Rebuilding Politics – one relationship at a time
9th December 2019
This article first appeared in issue 5 of Alban Life – a quarterly printed magazine which is distributed to all parishes in the diocese. Click here to read more articles from the ‘Alban Bites’ blog.
Andy Flannagan’s album “Drowning in the Shallow” was described as “near-perfect” by Cross Rhythms, but he remains disappointingly imperfect – www.andyflan.com. He wrote the critically-acclaimed book “Those Who Show Up” which has inspired many normal people to get involved in politics and he is now the Executive Director of www.christiansinpolitics.org.uk He lives with his wife Jenny and children, Jesse and Jubilee, in Luton, and is part of the congregation at St Matthew’s church. They are involved with a growing team of people seeking to serve the High Town area. www.peoplespark.cafe is one project hoping to transform an old toilet block into a thriving community space.
I wandered around Parliament saying cheerio to various MPs who will not be back after the election. I found myself thanking them for their service. To some I even said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” One of the toughest parts of my job is convincing people that not all MPs are the tribal fanatics we like to think they are. When we write people off in our heads, we don’t have to engage with them. It’s a way of shrinking our responsibility.
My argument is not helped by the pantomime that is Prime Minister’s Questions. It is more widely reported than anything else because of the potent cocktail of drama, warfare and celebrity that it provides. But it is a very skewed picture of what MPs spend their time doing. If that was all they did, then you would understand people’s antipathy to politics. But PMQs represents about only 1/100th of what an MP spends their week doing. All the moments of co-operation in committees, private meetings, socialising, playing sport together, or praying together don’t make good TV or column inches. A hungry public want controversy and fighting. It’s middle-class soap-opera and wrestling.
It always surprises me that even church leaders buy into the mythology. “But those MPs are all on the make – it’s a dirty game”, they say. Then I ask if they know their own MP, at which point they say, “Oh, she’s wonderful actually. She does a lot of great work for the community!” We don’t often spot the difference between the 1 MP that we may have an actual relationship with and the 649 others that we probably only know through the filter of the media, which has a vested interest in printing what is tragic and scandalous.
It has been my privilege to see many of these MPs working together behind-the-scenes in a way that will never be interesting enough to make the news. Throughout the Brexit process there has been an amazing bunch of folks from all parties praying together and supporting one another.
Every generation indulges its own nostalgia, so I need to be careful of that ‘recency bias’ in my reporting, but there was a lingering worry in my head and heart as I bumped into people in parliament that day. In a few years time will we look back on this last Parliament as ‘the good old days’?” Now don’t get me wrong, there are many times this Parliament has infuriated me, but the depth and breadth of experience represented in the folks on their ‘last day of term’ is huge. At lunchtime, we were praying that the legacy of cross-party cooperation and civility from many of those departing would not be lost for future generations.
I fear this is especially important at a time when the wisdom of elders and experts is being dangerously pushed into the background of public life in favour of what is simple, speedy and attention-grabbing.
Just last week I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Dame Caroline Spelman who is not seeking re-election, having been harassed and abused precisely because she worked with those from other parties for what she saw as the common good of her country. Caroline has also been lauded for the job she has done connecting the church and society in her role as Second Church Estates Commissioner. The nation will now not benefit from her years of wisdom because of death threats to her and her family.
The same sad story is repeated for many MPs, who are disproportionally female – many of them trail-blazers of compromise while others descended into tribalism. It is 2019. How have we ended up here? How have our public interactions become so toxic? How have we given oxygen to this armchair, cowardly, anonymous animosity and misogyny?
Ways and means
As Christians, we follow the man who was God, called Jesus Christ, for whom ends never justified means. He was the ultimate example of the HOW always being as important as the WHAT. He was integrity personified. For example he constantly called out the Pharisees for their focus on the external to the detriment of the internal.
Our call as believers is not as simple as ‘just getting good things done’. We are called to be ambassadors of his WAY as well as his TRUTH. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Truth is not just a set of objectively correct facts. It is deeper, wider and more beautiful than that. Truth is found in a person. I would go so far as to say that it is possible to articulate what we believe to be objectively correct fact, but that if we do it in a way that is outside the parameters of how Jesus would have done it, it actually ceases to be true. He cares about how we say something as well as what we say. He cares about our motivations as well as our actions. His kingdom is extended by surrendered thoughts as much as surrendered actions.
Actions and words that go beyond the pale are sadly all the more likely in deeply divided societies. I know that all too well from growing up in Northern Ireland. Our present day echo chambers are reinforcing our pre-existing opinions and radicalising us against anyone who would disagree. The other side’s very humanity is questioned, allowing us to act inhumanly towards them in speech or action. When we intentionally or unintentionally surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, wider perspective is lost, and actions that would have previously been unthinkable become very thinkable in our desperation to win an argument or ‘get the job done’.
Ideas and idols
The Bible contains an idea that speaks into this debate – idolatry. One of the things that most people know about idols, whether they are of a religious bent or not, is that people sacrifice things to them.
