David Cameron has done it again.
He’s tried to be nice to Christians and it went a bit wrong.
But this time my annoyance is not with him.
From time to time the Prime Minister makes comments in statements or interviews about his faith and the role of Christianity. He might compare his belief to being like listening to the radio in the Chilterns, fading in and out. He might suggest that the Bible is not a bad moral guide.
And we might pick holes in what he says, criticise the understanding of the Christian faith. I did.
On Wednesday various Christian leaders went to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s Easter reception. There were church leaders, evangelists, anti-poverty campaigners, those working with the persecuted church and victims of trafficking.
Normally such events are little more than a PR exercise, they’re press released and managed to present the Prime Minister in as good a light as possible. This one feels a little different. There was no press release, no prepared speech, and only belatedly a transcript of the Prime Minister’s remarks.
When I read the full version of what he said I squirmed slightly at how evangelism was expressed (as little more than doing good). And yet the words I read were an encouragement to the church across the world frequently persecuted for their beliefs, and to the church in the UK to be dynamic in bringing life to communities across the country. A boost for parish priests who canoed through villages during the storms earlier this year.
The words were warm, and Cranmer notes: “clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister’s spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England’s ministry than anything he has previously disclosed”.
Unfortunately David Cameron doesn’t make it hard to be mocked, comparing himself to Dyno-rod was an unusual analogy. But it was the Big Society (yes, with capitals) that got the ball rolling. Perhaps appropriately for an Easter message, the Big Society is a concept that refuses to die. As Christian Guy tweeted:
Each time they claim it’s dead David Cameron rallies for the Big Society. This time referencing Jesus at an Easter reception. #resurrection
— Christian Guy (@ChristianGuy_) April 10, 2014
This is where my sympathy for David Cameron goes into overdrive. He was trying to give the church credit for their work and respond, as he has repeatedly done, that all his packaging did was take what the church has been doing for centuries, millennia, and get more people involved.
As reported in the Times, a No 10 spokesperson commented: “The Prime Minister has long made the point that he may have coined the catchphrase but he didn’t invent the concept. All sorts of organisations from different faith backgrounds have made a positive contribution to society, including schools and charities.”
When the Big Society was first announced, churches jumped up and down yelling that they’d be at it for ages. Now he agrees the response is: stop thinking you’re doing God’s work. He can’t win.
You might consider the Big Society to be a cover for cuts, you might think it is painfully hard electoral message to sell on the door steps.
But I think there is a challenge to us all in how we respond to politicians, how we engage with them, and how we judge their beliefs and actions. I am certain we should not sycophantically praise politicians to get an invite through the famous black door. I don’t think anyone there got there by doing that. I think there is a vital prophetic role for the church to speak truth to power, to tell when the least are forgotten, when the abandoned are cast away, when the stomachs of the hungry groan, when the shelter for the weak is not there.
There are many things we can criticise the government for. We can say their welfare changes are pernicious, we can say their changes to marriage undermine the family. We can criticise governments for taking us to war, for favouring business over caring for the environment.
The bible tells us in Psalm 146 to put critical distance between us and our leaders, to be reluctant to place too much trust in what they can do: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”
And we should remember that politicians are fallible, they are like you and me, they make mistakes, they have mixed motives, they put priorities in an order that fails to reconcile heaven and earth.
But maybe because of that, criticism should not be our only posture, in fact, I don’t think it should be our primary posture. It is useful, it is vital, we must critique what is unjust, but we shouldn’t start there.
Political leaders, like all other leaders, are taking responsibility, they are exercising authority, and as such, in a way that is always limited, never absolute, they are exercising God’s authority.
Jesus, before Pilate, asks where his authority comes from.
Jesus tells the challenger seeking to trap him, to give to Caesar what is his, knowing that the image of Caesar on a coin demanding fealty is itself an image reflecting Caesar’s creation in the image of God.
Paul writes to the Romans reminding them that the governing authorities only have authority because God has given it, and that those in authority are God’s servants.
In 1 Peter we are challenged to do good and honour our rulers: if that is a challenge today what must it have felt like to those under Roman oppression?
And in 1 Timothy asked to pray for those in authority – that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
This is not a weak prayer, a surrender, it is a challenge. It is a hard task.
There is a responsibility given to leaders that should provoke respect but not blind loyalty. There is an authority to rulers which we should live under but also challenge.
And when we turn to twitter (admittedly there were some funny tweets) to mock leaders who express gratitude to the church for the work they do, and stand with Christians persecuted for their beliefs across the world, I got annoyed. But more than that, I was also saddened because I think it undermines the prophetic voice we should have. A voice that respects, but is not cowed, by authority.
Watch the Prime Minister’s Easter message: