Should we sympathise with Dominic Cummings?

On Saturday May 23rd news broke that Dominic Cummings (Boris Johnson’s chief of staff) had allegedly broke the lockdown rules to visit his parents in Durham.   Over the day, the story changed several times. The explanation was given that he went because he and his wife were beginning o show symptoms of COVID-19 and that he and his wife wanted to be near family for child-care if needed. Cummings himself then clarified in his statement that they had stayed in a separate house on the land and that it was his sister, not his elderly parents who had volunteered for child care if necessary.  He claimed that they had stayed self-isolated at all times.  By then end of Saturday, people were claiming that he had made at least one further visit during lockdown and had been seen outside.

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of Cummings actions at this stage or the consequences though I’ll probably return to a couple of more detailed articles later. You will recall that I did not think that Professor Neil Ferguson should resign from the SAGE committee though I think that the issues relating to Cummings and the nature of his role do differ and in his case, I think that if he did break the spirit and letter of the rules, that he should be removed from his position but we can come back to that.

Rather, at this stage, I want to pick up on something John Stevens (FIEC National Director) said in a twitter post and a reaction to it.

Here’s John Steven’s tweet

And here’s the response.

The question then, is whether or not we can have sympathy for those who do wrong. I think that the reason why we instinctively want to say that we have no sympathy is that we fear that this will lead to a softening of our response to wrongdoing. Sympathy to someone’s circumstances may lead to excusing or even justifying their misdemeanour.

Yet, sympathy does not have to excuse. I think it is perfectly possible to say that we sympathise with Cummings and his wife. You don’t have to be a parent to get a feel for how distressing and worrying it will be for someone to begin suffering the affects of a potentially debilitating illness and have the anxiety of what will happen to their children if they are unable to care for them. This is a real anxiety for a number of single parent families within our community  We can sympathise with his circumstances but still conclude that he took the wrong course of action.

This is important for pastoral care.  Week in, week out in normal time we are working with people who have got into a mess. At Sunday Night Church we often get visits from people living in local hostels or even rough. Quite a few of them have drug and alcohol addictions, several have been through prison and some are involved in prostitution.

When you hear their stories, you discover that they have often ended up where they are through horrendous circumstances and some bad decisions. Some have been victims of serious abuse since childhood within their own families, others have had mental health issues and sometimes these had not been effectively diagnosed in time. If we do not have some sympathy both to their current plight and to the circumstances that got them to where they are, we would be lacking in something essential to pastoral care and I doubt that we would have permission to bring God’s word into their lives.  However, if our sympathy and compassion clouded our judgement so that we were not able to bring God’s word to them in order that they might see their sin and repent then I believe that we would also be lacking in pastoral ability and would be failing to show true compassion too.

Similarly, I can sympathise with the loneliness that might lead to someone forming an inappropriate relationship, for example a Christian beginning to date a non -Christian. I may sympathise with them when they end up pregnant outside of marriage and that pregnancy and the arrival of a child brings additional challenges into their life. Indeed, as a church we can love them, seek to help them practically and help to care for the child. However, that sympathy and care does not have to lead to approval of wrong-doing. We can show sympathy, compassion and care alongside a clear gospel challenge to repent from sin. Sympathy and compassion, further, should not prevent us from exercising loving church discipline when a church member falls into sin and will not repent. You see, exercised appropriately, church discipline is intended to prevent someone from carrying on blindly in sin through a false assurance of their standing with God. Church discipline is intended to restore someone to fellowship. Church discipline is intended to act as a warning to someone who may be part of a church but lack living faith to bring them to the Gospel so that they may be truly saved and escape eternal judgement.

It is possible and a good thing that we can have a natural instinct that leads to sympathy for others. I hope we do not lose that instinct. At the same time, sympathy should not prevent us from challenging sin, calling people to repentance and bringing them to the Gospel.

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