Monthly Archives: July 2013

I’ve got my eye on you

Traitor is a malleable word.

We might use it for someone who has sold secrets to another nation or acted in a way that deliberately brought damage to their own nation.  But we also use it to describe actions by people who believe they are serving a bigger picture.

For instance, in recent histories of the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs there is a view that the “spies” who passed secrets to the Soviet Union were not traitors in the traditional sense. Their motives for passing on what they knew was the belief that one nation shouldn’t be the sole possessor of such terrible power.  History tells us that when the United States were the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, they dropped it twice to assert their will. No other nation in the world has used nuclear weapons since.

While it looks like these people betrayed their country, history says there was some grounding for their fears.

In recent weeks, Edward Snowden has come on to the scene as, depending on your view, either a saint or a sinner. He has revealed, in what some would call an act of treason, the extent to which intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic have gone to monitor the online activities of their citizens in order to protect them. As expected,  the State is pursuing him as an enemy while the nation is debating the content and ramifications of his revelations.

The State is different from the nation.  A nation is a gathering of people around a principle, shared values or ethnicity who agree to share a common life. The state is the bureaucratic machinery that acts in the name of nation, organises it and sometimes doing  its dirty work.  People mistakenly believe that Edward Snowden’s  offence is against the nation when in reality his offence is against the state, its policies about how to protect the nation and its desire to keep those policies and processes secret.  Spying is the State’s business, not the nation’s.

This isn’t a new thing. For millennia the State has decided what is good for the nation with or without the nation’s knowledge or consent. In scripture, when things go wrong, the problems begin with the behaviour of the State. You only have to say names to start the stories: Ahab and Jezebel, David, Saul, Solomon, Sanhedrin, Pilate.

The State puts survival at the top of its list of priorities. Have you noticed that the President has some bunker to go in a catastrophe so that government can continue but you don’t? Indeed, if the State has to sacrifice the nation to survive, it will. Protecting America is not the same as protecting Americans.

But, again, this isn’t new. Big Brother was not invented by George Orwell. He’s been around as long the State. It’s just easier now for him to operate than in Elizabethian England or McCarthy’s America.

As citizens, Christians aren’t detached from all this. Some might want to parrot Larry Norman’s words, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through”. Others will be so embedded in this world that nation, State and Kingdom of God are all mixed together. While the bible is inherently a political book, dealing as it does with human affairs, actions and emotions, it has very little political commentary. Often we have to resort to Romans 13 which is hard to apply to our time seeing as Paul was quite immersed in his. However, it gives a start to thinking about how outraged we should be about Edward Snowden and in measuring what the damage is.

The Apostle Paul writes that passage with three key concerns:

1. As a devout Jew he believes that Chaos is to be avoided. The State is part of God’s ordering of creation so it can thrive, but only if it submits to God as sovereign. In theory you should not fear it. Dealing with what the State actually does is another thing altogether.

2. Paul is familiar with Jesus’ own experience of State execution both from local  and Imperial authorities.

3. The state is something that will pass away in the face of the coming Kingdom. Like so much in creation, it needs redemption and restoration as do the individuals who drive the State.

For Paul the State is a reality for a people who follow Jesus but it is not the final authority.

What is more important to Paul as he writes to this fledgling church is the proper place of fear. Scripture is consistent in its call to root out fear as a motivation for anything we do.  Fear is a powerful force which convinces us to make compromises that often are not in our interest. In theory, we have nothing to fear from the State if we go about our business  living quiet lives.  In this he means the ordinary stuff of life: avoid murder, affray, theft. The sword is there to punish such disordering things. Order is a desireable place from which to make the Kingdom known.

I suspect that when the State is deliberately provoking us to fear in order for it to control us and our actions, Paul would say that it is over stepping its boundaries. Decision making in fear usually compromises our future as we give away something valuable for a short-term gain. That isn’t part of the Kingdom of God.

This is well illustrated in the film It’s a Wonderful Life  where there is a scene depicting a run on a small town bank. This is  George Bailey’s analysis of the situation as the evil Mr Potter is  offering to buy people’s shares in the Savings and Loan:

Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.

Giving away our rights for a thin promise of protection is not something we do lightly or without reflection.  When afraid, we panic and make deals that in cooler times we may regret.  In this case, the fear that motivates us to loosen our grip on privacy and liberty is generated by the state, not the people.  The State must always be the servant of the nation. In this case, the State needs to ask the nation: is it okay if we read all your emails and texts and listen to your phone calls in order to catch bad guys? The State must also be required to hear the debate and the eventual outcome.

In a similar way, the Gospel of John speaks of light shining in darkness and revealing things which prefer to be hidden. When things are done in secret in liberal democracies, rarely is it because it might aid an enemy. It is usually because we, the people, might not “understand” what the State is up to and therefore prevent it from acting.  The State keeps things secret because of its fear that we might dislodge it if we knew what it was really up to.

That fear is not reason enough to assume that a citizen’s rights can be trampled upon in order to make sure they are not doing something wrong. I suspect it is this sentiment which is at the heart of Edward Snowden’s actions and those of Bradley Manning, Clive Ponting and the thousands of other whistleblowers who felt that the State’s actions needed revealing to the nation.

In the end, there are simple questions to ask: Is embarrassment and the requirement to justify the State’s actions grounds enough for labelling someone a traitor? Shouldn’t citizens be allowed to shine a light into the darkness and see what wishes to remain hidden?  If we aren’t allowed to ask that those questions, then we’ve lost already.