politics


I was invited by the Dean of Manchester to preach in his Cathedral at the annual Service to mark the beginning of the Legal Year this morning. There was a large turnout of judges, lawyers and civic dignitories. The Bible readings were from Job 28:1-12 and John 1:1-14. What follows is the basic text of my address.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here this morning and to preach at a time of ‘interesting’ developments in the life of our nation. It is particularly good that different faiths are represented as we mark the importance of justice and law in a society that is in danger of treating both with casual utilitarian pragmatism.

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures – although a reading of historian Tom Holland’s new book Dominion makes the point powerfully. According to the biblical witness, justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine during a Sunday School holiday in Saltburn from my church in Liverpool. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

The point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to a justice that has become a means of privilege on the part of those who either are powerful enough or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Manchester, I hasten to add, or even in England.

During my time as the Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I was closely connected with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and particularly with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe. I visited many times. This was during a period of considerable challenge in Zimbabwe, when President Mugabe was living with the consequences of his bizarre land policy, when inflation was rising to over 10,000 per cent (not the final figure), when water was scarce and food in short supply in Gweru. The secret police were everywhere – stories for another time – and political oppression was evident. Even the Church suffered as a renegade Bishop of Harare (a corrupt Mugabe beneficiary called Nolbert Kunonga) declared UDI, stole money and properties, and lied his way through the courts. He is no longer there; the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is.

One of the points I kept having to argue in and for Zimbabwe was that the restoration of the rule of law was essential. There could be no justice, no democracy, no prosperity and no freedom until the rule of law was re-established and respected. It is the rule of law that guarantees impartiality and consistency, thus allowing society and the economy to tread an honest path to prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The rule of law guarantees integrity.

Or does it?

There are many countries where the rule of law holds firm, but life is not free or fair. Which surely teaches us that the rule of law is vital, but also inadequate in and of itself: it is the content of the law that establishes the colour, the complexion, the integrity of the culture. I know Godwin’s law all too well – that when, as a last resort, you refer to Adolf Hitler, you have lost the argument – but it is salutary to recall that National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s had little problem with the rule of law; they just made laws that legitimised what they wanted to do anyway. (I am afraid I am student of German politics and I recognise that this is a bit ‘niche’.)

So, what a good society actually needs is the rule of good law. The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) that the Reichstag passed on 23 March 1933 made perfect sense within the internal circular logic of a Weimar Republic that had run into the ground – allowing the Führer to bypass other laws in order to break the logjam and, in exceptional circumstances, to get things moving. “Just get it done” was the sentiment that opened the door to the institution of injustice by a Nazi Party that shaped law by a worldview that was essentially dehumanising. The Law of Unintended Consequences? (Or were the consequences entirely intended?)

Well, I had the joy of working through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords and spoke in debates at each stage (one with 192 speakers over two days). In the last few weeks, in order to get the Benn Bill through the Lords before the ‘prorogation that never was’, we once again had to anticipate how a government might handle its own defeat over against the promises it had made about delivering Brexit. At every stage of debate a large number of judges, former law lords and other lawyers spoke eloquently (and even comprehensibly), often drawing attention to the inadequacies of draft legislation received from the House of Commons – especially in relation to the constitutional and legal elements of the proposed legislation. You know what happened next.

The point I want to make before moving on to a bit of theology is that our attention has now been drawn to a threat that must be taken seriously if our democracy is to be upheld and not simply sold down the river on a boat called expediency. If politicians refuse to define properly how decisions about primary legislation are to be made – that is, not leaving to undefined ministerial discretion such terms as “appropriate” – then it will be left to the courts; and then judges will be accused of going beyond their brief by establishing law instead of interpreting it. You see the point? You recall the sniping at judges in the Supreme Court. The proper scrutiny of legislation – the very purpose of an upper house – and the deliberative activity of an independent judiciary are non-negotiable elements of a mature democracy … something forgotten or ignored by those newspapers that disgracefully and dangerously mock judges or denounce them as ‘Enemies of the People’. Unlike some politicians or newspapers, judges have to pay attention not only to the legal precision of the immediately presenting issue, but also to how the UK will live and move and have its being in the future (after we have left the EU, for example). Arguments about “freedom from” whatever ills the EU is believed to have caused us have to be replaced by the much harder and more complex task of shaping what we have been “freed for”.

