This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

I was once in the foreign ministry of another country asking hard questions of the deputy foreign minister. He was a little evasive and so we pushed harder on how a particularly challenging situation might be addressed, if not resolved. Eventually, he stood up, banged his fist on the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

Fair point, I thought.

And it’s not a bad image to hold onto during the current uncertainties. It is hard to spot the light when the bends shorten our vision.

But, today we celebrate the birthday – and, with remarkable symmetry, the death day – of someone who looked at his ‘now’ with a vision that has spanned centuries. William Shakespeare developed characters who couldn’t always see around the next bend or whose light turned out to be a source of violence rather than illumination. Think, for example, of Macbeth whose “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” blinds him to the tragedy he has already set in train.

But, Shakespeare was a genius at imparting wisdom subversively. He never dumps moralising aphorisms on his audience. Rather, he lets the drama roll on, the language surprise, and the characters reflect back to the audience the truths about human nature and society that sometimes are uncomfortable to acknowledge. And he often does this while making us laugh.

Which makes Shakespeare a man for the moment. Steeped in the language of the Bible, he delved into the messy realities of human motivation and choices. His characters are never one-dimensional. And they pose questions four hundred years later that are pertinent as we look now to the post-pandemic future. Which motivations are noble and need to be held onto as we shape a different future? How, as the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures illustrates, might we as a society not lose sight of the gains and gifts this crisis has offered: togetherness, social solidarity, care for the marginalised, self-sacrifice, valuing people and jobs differently?

None of this is abstract. It invites a conversation – an argument, even – about how we want to be. I remember a business leader once telling me that the most important person in his business was the cleaner who had his office ready for him every morning. I asked if the cleaner’s remuneration reflected this value, but got no answer.

So, as some parts of the world now enter the maelstrom of infection and others think about emerging from the worst experience, the light at the end of the tunnel invites both hopefulness and realism about the nature of the task ahead.

This is the basic text of a lecture given at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday 16 February 2020, followed by a Q&A and a sermon (at Choral Evensong) on Revelation 4.

Introductory survey

”The world isn’t working. Things are unravelling, and most of us know it.” So begins the Introduction to Jim Wallis’s book The Soul of Politics. He goes on: “Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual.” He then cites Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice.

When did Wallis write this? 1994 – twenty six years ago when Bill Clinton was US President, John Major was Prime Minister, Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor, Mandela was elected as President of South Africa and, while the world was horrified by the Rwandan massacre, the Balkans reminded us that ethnic wipe-outs were not just the stuff of European history. The blurb on the back of the book helpfully says: “As the acquisitive eighties are left behind and we bask in the idea of the more ‘caring’ nineties, Jim Wallis’ book is both a sharp reminder of cold reality and an encouraging manifesto for change.” Remember the ‘caring’ nineties? They came before the nervous noughties and austerity teens, leading us into the world of Trump and Johnson, fake news and unaccountable demagoguery, brazen lying and morality-free manipulation of people and facts.

Well, in my own lifetime I have seen the colour of politics change. The ravages of the Second World War were even to be seen in the buildings and bombsites of Liverpool in the sixties when I went to school. The seventies saw battles for the economic life of this country, leading eventually to Thatcherism and the radical reordering – some would call it destruction – of many communities in the wake of social and economic engineering. And all this was going on while the bipolar world threatened nuclear war and global extinction – the Cold War turning into a very Hot War, as it were. Proxy wars were fought around the world as Right and Left, Capitalism and Communism, fought their corner in places where weapons were the most powerful currency. The eighties ended with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, leaving a supposedly monopolar world in which liberal free-market Capitalism led an uncontested procession through financial deregulation, globalism and optimism (unless, of course, you lived somewhere that paid the price for all these marvellous benefits to the wealthy West).

The ‘caring’ nineties ended in Blairite optimism, facing a new millennium in which the planet could see only growth, peace and liberal ascendancy. 9/11 put an end to all that. The Twin Towers, almost a visual symbol of the dollar sign itself, collapsed under attack from a form of Islamism of which the world was largely ignorant (despite Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and other riven countries) and for which the world was unprepared. Assumptions about the inevitability of liberal domination bled into the dust of New York, provoking an awakening awareness of what was going on in the shadows. Economic globalism opened the windows to globalised terrorism and experiences of brutality that most civilised people thought had gone out with the Romans – or, at least, with the horrors of the twentieth century and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots. Extremist politics began to breathe the fresh air of societies unprepared for the challenges of a brave new world in which migration, once seen in Europe as an economic necessity, turned into a mass movement of people driven by fear to escape oppression, bloody conflict and violence.

