The people is sovereign

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People (image: courtesy of Gerd Altmann)

In a very robust and engaging panel discussion on the subject of constitutional reform, the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), on 2 May, signaled its intention to get involved in a process designed to reform the way we live, move and have our being as a nation. With still much cynicism and nonchalant approaches to national issues by the majority of Jamaicans, seen for example in the ongoing plea of the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) to find workers to collect data for the national census and the chronic low turnout of voters at national and local government elections, there is the recognition that there must be a way to address the general apathy and cynicism towards public affairs in general and governance in particular.

The JCC a faith-based organization, has been involved in national life from its founding roots in the turbulent years of the 1930s in Jamaica demonstrating its pedigree to address national issues, and the ability to bring reason, balance and good sense to national discourse. The panel comprised academicians, a public advocate and legal minds to lead the public discussion on the topic of constitutional reform, a topic which seems foreign to some Jamaicans who simply desire to ‘eat a food’ while at the same time remaining disconnected from social and political issues. The panel discussion was attended by well over 300 persons face to face and online, indicating that the public, and religious communities in particular, are still desirous of contributing positively to the development of Jamaica.

It is in this light that we are to view the very positive post dialogue statement dubbed the Bethel Accord. House of God is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for bethel, however, with reference to the Bethel Baptist Church in Half Way Tree, the location of the face to face conversation, the JCC says “The panelists, in-person participants and many of the online participants agreed that the proposed move to republican status must be a move to “centre the sovereignty of the people…” This matter of the “sovereignty of the people” is germane to any discussion on the role of the constitution with its focus on “…the Constitution …crafted for and by the people.”

Used for the first time in the fourteenth century Europe, the phrase “sovereignty of the people” emerged at a time when there were great political and social upheavals and uncertainty and pointed to an orderly way of doing things. It meant pre-eminence, excellence, superiority, authority, rule, power or rank”, which embody characteristics usually associated with the gods but also embedded in the people. In Christian theology, it is the bethel phenomenon with God as supreme and human beings made in God’s image becoming partners with God in the person of Jesus Christ, especially through our exalted status in the incarnation (John 1:14).

This means, God and humanity in one household are intimately related to each other, in which sense there is no way to separate one from the other. For this reason, the sovereign ruler, king or queen was understood as bearing the very image of God as ruler and equally subject with the people over whom they exercised leadership. No wonder, as in the case of the recent coronation of King Charles III, the religious leader hands the political leader the instruments of office as a reminder that all power, authority and sovereignty ultimately come from and belong to God and leaders and people belong to bethel – the household or community of God.

To say the people are sovereign is to affirm the Latin phrase Vox populi, Vox Dei or the voice of the people is the voice of God and though this has been taken to the extreme, as in the case of Nazis Germany in the 1930s, it is nevertheless designed to affirm the utmost respect for the people and establish the need for integrity in governance. A constitution, and the process which goes into writing or revising it are for the sake of good governance. Citizens must be consulted. A lack of consultation in an exercise like constitutional reform is not only inimical in a modern democracy, it smacks of disrespect for the people, the pursuit of power at all cost and for its own sake and is frankly tokenistic. The solution is respect for the sovereignty of the people, and this is non-negotiable.

In the Bethel Accord the JCC emphasizes the need to “centre the sovereignty of the people”. To do so, it is necessary to assert the central role of people of all ages who are worth and worthy of recognition at all times and throughout all stages of the democratic process and participation in constitutional reform is no different. To this end, it is important to support efforts to sensitize children and young people about the reform process and their role in it. The process should not be left to a few interested members of the public but steps taken to ensure the process permeates all aspects of Jamaican society to include culture, music, theology, sports, education, health, among others.

I have no doubt those who participated in the discussion organized by the JCC were left in no doubt that more of these discussions are necessary. However, these fora are not to be perceived as mere talk shops but spaces where genuine dialogue can take place, especially in anticipation that the outcome will influence the national engagement and contribute meaningfully to constitutional reform, it must be that the process is for and by the people.

The final product – the constitution – must be viewed as a means to an end and not an end in itself. A constitution must serve the best interest of the people who must be viewed as sovereign in the Jamaican state. Sovereignty of the people is respect for the people.

Rev. Garth Minott is the Bishop of Kingston.

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