So, again, law is not enough. It is good law that matters. And good law cannot be either assumed by default, or merely wished for.

Now, this is what is illustrated in our readings. Ancient Wisdom literature assumes that even the highest courts and the most powerful politicians, governors, rulers and legislators are not ultimate. Even they are accountable. Even if they evade accountability to the people whose interests and security they are called to serve, they cannot escape their accountability to God. As soon as any culture or society convinces itself that it can do what it wants and is accountable only to itself, watch hubris – and its bedfellow corruption – emerge. In other words, accountability to God keeps people and nations honest to themselves.

We then see in the reading from John chapter 1 (the ‘Christmas Gospel’) that any outworking of a recognition of human accountability to God is messy. It was all OK when “in the beginning was the Word”, but the trouble started when “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”. As soon as flesh, blood, opinions, cultures and passions got involved, things began to get sticky. The birth of Jesus can get romanticised, but even as a baby he was targeted, hunted by a fearful Herod, exiled as a refugee in Egypt (a place actually synonymous with captivity and oppression, but now – perversely – the place of rescue and asylum), and was seemingly in trouble from the word go. Read the gospels and his major problem seems to have been with lawyers who, at the behest of the powers-that-be, kept using the law to try to catch him out, trip him up, get him to condemn himself out of his own mouth.

They nailed him in the end. But, even then, those putting him on trial found themselves – their humanity, their integrity, their faith – being judged by the silent victim. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

The failure of the lawyers of the day was to lose sight of the big picture – what we might call ‘the point of it all’. In relation to current challenges I have repeatedly tried to make the point that once we have “Got Brexit Done” – whatever it looks like – what then? What was it all for? The debate has been almost totally framed around economics and trade, and yet the economy is a means to an end, not the end in itself. An economy should thrive in order to allow a society to thrive, for the common good to be served and for individual human beings to flourish. They are the ends to which an economy should point. To reverse the priority is to turn people into servants of the interests of the economically powerful and to lose sight of any vision or value. It was not for nothing that Jesus warned us about gaining the world and losing our soul.

Too many of the lawyers of Jesus’s day lost sight of humanity. Rather than celebrate the fact that someone had been healed, they condemned Jesus for doing “work” on the Sabbath Day – missing the point of what the Sabbath was for and, more importantly, who it was for. I guess it was what Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote: “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

The reading goes on to speak of light shining in the darkness. We should be asking what that looks like in a messy world of human fragility and moral contradiction. Again, it isn’t some romantic fantasy. It means that those who bear the name of Christ and attempt to shape their life, their politics, their relationships, their behaviour and their values around the character and nature of the Jesus we read about in the gospels should shine as a light in a world that, frankly is riddled with lies and is too easily willing to crucify its prophets. If we dare to bear the name of Christ – to own what it means to be his Body – we must be willing to shine … even when that shining provokes some to extinguish the light and restore the twilight or darkness where clarity of vision can be lost and the common good be submerged under the games power plays.

Law must live. Law must go beyond text and inspire life. But, if it is to do that, the text must be got right. Justice can turn on a phrase – it is that important. And a good and just society depends on good lawyers who interpret good law and thereby promote the common good.

I rest my case, m’lud. I want to see an inextinguishable light shine when darkness threatens. It will be cross-shaped, but haunted by resurrection. It will not be dulled by threat or neglect. Or, as the Psalmist put it: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the oath that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.

I am the bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.

Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively. The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue.

The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order. More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.

A colleague said to me this morning that we are in urgent need of recovering the three Rs: respect, responsibility and restraint. Respect for people (opponents as well as friends), the law and language; taking responsibility for our own language and behaviour as well as the common good; restraint even when provoked.

It is incumbent on those who lead to tell the truth, use language wisely (with a view to consequences) and behave with responsibility and respect.

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the excellent Yorkshire Post.

Anything can happen. A statement of the obvious, maybe, but it is also the title of a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in which he runs through some of the disasters that might hit if you as much as walk outside today. It also seems to be the dominant feeling around the country as we enter another week of political life in which what looks clear at breakfast is redundant by teatime. Things are moving quickly, and anything can happen.

However, there is one thing about which we can be fairly confident: there will be a general election some time during the autumn. If, like me, you are trying to organise a diary around so many uncertainties and unknowns, you will understand the anxieties this state of affairs can generate. We have no idea when the election might come, but we still need to prepare for it.

The first thing is to get people to register to vote. In a parliamentary democracy the people exercise their political preferences by voting in an election and putting in (or removing) their representatives in the House of Commons. As we have seen during the last three years, this moment of choice – whatever our particular convictions about the issues of the day or the content of a political manifesto – matters to the proper functioning of decision-making and the right ordering of society.

But, given the heat (if not light) ignited by Brexit, Boris Johnson and current political events, there are wider issues to be addressed in advance of any election. How, for example, is the campaign to be conducted? How far will we interrogate political statements and promises, not only from those we might instinctively oppose, but also from those we might naturally support? And what language will we use as the election campaign drives on?

These aren’t just hobbyhorse questions. Language goes to the heart of communication and we know how words can be deployed to distort, dehumanise and distract – either deliberately or incidentally. Truth matters and facts matter.

A couple of examples. When we are told that the proroguing of Parliament simply adds a few days to recess, so there is nothing to fuss about, what are we to think? Well, it isn’t a party-political dogma to insist to the electorate that this is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. When Parliament goes into recess the work continues, the committees continue to meet, the scrutiny of government goes on. When Parliament is prorogued, everything stops. There is a fundamental difference, and the implications are clear (and serious). So, the public ought to be clear and then be able to challenge both the statement and the motive behind its iteration.

Secondly, and somewhat randomly, if a politician waves a kipper and tells us that the EU forces us in the UK to present it on a bed of ice – a shackle that must be cast off by leaving the EU – then we ought not to fear asking whether or not this is true. Of course, it isn’t.

I accept that these examples are easy and recent ones. However, they help to make the point that the public need to question political statements for their factual basis or truthfulness without resorting to ad hominem attack. Yes, having judged that we were told a fib, it is then reasonable to go on to questions the ethics of the person who said it. But, the first response should always be to the truthfulness of the statement or promise.

This is serious. In response to things I have written on current political phenomena I receive a quantity of negative reactions. That is the point of writing in the first place – to start or contribute to a debate during which I might learn something new or even change my mind. But, what interests me about most of the negative stuff I get is that it doesn’t address the points made; the abuse is directed at me as a person. It doesn’t usually worry me, and I don’t waste time on it. It does worry me, however, that demagoguery thrives on emotive attacks on people who say uncomfortable (or wrong) things without addressing the basic issue.

The great Christian apologist CS Lewis once said that if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. And he was exactly right. It can’t be true because it ‘works for me’ or ‘makes me feel better about myself or the world’; it can only be true if it is true. The same will apply when we get to an election.

The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation (bearing false witness) of my neighbour. If we want light and not just heat, then we need to pay attention to this.

This is the text of an article commissioned by the Church Times and published last Thursday. I have been asked why I don’t target Jeremy Corbyn – the simple answer is that he is not the Prime Minister. Secondly, the article is not primarily about Boris Johnson, but about the future of our political discourse and the consequences of accepting that unethical language is to be normalised. It is a question rather than a statement.

The last couple of weeks have been extraordinary. A new Prime Minister, elected only by a miniscule minority of the electorate, loses his first vote in the House of Commons, threatens an election he has no power to call (without the assent of two thirds of the House), removes the party whip from 21 MPs. Democracy at work? Genius strategic thinking? Or a dog’s breakfast of political vindictiveness at a time of national crisis?

What we know is this: the Prime Minister is determined to come over as a strong leader. He talks tough, although seems not to realise that the people he speaks toughly about can all hear him. In the EU and further afield the astonishment no longer has anything to do with the referendum decision to leave the EU, but everything to do with the chaotic and destructive incompetence of the process since 2016. I think ‘incredulity’ is the word to describe competent onlookers who once respected the Mother of Parliaments.

We can probably predict with confidence that a general election will be held before too long. The terms on which that election will be fought are likely to be – certainly from the government’s perspective – “parliament versus the people”. And here we come to the heart of our problem: parliamentary sovereignty is not the same thing as national (or popular) sovereignty. If the referendum truly was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, then that aspiration went out of the window a long time ago. The two systems have clashed and we now have the impasse. We have a parliamentary (representative) system that has been compromised by a popular vote that our parliamentary representatives are now to negotiate – not as delegates or puppets, but people elected to use their judgement on our behalf about the best interests of the country and all its people.

However, the real questions facing the country go beyond and behind the apparent challenges. One way or another Parliament will resolve its current crisis. If it goes well, this will happen via parliamentary processes and decision-making. It might not go well. But, the questions that will persist well beyond the immediate are fundamental to who we think we are as a country and to who we want to become.

I’m afraid it’s about language again. And about the relationship between truth and trust, for which language is essential.

When the PM announced the proroguing of Parliament he clearly had the power to do so according to the constitution. Why? Because the uncodified constitution depends on conventions and respect for the rules of behaviour, and these conventions can be ignored or set aside. However, at what cost? Once the PM did this (having lied repeatedly about not doing it), the cat was out of the bag. If his behaviour is acceptable, what happens when a far left PM decides “in order to get the job done” to suspend Parliament at will? The constitution is only as strong as the respect shown it by all parties; it must be sustainable in all circumstances, regardless of who holds the keys to Number 10.

I used the word “lied” – a strong accusation. But, the question about the PM is how anything he says can be trusted when he has lied and misrepresented so much. Leaving the red bus to one side (and his colleagues’ claims about “the easiest deal in history”), the latest was the deliberate confusing of “proroguing” with “recess”. Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess, so what’s the fuss about? Well, the fuss is because in recess all the work of Parliament continues; after prorogation it ceases completely. They are not the same, and there is a democratic deficit in deliberately talking as if they are.

So, to echo Pontius Pilate’s question (which Jesus left him to answer for himself), what is truth? If we are close to getting a deal, why do those with whom we are supposedly negotiating apparently not recall the negotiations?  Are we totally resistant to looking through the eyes of our neighbours at who we are?

If the language of “getting Brexit done” is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this is “the easy bit”? Brexit will not be “done” by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bot will be over, but then the decades-long hard slog of re-relating will begin – and how well is that likely to go when we have demonstrated that we can’t be trusted?

Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the PM of “bullying, lies and manipulation”? What place do we give to ethics, honesty and integrity? Or doesn’t it matter?

None of this is new. These questions have been raised again and again during the last four years, but they have largely been ignored. They will demand a response at some point.

Let’s look at it this way: if the country finds it pragmatically acceptable that lying, manipulation and misrepresentation are acceptable in public life and political discourse, then we will need to look at the consequences of this.

Essentially, what we have seen in the current political tactics is a decision to enshrine utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. But, if we are to be consistent, we must allow that in the future the same ethic might apply and we will have little ground for objection. Is that acceptable morally or politically? If we think it is, then we must own up to the consequences for how democracy might run in the future when “getting the job done” is all it takes to justify playing fast and loose with the rules.

Allied to this is the fact that, as I articulated in the House of Lords a couple of years ago, lying has become normalised and our discourse corrupted. Maybe it is the loss of shame as a social check that lies at the root of this. There is an argument that once shame is removed and any social sanction discarded, we can lie with impunity … because as long as we achieve our end – obtaining and holding on to power – the lies we tell in order to get there simply don’t matter.

Or hypocrisy? How is trust in politics or in politicians to be recovered when five leading members of the government swear blind that they would not agree to the proroguing of Parliament and, within a month or two, (a) agree to it and (b) refuse to justify or explain that turnaround in public? It is possible that there is a strong and clear ethical justification for a change of mind; but, in public leadership there should be a right for the public to hear it. Otherwise, we are saying that commitments made in public that help shape the approval of an electorate can be discarded once inconvenient, and that’s OK. Is it?

Truth-telling lies at the heart of public trust in our institutions. And trust is a casualty of lying or misrepresentation (the point of the ninth commandment). Take the focus off the current spate of deliberate lying (proroguing is not the same as recess, and those justifying it as “adding just a few days to it” know they are lying) and it isn’t hard to see that the future of our politics will be shaped by what we agree is acceptable now.

These questions are not partisan. The answers to them will shape our political culture for decades to come. Once integrity has been diminished as an essential element of democratic discourse and behaviour, it won’t be long before we reap the fruit of our moral contempt.

Last night I delivered the Harold Wilson Lecture at the University of Huddersfield. The theme was ‘The Will of the People?’ and was followed by some very good questions which both amplified and challenged my text. It was long, so the bets way to access it is to click on the link and then the further link you will find there.

Having returned on Thursday evening from Sudan I left agin in the early hours of Saturday for Jena in Germany. This forms the real beginning of my sabbatical leave and gives the opportunity to read, write, think, meet people and, most importantly, gain a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything. Somehow, being outside the UK, looking through a different lens and listening through a different language and culture, helps to make space for (what I think I want to call) newly refracted lines of looking, seeing and reflecting.

I am staying with a friend who is a professor in the Theologische Fakultät at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena. This is where Hegel taught, and where Schiller met Goethe. Martin Luther spent time here, too. And it is the place where I have already come across thinkers I hadn’t encountered before.

I have on the table before me six books by Manfred Josuttis. Six of them are books of sermons, but it is the title of the other one that grabbed me: ‘Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht’ (‘Peter, the Church and Damned Power’). I am about to start reading it – and, yes, I probably should have read it before writing about it – but it was the title that arrested my attention. Jesus promised to build his church on the rock that was Peter, but the rock turned out to be more limestone than granite. Power might be damnable, but it is unavoidable in the real world … and that means in the real church. The question is: how do we handle power and in whose interests is power exercised?

Although it is good to be away from the UK for a time, the UK does not disappear. Nor does Brexit. Nor does the complex interplay of truth, power, victimhood and exploitation. If Brexit is bringing out the worst in us Brits, Germany is facing challenges with the Alternative für Deutschland and similar abuse of truth, fact and reality. Wherever we see this phenomenon – it is tempting just to shorthand it with the word ‘Trumpian’ – danger lies in waiting.

I recognise that this is a tenuous link, but Jesus’s friend Peter had to undergo a dreadful, world-shattering loss of personal illusion and confidence. After his denial of even knowing Jesus (just prior to the crucifixion), Peter watched his illusions of  brave new world bleed real blood into the dirt of Calvary. He had to live through the emptiness of Saturday … only to find himself bewildered by the events of Easter Day. Subsequently, he was compelled to wrestle with the other friends of Jesus, with public authorities and political leaders, and with questions of how to lead and shape a church made up of people like and unlike himself. If he didn’t welcome power, he certainly had to face responsibility, costly choices, personality clashes and hard decisions that were bound to divide as well as unite.

So it is with politics. Power – to be exercised with responsibility and humility in the interests of the common good – is a hard business. Decisions will always disappoint someone. Leadership can be very lonely, even in the best of teams. But, it always exposes the truth about character. Our handling of power displays the reality of our character. If we merely resort to lies, game-playing and manipulation in the service of ideology, then the truth about our character, virtue and motivation will become evident quickly. And this, I suggest, is worrying. For, the evidence shows that I am usually the last person to see what everybody else sees quickly and clearly.

Looking at the news from a distance, and seeing it through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, it is evident that we in Britain cannot see how we are being perceived from outside. The news that Nissan will not be investing further in Sunderland is terrible; but, the executive who is reported to have said privately that no one is going to be investing in Britain because we are now toxic (or words to that effect) has put his/her finger on the true cost of Brexit for the UK. Regardless of whether I want or do not want Brexit, the process and the people who have been prominent in it have shown that we are a people who are limited in our insight, still maintain dreams of empire, cannot face reality, like to hear what we want to hear (regardless of facts), and cannot be trusted to be competence. If counterparts in EU countries initially couldn’t believe our decision to leave the EU, they have long past that and are now incredulous about our sheer incompetence as a parliamentary democracy.

I can understand the ideological commitment to leave the EU. Questions of sovereignty, EU values and the bureaucratic machine in Brussels and Strasbourg make some sense to those who want some semblance of independence as a nation state. But, this commitment has to be earthed in relationships, processes, agreements, and future-orientated realities. Wanting to “get out” without paying attention to how to do it (and at what cost) is both ridiculous and dangerous. So, we see rich and powerful people leading the charge, making promises to which they will not be held, and knowing that they will not suffer at all if it all goes wrong for the UK. Poor people in challenging communities will pay the price – as they have been doing during the so-called ‘austerity years’ – and the powerful will exercise their power by maximising and protecting their own benefits … all while blaming everyone else for the ills that follow. We can’t all take our businesses to Singapore or Ireland.

Brexit will bring disillusionment – probably on all sides. Brexit won’t lead to economic or social nirvana for Leavers, and Remainers will continue to resist its consequences. Just as Faragistes never accepted the decision to join (what became) the EU, so many will immediately start the campaign to rejoin the EU one day. Brexit has not, could not and will not resolve the issue on these islands. But, it has exposed our deeper divisions (many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or the EU), the poverty of our political culture (how can Labour still be six points behind the Tories in today’s polling?), the weakness of our national character, and our willingness to tell, hear and believe lies.

To return to Peter, his process of disillusionment was bitter, but necessary. Only by going through this and facing the truth about his own self could he grow to be the limestone leader he later became. In this sense, he bids us to do the same collectively: to grow up, lose our need to big ourselves up, see ourselves as we are seen from the outside, and value truth above illusion. The power – however damned – for this lies with us, and we can’t blame anyone else (Tories, Jeremy Corbyn, the EU) if we decline to use it.

I was asked to preach in chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge, on ‘Populism’ in a series of sermons on ‘Thinking Allowed’. The readings were from Exodus 32:1-9 and Matthew 27:15-26. Here it is:

It’s easy to laugh, isn’t it? A primitive people, out in the desert en route from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt towards a land of promise. Their leader, who had a habit of being somewhat singleminded when it comes to how things should be done, disappeared up a mountain for a while; and, because he didn’t come back down immediately, the people found a more emollient leader who gave them what they wanted: a golden calf to worship. So, that was quick and easy. All they had experienced, all they had learned … and they threw it away in an instant. You have to read the whole book to see that this isn’t a rare experience.

Jesus has proved to be good news to some and very bad news to others. So, when those whose security is threatened by the man from Galilee finally get him before a judge, they know how to whip up the crowd – presumably including those who have seen the transformative things Jesus has done – and “Crucify him” wins the day.

Populism isn’t new; nor are those features of it with which we are becoming more familiar in Europe and beyond today. Human beings don’t really change. Technological sophistication and great learning do not necessarily make us morally stronger or more virtuous. As the Bishop of Hannover made clear in Ripon Cathedral on Remembrance Day, civilisation is thin, order is fragile, and chaos waits for a crack to appear. And when it does, emotional appeal trumps rational argument.

