The old adage that politics and religion shouldn’t mix has always caused me some difficulties. I’m interested and involved in both and this week’s news, with happenings in Scotland, Westminster and Iraq, along with news that came to me via the Pope App on my iPhone have triggered some reflections.
I have for many years had an interest in politics. Heightened by an awareness that government policies, contrary to popular belief, do actually make a difference to people’s lives at local, regional, national and international levels It’s certainly among one of the ten other things that I would like to have done were it not for the call to leadership within the church and Christian community.
I first became actively involved in politics during the 1980s when I witnessed at first hand the impact of political theory and economic policy on some of the communities here in the north-east of England who were ravaged by decisions taken by politicians, the vast majority of whom were totally removed from the realities facing people within those communities. When you lived in an area that went from 18% to over 50% unemployment in the space of four years, you carry an awareness of the impact that unemployment, the breakdown of community and the loss of hope has upon the human spirit and society generally.
Later, I became very disillusioned and almost abandoned my allegiance to the political party I joined when we were taken to war in Iraq on spurious grounds, the consequences of which have led not only to the loss of Allied soldiers but of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations and has destabilized relations and fuelled the fires and fanaticism of fundamentalist groups throughout the world. It grieves me to say this, but I do believe that George Bush and Tony Blair should be brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague to answer for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Politics does matter; decisions made by those who rule over us shape our society and the world. The decisions being taken at the present time by our government here in Britain on immigration have an impact not only on our society but on thousands of people throughout the world. I am ashamed that we were labeled by other European leaders this week as the “nasty nation” as much by our attitudes as by the legislation that we are hurriedly pushing through to appease nationalist and racist elements within our society.
I am not saying that immigration is not an issue that must be addressed. The whole subject of integration is of vital importance in an increasingly diverse society. But we need to have a conversation that listens to facts as well as fears, is rooted in justice and compassion, rather than prejudice and bigotry.
One example of the atrocious behavior conducted by the media and tabloids in particular is the constant mantra that immigration is a drain on the British economy. The very opposite is true. Immigration brings more money into the country than it takes out. There are abuses of the system and they make wonderful news headlines but they hide the truth and contribute to attitudes and actions that do little to engender debate, informed discussion and considered policy decisions.
I and genuinely concerned about some of the racist attitudes that I see in some politicians’ rhetoric and heralded as patriotic by large swathes of the media. Such attitudes fuel resentment, bitterness and hatred. How terrible this week to read about the case of Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian who had come to England as a refugee in 2001 to find a better life. Wrongly accused of being a paedophile, let down by the police, He was beaten up, stabbed and then set on fire by those who murdered him. False allegations, fuelled with racist hatred was seen as major contributory factors that led to his brutal killing. An extreme example, a terrible incident but a chilling warning about ignorance, prejudice, racism and a simmering resentment and hatred that lies under the subsurface of individuals and communities. Those who govern should heed the wise words of Abraham Lincoln: Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
No system of government is perfect. Max Weber the German economist and sociologist describes politics as “The art of compromise and decision-making based on social benefits weighed against costs”. He also went on to say that politics was not the arena for saints! Yet I despair when people say that whoever they vote for, it will not make any difference or when apathy is so pervasive that people can’t even be bothered to exercise a right that millions in other countries would give anything for.
Call me sad but I was interested in the launch this week of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s White Paper, “Scotland’s future”. I’m not promising to read its 160 pages and 170,000 words but I will listen to the ideas put by both sides of the argument as to whether Scotland should remain within the UK or become an independent state. I find it very sad, important though economics is, to see so much of the debate centred around prosperity.
The debate reveals where so much of contemporary Western capitalist society lies: where the money markets, which seem to be to be so devoid of morality, dictate how we live. The Scriptures reveal a very different way of living, where we read that it is righteousness that exalts nation, not wealth accumulation. The Scriptures also remind us to pray for those who rule over us. A timely reminder in these days of turbulence and potential trouble.
This week I was delighted to hear reports of two Church leaders. I was encouraged to see both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis speak out against the evils and injustices, exploitation and greed of “unfettered capitalism”. The Pope spoke about this as the new tyranny in the world and called upon global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality in the first major work that he has authored alone since becoming pontiff.
Justin Welby, plans to drive out moneylenders and has begun to wage war against payday lenders, such as Wonga. In Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evagelii Gaudium ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, he covers a whole range of issues, including the need for a personal encounter with Jesus, the importance of joy in evangelism, and he condemns unjust economic systems, a trickle-down economic view of monetary policy, quoting Scripture extensively.
I scanned his exhortation and imagine Protestant evangelicals outraged or confused by such words coming from a catholic, even from the Pope himself! To give you an example : I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, to an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this and failing (?) each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord. The law does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realise that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in 1000 ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my love and covenant with you. I need you. Save me Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. Not bad eh?!
I am chuckling as I write this reflection, wondering what some of my friends would think of me having the Pope app on my iPhone. I shall never forget the evening I was sitting in the Jerenalka pub just up the road from the International Baptist theological seminary in Prague. With friends, some staff and students, we were enjoying conversation over what for me is arguably one of the best beers in the world, a dark Kozel, when my Pope app alerted me to news of happenings in Rome. White smoke was billowing from the chimney in the Sistine Chapel. We finished our drinks and made our way to the chapel at the seminary, gathered as usual for compline but spontaneously prayed for the new Pope, sensing that in the appointment of Francis, something significant was happening, not only for the Catholic Church but for the wider world. The memory of gathering in a darkened chapel with only the words of compline on the screen and the candle burning in the centre of the circle, praying for Pope Francis, will remain with me for a long time.
I can’t say that I have regularly prayed for any Pope, (it was not something that I learnt at Bible college, nor did it feature much in the intercessions of the Baptist Church is that I have been privileged to pastor!) But I do pray for him. I pray for him that he may know God’s grace, courage and protection. Likewise I pray for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and lest she feels neglected, I pray regularly for the new general secretary of the Baptist union of Great Britain, Lynn Green, a much easier person to pray for and a friend and, in some sense, colleague. She, like Justin Welby, is a very able communicator.
This week I was so heartened by what my Pope app informed me of happenings in the Vatican. Preaching at St Peter’s in Rome, Pope Francis called for major changes in the Catholic Church, from the top down, saying that he knew it would be a messy business but that he expects his flock to, “dive in feet first” he went on to say, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” Amazing statements, revolutionary echoes of the one whom we, in our small way, seek to serve: Christ Himself.
Bring on the revolution!