It is rare to get unity amongst bishops. So what prompted an outbreak of unity this week? Was it a join statement of the good news of the Gospel, maybe they stepped up to do their own version of The Blessing video (now that would be something worth going viral)? Maybe they had met urgently to respond to some false teaching.
Actually as it turns out, unity had been caused by that story we are desperately trying and failing to escape, whether or not Dominic Cummings did wrong. The bishops agreed that Cummings had broken the rules and so should face appropriate justice. This prompted different responses. For some, the bishops speaking out with one voice was a good thing as they spoke for justice. For other this was terrible evidence of lefty bias amongst the episcopate.
Now, the opinion of bishops doesn’t exercise me much. I’m not sure that they do have a particularly prominent position in public life these days and to be fair, if our national church leadership swings a little to the left, that can’t be too bad a thing if it balances out the swing to the religious right in America. I personally would rather that our church leaders were challenging a government to show more heart and care for the poor than to hear them defending and insisting we vote for someone with a track record of causing offence.!
However something stood out which troubled me as I read the responses from the Bishops. It stood out not because it was so unusual but because it was very usual and once again to be absolutely clear reflects attitudes across the political spectrum within Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic.
The response was to someone complaining about the lefty bishops and was to the effect that we should not be surprised by the fact that genuine Christians lean left, after all they are following the teachings of Jesus to be loving tolerant and kind. I challenged them about this. Is it really true that one political stream has an effective monopoly on love they became even more defiant. You could not claim to be compassionate and charitable whilst supporting a party committed to culling the disabled and the vulnerable. And of course it was no surprise that as a white, middle class, straight, cis-gendered, able bodied person who had never had to challenge the government in court that I was challenging them.
I don’t really want to get into the last bit except to note that the person very quickly identified themselves a victim. I just want to highlight here of things about the conversation.
- On just a basic observational level, the assumption was there that if you politically leaned towards one end of the spectrum you therefore supported a particular party and all their policies. The possibility that you might be on the left but not vote Labour and be unhappy with some left wing and liberal policies wasn’t considered – or that people who consider themselves centre -right may oppose aspects of Conservative policy and may well have felt unable to support them at the last General Election.
- That it is not possible to agree on desirable outcomes without also agreeing on means. If you believe that the hungry should be fed, the poor helped and the sick healed then you must agree that this can only be achieved by higher taxes and a full welfare State.
However, the bigger concern was this. The person had been very quick to write off a lot of people, a lot of fellow Christians on the basis that they belonged to the wrong political camp. They also made it stridently clear that if you did not have the right identity characteristics then your views were of less value. The less able I was to present myself as a victim the less right I had to speak. All the time, the person insisted that despite their harsh judgementalism that they were in fact loving and non-judgemental. The basis for this was not that they had done anything to prove that they were loving and kind but because they had declared that they valued love which to me has about as valuable as Dominic Cummings announcing his great love for the European integration and George Bush expressing his commitment to peace in the Middle East.
How could they justify this. Well the logic seemed to go “
- Some Tory Government policies have caused harm
- Therefore the Tories must be intentionally committed to harming people and killing
- Therefore anyone who fails to completely condemn the Tories must support harming, murdering and culling the innocent
- Therefore those people are unworthy of compassion and love because those qualities are reserved for those I deem to be worthy.
That’s the problem with that level of tribal politics. We manage to define those who disagree with us as “not my neighbour.” We dehumanise them.
Now, in the UK, it is the left that manages to hold the moral high ground on ethical issues but that isn’t always the case. Indeed the suggestion that Christians will naturally swing left is a particularly Euro-centric view of the World.
Head West and you will end up in the States, where guess what, roles are reversed. There, anyone considered slightly to the left (and lets face it that probably includes John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron and maybe even Theresa May) is labelled as practically a Communist. Socialism as seen as a great evil and concern for issues such as racial justice or gender equality have become part of the culture wars and seen as part of an assault on God and the Bible.
I know that this really frustrates friends who identify as on the left in the UK because they are treated with suspicion. Again, there is the sense that anyone outside of my tribe who does not think like me, speak like me, vote like me is beneath contempt and lacking in God’s image. If you voted Democrat in 2016, the possibility that you simply could not stomach Donald Trumps outrageous sexist behaviour and self-centred egotism doesn’t bare consideration. No, it must prove that you are an abortion supporting, Commie who wants to nationalise everything and make gay marriage compulsory.
The reality is that we will all naturally incline either to the left or the right on politics. This might be affected by our upbringing, experience of different Governments, things we have reasoned through, just a gut feeling or a mixture of all. And that should be okay. It is alright to disagree on politics. Some of my best friends, closest brothers and sisters and those I often find myself most in agreement with about aims and motives happen to come from the opposite spectrum of the political divide. It is possible to love across the divides!
You see, we are finite and human. This means that even whilst we desire to do good, we can get things wrong and sometimes our motives won’t be right either. This means that political parties in power can do both good and harm. The same government that is creating a hostile environment for asylum seekers can at the same time be seeking to put protections in place for victims of domestic abuse. The same government that took us into war with Iraq also brought in a minimum wage. Governments are not perfect. Only Jesus is perfect and only his Gospel can truly bring help, healing and restoration without harm.
Why not get to know someone you disagree with politically. They might just surprise you.
 Although it is worth noting that countries with politics traditionally to the left of the UK do not always follow the same welfare models in terms of benefits and free at the point of delivery nationalised health care.