Thursday 27 June 2013

On Intelligence and Omniscience

A post by Dr John Quinn

Edward Snowden (Courtesy of Wikicommons)
As I write, former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden is en route to Ecuador, passing through Moscow and Havana. Mr Snowden is wanted by US authorities for disclosing information regarding the extent of US surveillance of its citizens’ internet and telephone activities. The disclosures, which were first reported in “The Guardian”, have rocked the US Government to the core, and have met with praise and contempt in almost equal measure.  Those in the government and security establishment argue that Mr Snowden’s disclosures are treasonous, endangering the lives of innocents by compromising effective security programs and intelligence mechanisms.  At the same time his actions are hailed as heroic by civil libertarians and journalists for pushing back against the increasing intrusion of the state into personal affairs.  As thinking Christians what are we to make of this?

The New Testament is not silent on the role of government. In Chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts his readers to “submit [themselves] to the governing authorities.”  Paul’s reasoning is not pragmatic, but is tied up in God’s sovereignty over earthly affairs: he writes “for there is no authority except that which God has established.” As result, “he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves”. Moreover, “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the ruler] does not bear the sword for nothing”.  In short, the ruling authorities are to be treated with respect and a measure of fear, as they are instituted by God to administer justice.

Image courtesy of Google images 
I have to admit that these verses bring me some discomfort in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations. What if, God forbid, it became illegal to be a Christian?  What if checking an online bible, calling your local church or even reading could land you in prison? These are activities we do every day: should we just stop them in submission to a tyrannical state? While a cursory reading of Romans 13 might invite that conclusion, I don’t think the picture is quite that straightforward. In Verse 3 of chapter 13, Paul writes:

“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” 

So it is really wrongdoers that ought to fear the government, not those who do right.  Of course, we now have a problem of definition: who are “those who do right” and “those who do wrong”?  I don’t think there is anything too controversial in suggesting that for Christian people “those who do right” must ultimately be those who trust and obey the Lord Jesus.  If this is the case then any government acting against Christians has moved from being an administrator of God’s justice to a persecutor of God’s people. The Bible is clear on both the reality and certainty of persecution for Christians.  Moreover, while persecution brings suffering in the here and now, it ultimately points to the certainty of hope in Jesus.  Hence there is nothing to fear from a government that persecutes, for the Christian holds to certain hope of ultimate deliverance through Jesus.

So, do Christians have anything to fear from a government that monitors our every movement? At one level the answer is no, because God would ultimately deliver us from a persecuting government. That said, it does not seem adequate to say that since God gave the authorities the power to monitor all our activities, we should just accept it. The potential for misuse of surveillance is substantial, and it is not only Christians who might face injustice as a result of government intrusion. As people who put others before ourselves we should be attentive not only to our own vulnerability, but also of others who might face persecution from an intrusive tyrannical state.  The scale of government monitoring now evident, we need to think about how we work toward change, not through illegal means, but by advocating through legitimate channels.

Did Edward Snowden do the right thing? I have no idea. His actions have certainly upset the US government who are making all sorts of claims about the legality of what has occurred. Moreover, he has almost certainly violated those confidentiality clauses that were part of his work arrangements. Deliverance for Edward Snowden appears to be coming from somewhat unexpected quarters, via the Russian, Cuban and Ecuadorian governments. Leaving aside the morality or legality of Mr Snowden’s actions, and his now precarious situation, through his disclosures he has flagged a significant issue with which we need to grapple. We can thank him for that.   

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