Enemies of the people!
So Sir Terence Etherington Baron Thomas of Cwmgiedd and Sir Terence Etherton and Lord Justice Sales get the full Daily Mail treatment this morning.
“Fury over ‘out of touch’ judges who have ‘declared war on democracy’ by defying 17.4m Brexit voters and who could trigger constitutional crisis.”
Clearly when decisions go against you, there is every instinct to demonstrate our disapproval, even tabloid-like – but then you have to remember what it is like when the King takes your vineyard.
It’s King Ahab and we are in the year 856 BC. It’s a good year for the King: he has just made peace with the Arameans. So how about making your palace even bigger and better?
The problem is Naboth’s vineyard. It’s in the way and Naboth refuses to sell. He actually stands up to the King. Just a nobody, as Jezebel points out to her husband. “Is this any way for a king of Israel to act? Aren’t you the boss? On your feet! Eat! Cheer up! I’ll take care of this.” (1 Kings 21:7).
And Jezebel does take care of it. She plots to have Naboth stoned to death on a false charge. “The minute Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he set out for the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite and claimed it for his own.” (v16)
And normally, in those days, that would be it. Naboth has a bigger palace with a lovely vegetable garden. After all the king is king.
However, we now have verse 17 which reads in the Message translation: “Then God stepped in.” That’s what he does. He’s King with a capital K.
So the King sends Elijah the prophet to speak for him. “On your feet; go down and confront Ahab of Samaria, king of Israel.” And it’s not good news for Ahab.
Right through the story of the Old Testament, God keeps on stepping in and interfering in the affairs of state. For God is a God of justice – and he cares. And no-one stands outside the law, least of all the king.
And here is the basis for what we today call the rule of law, defined by Wikipedia (I’m running late) as “the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials.”
And it is a previous gift from our Christian heritage. For the Bible teaches clearly and repetitively: we are all equal before God. Each human being is made is his image; Jesus gave his life for each person.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
In complete contrast to contemporary thinking, the apostle Paul argued that each individual is of incalculable worth – including slaves. At the time his was just a lone voice, a small mustard seed.
But the church grew to the extent that in 390, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, writes to Emperor Theodosius telling him to repent of his arbitrary massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica.
“Should I then speak about what I heard? But I was obliged to avoid precisely what I feared could be brought about by your orders, that is, a bloodshed. Should I remain silent?”
Now, not even the Roman emperor himself, is above the law. A totally new situation has evolved as the church grows.
Today the rule of law we take as given. Like gravity, it’s just there. However, as President Eisenhower pointed out: “The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.” He knew, he had seen the consequences.
And as we approach the US election I quote one of his successors, Ronald Reagan: “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.”
And that is especially the case when a legal judgement goes against us. And it can be hugely irritating, of course. We may choose to contest the decision but always within the legal process. It may take along time – as the Hillsborough campaigners discovered.
However, it is a dangerous response to attack the judges and even call for their dismissal. Even the Daily Telegraph’s headline I find somewhat menacing “The judges against the people.”
The danger is that begin to erode the foundations our society is built upon – respect for the law and the worth of every citizen. As Christians we need to prize these as what they are – gifts of God’s grace.
The good news for King Ahab was that he recognised Elijah’s message of judgement for what it was – a word from God himself. And he repented. And amazingly God changed his mind.
We serve not a system but a Saviour, a Person not a principle.