Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
When I was pondering this sermon, I soon realised that there was a lot I wanted to mention about Christianity and politics, but that I wouldn’t have time to say it all. So I’m going to concentrate on just a few aspects of the subject: firstly, why I don’t think we should be too hard on our politicians and, secondly, why politics is important.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to tell you how to vote on 7th May. I’m not even going to tell you if you should vote.
Here to begin with is a quotation from one of my favourite authors, from one of my favourite human beings in fact:
‘Politicks are now nothing more than means of rising in the world. With this sole view do men engage in politicks, and their whole conduct proceeds upon it’.
That was Dr Johnson, as quoted by his sidekick Boswell, speaking in the eighteenth century. Cynicism about politicians is nothing new.
I dare say that there was much truth in what he said then, and that it applies equally well to the present day. And I dare say that many of our politicians, possibly all of them, are more or less egotistical and more or less self-serving in some way or other.
But does that make them all that different from the rest of us? Are not all people, certainly the vast majority, in their different ways, in our different ways, egotistical and self-serving? It little behoves us to criticise politicians for the very faults that we ourselves often display – or, if we don’t display them, that we often harbour in our hearts.
That is not to excuse MPs who fiddle their expense or who espouse policies merely for the sake of personal advancement but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that they are all that different from you and me. So I take it as read that every individual politician is a mixture of good and bad, noble and ignoble – as we all are.
Politicians aren’t angels, never have been and never will be. Some are better than others, of course, but we shouldn’t tar them all with the same brush. Neither should we let them off the moral hook. I am merely suggesting that they are human and not so very different from other people.
I chose as our New Testament reading this evening the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I hesitated a little because, frankly, it seemed such an obvious choice. Everyone likes to be original but in this case I thought originality could be sacrificed because the parable is just too relevant to the question of how human beings should relate to each other – especially when things are not going well for someone.
The Good Samaritan is about direct action, the person to person doing of good. The Samaritan does something about the human need that he finds before his eyes. And I don’t think anyone is going to deny that what the Samaritan does is entirely and unequivocally laudable.
But what if the Samaritan had not only helped the person in need directly but had also lobbied the authorities to do something about the level of violence on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho or tried to persuade them to try and reduce poverty in the area by increasing economic activity, thereby reducing the need that desperate people might feel to resort to violence?
Those would have been more overtly political actions and surely would have been in keeping with the Biblical command to love our neighbour. Practicing politics is a part of loving our neighbour.
Otherwise, it would be like behaving bravely and well towards individual slaves but not caring two hoots about the system of slavery itself. It just wouldn’t stack up rationally.
But some people say they want nothing to do with politics. That in itself is a political statement. By not engaging in politics they are engaging in politics – politics in my view of a particularly unconstructive kind. Because people live in community, you can’t get away from politics. The question is: which kind of politics is going to further the public good – engaged politics or disengaged politics? To my mind the answer is obvious.
Now, one of the main problems with politics is uncertainty. None of us can be sure – most of the time – what the best policies to pursue actually are. The law of unintended consequences looms over our actions continually. Society – especially nowadays – is unimaginably complex. With the best will in the world we may imagine we are doing the right thing, a good thing, but further down the line it transpires that all sorts of negative consequences have resulted from that action.
Politicians have to make tough decisions. And not only are we often not aware of all the consequences of a particular policy, as often as not it’s a question of consciously taking the least bad course of action. There will often be bad consequences whatever we do. There will even be bad consequences if we do nothing.
Take the decision to invade Iraq. Now I’m not trying to defend or criticise that decision. It led to many terrible things happening but the fact is that not invading Iraq would also have led to many terrible things happening. Would they have been even worse than what actually happened? Nobody knows. Is it better to have a tyrant in power providing some kind of stability rather than unleashing something akin to anarchy by ousting him? Whatever viewpoint we espouse, let’s not pretend that doing nothing doesn’t itself have consequences.
The main difficulty with politics is that it deals with the future and the future is unpredictable, however much thought may have gone into formulating a particular policy.
It is alleged that a former prime minister of ours, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what he feared most in politics and that he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Well, that’s a bit of a cliché these days but it presents us with a real truth. None of us know what events are waiting for us around the corner as a result of our actions or as a result of the actions of others.
So politics, like life, isn’t an easy business. Just as that’s no excuse for not doing life, it’s no excuse for not doing politics. But let’s just not pretend that it’s easy. We might be less hard on our politicians if we took that thought to heart.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbour. That must involve the exercise of compassion. In the political sphere we may not be sure what the best thing to do is but the gravest sin is not to care. And I don’t think sin is too strong a word.
We hear a lot of cynicism about politics and in many ways it’s understandable. But often it seems to me that cynicism is a sort of excuse for not caring. And that simply won’t do. We may get things wrong but that’s far, far better than not caring in the first place.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference called Faith in Politics. It was really a call for Christians to get involved. There were Christians there from all the main political parties – the big three anyway. Whether Tory, Labour or Lib Dem they all impressed me as people of good will. They espoused different policies but they were all trying to improve the well-being of their fellow citizens.
There are forms of politics other than party politics of course. There are pressure groups, there are one off campaigns on various issues. As I said just now, the gravest sin for a Christian is not to care. I hope there’s no controversy about that statement. It’s what we advocate and do about the things that concern us that is the really controversial thing.
But in the last analysis we have to advocate those policies, those courses of action that, after careful reflection, seem to us to be right. We don’t really have any other choice.
I’d like to close by saying a few words about our first reading – Moses and the burning bush. Moses has a profoundly spiritual experience. He seems to have discerned the divine energy that burns at the heart of all reality. He discerns God in the burning bush and yet this spiritual experience has profoundly political consequences – the mission to free the Israelites from slavery.
The spiritual and the political cannot ultimately be separated. What we perceive as spiritual reality affects our political decisions and actions. And we cannot avoid either the spiritual or the political.
For the Christian politics is one means by which we try to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. The very use of the word ‘kingdom’ indicates that the future that God wishes for us is social and political.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s kingdom to come. That we pray for it doesn’t mean we are absolved from the need to work for it. On the contrary prayer should help us to work for it better. God has given us real responsibility for the building up of the kingdom – not on our own but with a decisive contribution to make. That in the last analysis is why politics matters. Moses, the Good Samaritan and us – we all have a part to play in building up the kingdom.