By Andy Flannagan
1. IT’S A DIRTY GAME. THEY’RE ALL ON THE MAKE. THEY CAN’T BE TRUSTED.
No-one should be trying to defend the excesses exposed during the MP’s expenses scandal, but we must keep our ears open to all sides of the story. The media have a vested interest in publishing what is tragic and scandalous, at the expense of the honourable and mundane. While fixating on the small number of MPs who grossly betrayed people’s trust – perhaps about 50, we didn’t often hear that there were approximately 600 still working hard to do an incredibly difficult job. People often ridicule MPs and councillors en masse as money and power-grabbers, but when you ask them about their own local MP they always say, “Oh, she’s wonderful. She does a lot of good work for the community.” We always seem to have a blind spot for this herd thinking.
The other angle on the story is how demanding the role of an MP actually is. For the vast majority, they have to work in two very distinct geographical locations, with two different groups of people. This split means that they have to work hard to hold family life and relationships together and there is the added pressure 24 hour media scrutiny of everything they say and do. We also grossly overestimate their ability to effect change, creating unrealistic and unfair expectations. For example, as a GP, when someone comes into your surgery, there is a basic unspoken understanding that their problem will be medical. This means that through her training and experience the GP will be able to accurately deduce the problem. There are also ready tools to hand, such as prescriptions for drugs and referrals to specialists. However, when a constituent walks into an MP’s surgery, the situation is very different. Their issue may be about anything from planning permission, to schools, to internecine neighbourhood strife, to third world debt. The breadth of understanding required is huge, but also bear in mind that an MP holds no official post of responsibility in their locality. They do not run any of the local councils. They are not the chief constable, or the tribal elder. Any impact on situations that they have comes through influence and relationship. But as we all know, relationships take time to build. Having observed many MPs at work, I want them better resourced and better staffed, rather than the opposite. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want overworked, underslept, stressed out, media-hounded, family-absent people making my laws.
Finally, if we truly desire to see the political system “cleaned up”, it is much more likely to happen when those who have that passion become involved. As yet, my bath has never got cleaner because I have stood beside it, shaking my head wearily at the state of it and speaking cleanness over it (though I keep praying!) It gets clean when I get into it and clean it. Our engagement or lack of it reveals how much we really care. Will we simply critique like Pharisees, or serve like Jesus? The salt and light thing really works. Light does illuminate darkness. Salt does preserve the meat.
2. BUT I CAN’T AGREE WITH EVERYTHING THAT THE PARTY STANDS FOR.
You’re right. You can’t. But I put it to you that you probably don’t agree with everything that your spouse or partner believes, and you certainly don’t agree with everything that your church believes, yet you covenant together. We find common cause for the greater good. Instinctively we know that we are communal beings, designed in the image of our Triune God to interact and work with those whom we are not like.
But there is one party where I agree with 100% of their policies. It’s called the Andy Flannagan party. And it has only one member, and sadly it’s me. That is the philosophical thick end of the wedge
To effect change we need to co-operate with those with whom we may not necessarily agree on everything. In fact, that is where the excitement is. That is where prayer and faith is required. Our ideas and presuppositions are challenged, sending us back to scripture and causing us to flesh out the word. And it is an incredible missionfield.
The more obvious point is that if there are policies that we disagree with in a certain party, then how will those policies be changed unless people like us get involved in making the arguments? Your voice is heard much more clearly when you whisper from a place of relationship, rather than rant from a distance.
For those that say through our involvement in the political system we will inevitably be corrupted by the system, I have news for you. We are inevitably corrupted by the system. To pretend that we can as Christians simply sit outside the systems of our world is pure nonsense. Every time you fill a car with petrol, you are supporting some very questionable Middle Eastern states. Every time you shop at a huge supermarket, you are endorsing the destruction of high streets and enabling questionable treatment of food suppliers. Every time you pay for a newspaper, re-order your broadband, use your local library, visit your GP, renew your house insurance, you are more deeply imbedded in the disturbing, complex, yet redeemable (and which will inevitably be redeemed) structures of our world. You can’t avoid it. You ARE part of the system and you are supporting it by your mere existence. The question is not whether or not we should get involved. We ARE involved! The question is whether you sit passively just letting it all happen, or whether you act to change things.
3. IT’S NOT REALLY A PRIORITY IS IT?
Sometimes people will nod with a smile and say that it’s great that you‘re “involved”, but that they can’t divert any time or resources in that direction. If you believe that Christianity is merely an escape ticket for a disembodied heaven, then of course you won’t invest as much time in caring for the environment or addressing structural injustice. Why would you? Any time spent doing that would inevitably mean less time telling people about their need of Jesus. The argument goes – helping the poor is great – in fact – bless you, you are a great example of compassion, but actually what is eternal is more important. Fair enough. If that’s what you believe. Some of us believe this intentionally, while some of us just believe this by default from years of presumption. Now I wholeheartedly believe that people do need Jesus, but I also believe the bigger story needs telling.
Tom Wright’s writing on this topic is extremely helpful. He speaks of our misunderstanding of heaven, which has been based more on medieval art and writing (such as Dante) than on scripture. A recent surge of “folk understanding” of heaven is illustrated by the hugely popular “Left Behind” novels published in the United States. When Jesus speaks of heaven he is not speaking of a disembodied place which our “souls” float off to, but the sphere where God’s reign is total. This is the sphere of heaven. There is also the sphere of earth, where sadly his will is not exclusively adhered to yet! This makes sense of his prayer – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Think of the famous Mastercard symbol, or any of the Venn diagrams that confused you at school. We experience and pray for moments when “heaven touches earth” – moments of grace and beauty and compassion and truth, where God’s will is done. These are in the intersection of that diagram. One day however these 2 spheres will be fully fused! The new heavens and new earth combined.
Our attitude to the planet and its structures, as economics and ecology mix inextricably, are formed by whether our mindset is one of moving on to the next place, or one of renovation. Our God is a God intent on renovation. He has a plan for this place and it is good. This place IS the next place. It will be transformed. And incredibly we are called to be part of demonstrating what this next place will be like right now, which surely involves change within and through political structures.
This post is excerpted from an editorial published in Political Theology, 12.1
Andy spends much of his time with his wife Jenny working out how to be downwardly mobile in the centre of London, treasures some great friends, and is the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement, which is based at Labour Party HQ and Parliament – www.thecsm.org.uk. They exist to be a prophetic voice to left-sided politics and the church, encouraging Christians to see politics as mission. A driving passion is to see a just re-wiring of the global economic system. Andy continues to perform, speak, lead worship and play a lot of cricket. His proudest moment as an Irishman was captaining England’s Barmy Army during the last Ashes series. His new worship songs and resources are available for free from www.andyflan.com.