At the beginning of the new decade we see the Far Right rising in both west and east, re-running Weimar in an age desperate for nostalgic certainties, but forgetful of how democracies were undermined less than a century ago by demagogues who loved power more than truth, morality or integrity. Brexit has exposed much that we might have preferred to keep hidden beneath the complacent skin of a Europe that assumed its liberal credentials without ever really checking them. Nationalisms are growing, language is being corrupted, lies are deemed acceptable, and, in the USA, people who would have damned Obama for kissing the wrong woman excuse the amorality, stupidity, recklessness and incompetence of Donald Trump (who will probably get re-elected in November). I have said enough elsewhere about Brexit, Boris Johnson, the public discourse and the triumph of slogan over truth.

Where we are now

But, contemporary politics in the UK and wider western world face other challenges. The legitimacy of electoral systems, assumed until very recently to guarantee security and democratic accountability, is now being questioned. A referendum seemed a reasonable mechanism to use in gauging the mood of a nation until, too late, we realised that it has little or no place in a system of parliamentary democracy in which representatives (not delegates) are elected to make decisions together on our behalf. The stability of German political life is currently strained by the presence in both the Bundestag and state parliaments of the Far Right pro-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland – now evoking memories of Weimar: they are getting into power by electoral means, but their manifesto is one that, once in power, will undermine the very democracy that allowed them to be there in the first place. (As I discussed in a sermon in autumn 2019 at Manchester Cathedral for the start of the new legal year, democracy depends not on the rule of law, but the rule of good law.)

The 2019 general election in the UK made clear that, for now at least, old tribal identities and loyalties have been replaced by new alliances around eclectic identities and affections, often based on false associations. As I have said more than once in the House of Lords, the surgery of Brexit will not address the disease that ostensibly caused people to vote for it: most complaints about the EU had little or nothing to do with membership of the EU, but everything to do with Westminster, austerity (a choice of the UK government without any interference by Brussels) and metropolitical complacency. Wealthy Old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated professionals, immune from any economic consequences of a bad Brexit, persuaded the rest of us that other people were the ‘elite’ ‘establishment’. How did that happen?

Behind this lies a feature of political life that certainly isn’t new. Those profiting now from the reordering of political life and discourse are those who know how to disrupt, cause chaos, kick the furniture around. While everyone else is either distracted or disorientated the disruptors exploit the chaos, capitalise on the collapse, and then proclaim themselves as the saviours from the chaos they caused, but for which they take no responsibility. Trump, Cummings, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban: I could go on.

Well, that’s all pretty miserable, isn’t it? And that is only a rather selective thumbnail sketch of where we are and how we got here. Others will see it differently and describe where we have got to as progress. And that is a debate for another time and another place. For today, however, I want to pose questions about the nature of good politics, healthy discourse, and accountable power.

Politics

Politics is simply the discourse of our public life – our common life. Bring two human beings together and you have politics: potentially two different perspectives, two understandings of what matters and what should be done, two parties to a power relationship, and so on. The negotiation of a common life and ordering of how we live is the stuff and raison d’etre of politics. It has to do with people, priorities and principles, praxis, personalities and power. (So many ‘p’s.) Rowan Williams puts it like this in his introduction to an excellent book edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin and entitled ‘God and Government’ (SPCK, 2009): “… if God’s purpose for humanity is a common purpose, not just a set of individual blueprints for escape from a disaster area, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable.”

This is why the rather tedious protestations that religious leaders should keep out of politics is so absurd as to defy rational discussion. (The establishment by law of the Church of England and the place of bishops in the House of Lords are up for debate, but in a completely different category: that of political ordering and democratic accountability.) Speaking for myself, Christian commitment is about human flourishing (the kingdom of God) rooted in a theological anthropology that holds sacred the infinite value of every human being and the need for mutual sacrifice in costly love in the interest of the common good for all in a particular society. Good politics, in this sense, places people and their essential dignity at the heart of the discourse. Made in the image of God. If politics is about people, it is hard to see how religion can have nothing to do with it. If religion is about people, it is hard to see how it can have nothing to do with politics.

