Contracts Human and Divine

A sermon preached at St Saviour's St Albans, by Imogen de la Bere 16th March 2003

‘What.’ I asked my family gathered round the table, ‘shall I talk about on Sunday?’

They were unanimous. ‘The war,’ they groaned, ‘you have to talk about the war.’

Which was odd, when as far as the official line goes, there is no war.

‘No, no,’ says the White House, ‘ we routinely send hundreds of thousands of men to march up and down in the desert.  These are peace-keepers, deterrents.’

But it is not the war, the phantom war, which actually obsesses us, or at least, the media right now, it is the political and diplomatic process that precedes and potentially legitimises it.  Have you ever heard so many words on a single subject before?  You may be thoroughly bored with The Second Resolution, but as we are serious people, being Christians, and Christians observing Lent, we have to try and make sense of the issues and events in our society and our world, in terms of the gospel.

Serious thinking is a form of prayer. Serious thinking is also a moral and social duty. So let us think about the war, and what we might call the proto-war.

Why is so much effort being expended at the United Nations, and across the world on the matter of the Second Resolution, when we all know the war is inevitable? Why do the politicians, churchmen, newspapers and ordinary people clamour for this so-called Second Resolution – demand that it be passed by a majority of the Security council of the United Nations, without being vetoed, which unequivocally permits the exercise of military force against Iraq if certain specific conditions are not fulfilled? Why does it matter so much, to so many people, everywhere, when the end result will be exactly the same – the US and her allies will go to war – they will go whether the Second Resolution is presented, or not presented, passed, or not passed, vetoed or not vetoed?

It matters to us, and to the whole conscious thinking world, because society, local society and global society is based on covenant.  Covenant means this – I agree and you agree, broadly speaking to a set of behaviours. Covenant is the groundrock  of life. We cannot, could not function without it. There is a covenant of parenting: I, the parent am bound to feed and clothe and nurture you, my children. You, my children, are bound to obey me. You trust me to care and I trust you to obey.  There are disobedient children and neglectful parents, but they are offensive to us, precisely because they break the contract.   It is not fear of the law that makes parents care, and children obey. It is the social contract.

Similarly our relationships with our partners are a contract, mutually entered into. We expect certain behaviour from each other; we trust that the other will hold to their part. It is essential to us as emotional beings that we can take the other’s adherence to the contract for granted. If we had to spend every day renegotiating, how untenable life would become. Every day, we do more or less what we have agreed to do, work as agreed, come home as expected, share information as agreed,  eat together or watch TV together, go to bed as mutually agreed; every week we undertake certain tasks for the mutual good, one does the garden, one cooks, one pays the bills, one takes the children swimming – some tasks are shared, some divided, some swapped around, but we agree them, and fall more or less into a pattern. The patterns are as different as the couples, but the existence of the pattern, and the agreement implicit in the pattern, is universal and essential.  Without it we would be lost. We may grumble when the division of labour seems unfair, but it is unreliability – not keeping the contract – which causes relationships to founder, rather than unfairness.

As the contract, the covenant, is essential to our operation as humans, so the implicit contract of international law is essential to us as nations. As we have grown civilised, we have developed codes of conduct between nations which allow us to operate, at least with a show of reason. The notion of the just war was developed; international law was formulated to provide a measure of the conduct of nations..

Campaigns of conquest, wars of pure aggression, like Napoleon’s and Hitler’s, aroused  righteous anger in the minds of other nations, and determination that these things must not happen, which led at last to the United Nations, a forum in which nations could be judged, in which their breaches of the greater global contract could be exposed and reprimanded, and perhaps corrected.

The United Nations hasn’t stopped foul dictators oppressing their people, or races slaughtering other races, but neither does English law stop husbands beating their wives, or drug lords gunning down their enemies in the street. But we do not abandon the law, nor have we given up on the UN. The existence of law insists that the social contract  matters – you just can’t do that!; the existence of the UN insists that the global contract is real.  Israeli tanks may invade the camps of Palestine on some pretext. We can’t stop them, but at least there is one place where it can be stated out loud, and formally that this is wrong.

That’s why we desperately feel the need for the Second Resolution, not to stop Bush and Romsfeld bombing the hell out of Iraqi citizens, but to re-assure ourselves that there is some order, some authority, some legality, some covenant  which prevents one country invading another just because it feels like it. 

Of course there’s a lot more to his debate, and this is a sermon not a political speech, so let me turn to the deeper why.

Shortly, we in the choir will be singing an anthem View Me Lord a work of thine.

 It has lovely words, by Thomas Campion the Elizabethan poet, but I guess despite Chris’ best efforts you won’t hear many of them. But we shall sing:

Worldly joys, like shadows fade,
When the heavenly light appears
But the covenants thou hast made,
Endless, know nor days nor years.

The covenants thou hast made: that’s the core of it. At the heart of our belief is a covenant with God.  For a Christian that covenant is the core of his or her being. We can rely on God fulfilling his part. He does not waiver, alter or give up on us. When He says to us through Jesus: ‘those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.’, we know those words to be true, even if they are uncomfortable. We believe that God is love and God is eternal, and that God eternally loves and forgives each one of us. That’s God’s covenant with us, stated through Abraham and Moses and then far more forcefully through the mouth and deeds and person of Jesus Christ. 

In return we give love, obedience, trust, and try to live according to the principles of the gospel. That’s the Christian covenant.

Simply put, sin is the breaching of the contract between us and God, and between us and our fellow humans. A lie is not a crime, but it is a sin, because it breaches the contract between us and another person, that we will tell the truth.  We break that contract with a person, and so with God. Adultery is not a crime, at least not here, but it is a sin. It is a sin, because it breaks the bond of trust between us and our partner, also therefore breaks the covenant between us and God.  He is faithful to us, so we must be faithful to each other, for we are made in God’s image.

In the conduct of nations, on the debating floor of the United Nations, we see clearly that even with the best of intentions,  international law gets broken or ignored,  nations go their own way, evil often goes unchecked. And we know from our own lives that we break the contract with God, and the contract with others all the time. We can’t manage on our own.  But the promise, says St Paul, does not depend on law, but on grace.  Grace is the enabler, the extra essence of God which emanates from Him to us, freely given, on top of the covenantal promise. Grace makes it possible for us to be truly human, to make our promises and to keep them, to rise above the base self-interest that drags us down.

Or as Campion wrote;

In thy word lord is my trust.
To thy mercies fast I fly.
Though I am but clay and dust
Yet thy grace can lift me high.