of the biblical stance on the state - it is, perhaps, biblicism, in the sense that it does not take into account the whole of God's revelation in Holy Scripture or the way in which the church has wrestled with the question of the state over the centuries.  In this context, I want to point out that it tends to limit the church's interventions on questions of liberty to those which directly affect us and our activities.  What about a wider, creational concern for humankind?  Does Romans 13 mean we can never protest an unjust decree?  Our theological forebears thought it just to part a king from his head over the question of liberty - and whilst I'm not sure they were right, I don't think we can just quote Romans 13 to say they were wrong.

Again, I want to stress that I'm not saying you ought to come down on one side or the other in terms of the particular justice of the current regulations.  I guess my view is clear, but I know my limitations and I don't expect everyone to agree with me.  All I'm really asking is that we have the conversation in an expanded context.

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