The Scottish Parliament
The swearing-in of the newly-elected Members of the Scottish Parliament took place on May 8. It is a clear indication of how little influence religion now has in the life of the country when so many MSPs chose to make an affirmation, rather than swear before God, in professing to declare their loyalty to the Queen.
The Scripture standard is: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God”. In an age when there are few who fear God, one would be thankful to see MSPs making an outward acknowledgement of the authority of the Most High. But what blessing can Scotland expect to see from a parliament in which 57 of her 129 parliamentarians, including Jack McConnell the First Minister, refused to give Him even this degree of outward acknowledgement?
One MSP chose to sing a verse of a song during the swearing-in ceremony; others also acted in such a way as to suggest that they were not taking the procedure seriously. Some of them seemed to indicate that they did not mean what they said. Yet these men and women were being installed among Scotland’s lawmakers, who will be passing legislation which could result in people being sent to prison. This surely demands a seriousness which was markedly absent in some quarters.
The Penalty for Murder
The Home Secretary David Blunkett has put forward a plan which will lay down tougher jail sentences for murderers in England and Wales. The new sentences will be laid down by Parliament as a guide for judges. One result would be that, for the very worst murders, a life sentence will really mean life. There has for long been a clear sense among the public that murder sentences are too short. The mother of a murder victim told the BBC about the killer’s sentence: “He will be 36 when he comes out – 14 years, to me, is a very short time, especially when you see someone who tries to steal a diamond from the Dome get 25 years. They’re telling me a diamond is worth more than my daughter’s life.”
Fears have been expressed, however, that murderers who must spend the rest of their life in jail will be more difficult to control. This leaves out of account one fact which seems to have been missing from the whole of the recent discussion: the scriptural demand: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man” (Gen 9:6). To bring back the death penalty for deliberate murder would be a reform in the right direction.
The Iraqi Liberation
The Saddam Hussein regime has now been removed, but it is not yet clear what is to take its place and how the “liberated” Iraq is now to be governed. It is said that 60% of the Iraqi population are Shi’ite Muslims and it is clear that, if they were to have their way, Iraq would be governed in the same way as neighbouring Iran, which is ruled by a totalitarian Moslem administration which insists on the observation of strict Islamic law. Christianity is not tolerated in Iran nor, for that matter, in Saudi Arabia. But under the Saddam Hussein regime, however evil it might have been and however much it deserved to be overthrown, Christianity was tolerated. It would be a sad outcome of this conflict if the new Iraq was now to fall into line with its neighbours.
The sight of a million Shi’ite worshippers in a frenzy with many among them covered in their own blood – flowing, as in the case of the priests of Baal of old, from self-inflicted wounds – was an alarming and sobering sight, one which might well move us to ask: Is this the “liberation” that so many British and American soldiers gave their lives for?
Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness
A new biography of Martin McGuinness, a convicted IRA terrorist, reveals that he enjoyed a “cosy relationship” with Mo Mowlam during the time when she occupied the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As a result of documents which were leaked to the author of the book, it is now known that she was wont to address this man in endearing terms. This was particularly apparent in the transcript of one telephone conversation in the course of which she is reported as “opening her heart to him about her hopes of clinging on to her job”. It is also known from these tapes that Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, was also guilty of fraternising with this man and that he joined with him in miscalling Unionist politicians.
No doubt there are upright, honest and patriotic politicians to be found at Westminster but, when a cabinet minister acts as Mrs Mowlam did, is it any wonder that distrust of politicians in general is widespread. It is true that the foul-mouthed Mrs Mowlam has long since left office, but how can we be sure after these disclosures that those in authority today are not acting behind the scenes in a way that belies their public utterances? Truly, “judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter”.
Portraits of John Knox
In 1580 Theodore Beza produced a book containing what he claimed to be “true portraits of men illustrious in the Reformation of Religion and Restoration of Learning”. One of these was of John Knox, taken from a painting made the previous year in Edinburgh by an artist who possibly had seen Knox. The recent cleaning of a portrait of Knox owned by Edinburgh University has led experts to believe that it is not, as previously thought, taken from Beza’s woodcut but may be a copy of the original 1579 painting, though others suggest it may be at the very earliest from the mid-seventeenth century.
Thomas Carlyle in his The Portraits of John Knox refused to accept that the Beza woodcut authentically represented John Knox and claimed that the kind of person represented in it would be “quite a surprising individual to have kindled all Scotland, within few years, almost within few months, into perhaps the noblest flame of sacred human zeal and brave determination to believe only what is found completely believable and to defy the whole world and the devil at its back in unsubduable defence of the same”. We would recognise, as Carlyle would not, that God may use the most unlikely persons in His work, for it is “not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zec 4:6). There were those who said of Paul that “his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10). But we do wonder if Beza’s woodcut does depict Knox as the kind of man we meet in his writings and the histories of the time.
The measure of the man, however, is not to be deduced from artistic representations made after his death and by persons who had no close access to him, if they ever saw him, but from his writings and what he was enabled to accomplish for Church and State in Scotland. Whatever may be said of his portraits, for too long the perception of John Knox commonly held by people who accept uncritically what suits their own prejudices has been taken from media representations influenced by either Romanist or sceptical preconceptions rather than facts. It is therefore pleasing to read the comments of Professor Duncan MacMillan, curator of Edinburgh University’s Talbot Rice Gallery, quoted in The Scotsman of 30 April 2003: “He has often, and unfairly, got a bad press. He was one of the pioneers of universal education and democracy and showed that people could challenge the power of the crown. He led a largely bloodless Protestant reformation free from persecution, and it is appropriate on the eve of the Scottish elections that we look at the father of the nation.”
It is important for each generation in the Church to familiarise itself with the authentic record of what God has done in the past, with all its consequences for the present. Those wishing to become acquainted with the character and aims of John Knox might well begin with his own The Reformation in Scotland, an edition of which is published by the Banner of Truth Trust and is available for £5.95.