Magna Carta: overcoming idolatry towards the state

By Savi Hensman
June 17, 2015

The 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in June 2015 is being widely celebrated. King John’s signing of this document symbolised the end of an age when rulers had absolute power. Yet worship of the state, in England and beyond, is still common.

The document was drawn up in a feudal society and control remained largely in the hands of barons. But some of its principles remain important and, in time, legal protection of the rights of ordinary people was strengthened.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,” it stated.

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Laying crude foundations for the development of Parliament, representatives of the barons were given authority to enforce the charter. If the monarch acted unlawfully, they had permission to “distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children.”

Today, in the UK and many other countries, all adult citizens can vote and legal frameworks protecting human rights are in place. Yet states (frequently allied with a local and international ruling class) all too often seek to take freedoms away from, or duck out of their obligations to, the public.

What is more, many people tend to go along with what the government of their day tells them to do, even if they would otherwise regard certain actions as immoral. This tendency may be even stronger at times of war and upheaval, if citizens are told that harsh treatment of their neighbours will somehow make them more safe or secure.

Even in the most apparently sophisticated societies, the state can become an idol. It can be tempting to surrender moral responsibility and go along with what most politicians and media seem to think is right.

At times this has led to horrific injustices and codes such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been developed in response. Nevertheless people often assume that is up to those in charge to decide whether and how to put these into practice.

Sometimes faith group leaders reinforce this view, unless their own interests are threatened. Yet there are traditions of resistance, some ancient, which offer a different way of looking at the world.

In many churches in Britain on Sunday 14 June 2015, the Bible passages read aloud included 1 Samuel 15.34-16.13. The background is that the people of ancient Israel have pestered God into giving them a king to rule over them, though they have been warned that they will be subjected to tyranny and exploitation if this happens. Saul has been appointed but is gradually becoming dangerous and unreliable.

In the reading, while Saul is still head of state, the prophet Samuel is persuaded by God to anoint someone else, a youth called David, to be king in his place. This is an act of treason which could be punished by death if detected.

Yet time and again in the chapters to come, the need to recognise the fallibility of rulers and put goodness above obedience to mere humans – however powerful they may seem – is emphasised. To quote Psalm 146:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;   
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Magna Carta anniversary is a fitting time to look at ways of challenging the widespread habit of excessive trust in, and obedience to, the state.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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