When the Rev Dr Howard Williams was the Minister of Blenheim Baptist Church, Leeds, just after the end of WWII, he caused quite a stir when, following the General Election of July 1945 in which Clement Attlee led the Labour Party to victory, he had a poster put up outside the church that read: ‘One lot of sinners out! Another lot of sinners in!’ It caused uproar in the City Council. Howard was away on holiday when the storm broke, so embarrassed Deacons of the church covered the poster with plain paper?! On his return, Howard wrote to the Yorkshire Post to explain that all he meant was that all men and women were sinners, and that the current national crisis was not just economic and political but also moral.
‘Politics’ is an interesting subject. The problem with politics is, that even at best, it can only ever be a framework that holds the building together, a skeleton that enables the body to have shape. This is very important, of course, but a framework does not make the building nor the skeleton a person. So much more is needed to make a house a home or a body a rounded human being! The key question for any politician, political party, government even, is what is it that provides the substance within the stance? What are the virtues and values that lie at the heart of that politician, that party, that government? It can never be enough to say, ‘Read the manifesto!’ We must go beyond that. Manifestos are basically, all too often, just words and words that are quickly forgotten after the election has taken place, promises there to be broken once the politician, party or government has gained power. I recently heard a former politician confess that during his years as an MP he never ever read his party’s manifesto, nor had he ever come across any other MP (in any political party) who had ever read one either?! As a Christian, the question I always want to ask professing Christian politicians is ‘What shapes you?’ Does your Christianity shape your politics? Or does your politics shape your Christianity?
‘Sin’ is also a very interesting subject. There are many different words for ‘sin’ in the Bible but the most common word means ‘to miss the mark or goal’. The thought here is of an archer missing the target with his or her arrow, or a student failing to reach the pass mark in an exam or assignment, or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘falling short of the standard God sets for us’ (Romans 3:23). The Psalmist tells us that, in fact, we were ‘born in sin and conceived in iniquity’ (Psalm 51:5) and whatever else this may mean (or not mean) it does mean that we all – including politicians (and everybody else) – have a natural propensity for sin. Like the built-in bias of the bowling ball used in lawn bowls, we naturally swing away from doing good to doing bad, from going God’s way to going our own way! This is why Howard Williams was quite correct to say following the General Election in 1945, and why it will be equally true following this upcoming General Election in June 2017 (whoever triumphs): ‘One lot of sinners out! Another lot of sinners in!’
And this is why the Apostle Paul exhorts us to pray especially for our political leaders, rather than criticise them: ‘The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can go quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Saviour God wants us to live’ (1 Timothy 2:1-3). It is all too easy to criticise others, especially politicians, but it is much harder to pray for them. The phrase quoted above ‘pray every way you know how’ is actually made up four different words in Greek (the language of the New Testament) signifying ‘petition, fervent prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving’. The first three words imply a certain intensity in prayer – really praying for someone, if you like – whereas the final word implies looking for the best in someone.
I am not suggesting that we should not be ‘critical’ of our politicians. Whilst Jesus tells us not to be ‘judgmental’ of others (Matthew 7:1-3) that is not the same as ‘making astute judgments’. The Apostle actually tells us to ‘judge all things’ (1 Corinthians 2:15) and the Apostle John encourages us to ‘test the spirit of a person to see what it is that is motivating them’ (1 John 4:1). We must not be afraid to disagree with our politicians and even stand against what they themselves are advocating, although we should not ‘fight fire with fire’ nor stoop to using the same kind of inflammatory language and gutter tactics that are all too prevalent today. But – and it is a big ‘but’ – we need to even more so to look for the best in even those we strongly disagree with, and really, really pray for them. We need to pray that they will be motivated in all that they do and say and decide by those virtues and values that we see displayed in the life of Jesus Christ himself. Compassion, righteousness, practical love, peace seeking – in fact, everything that leads to a society where ‘rulers and their governments rule well so that we can all go quietly about our business … living simply, in humble contemplation of the way our Saviour God wants us to live’ (1 Timothy 2:2)!