Remove justice, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? … Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”
St. Augustine, City of God
Several years ago I had the pleasure to read ‘Under The Black Flag‘ by David Cordingly detailing the life and origins of many of histories most notorious Pirates. Among several surprises in the book I also saw ‘Sir Francis Drake’ listed as one of the earliest entries. School had taught me he was a daring admiral, not a pirate, yet his actions in some cases seemed indistinguishable from some of his peers found in the subsequent pages. Piracy, as in many cases I learned, started off as an activity seen as permissible by various authorities until it was inevitably deployed against the state. This in turn reminded me of the concept of the ‘monopoly on violence’ that Weber puts forward as a core concept of the modern state. A state is defined largely by the area in which it can wield force unchallenged, or in St Augustine’s words “not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity”. In short, a government is legitimate when people no longer resist them and it can no longer be overcome.
For a long time I think there was an idea that Western, specifically US, power was considered dominant in the world. I don’t think we live in that time anymore, namely because the West (US et al) has been tried and found wanting. The Western sphere of influence has shrunk dramatically due to the fact that it can no longer operate with impunity, it never could but the illusion that suggested otherwise has been firmly shattered. We created pirates in the form of Jihadists to fight the Soviets in the 1980’s like we British employed Privateers against the Spanish and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both inevitably turned against us. We are horrified by the advent of the Islamic State but ignore the reality that such events are poorly constructed mirrors pointing to how our own, and all, societies are built and maintained.
Despite this force alone isn’t enough to maintain societies, Augustine correctly points out that its when people cease to resist an authority is when its legitimacy becomes enshrined. With globalisation, the internet and the means that enable us to travel the world with ease these ‘Pirates’ are no longer confined to tiny pockets in the places like the Middle East or the Caribbean but can be found right amongst us. This means that resistance to a civil authority can be at work and that it isn’t enough for a government simply to have a greater navy or stronger army. A nation now needs more compelling narrative to offer its occupants.
Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.
Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake (2015)
Without a compelling narrative or vision to offer its people a society will increasingly turn in on itself. Today we don’t live so much in a world defined by nations, cultures or people but by international business and capital. You can’t outspend the Capitalists which means that a fundamental challenge to this society will inevitably only come from places and people that care nothing for GDP and the latest customer conveniences. They will be driven by other measures. Society devoid of a uniting narrative will inevitably fragment over time, social divisions become exacerbated and for a society to endure it will either have to rediscover a popular or dominant narrative, or if that doesn’t work rely increasingly on force and become more authoritarian in nature. Despite all the strengths of Capitalism, some things still cannot be bought.
At a national level we live in a period where society is one increasingly defined by adhering to particular ‘rights’ but otherwise largely devoid of context or history outside of its deconstruction of what has gone before. Its not so much liberal but rather progressive in nature, although it is important to give the appearance of liberalism. Gesture and appearance is increasingly important and public opinion is decidedly presentist in nature. Who you are is more important in many cases than the contents of what you have to say. The public perceives itself as the most enlightened, the most liberal, the most successful society to have ever existed and we are only becoming more so. The problem with all this however is that their is an increasing number of people in the UK who have been left behind and are increasingly disillusioned with the hand they have been dealt. This is shown in the increasing disconnect between the mainstream press, our political leadership and the great number of the increasingly cynical public.
Onward, Christian ‘Pirates’
What is a Christian to do then? We must do something in all of this. Generally speaking Christians find themselves not looking to form the equivalent of Caliphates, Jesus himself stated..
Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
So we are citizens of the Kingdom of God but collectively subscribe to no particular earthly Empire and practically speaking may be found amongst all kinds of Earthly kingdoms. We are told to be subject to governing authorities wherever we encounter them and yet the earliest followers of Christ were openly rebuked as ‘atheists’ and dissidents within the Roman Empire. We are clearly not called to be pirates in the sense that St. Augustine describes yet distinguished in some form from the Empires we find ourselves in.
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.
The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130
In a sense the Church, I believe, is to display what is known as ‘prefigurative politics’. More plainly the Church is called to be a prophetic witness to whatever society it finds itself in. Reforming it from the inside until ‘The old life is gone; a new life has begun!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet the Empire is an inherently violent thing if not to protect itself from those within it but from those without. As mentioned previously I do not think their is an easy binary, yes or no, answer to the question of violence on the part of Christians. The answer is implicitly always ‘no’ to violence but I am not sure any longer that that statement is an absolute one.
As Christians we are in a sense a gentle kind of pirate. We recognise that ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1) and yet that God has installed authorities to govern justly throughout it. Despite this we recognise our first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God that is already present amongst us. This is the narrative of our ‘nation’ that binds us together in our creeds, confessions and sacraments that compels us to go out into the highways and byways and invite others to come and join us in the new creation.
- If our Gospel leaves us in a world much unchanged, what is it worth?
- If our Gospel lacks a public and social voice, what is it worth?
- If our Gospel is divorced of appropriate context (both original and current), what is it worth?
- If our Gospel fails to confront the material realities of daily life, what is it worth?
I want to believe and rediscover the faith that redeemed nations and empires. I want to recite the public confessions that billions before me have done. We live in an age of private truths and the church is a public truth that the world needs to be baptised into.