Means and Ends, Civilization and the Kingdom

The story is well known: Lee Kwan Yu was most impressed, coming out from a London Tube Station, to see one person after another take a newspaper from a stand, pay for it, and take the right change without any supervision. 'What a disciplined, civilized people!' he thought. Returning to his home country of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yu went on to become its (now long-standing) Senior Minister aiming to create the same kind of public discipline in that country as he found in Britain.

During the following half-century he established in Singapore many laws enforced by surveillance and carrying strict penalties for their violation.

Meanwhile in England times have changed. The public have become less trustworthy in such matters as paying unsupervised. Where the fabric of public morality today wears thin, reliance gets placed increasingly on security measures and on the introduction of new laws, which are enforced using the latest high-tech means of surveillance. Consciousness of such surveillance is probably highest among drivers towards speed cameras. More widely, David Lyon notes that Britain tops the world for the operation of closed-circuit TV cameras in public places.

The pursuit of civil-ization - or the cultivation of civil society - has been a major preoccupation of governments in modern societies since the decline of Christendom. From the start is has been influenced, often despite itself, by the Christian search for the kingdom of God. Today it is captive increasingly to human ideology. This affects both the end sought and means employed to this end. Three connected issues arise here.

Enforcement and the Kingdom

As Christians we must be clear what end we seek in 'the transformation of society'. We seek the kingdom of God. We live out the prayer Jesus taught us, 'Your kingdom come'.

Now this is to seek much more than a law-abiding society. The approach of God's kingdom gives birth to those who abide in Christ and his love (John15.7-9); it raises up citizens of heaven (Philippians 3.20). And this is a quite different matter.

The result may in fact be more than any 'civilizing' government could hope for. In this way perhaps not only the material necessities of life but the basic moral fabric of society are given, in the way that God intends, as its people seek first the Kingdom of God? (Matthew 6.33)

By contrast, the use of surveillance with the threat of prosecution and punishment achieves very limited ends. It provides no inspiration for people to do any good which the law does not demand, nor even to keep the law when free of surveillance. But without this inspiration, people are inclined to get away with what they can. By contrast, God inspires us to act responsibly in love and to set no limits to this beforehand: to do the right thing 'when no-one is looking'; to offer help 'when we don't have to'; to raise issues because it is right to do so 'when no-one will thank us for it'; and to do all this freely faithfulness to God who is first utterly faithful to us.

As Christians let us therefore ask ourselves: in what ways are we called to witness to the Kingdom of God by doing and giving more than the law stipulates?

Aiming high, aiming low

The challenge God presents to those who would civilize public life is to set their own ends, and the means they pursue to these ends, within the horizons of the coming Kingdom and not try to create something else which takes its place.

Consider, by way of analogy, the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. They had a programme to bring in the kingly rule of God by conforming to the externals of Jewish religious law: keeping the sabbath, avoiding 'unclean' people, and ritual washings. But Jesus challenged them to set such conformity within the richer revelation of God's purposes in himself. They sought to aim high, but in practice aimed low, with the effect of aiming for something else in the place of, and at odds with, the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus.

Some of the methods which tempt those wishing to build civil society today similarly imagine to aim high but in reality aim low and in so doing point to something else in place of the Kingdom - and so undermine their own best intentions. If the exercise of government extends to the routine provision of abortion and euthanasia, does this not undermine civilized life itself? If education aims only to shape non-judgemental individuals who are flexible human resources of labour, does this not undermine the civil basis of economic activity itself? If democratic rule is constructed under the control of military invaders, does this not undermine the very impetus of democracy itself?

Nor is the Church itself immune from the temptation of methods which, as they make grand claims, actually lower its aim. For example, management techniques and marketing can come to define the end of the Church and what counts as successful mission.

As Christians let us therefore ask ourselves: in what ways are we tempted, unawares, in religious ways to lower our sights from seeking the kingdom of God?

Means worthy of their end

Since our end is God's sovereign rule, we must look to God also for the means to this end: in the fabric of moral life, means and ends form a seamless robe. And here the bottom line is not a God who coerces, manages and manipulates us but a God who calls us lovingly into relationship with himself: a God who points, pleads and reasons, who challenges and forebears. As Christ's witnesses we are called to do the same. To do otherwise, therefore, is not only to aim short; it is to try and take the kingdom of God by force, when it can only be built on the foundations given by God in Jesus Christ.

David Kettle