Submission does not mean celebration

John Stevens has written a short post about the coronation of King Charles, and particularly the introduction of an oath the general public will be encouraged to swear. You can read John’s post here.

One of the things he highlighted was the freedom we have, under the rule of the monarch, to demur. John notes:

One of the features of our modern parliamentary monarchy is that we are permitted to object to the monarchy and even campaign for its abolition. That is not regarded as incompatible with submission. It is not treasonous to prefer the idea of a republic. In a strange way, therefore, even those who declare that Charles is ‘Not My King’ are unknowingly expressing allegiance to him because they are free, under his rule, to protest without consequence. 

I have never been much of a fan of the ‘not my king’ stuff. I think it is just as puerile when it is ‘not my president’ or ‘not my PM’. I disagree that those saying these things are actually swearing allegiance to the king, patently they are not even if the rule of the monarch grants them freedom to do so. But it is neither here nor there because Charles will be their king, just as the elected President in America is their president whether they voted for him or not and our Prime Minister is our PM whether we voted for him or not.

The thing about being subjects is you don’t get any say over it. So, insist Charles is not your king all you want, it doesn’t change the fact that by every conceivable measure, he is. Citizens who elect their heads of state still have to admit that the guy they didn’t vote for, if he is elected to office, is necessarily their president. It is part of the deal. You vote and your president is whomever the majority of people elect. It is facile to insist otherwise. So, even Republicans have to admit Charles is as much their king as he is everybody else’s. They may not like it, but it is what it is. Regardless of whether they like him or not, Charles nevertheless remains this country’s sovereign and that is just a fact of matters that remains true with or without the joyful backing of the people.

Where John is absolutely right is that, as Christians, we are called to submit to the authorities God has placed over us. That includes the king. Just as it includes any party that ends up forming a government that you didn’t vote for. Just as it includes particular Prime Ministers you would prefer not to be in post. The Bible is quite clear – unless the leaders of our country are calling us to do something sinful, contrary to the greater rule of King Jesus – we are to submit to their authority as instituted by God.

Nevertheless, when we are called to turn the other cheek by Jesus, he does not tell us that we also have to celebrate the striking in the face. When we are punched by someone it does seem legitimate and right to recognise that hitting people in the face is not good. Whilst we are to turn the other cheek and not rise up in violence in return, it is perfectly reasonable for another person looking on (or even for us as those on the receiving end) to affirm that this is wrong and should not be done. Sin remains sin, evil remains evil, even if we are commanded to endure it and not retaliate.

Similarly, when governments and leaders insist on poor courses of action – though we may not have the God-given right to do other – we are not commanded to insist that poor choices are, in fact, good. When systems are corrupt, though we are bound by them if they are not causing us personally to sin, we are not commanded to celebrate and affirm the corruption. When leaders are less than what they should be, though we must submit to them insofar as they are not asking us to do what is sinful, we are not called to affirm the benevolence of what is clearly suboptimal. Though Christians are called to submit to the authorities, this does not mean we have to affirm everything they ask of us nor celebrate what we think is less than excellent.

Second, again as John rightly points out, submission is not the same as celebration. The fact is, in our society, we are free to demur. We are free to protest. We are free not to agree. It is why it is not unsubmissive when we go on strike or we vote for a different party to the one currently in government. These are constitutional rights we have in our system. There is a case to be made, I think, that where unjust laws are evident, we are not to follow them for such can also be considered a matter of sin. There are, of course, constitutional restraints on how we might voice our protest or our disagreement. But these are matters derived from the constitution.

Some, however, fail to recognise this. They seem to think it is unsubmissive and unbiblical not to support the existence of a monarch. But those same people never feel it unsubmissive to vote for a different government, which is just another way of saying I do not support this government and would prefer someone else. By their reckoning, is this not just as unsubmissive as the one who obeys the sovereign yet does not support them? Neither thing is unsubmissive because our submission is to the office governed by the constitution, not to the people in office per se. Of course, you cannot disentangle the King from the Crown, Rishi Sunak from the office of Prime Minister. These are the men who embody the office. That is, at the moment. The point is that we must submit to them in their office because of the office, and we submit to those who come after them on the same ground. We are no longer required to submit to Boris Johnson because he is no longer in office. It is the office to which we submit.

It does mean we necessarily must obey (unless they directly contradict our higher authority) the one(s) in office. But it also necessarily means there is no problem with our seeking or preferring another in the office. Nor is there anything wrong with protesting and voicing dissent because the office holds sway because of the constitution and the constitution makes provision for divergent views and their legitimate expression. The constitution even makes room, indeed is built, upon constitutional change. Which is to say that seeking a change in the constitution, and therefore a change to these offices, is perfectly consistent with the submission that we are still rightly to give to those in office at the current time.

We need to be careful that we do not say more than the Bible does on this. It is simply untrue that we are called, by scripture, to celebrate the coronation. That is just as wrong as insisting we must celebrate the election of a government we actively voted against. We are called to submit, but we submit within the confines of the constitution, which gives us grounds to demur. The king may still necessarily be our king, but his rule is derived from the constitution which permits us to change it and seek another form of governance. Even if we don’t get it, it certainly lets us pronounce that we would do other. Submission on these terms means I cannot stop people swearing their allegiance to the king – and nor would I want to – but it also, interestingly, means such people cannot bind those like me who would prefer another leader, by right given to us by the constitution that governs even the one to whom we are encouraged to swear our allegiance.