Perverted Christianity and profound secular spirituality

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, speaking on immigration policy and law enforcement actions at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., on Friday June 15, defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border this week by citing a passage from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

The words Sessions quoted were used in the 1840s and 50s to justify slavery. Later, the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

In the Guardian yesterday, Nesrine Malik said that it’s hard to make any coherent sense of the Trump administration’s policies. They are the result of the temperamental whims of a man-child and the indulgences of a weak, cynical and ideological White House. There are moments, however, that signal a gear change.

After Charlottesville, where a woman lost her life after being run over by a man who held racist, pro-Nazi views, Trump said that “both sides” were to blame for the violence. It was a normalisation of white supremacy. When Trump embarked on a policy of attacking the press, it was an assault on accountability.

Now his administration’s use of religion to justify its laws is another step in an alarming direction. The government is not only unaccountable: it is doing God’s will. There should be no focus on the brutality of law, only on obedience to the sovereign.

There is something chilling in observing the authoritarian evolution of the Trump administration. It is chilling to see religion used this way in a supposedly sophisticated, liberal democracy, and in particular this element of it, which reduces politics to mere compliance. But it is comforting, in a macabre way, to have it proved that nowhere in the world have humans evolved beyond instrumentalising religion to justify tyranny. Trump supporters decipher the scene in terms of what Trump is projecting: your fears are real, your will is done, and I am its executor. Once this line of communication has been established, there is little that can disrupt it, no appeal to emotion or logic that is fruitful. It is a feedback loop that is not about values or religion or even conservatism. It is about prejudice against the other.

Theresa May is a committed Christian, attending her local church every Sunday. Her father, Bert Brazier, was a contemporary of my parents, born in 1917 in Clonmore Street, Wansworth, in the Anglo-Catholic parish of St Barnabas Southfields. Bert’s daughter was a member of the PCC before becoming an MP. A religious background and reliance on religious narrative can have a powerful effect on a politician’s imagination and narrative. Theresa May wants to usurp parliamentary sovereignty, avoiding a legal commitment to a “meaningful” parliamentary vote at the end of the Brexit negotiations. There’s an assumption that being a Christian is itself a guarantee of a mindset inspired by wisdom, justice, truth and love. Yeah!

Writ in Water

In the Arts section of the same Guardian Charlotte Higgins wrote about the newly-opened work in the water meadows given to the National Trust in the 1930s where, somewhere close by, in June 1215, Magna Carta was sealed. The building, called Writ in Water, was designed by Mark Wallinger in association with James Lowe.

It is a simple buff-coloured structure that seems almost flat, like a chunk of wall, but gradually reveals itself as a low, circular edifice. That is partly an effect of the material, which is rammed earth – sand and gravel quarried locally, compacted with cement and gradually built up. “It was important that it seemed to grow out of the land,” said Wallinger, “as if it was laying down its own sediments.” Stepping inside through a simple rectangular opening, you are confronted with another circular wall. You can walk to the left or the right. Then, all of a sudden, an opening appears and you enter an inner chamber containing a round pool that’s echoed by a large opening in the roof.

Around the edge of the pool, laser-cut into its stainless-steel rim, are the crucial clauses of Magna Carta, in mirror-writing, so they can be read only as they are reflected in the pool.

“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 judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Being inside is like being inside a sanctuary. It is hushed – it invites contemplation. A bench lines the wall of the chamber. It echoes the simplicity and antiquity of stone circles, Scottish brochs and circular keeps.

Referring to the labyrinth at Chartres, or an acolyte’s progress to Jerusalem, Wallinger says, “I want this place to have a bit of a sense of pilgrimage, too. Magna Carta is the beginning of common law and the progress to what are now called human rights. These rights had to be fought for tooth and nail. They were never bestowed by benevolent rulers. These can seem like a guaranteed birthright, but they need to be learned anew and maintained through every generation. And we can see how threatened they can be by the appeals of populism or fundamentalism.”

There is a powerful connection between Trump’s dangerous, shocking abuse of the Bible to justify his incarceration and abuse of children and families and Wallinger’s monument to the founding document of British culture and values that underpins what survives of genuine Christian values in our political realm. Wallinger, in his supposedly secular monument to a potent political document, has created a deliberately spiritual experience of immense truth and authenticity. I want to visit. I am drawn to visit. I anticipate finding there deeper presence and truth than I experience in many official religious buildings in our contemporary culture. Our society urgently needs more places offering unconscious depth, stillness, crafted authenticity and truth.