One of the books that made a deep impression on me when I was a student of German politics was called Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb. It was written by Richard Gutteridge and detailed the failure of the German churches to offer opposition to the rise of Hitler in Weimar Germany. It is a painful read … and, like Christopher Clark’s great book on the origins of the First World War, Sleepwalkers, demonstrates how easily people are moved to do and defend terrible things, and how intimidating it is to oppose the powerful mass. But, it also cries out with the Christian need for courage in giving a voice to the voiceless and defying the agencies of violence, destruction and death.

If you find yourself in Berlin, visit the relatively new Topography of Terror museum (built on the site of the Nazi’s Gestapo HQ) and see how it depicts the slow disintegration of civil society as virtues are compromised bit by bit under the chipping away by the populist language and action of people who were good with words and symbols.

Is popular affection always a bad thing? No, of course not. But the word ‘populism’ is normally associated with a negative expression of popular will and the forces that generate division and fear. And it is a word much used and much debated at present – but, it seems to me, only by liberals. As I read somewhere recently: “Populism can sometimes sound like the name that disconcerted liberals give to the kind of politics in which ordinary people don’t do what liberals tell them.”

Well, you decide if that is fair or not. But, while you are doing so, a massive amount of money and effort is being spent by people like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, the AfD in Germany, and many other movements in Europe that seek to answer complex questions with simplistic solutions (“Take back control”; “Drain the swamp”; “Islam or freedom?”; and so on). Language is key, fear is fundamental, hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.

Now, we could spend all evening exploring the 2008 global financial crash and its consequences – the apparent lack of accountability on the part of those who caused it and went unpunished, for example – but we don’t have time. We must be satisfied with a few statements which we can argue about later, but will serve here as a shorthand for our reflections just now. Here goes:

  • The language of populism assumes that society is divided between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ (noble, innocent, hard done to and pure) and, on the other hand, ‘the elite’ (corrupt, greedy, unaccountable, ignorant of life on the ground, detached from most people’s reality) – and the elite are always ‘the others’.
  • Populism feeds, and feeds off, emotion, not rational analysis.
  • Populism is more about style than substance – feeling rather than policies.
  • Populist leaders claim the ‘will of the people’ and quickly disregard democratic norms on the grounds that we are in crisis. Disruption is the name of the game: fearmongering, the promotion of conspiracy theories, the undermining of trust (in, for example, media and institutions).
  • Populism generates a culture of victimhood and diminishes resilience.

As our readings this evening have illustrated, the challenges of destructive populism are not new. In a new book (Confronting Religious Violence) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: to gain traction “populism has to identify an enemy”. It then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of the enemy, using language to dehumanise or disrupt. Years before the onset of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke recognised that abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ had the power to move people without enlightening them. Words shape actions – and populists assert by slogan, use street language instead of careful and polite analysis, and corrupt the public discourse with language that defies definition, but hits at the heart of popular emotion.

And here we can move on to think about what the Christian tradition might have to say in our day … in a culture that confuses patriotism with nationalism (see Emmanuel Macron on Sunday) and reduces the public discourse to the trading of competing slogans devoid of substantive vision. As Adrian Pabst wrote in a recent edition of the New Statesman: “The populist insurgency sweeping the West reveals a lack of moral purpose among the main political forces… At present, none of the three main traditions offers a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning.”

Now, it could be argued that the Christian tradition in the West has lost its roots. The irony in the USA hardly needs spelling out: three years ago it was thought impossible that anyone could be elected to the Presidency if he or she had been divorced or was an atheist. The Evangelical Right didn’t let that stand in the way of Trump. Here in Europe Christian identity has been appropriated by political movements and associated with a narrow nationalism that threatens to cut it off from a founder who said that we should love (even) our enemy, serve and not be served, wash the feet of the undeserving, and set free those captive to hopelessness, rejection and fear.