You might be wondering where the title of this lecture came from. ‘Waiting for a Miracle‘ is the title of a 1987 song and album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It recognises that people keep plugging away at making the world more just and more generous, but all the while waiting for a miracle. The task seems both endless and unachievable. The powermongers keep winning out. Like the lament of the Psalmists and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, we long for heaven while being chained to earth where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the weak under the boot of the powerful, the meek in the shadow of the self-interested. But, waiting for a miracle – or someone else to ‘do something’ is an abdication of responsibility on the part of a citizen whose citizenship brings both privilege and obligation.

I remember a number of conversations with Zimbabweans during a visit to that beautiful country over a decade ago. Inflation was around 10,000%, the secret police were everywhere, there was no water in the city of Gweru (all four pumps into the city had broken beyond repair), food was scarce, and social infrastructure was in a state of collapse. And there was real fear. In addition to those who wanted me to give them a job in London (where I was serving as the Bishop of Croydon), others also suggested that “someone must shoot the President”. “We hope there will be change.” I would ask how this hope might be realised and received the same reply: “We pray that God will do something.” I would ask how they might be the answer to their own prayer – not in shooting the President, but in organising and acting to get him out. Somehow. No answer.

Now, I would never be critical of those who live in constant danger and for whom opposition can be hugely costly. My point is simply that hoping and praying should accompany action, not replace it. Citizenship brings responsibility and accountability and that inevitably has political expression because it involves the ordering of society, shaping it for the common good, and the promotion and defence of human flourishing. So, create the miracle, by all means, but don’t just hang around waiting for it. Work at it and for it, but with the patience of waiting.

Wisdom and faith

So, why speak of wisdom and faith in the same sentence as politics?

Well, as I touched on earlier, there is an oft-repeated expression in our society and media of the charge that Christians should stay out of politics – as if neutrality was ever a possibility. I have rehearsed this argument too many times before, so I am not going to flog it again now. But, there is no such thing as a neutral voice and there is no neutral space. Everyone comes at life and politics from a particular perspective, with a particular world view and associated values, and with particular interests at heart. A secular world view is no more neutral than a religious one. (This is something tackled head on, among others, by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga as far back as the 1960s.)

Wisdom is something we derive from history and from experience. It comes from deep learning and the humility to admit the provisionality of knowledge. Wisdom depersonalises politics, seeks to understand both the polis and the populace, identifies where (and upon which values) integrity lies, discerns which moral framework cannot be negotiated away amid the pragmatic claims of political debate, and informs the reflective conscience that keeps hubris in check.

Which is why faith and wisdom cannot be separated in a consideration of the political task. Because faith is what every individual and society places on certain assumptions about, for example, why people matter, what actually constitutes a good society, what integrity looks like – what I call a ‘theological anthropology’.

Let’s begin to apply some of this to the politics of today. We can start at home, especially in the light of the political behaviour emanating from Downing Street this week. I will be categorical in my language, but you might choose to differ.

Our current Prime Minister is a man who has made a living out of lying. His personal as well as political/professional life betray a set of utilitarian values that revolve around and are oriented towards his own personal ambition, power and hubris. I refer to his admitted invention of stories aimed at misrepresenting and ridiculing the European Union in the Daily Telegraph; his behaviour towards two wives and an uncertain number of children; his deliberate use of misleading language during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently; the breaking of too many promises (playing the hero before the DUP, then agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, for example); and his willing subjugation to the strategic will of his Chief-of-Staff, Dominic Cummings.

“Get Brexit Done” was always a slogan disconnected from reality, as the UK will soon find out. “Unleash the potential” assumed that potential had been leashed – and saw the new Chancellor of the Exchequer state only a week or two ago that the UK would now be able to establish freeports for the first time, ignoring the fact that we could already do so and have done so as members of the EU (until we opted out in 2012). I am not arguing here that this is a reason for not leaving the EU; just that the electorate has been repeatedly misled.

