Rant Number 365 29 September 2009
‘All universal history is a bottom the history of Great Men’. Thus thunders Thomas Carlyle, the Sage of Chelsea, at the beginning of On Hero and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. A Victorian cult figure – and also a racist and a defender of slavery - Carlyle’s hero gallery is eccentric. It embraces the Norse god Odin; the Prophet Muhammad; poets Dante, Shakespeare and Robbie Burns; theologian Martin Luther; statesmen & mass murderers Cromwell and Napoleon; supreme wit Dr Johnson; writer & mischief maker Rousseau, and, last but not least, an uncouth, aggressively bearded, former galley slave: Scotch reformer John Knox.
Knox’s name warms the cockles of the priest’s heart. Because, as Carlyle says, ‘he strove to make the government of Scotland a theocracy’. That was his unforgivable offence. Which might explain why Knox is today regarded, if at all, with a mixture of fascination and horror. A sort of tartan Ayatollah Khomeini. A religious fanatic whose very name makes you shudder – he also penned a ferocious pamphlet contending that women’s rule is unbiblical, unnatural and monstrous. Huh! Talk of putting the cat among the pigeons! In one thing he was right, though - theocracy, government of God, is what a religious person must essentially wish for, no?
Like Pavlov’s proverbial dogs, which salivated at the sound of a bell, the mere word ‘theocracy’ makes the bourgeois go pale. His mind – if you can call it a mind - fills with dark forebodings. Sharia law, burkas, stoning, caliphate, Al Qaeda...and so on. Yes Carlyle explains it admirably. Knox meant that ‘Kings and Prime Ministers, and all manner of persons, in public or private...should walk according to the Gospel of Christ, and understand that this was their Law, supreme over all laws.’ He took the famous petition in the Lord’s Prayer quite literally: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. God’s kingdom, God’s rule, that is. He would have none of the usual spiritualising, of clever exegeses, of evasions about the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. He really wanted to see the divine Will politically realised. In England horrid Henry VIII grabbed, stole the Church’s wealth for himself and his lords, filling their pockets. Knox wanted none of that in Scotland. Church property had to serve proper, wholesome Christian uses, such as education, schools and worship. That is what ‘government of God’ meant for Knox – quite apart from being nasty to female power, namely that of three unfortunate Catholic Marys: Maria de Guise, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart.
Knox’s theocracy was qualified, however. As a Christian, and unlike an Islamist. he distinguished between spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, though he thought the two powers were not opposed but complementary. As in Calvin’s Geneva, the magistracy in Scotland had to be independent but Christian. A close collaboration between the two powers was the aim, not the supremacy of one over the other. Of course, at times the Church might have to rebuke the erring magistrate, even punish him. So St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, once barred Emperor Theodosius the Great from Holy Communion, because of his enormities. When the emperor remonstrated, ‘‘King David himself, an adulterer and a murderer, was forgiven by God. Why can’t you forgive me?’, Ambrose echoed the Old Testament’s prophet Nathan. ‘What you have done has offended the Lord. You have imitated King David in his crimes – now imitate him in his repentance.’ A stupendous response. Would that the Archbishop of Canterbury had so rebuked Tony Blair for his guilt over Iraq! But since the time of Horrid Henry VIII, in England the relationship between Church and State has been Erastianism – the doctrine that the State has supremacy over the Church. Today the Prime Minister appoints Anglican bishops – an absurdity which goes to explain why they are such cowardly, time-serving wash-outs, incapable of standing up to a pagan parliament and ministers. Verily, disestablishment must be the cure for this lethal Erastian disease. Insh’allah, the shock may engender the much-needed reformation of the Church, her spiritual rebirth.
True, John Knox, that ‘bravest of all Scotchmen’, was not quite polite to tragic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Indeed, he was rough and insolent. Being rude to a lady is most unpleasant – no gentleman would do that but then a latter-day prophet like Knox was no gentleman courtier. And, did not Mary have her husband murdered? Further, did she not have the bad taste to marry one of his murderers? Moreover, the great conflict back then was between Protestantism and Catholicism. A fratricide warfare between Christians, aggravated by grim power politics. Very sad. But today the battle lines have been redrawn. It is not a matter of refighting the ancient squabbles but of standing up to a resurgent, arrogant paganism. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, even Muslims – all can unite around that holy task, surely.
Theocracy – a dirty word. But to whom? What sort of people would fear God’s laws, God’s government, eh? Only sinners. The folks who do so well, who prosper and thrive, who get away with blue murder under secular misgovernment, such as the present EU. They are, in a sense, justified to fear it. But they are wrong. Jesus Christ does not desire the death of a sinner but rather that he should repent and live. Besides, repressing sin is in the sinner’s true, higher interest, as sinners cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So the Church in a theocracy will not use coercion but spiritual weapons – like preaching, teaching and warning - to chastise. That is the State’s job – if only it was up to it.
Today brave Knox would be horrified at the shenanigans of the Church of Scotland, a wishy-washy outfit just as semi-extinct as her English counterpart. Rather, I wonder whether the Scotch hero’s spirit might not have reincarnated in Shia Iran. No longer dour but kind-faced, like Ayatollah Khameini, maybe? In the land of the Sophy Knox can keep his long beard, though he has to wear a turban. There the interesting concept of vilayet-i-faqih, it can be argued, combines democracy and theocracy. The people elect their representatives and the religious guide makes sure the fundamental truths and principles are respected. Aargh...the howls of derision...I hear them. Iran!?! After the recent election debacle? Am I serious?
Yes, I am.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli