We are now well into the Netflix series, The Crown, a dramatisation of the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
It is compulsive viewing, not just because of its brilliant performances and direction but because, for me at any rate, it speaks of things relating to the idea of duty.
We seldom hear of duty these days, or think of it in the way the monarchy must think of it, as a binding relationship between love for a people and what must be done for the preservation of an institution. Neither do we think of how duty makes victims of those who are bound by it in the exercising of power, of the choices they must make and of the terrible failures which these choices can bring in their wake.
You could say that when duty is bound by love it ceases to damage those it serves, but from the moment duty hurts or blights another life love has taken leave of duty. No matter what the powerful person’s subjective feelings may be, they are, in this respect, the victims of their own power. This was the situation which Pontius Pilate found himself in.
The idea of duty has gone from being out of fashion to downright embarrassing. It’s not something you talk about. Faithfulness to duty seems like a cold, almost inhuman virtue, having nothing to do with love. Kant would have approved of this uncoupling of love with duty. But we, as a compassionate society, like to think that we would never countenance doing something out of duty which would knowingly hurt another person.
In that case, what of honour, and ‘honour’ killing? What of female genital mutilation (FGM)? For some, these terrible actions are a matter of duty. But are we responsible for such actions when those who do them have an entirely different understanding of duty, of its place and purpose in society, than we do? Of course we are responsible, not only because the law of our country forbids such things, but because we are all responsible for everyone’s wellbeing and safety. Duty and responsibility go together. It follows that we are all accountable to the highest power for the extent that we do or do not exercise what we now call a ‘duty of care’ to others.
Those with the most power and influence bear the greatest responsibility for the duty of care for those whose lives they affect. They are therefore the first to be held accountable to that highest power. They are accountable for the lives which their decisions will affect, inasmuch as they have the power to influence them for better or for worse. Doing the right thing out of love may cost them their position. Pontius Pilate knew this only too well, but Jesus reminds him of who he is ultimately accountable to. At the same time, Pilate is not a free agent. Unlike the betrayer, he is bound by his duty to a system, the Roman Empire. It is Judas who, in reality, held the greater power. He was a free agent, compared to Pontius Pilate.
For the powerful, doing one’s duty is not always commensurate with doing the right thing. Duty bound by love is constrained. Love places a constraint on ill considered actions which arise from a sense of the dominant power of duty, in all positions of leadership. Love makes requirements of duty, not the other way round. But the good news is that love ‘unbinds’. It unbinds leaders who are prepared to take the risk of going beyond duty for the sake of love, when they are in a position to do so.
The Crown reminds us that powerful people are not free agents. They are not always in a position to make decisions in which love has the last say, even if they would like to be. We tend to judge the actions of powerful people from the safe distance of hindsight, forgetting the constraints, mores, and even lack of communication which may have complicated matters still further at the time. We have a duty to these powerful people, a duty coupled with the love we ourselves receive from the highest power and for which we must allow safe passage to whoever has wronged us either recently or in the past. The prayer taught by Jesus obliges us to take responsibility for them in our memories, to forgive, as we have been forgiven, to allow God’s love safe passage.
This is not about whitewashing over the past and pretending that wrongs were never done. Neither is it about forcing ourselves to feel lovingly towards people who have wronged us, when we do not. That is simply to prolong a lie, and the lie may be part of the ongoing pain and damage we are still having to endure.
Taking responsibility for those who have wronged us is about owning those fragile human beings, even if they are dead, along with the pain they caused, and may still be causing - even if they are dead. This is as true for nations as it is for the individual.