• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

Magna Carta and the Social Covenant

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 08, 2015

Magna Carta
"It is a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant King, most of which concern matters of arcane thirteenth-century legal principle. A few of these promises concern themselves with high ideals, but those are few and far between, vague and idealistic statements slipped between longer and more perplexing sentences describing the 'customary fee' that a baron ought to pay a king on occasion of coming into an inheritance, or the protocols for dealing with debt to the Crown, or the regulation of fish-traps along the Thames and the Medway." [Dan Jones, Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of The Great Charter (London: Head of Zeus, 2015) 7.]

So writes Dan Jones, the author of a popular new introduction to the Magna Carta, a medieval document often celebrated as a basis for the limits and balance of power among the governed and those who govern.

"For the most part, Magna Carta is dry, technical, difficult to decipher and constitutionally obsolete,” even in England, the land of its framing. And, yet, this author goes on the explain that, "it is very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the world." (Jones, Magna Carta, 7.)

Indeed, as the Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of  Canterbury Cathedral, observed in his sermon at the Choral Evensong commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, among the places on earth most influenced, even profoundly shaped, by this feudal agreement between a king, his barons and the bishops of his realm, is the United States of America. Amid the pageantry of the commemorative service at Canterbury at which Dean Willis preached in June, amid the grand procession of "the good and the great," the appearance of luminaries such as the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and the Lord Mayor of Canterbury (no one knows how to put on a show better than the English in their finery and fancy dress), it was striking to Deborah and me, as we sat in the congregation, that a direct line was drawn by Dean Willis between the events that occurred at Runnymede in 1215 and our own American republic.

The Dean's comments were generous, but they also reminded us of the challenges we continue to face as we seek to renew and expand upon something of the spirit (both practical and idealistic, born both of grievance and of hope) preserved in the Magna Carta. Four days after Debbie and I attended the service commemorating the Magna Carta in Canterbury Cathedral, we heard the first reports emerging from Charleston, South Carolina. The racist-motivated slayings in Charleston came in the midst of a year (and more) in which we have witnessed the tragic spectacle of our nation struggling to come to terms with systemic, institutionalized racism and violence and abuses of power. We have witnessed other such abuses of power. And we have seen terrible acts of violence apparently in retaliation, reminding us that violence only multiplies violence. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, only leaves the world toothless and blind, as Mahatma Gandhi once said.

Manga Carta reminds us that our laws represent a kind of social or political covenant into which we have entered, a covenant that does not start and will not stop with words on a page. We, as a people, express our commitments, our aspirations and our identity through the laws we make, the laws we hold one another accountable to obey. We often enshrine our respect for our common humanity through these laws. Our laws, at their best, express our dedication as a people to justice for all. And our laws bind those who enforce them as well as the rest of us. Whatever else we may draw from the Magna Carta, that mixed and muddled feudal bag of idealism and self-interested oligarchy, this at least we may learn. But there is more, a lot more, we know to be true as Christians.

As the Protestant reformer John Calvin reminds us, laws exist as an expression of grace. And even the most mundane, even the most commonplace of laws can articulate something about the soul of a people and something of the grace of God. I say this because I have heard so often and in so many contexts the idea expressed that laws may enforce behavior but they can't change a human heart. These arguments seem pretty thin to me. Perhaps the history of the sometimes ironic influence of the Magna Carta can be helpful to us as we seek to understand the role of laws in expressing the highest hopes and convictions of our hearts and in actually shaping our hearts for the better.

When a group of twenty-seven thirteenth-century church leaders and barons framed the Magna Carta, as they crafted those words on behalf of King John of England, beyond and underneath their tangled interests, these men of power also allowed something profoundly moral, something vital to the human heart, to enter into the legal agreement they forged with a reluctant king. They put into law the notion that no one, not even a king, stands above the law. And, although they could not have imagined it at the time (and would have opposed it if they had imagined it), they also laid the foundation for an idea that in time would inspire constitutional evolutions and revolutions and eventually give birth to democracy, the idea that the legitimacy of any government ultimately depends on the consent of the governed, even as the governed also live within certain social and political constraints that guarantee that majority rule does not descend into a tyranny of the many over the few.*

Trust is essential to such a social covenant - trust that endures through all the attempts of a hateful few to amass power for their own selfish ends or the efforts of bitter and broken individuals to wreak vengeance in the name of their own private sense of justice. This trust is guarded by the sentinel of law - law that is a human product, imperfect, provisional, yet expressive of a peoples' hopes and values.

These convictions rendered in a "charter" (carta) emerged some eight hundred years ago from human hearts with all their mixed motives. These commitments depended on both the better angels of the human heart and some very fallen ones too. Although this legal charter did not immediately soften the heart of King John, nor many of the kings who followed him, nevertheless eventually the charter helped shape the history of England; it contributed to the development of Britain's constitutional monarchy, the evolution of the parliamentary governments of that nation and many others over the centuries, and made imaginable the birth of democratic republics, like ours. It did all of these things because it gave expression to something that has become essential to the political consciousness of a people, the covenantal orientation toward our life together, the conviction that we are held together as a people not by our similarities whether of race, ethnicity, or religion, but by mutual agreement to be "a people."

Laws can shape hearts for the better. Laws can make us and our society more humane. Ideas like "equality before the law" (enshrined in the United States in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution) have their origin in moral convictions about the nature of our humanity as children of God, and can give birth to changes in perception among even the most reluctant and recalcitrant. Laws can protect those in a society with less power and influence from the abuses of those more powerful and influential. Laws can protect those charged with making and enforcing the law so that our society can flourish.

Laws can even remind us that when we treat another person with contempt, we express contempt for ourselves and for our own humanity, and we undercut the civil bonds that make us civilized. When we accord respect to others, our self-respect grows as does the social contract that makes us a common people. This particular gracious gift of the law is in need of recovery, especially in our time. Laws can express grace in a multitude of ways. When fairly written and justly administered, and when enforced with respect for the humanity of every person, laws can make us better people.

The Magna Carta does not enshrine all of these lessons, but our faith certainly does.

*To see the influence of Magna Carta on the development of democracy, read Locke: Political Essays [Mark Goldie, editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], and note particularly Locke's "An Essay on Toleration" (1667).

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary