It’s not every day that you watch history unfolding in front of your very eyes, but this week was different.
“Parliament has not been prorogued.”
Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will read those words of Lady Hale in their history books (if they still use books), and there may well be paintings and statues erected in parliament to crystallise that moment.
If we are honest, the discussion about the prorogation has mostly been a proxy debate about Brexit itself. Remainers were generally appalled, some Brexiteers held their noses, while others cheered, but there were also some Brexiteers who thought this was beyond the pale and made that known (often to the detriment of their careers). It is this sense of ‘beyond the pale’ that I want to dig into, not to make a point about Brexit or prorogation, but instead about the corrosion of ethics in the public square.
As Christians, we follow the man who was God, called Jesus Christ, for whom ends never justified means. He was the ultimate example of the how always being as important as the what. He was integrity personified. For example, he constantly called out the Pharisees for their focus on the external to the detriment of the internal.
Truth is found in a person and I would go so far as to argue that it is possible to articulate what we believe to be true in a way that is outside the parameters of how Jesus would have done it, in which case it actually ceases to be true. Jesus cares about how we say something as well as what we say. He cares about our motivations as well as our actions.
From growing up in Northern Ireland I know all too well about the power of actions and words. When we intentionally or unintentionally surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, wider perspective is lost, and actions that would have previously been unthinkable become very thinkable in our desperation to win an argument or “get the job done”.
The Bible contains an idea that speaks into this debate – it’s called idolatry.
One of the things that most people know about idols, whether they are of a religious bent or not, is that people sacrifice things to them.
All through history, humankind has sacrificed animals, people, food and anything else we can get our hands on to appease our idols. In 2019, we sacrifice our time, relationships and money, as well as our headspace and spiritual health.
It’s when we allow something to take up more of our focus than it should that it becomes an idol. It is putting anything above God, his honour, and his way of doing things. And once something becomes an idol in our lives, it is very hard to knock it off that perch. Idols start demanding our allegiance.
I would say that both of the following sentences are true:
- The idea of leaving the European Union is a valid political idea.
- The idea of remaining in the European Union is a valid political idea.
But have those ideas grown beyond what is healthy for many of us? Have they become idols? In fact, our reaction to those two sentences may tell us a lot about where our idol-ometer sits.
You do not need to be a theologian or a historian to realise that things are being sacrificed to the idol of Brexit and the idol of Remain. As someone who has been actively involved in UK politics for many years now, I have never seen anything like what we are living through.
When a Government minister says “we will see” when asked whether the Government will obey the law, things are being sacrificed (like the sanctity of the rule of law). When we are so desperate to win the argument that people employ the language of war and violence, then things are being sacrificed (like civil discourse). When lies or half-truths are used to enhance our side of the argument, things are being sacrificed (like the idea of truth).
Just getting things done, just pushing things through, despite the protestations of others who disagree is what deepens long-term resentment and division. Shutting down dissent and discussion in the public square is exactly what breeds discontent and strips away the possibility of reconciliation.
Reconciliation happens through brave relationship-building. It has been my privilege through Christians in Politics to witness believers the length and breadth of the country coming together from different parties and different churches declaring: “Kingdom before tribe”.
It has been wonderful to watch the listening and understanding across divisions that can happen when we remember our primary allegiance is to another King. The silver bullet of disagreeing well has been intentional relationship-building across party lines.
These tables of fellowship operate all over the country, providing a space for people to come together. There are also public spaces: national assemblies, councils and parliaments. Christians more than anyone know that reconciliation can happen around a shared table. Like many family tables, it may get angry and messy at times, but surely the last thing you do in a divided society is to take away that table.
There was a reason that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s commission in South Africa was called the Truth and Reconciliation commission. They knew that meaningful reconciliation could not take place without at least some forensic examination of what had happened
We cannot simply brush things under the carpet and move on. We may not always agree on what is true and what is false, or who has acted appropriately and inappropriately, but the space to at least air our grievances and listen to those of others makes reconciliation that little bit more possible.
Being on our knees in front of the one who knows it all will hopefully remind us that we don’t know it all, rendering our ears that inch more open to hear. And being on our knees in front of the one who is holy and true will hopefully render our idols more recognisable as the counterfeit gods that they are.
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