The Moses who stayed too long up the mountain in our first reading is the same Moses who had insisted that the land of promise must also be a land of generosity and justice. According to Deuteronomy 26, the people must bring to the priest the first 10% of their harvest and recite a creed that reminded them of their nomadic and dependent origins. Furthermore, they must leave the 10% around the edge of their field so that there would be something for the homeless, the hungry, the migrants and the travellers. The same Jesus they crucified in our second reading is the one who had opened his mouth for those who had no voice and no dignity, and met the populist bloodthirstiness with a bold silence that turned the judge into the judged.

A Christian response to populism (in the negative terms I have used for the purposes of this reflection) must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God and must not be categorised, dehumanised or relativized by language that leads to violence or rejection. But, Christian discipleship goes further – as I will illustrate briefly.

For ten years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at some global interfaith conferences. They did my head in. The greatest aspiration was “mutual tolerance” – particularly on the part of politicians who wanted to anaesthetise potential religious fervour (on the assumption that religions were problematic, basically all the same, but encouraged different dress and diets). Of course, they thought their own worldview was neutral and self-evidently true. Anyway, I grew to loathe the word ‘tolerance’. To tolerate someone need not involve any investment in understanding or empathising with them – the attempt to look through their eyes, hear through their ears or feel through their skin. I got bored repeating the same line year in year out: Christians are called to go beyond tolerance to love.

Now, this is the easy bit. It is easy to ask people to imitate Jesus and love their enemy as well as their friend. It’s just quite hard to do. But, unless we are to be like the German Christians seduced into an elision between the Kingdom of God and the Reich of Adolf Hitler, we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society that need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice and humaneness) and identify and challenge those that are destructive. Christians are called to be realists, not fantasists – loving truth (even when it is hard to discern but important to plug away at) and resisting lies, misrepresentation, manipulation and subterfuge. Lovers of light and not colluders with darkness.

This means resisting the dualisms being propagated whereby you have to be on one side of a debate or the other, but from which any nuance or subtlety or complexity is expunged. It means creating space for encounter and conversation when it seems that everyone is lobbing grenades from the trenches. It means refusing to accept the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options.

Practically and as a priority, however, we can pay attention to the language we use in shaping the discourse in a collapsing society. I lead for the bishops in the House of Lords on Europe, so have spent a considerable amount of time on Brexit and the fierce debates in Parliament. I have repeatedly pleaded for our legislature to watch its language and do something to redeem our articulated common life. Everyone agrees, then promptly revert to the categorising and mudslinging. I could illustrate this at length.

But, the Christian tradition has something more to offer in these current dangerous circumstances of division and insecurity and growing fear: hope.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs is often quoted: “Without a vision the people perish.” So, what is the vision being offered to the people of our islands, for example, as we prepare to leave the European Union? (Or not. Who knows?) And, if we have a vision, how is it to be expressed? For, if the devil has all the good music, the populists have all the good slogans. The Brexit debate is not about political vision or substance; it is not rational or about reality – just look at the actual consequences already; it is visceral and emotional. Poor people might well get considerably poorer, but many would still vote to leave, anyway.

But, Christians are not driven by fear; we are drawn by hope. A hope that comes to us from the future – resurrection. It is a hope that should not be confused with fantasy. It commits to the life of the present – in all its complexity and muckiness – but refuses to see the present reality as the end or the ultimate. It takes a long-term view with a reckless courage that even dares to sing the songs of Yahweh while sitting in exile on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, being mocked by those whose vision is short. It is a hope that sees ‘now’ in the light of eternity and declines to build – let alone worship – golden calves. It is a hope that, in the face of baying crowds, will still cry out for justice. It is a hope that knows what will be whispered at Christmas: “The light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

There is a desperate need for a younger generation to find the language for a new narrative for our politics and our common life here and in the world. A new narrative rooted in the old story … of God and his people, of the apparent bloody failure of a cross planted in a rubbish tip, and of the haunting whisper of a song of resurrection. It might take some time and we might fail a million times. But, we know there is more to be said before the conversation ends.

Maybe our slogan ought to be: “Let there be light”.

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