Now, why might I be singling him out? Well, basically because the political discourse, so corrupted by the whole Brexit process, has diminished the importance of truth, reality and integrity in our public life. The reshuffle saw the sacking of the one man who has actually achieved anything and who commands the respect of all sides in a deeply divided Northern Ireland – Julian Smith. Threatened by competence? Needing to surround himself with sycophants who will not challenge him? Unwilling to hear what he does not want to hear? Afraid of anyone who might be honest about the costs of policy or who does detail? Fearful of being challenged by the junior prefects? I guess we will eventually find out. But, the point here is that big words and huge ambitions do not compensate for weak character, lack of attention to detail, or the re-discovery of some magic money tree that was absent for the poorest in UK society for a decade. Promises are reneged upon; commitments are laughed off; contradictions are ignored; in a previous age, any one of these would have seen outrage across the political spectrum, action within the party, and a campaign in the media to secure a resignation.

Not any longer. We have now sold the pass by accepting that amoral, immoral and hubristic language and behaviour are acceptable if they promise to deliver on a pragmatic solution to a different problem – whatever the cost, especially to our moral or political culture. It is easy to look across the Pond and mock the Toddler in the White House, marvelling at how, for the Republicans, love of power allows them to dismiss all those things that they would have railed against in a Democratic President. Imagine if Obama had had an affair or told a lie. Remember Clinton’s impeachment. Imagine the response by evangelicals if Clinton or Obama had said something misogynistic or deliberately and openly contradicted reality? But, Trump knows he can get away with anything because morality is selective and power trumps everything else.

The point here is that these guys get away with it because we collude in it. Someone recently complained to me about a ‘culture of deference’ in the Church. I don’t buy this; I think it is a cop-out. When we resort to blaming a ‘culture’ it can only be because we are denying our responsibility as agents who create that culture. A culture is constituted by the behaviour of those involved, and their behaviour is shaped by the choices they make as to how to act – or not act – within it. Not speaking up is a decision; you can’t blame ‘the culture’.

And so it is with politics. If we still value wisdom and accept the claims to responsible action that faith both assumes and imposes, then we must take responsibility for the culture we create. So, when we are told deliberate lies by those in public office (not to be mistaken for errors of information or interpretation), we either allow it to pass – shrugging our shoulders and saying that “this is just how things are” – or we call it out and refuse to bow at this altar of shame.

This is why it is so important for a critical scrutiny to be applied to current political developments. This week’s Church Times carries a commissioned article by me on the danger to democracy and its institutions when a government with a big majority decides to control its own narrative, declining to justify or explain its policies, absenting itself from interrogation by external experts on behalf of the public. In other words, prioritising propaganda over accountability. This is a slippery slope and, if the BBC becomes a casualty of this cultural slide, it will not be for reasons of economics or the vital-but-difficult role of a publicly-funded public service broadcaster, but for reasons of political vindictiveness and a dangerous tendency by the powerful to bypass scrutiny.

Political language, assumptions about the political task, and changes to our political culture all need to be taken more seriously than they are. It is not enough for leaders to ignore challenge in these areas with either hubristic ridicule or sweeping and patronising dismissal. Passivity on the part of the governed brings its own culpability. Visit the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin if you want to revisit how civil society is so easily corrupted by a gradual ceding of territory in language, culture and courage.

Reflections

So, before concluding these provocative reflections, I want to point the way a little further into what a good, ethical politics might look like, and what the place in it of faith and wisdom might be. And I want to do this by commending three books in particular: Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’ – a series of lectures, writings and addresses, some of them easier than others; Luke Bretherton, ‘Christ and the Common Life’ – a recently-published treatment of the theme by a British theologian living and working in the United States; and, briefly, Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’.

The Christian Church has since its beginning held claims against the power of the state. Caesar was not Lord; Jesus is. What Rowan Williams calls ‘procedural secularism’ “was born because Christians insisted that a distinction must be drawn between communities that understand themselves to be faithful to a sacred power and political communities whose task is to sustain the arguments necessary to balance and manage the inevitable differences that constitute our lives.” He goes on to say, effectively that Jesus did not come announcing that the Big Society was at hand.

