There are some moments when a remarkable number of events come together and point to the possibility of prophecy.
The House of Bishops’ statement on the current state of UK politics has coincided with some other events which should provoke us to much thought at the beginning of Lent. Within the Church itself, there is debate about Baptism liturgies and what we mean by the Devil and Evil. On the wider cultural scene, we have witnessed the beginning of the serialisation of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and a rather edgy Channel 4 drama on the possibilities of life under a future UKIP government, both of which highlight the very matters with which the Bishops are concerned.
For the Bishops, our political system is broken. Some of the examples which they give to illustrate this - notably the growth of inequality – have been construed by parts of the media as evidence of a left-wing agenda. Yet that hysterical reaction is itself an illustration of the point that they are making. Our society has become so polarised and atomised that it has become all but impossible to hold a serious discussion of the Common Good. Yet, unlike Russell Brand, the Bishops refuse to accept this as the last word on where society is going or could go. They call for a new and more honest political engagement.
They emphasise that people of goodwill exist, even in politics. In fact they go out of their way to say that most politicians are genuinely motivated by the common good. That assertion contrast strikingly, not only with Brand but with Rowling, nearly all of whose local politicians fit all too well into the cynical public perception.
Politics is indeed broken – and that raises questions about the prevalence of evil, and what we mean by it. We can argue about the existence of a personal Devil, or the usefulness of that symbol in baptismal liturgies. It is far harder to argue about the instinct which still leads a remarkable (and in my parish growing) number of parents to seek something for their children which they dimly perceive as a remedy for the world’s evil that looms over their children’s future..
Terms like ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ are quite contested in theology, let alone in popular culture. But the situation that the Bishops describe looks remarkably like a manifestation of evil – what used to be called structural sin. It could well be contributing to the social malaise which causes even agnostic or unbelieving parents to be so anxious about their children’s future that they seek Baptism as a ritual of aversion.
In any situation where evil seems to lurk, there is a temptation to look for goodies and baddies. Certain politicians, or even whole parties, can find the ‘nasty’ label attached to them – the implication being that the rest are ‘nice’. Now, it seems, the voters are saying that the whole lot of them are nasty. But the very questionable implication is then that the voters themselves are nice, and thus entitled to pass judgment on the politicians.
Perhaps the Bishops have missed something in not attacking that assumption head-on, and in being so keen to assure us that there are ‘nice’ politicians out there?
Our need to divide the world between goodies and baddies (hence the Devil?) seems very great, but of course the wheat and the weeds grow together. I have scarcely ever heard a sermon which directly dealt with the topic of mixed motives – one of the most basic realities of the human condition. All of us, voters and politicians alike, are various mixtures of idealism and self-seeking. In some people, the idealism is pretty hard to see. In others, it is so evident that it can blind us to other realities which underlie it, notably the natural human will to power (which afflicts even Bishops).
We try to pull these bits of us together by presenting an image to the world which may not be quite our real selves. When politicians do this, it is often – not always rightly - called hypocrisy. That is why politicians, even overtly ‘nasty’ ones, who appear to be honest about their real feelings and motives are rather attractive to many voters. Another cultural event, a revival of David Hare’s play The Absence of War, reflects the dilemma about ‘honesty’ and ‘hypocrisy’ in the Labour Party of the late 1980s (and Ed Miliband has not protested). Maybe Russell Brand, who claims to tell it like it is without any pretence at all of being nice, is more attractive still for that reason.
But, deep down, we know that the world cannot simply be viewed in terms of black and white, right and wrong, nice and nasty. Adversarial politics seems to be built on the assumption that it can. Now, able to watch Prime Minister’s Questions on TV, voters see the results of that, and they don’t like them.
But what is the alternative? The Bishops have challenged the nation to come up with one. It will hardly be easy. But it clearly requires a degree of humility all round. And a recognition that all of us – UKIPpers and Greens, fiddlers of MPs’ expenses and models of rectitude, politicians and voters alike, and Bishops too – are sinners. All our motives are mixed, and the nasty bits of them will all too often get the upper hand.
Maybe the Bishops could have done yet more to remind us directly of the reality of evil and sin. Unfortunately such ideas have become overladen with misunderstanding, inappropriate emphasis (mostly to do with sex), and a vast apparatus of doctrine and ritual, much of which needs re-examination. Even purified of all that, they can be misused to portray the human condition (as Russell Brand does?) as pretty much hopeless this side of Heaven, or the Second Coming, or whatever symbol you use for the ultimate destiny of our race. ‘Christian realists’ like the late Reinhold Niebuhr have demonstrated that that is not the end of the story, and that politics can be given a new meaning and value in the here and now.
Lent is a time for meditating on sin and redemption. Perhaps this year ‘a good Lent’ might involve applying these themes to our political life, ahead of the General Election.
Maybe our ‘spiritual reading’ could include a bit of political theory, or, better still, works by people like Niebuhr who have made the link between the spiritual and the political.