All through history, humankind has sacrificed animals, people, food and anything else we can get our hands on to appease our idols. In 2019, we sacrifice our time, clicks and money to celebrity idols. We sacrifice headspace and spiritual health to our addictions and pre-occupations.
But the thing we often forget about idols is that on the whole they start out as good things. Food is a good thing. Art is a good thing. Money is a good thing. Colossians 3 v5 says this “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Before we think, “those verses don’t apply to me as a ‘middle-of-the-road’ sinner” we should note that a more accurate translation of the Greek here replaces ‘evil desires’ with ‘excessive desires’. We are much more likely to be tempted by something familiar and good in excess, than something transparently ‘evil’. Idolatry is putting anything above God, his honour, and his way of doing things.
We may not even notice the millimetre by millimetre creep as a football team, wine, chocolate, or political opinion shift from good gift to idol. And once something becomes an idol in our lives, it is very hard to knock it off that perch. Idols start demanding our allegiance.
You may disagree with me, but I would say that both of the following sentences are true. The idea of leaving the European Union is a valid political idea. The idea of remaining in the European Union is a valid political idea. But have those ideas grown beyond what is healthy for many of us? Have they become idols? In fact, our reaction to those two sentences may tell us a lot about where our Idol-o-meter sits.
You do not need to be a theologian or a historian to realise that things are being sacrificed to the idol of Brexit and the idol of Remain. At this point many more may start to disagree with me, but as someone who has been actively involved in UK politics for many years now, I have never seen anything like what we are living through. Things are being sacrificed (like the sanctity of the rule of law) when a Government minister says “we will see” when asked if the Government will obey the law.
Things are being sacrificed (like civil discourse) when we are so desperate to win the argument that people employ the language of war and violence. Things are being sacrificed (like the idea of truth) when lies or half-truths are used to enhance our side of the argument. When winning is all that matters, that’s idolatry. Just getting things done, just pushing things through, despite the protestations of others who disagree is what deepens long-term resentment and division.
Of course not everyone is always going to be happy, and sometimes leaders have to lead without looking over their shoulders. But shutting down dissent and discussion in the public square or a parliament is exactly what breeds discontent and decreases the possibility of reconciliation. Reconciliation happens through brave relationship-building with those are not like us.
It has been my privilege through Christians in Politics to witness believers the length and breadth of the country coming together from different parties and different churches in Christians in Politics groups saying that for them it is “Kingdom before tribe”.
The listening and understanding across divisions that can happen when we remember that our primary allegiance is to another King is a sight to see. Yes, you can be more polite on social media, yes, you can take a deep breath before commenting, but it’s only in the context of real relationship that we can truly disagree well.
I have had the privilege in the last 6 months of speaking at Christian festivals and events right across the UK and Europe. As I reflect on our Brexitly divided nation, one moment sticks out. As always at one of our Christians in Politics sessions, I ask for a quick survey from the assembled crowd as to why they have come. Are they already involved in politics, are they hacked off with politics, are they just curious as to how any Christians could even dream of getting involved? It has given me a fascinating insight into the preoccupations, passions and priorities of Christians in the UK.
On this particular afternoon, in the midst of a passionate defence of Brexit, one gentleman shared that he had never read the Guardian, had no desire to do so and didn’t know anyone who did. The next person I chose said, “I have never read the Telegraph, I have no desire to do so and I must confess that until this moment I didn’t know anyone who did.” Cue much nervous laughter.
So we got those two gents into a couple to chat and pray together later in the session. They both found it eye-opening. Each of them had not believed that a ‘real Christian’ could think some of the things that their new friend thought. They exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Similar (but less dramatic!) connections happened in many other settings.
You might question why now is a time to call out some things in public life. I think it’s because there is an interesting spiritual, cosmic truth at play. As believers, we cannot just hope everyone gets warm and fuzzy and starts singing Kum Ba Ya around the campfire. It is very hard to get to reconciliation without repentance. And it is very hard to get to repentance without being confronted by truth (often in the person of Jesus). There is plenty that we all need to repent of.
There was a reason that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Commission in South Africa was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They knew that meaningful reconciliation could not happen without at least some forensic examination of what had happened, what had been said, and what had been done. We cannot simply brush things under the carpet and move on. We may not always agree on what has been true and what has been false, or who has acted appropriately, but the space at least to air our grievances and listen to those of others makes reconciliation that little bit more possible.
I am encouraged that it looks as if the church will be taking an even larger role in creating these spaces for reconciliation and brokering these difficult, yet vital relationships. Being on our knees won’t just change the political situation we find ourselves in – it will change us.
Being on our knees in front of the one who knows it all will hopefully remind us that we don’t know it all, rendering our ears more open to hear from those with whom we disagree. Being on our knees in front of the one who is holy and true will hopefully render our idols more recognisable as the counterfeit gods that they are. Being on our knees may also encourage us to be the answer to our own prayers – might you be a councillor or MP within the next decade? If so, we’re here to help.
But for now, let us pray.