Peter's Blog

Sovereignty's Counterbalance

Written by Peter Johnston on .

On Sunday past we were thinking in the service about the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, particularly the traumatic event of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22-23). The service can be re-watched here.

One of the themes that in the sermon I tried to draw on was the challenge we have in understanding two aspects of God. It is a challenge that Martin Luther and John Calvin also talked about in reference to interpreting this difficult story. Those two aspects of God are on the one hand the sovereignty of God, and on the other the graceful provision of God. The tale of Abraham and Isaac climbing that mountain in Moriah is a story that reveals both, and reveals the tension between them. At least from our understanding it looks like and feels like tension.

On the one hand, with the sovereignty of God we have that assertation of God as the one to be worshipped without question for God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. God is all powerful, all knowing and always present. This is a God in which the language of "the fear of God" is well warranted.

Yet on the other hand we also have a God who provides for us out of gracious love. This is the God who forgives and offers new starts. This is the God of the rainbow promise. God's sovereignty and God's gracious blessing.

It is challenging to grasp this, and hence the tension between the two. What the story of Abraham and Isaac does is to walk a line between them, trying in this graphical storytelling form to understand what this all means. How much it works as such I leave up to you.

This past week I saw something which illustrated beyond a question of a doubt for me the danger, however, in not having this tension between the two: when one aspect dominates over the other.

The illustration came in the form of President Donald Trump's extraordinary speech before representatives of the world's nations at the United Nations on 19 September 2017.

This speech in its condemnatory and dark fearful tone reminded me of only two other similar speeches at the UN: one being President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela  in 2006 calling President Bush the "devil" and Muammar Gadaffi of Libya in 2009 railing against the West. Hallowed company for a President who aspires to the despot.

In his speech, Trump repeatedly referred to the sovereignty of the United States and to the sovereignty of other nations. Of course, it is language of which we are familiar here in the UK too following the Brexit referendum and reclaiming our sovereignty from the EU. Trump repeatedly used the term "sovereignty" in order to clearly distinguish the rights of the United States and to distance them from any shared sense of responsibility as nations together. The message was clear: every nation for itself, the powerful will dominate smaller nations, and intervene only when it is good for one's own nation. This message was given in the heart of the organisation that, warts 'n' all, exists to do the opposite and was founded as the antidote to worldwide war. All this under "sovereignty". This is when power runs amok without the balancing of grace and blessing and provision.

Having read quite a bit of Donald Trump's story over the last couple of years, none of this is a surprise. His whole life story is one of taking for yourself at the expense of others. His modus operandii has always been one of taking advantage of the little guy from the scam operation of Trump University to how he treats contractors working on his projects. His world view is a zero-sum world view where there is only so much wealth in the world and he is out to take as much of it as he can, whoever gets in his way, whatever he has to say to get it. It is desperately and pitifully sad. It also has real repercussions for millions of us.

One example that really struck me was when Trump talked about the refugee crisis facing the world. He attempted to argue that it was the humane thing to do to keep refugees as close to their home countries as possible. Now there is an argument to be had about migration and the impact it has on both sending and receiving countries, and this argument he alludes to in his words "We have learned that over the long term, uncontrolled migration is deeply unfair to both the sending and the receiving countries..." but here he is deliberately compounding two different things: economic migrants and refugees fleeing war/drought/starvation/ethnic cleansing. It was a nice ruse which panders to the worst of the white nationalist voices within the United States who love Trump's anti-refugee rhetoric. Think about it. The humane thing to do, Trump argued, was to refuse to open our doors to those fleeing terror.

But most damaging of all was the assumption behind everything that Trump said, and again reflecting his view of sovereignty, that countries should only work together when they themselves will get something out of it. And that something, in Trump's mind, must be a something "extra". For Trump, and this you see throughout his business practices, simply paying for a contractor for the work they have done is not a good deal. His idea of a good deal is then to rip off that contractor in order get that something "extra" - that is a good deal. So when it comes to discussions between nations Trump cannot understand much of what constitutes good diplomacy because in his mind there is no extra something. Hence pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord - what was in it for the United States and only for the United States? The idea of a shared responsibility and a shared benefit is anathema.

Or, for instance, take his sabre rattling against North Korea and their ever more desperate nuclear programme. Trump is being hyper-aggresive in a provocative and alarming way here, the two leaders like playground bullies throwing taunts at each other. Yet, through careful diplomacy over many years the United States and other nations came to an agreement with Iran over their own nascent nuclear programme. Trump hates it because he doesn't see what the United States get as that something "extra". What the world gets is one less nation working towards nuclear weapons. But that kind of internationalism means nothing to Trump and his view of the omnipotent United States. Where is the "win" for the USA? Without that, it is of no worth to Trump. That and it was an agreement reached under Trump's historical nemesis, Barack Obama, whose legacy Trump is determined to wipe off the face of the earth.

This is the concept of sovereignty of one nation spinning out of control. That it is the most powerful nation on the planet which is doing so is even more alarming.

So what do we do about it? Well, it goes back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. If the sovereignty of God in that story had no counterbalance then Isaac would have been sacrificed and Abraham would forever have gone down in history as a maniac. But grace and compassion balance the story. This is where we in the church come in to live out and provide that counterbalance to the discussions of unbridled sovereignty that are running rampant across our political discourse at present.

This is the counterbalance that reaches out to smaller nations to help them step up. It is the counterbalance that acknowledges that the world is collectively better off when we work together. It is the counterbalance that recognises the longer term future of our world relies on opening ourselves vulnerably to each other acknowledging we do not have all the answers invidividually. It is the counterbalance that not only seeks to protect the vulnerable and the refugee, but also seeks to understand and correct what led to their predicament. It is the counterbalance that lays aside a claim to all the riches of the world. It is the counterbalance that recognises the humanity in all of our world's citizens. It is the counterbalance that strives for a world that can maintain itself and renew itself. It is the counterbalance that seeks good stewards of God's creation rather than warriors bent on destruction.

Time is ticking.