Who wants to be a politician?
There is a strand in the history of the Christian church of withdrawal from “the world” - it is all too evil and polluted for us to get involved with it. Whether monks retreating to the desert in the Fourth Century or baptists in the Seventeenth Century leaving places of persecution to live quietly in America, hiding away seems attractive to many.
So when political leaders consider us Christians dangerous or out of touch (see last week’s blog) it is easy to wash our hands of their worldly and deceitful ways. After all, who can trust a word lawyers and politicians speak?!
But washing hands is an uncomfortable image. It reminds us of Pilate trying to distance himself from responsibility for Jesus’ death. It did not work for him. He was still the Governor with control over the soldiers who carried out the execution. Could it be that our attempts to escape the pollution of the political process will be just as ineffective? After all, if God has placed us in a certain time and place to be salt and light then we have a responsibility to the society we are supposed to be salting and lighting up!
I cannot comment on Tim Farron’s decision to withdraw from leading the Lib-Dems. It is not our place to judge and there are all kinds of reasons at play in his decision. But I do want to shout loud about our responsibility to society and to encourage us Christians to engage with politics. There are many aspects of being salt and light that mean we can make a special contribution to making society better. Let me give one example, to do with speaking truth.
As I write this, the Prime Minister seems to have found a temporary way out of an impossible position in the Brexit negotiations. Those who voted in the referendum voted for various reasons (whether Yes or No). But only a small minority wanted to see a ‘hard border’ created between Northern Ireland and Eire. Now it seems that ten DUP MPs may have power to force this. For months the Government has tried to negotiate with the EU, the Government of Eire and various factions in Parliament, and has tried to find a way that will suit everyone. Logic suggests there must either be a North/South border in Ireland or an East/West border between Northern Ireland and the mainland of the UK or a customs union (so that it hardly seems worth the trouble of leaving the EU). None of these is acceptable to a significant minority.
With hindsight it is clear some of the claims made in campaigning have been exposed as either untrue, or naively optimistic, or made without research or thought. Few of the political leaders really come out well in the whole messy business. All seem to have tried to give the impression that the electorate can have what it wants and that different competing interests can be reconciled.
Politics is “the art of the possible” - finding enough of a compromise and consensus around a proposal to get it approved. But politicians have not been truthful in explaining the difficulties, not even those politicians who have made themselves popular by appearing to speak for the people and “tell it how it is.”
What would politics look like if some brave political leaders were to take the risk of telling the uncomfortable truth? They would certainly lose political friends and may lose many friends among the electorate. But if enough brave leaders would do this, maybe it would change how politics works…..maybe the electorate would appreciate being treated as adults and not children who need to be bribed. Politicians like Pilate cannot do it - they need to win approval and Pilate famously caved in out of fear when the Jewish leaders taunted him with “You are no friend of Caesar!”
The leaders who are best placed to speak the truth are disciples of Jesus who is the ultimate Truth. Fired by a vision of society as a community built on trust and compassion, convinced that we must always speak truth even if it gets us into trouble, they would be friends of God first and so not overly concerned about whether they are friends of colleagues and voters.
Hopelessly idealistic? Maybe such politicians would be expelled from their parties. But unless brave Christians enter politics determined to try, we will never know. In many fields, the example of a few brave enough to do what is right regardless of criticism has enabled many others to follow them. Let’s pray for such leaders to rise up!