In other words, the Christian Church – and, particularly, the Church of England established by law – has a responsibility in a democratic society to hold on with both theological and rational confidence to its narrative of the Kingdom of God, being clear how this shapes our understanding of what is either permissible or destructive in and of our particular society. If the narrative told by those in power – that lying is acceptable, that people can be patronised and corrupted by meaningless slogans, that revenge can be taken against judges because the rule of law is to be subjugated to the rule of power, for example – clashes with the narrative of justice, mercy, integrity and accountability, then a stand must be taken.

Hence the role of the Lords Spiritual in the UK Parliament: whether welcome or not, to shine a possibly unique light on matters of our common life and, without fear or favour, to hold power to account. Not with any sense of entitlement or moral superiority, but, rather, with the confident humility that light must be shone.

(I am always struck when in the chamber of the House of Lords that I ’inhabit’ there a remarkable constitution. When (in the Queen’s Speech) the Monarch reads her Government’s legislative agenda before the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the three legs of a stable parliamentary democracy – she does so in the name of God. The three legs do their work in the name of the monarch who recognises her accountability to God. But, if she looks up, she will see the statues of the twelve barons who drafted the Magna Carta and held King John to account at Runnymede in 1215. That is the political space we inhabit, even if it is difficult to explain.)

So, for example, when we hear language or policies that reduce human beings to economic cogs in someone else’s machine, we need to pay attention and more. When we hear the world spoken of in terms that assume domination instead of dominion, exploitative control instead of accountable stewardship (especially accountability to those generations not yet born), then our voices must be raised in questioning challenge. As John Gray has pointed out (from an atheistic perspective), “The distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty… So this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.”

Remember who said: “Politics have no relation to morals”? It was Machiavelli. Enough said.

Tom Holland, whose brilliant book ‘Dominion’ describes how the morality of the western world and beyond was uniquely shaped by Christianity, despite the many devastating failures by Christians to live out their distinctive theology, quotes Zhivago’s uncle in Dr Zhivago: “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires.” As the new Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, implied in his maiden speech in the House of Commons earlier this month, the sort of wisdom that informs and shapes good politics might well be found in the past and not just in the pragmatic present. Good politics needs a good answer to a good question: what is a human being and why do we matter?

These are the matters with which Luke Bretherton wrestles in his book ‘Christ and the Common Life’. I concur with his important observation about secularism and its assumptions: “It is traditions with a cosmic imagery that have the resources to foster the plurality and sense of contingency that is necessary for a faithfully secular, democratic, common-life politics. Without them the state and market have no epistemic, social or institutional limits.”

As Bretherton says: “Sustaining a common life requires commitment to a vision of human flourishing.” Christians – Anglicans in particular – must not be shy in helping to shape that common life by conscious and deliberate engagement in political life as citizens of this world who are drawn by the demands, freedoms and obligations of their citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I came across a great line the other day. A hundred years ago GK Chesterton wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” And can you blame them, we ask?

Well, I actually have no idea if any of the greats ever expressed themselves on the matter of dairy products; but, I do know that nothing is out of bounds when it comes to words teasing the imagination and sending the mind off in directions it didn’t know were there. As I once said to Billy Ocean: “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry.”

The point of this is that some people are gifted in being able to look at the world differently – then to shine a light on it from a new direction.
We have just had a group of students from a German university staying with us in Leeds. They all study theology, but, shaped by their own experience of living not in England and emerging from a cultural memory that is coloured by a century of unspeakable violence, they look at things differently. And the gift of it all is that by looking at God and the world through their eyes – filtered through their perceptions – I get the chance to see differently. It is wonderful – as are those students.

And, believe it or not, that is the point of reading ancient texts like the Bible. You enter a different world, and then have to work hard at looking through the eyes of people from a different age and world in order to catch the glint of a glory too easily hidden behind the familiarity and busyness of ‘today’.

I have heard it said that if something is too hard to understand at first glance, then it isn’t worth bothering with. Well, I beg to disagree. Precious stones do not pop out of the ground and on to a jeweller’s display tray. Novels don’t leap effortlessly onto the page and appear in a bookshop. Wisdom does not drip from the Magic Meaning Tree, but has to be learned and dug out and refined and learned.

So, I go with the poets on this one. Nearly three thousand years ago one of them wrote: “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” I say: “Get digging.”