What do the terrible events of this week, particularly the murder of MP Jo Cox, tell us about the state of our politics? How should we, as Christians, respond? How should we approach the forthcoming EU referendum?
This was my sermon this Sunday morning, part of a sermon series on the book of Jeremiah. It was helped by Walter Brueggemann’s 1998 A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming.
Reflecting on Politics; Reading: Jeremiah 12:10-17
As you almost certainly know, the MP Jo Cox was murdered this week. She was murdered by a man who gave his name as ‘death to traitors’. Politicians on all sides expressed their shock and horror that this had happened. And yet:
The referendum campaign has been poisoned by hatred and fear on both sides. Earlier in the week, Osborne claimed that he would need an emergency budget to cope with the fall-out if the vote was leave. That’s been rejected by most commentators and his own MPs as being more about fear than about reality. Earlier the same day that Jo Cox was killed Nigel Farage unveiled a poster linking refugees from Syria with leaving the EU. That’s been described by many as racist, with Boris Johnson saying that it ‘wasn’t his politics’.
There has been an atmosphere of fear and hatred. Trust has been eroded, damaged, destroyed. Ken Clarke has criticised both campaigns for leaving voters “angry and confused”.
And, unfortunately, we too have contributed to that atmosphere. We’ve contributed to it with our shrugs that ‘they’re all the same’. We’ve contributed to it with the abuse that we’ve hurled at politicians on the TV or radio. And I’m very definitely guilty as charged on that one. Or by not following the news, not investing the time to think and pray and reflect on what’s going on. All of that leads to politicians becoming increasingly desperate, increasingly shrill, increasingly relying on personality and soundbites to cut through. Which then feeds back into all our negative reactions.
Jo Cox has reminded us that politicians are human too, that they spend long hours of hard work trying to do what they see as the best for the people they serve. Not all of them, not all of the time. But more of them more of the time than we often give credit for.
Which is, in turn, easier to do when they let themselves down, as some of our leading politicians have done over the last few weeks.
Last Sunday, Archbishop Justin wrote in the Mail on Sunday and uploaded a video about the referendum. This is what he had to say:
<we watched the video>
The archbishop spoke about a “Vocation of living for others” and “Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless”. He challenged us by writing “The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves. We are most human when we exist for others.”
The murder of Jo Cox led to a pause in the campaigning. It has led to a promise by both sides that they will try and be more civil, more serious, more respectful. I’m afraid that I don’t hold out much hope that that will last, but the fact that that is the reaction shows the problem is real, significant and recognised.
All of which rather sounds to me like the first verse from our reading from Jeremiah (12:10, NIV):
Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard
and trample down my field;
they will turn my pleasant field
into a desolate wasteland.
‘Shepherd’ is one of the images used to describe both God and also the leaders of Israel and the other nations. ‘Shepherd’. Someone who leads, guides, cares for, tends.
The shepherds, those who should have cared for God’s people and God’s land, have failed. And so God’s pleasant field has been turned into a wasteland. The land would be laid waste because no-one cared. The life-giving potential of the land and the life-enhancing potential of the community had been wasted, wrecked, destroyed. Because no-one cared. No one called on the name of the Lord. In other words, no-one worshipped God, based their lives on God, had their life and work shaped by God’s love and justice. That was a challenge for Jeremiah’s first hearers and it’s a challenge for us to hear as well. Are there enough people who care? How do we show God’s care?
Although, of course, ‘no-one’ is an exaggeration. Jeremiah, and the scribe Baruch, who we’re told wrote down most of the book of Jeremiah, cared and worshipped God, were passionate about God’s rule, God’s love. An exaggeration to make a point. A point about what the land, what the political situation, looked like to God, and would look like to everyone else.
‘No-one’ is an exaggeration born out of grief. God is grieved, God weeps. “There is no one who cares”. And so things slide into waste, chaos, destruction. God’s people are carried into exile in Babylon.
But, in the midst of God’s grief there is the promise of blessing and renewal, of hope and transformation. God promises: “I will have compassion”. God’s love is too strong to be overwhelmed by hatred, despair, fear, or a lack of care. Our actions have consequences. God gives us the freedom for those consequences to be catastrophic. But that does not overwhelm his love, does not mean that he will continue to work for the good of his people.
And so the call to care isn’t just renewed but expanded. Other people also have the opportunity to become part of God’s people:
If they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name … then they will be established among my people.
This is part of the ongoing offer for the nations to be brought into God’s promise. It was an offer that God made through Abraham and it continued to be available in the midst of destruction and grief. It was the radical offer for the nations to be brought into God’s promise. It was an offer open to all, a choice that people needed to make, were called to make.
And of course this offer is most clearly shown in Jesus. Jeremiah’s prophecies failed to call enough people back to God. God’s offer that all nations could become part of his people was largely ignored. And so in the midst of his grief and love, God sent Jesus to remake the promise, to show us what love, mercy and justice look like, to renew the offer that we can become part of God’s people.
So Archbishop Justin calls us to respond to God’s love, particularly reflected in Jesus, in our shared political life, in how we speak and act and vote. He speaks of the sacrificial spirit of our country at its best, which reflects the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. He challenges us to make the country the best we possibly can be.
Now, one of the questions that gets raised when clergy start talking about politics is why we should get involved at all. Although it’s notable that Jeremiah got involved in politics. He criticised the ‘shepherds’, the leaders, for not doing what they should have been doing. He was heavily involved in what the newspapers might now call the ‘Egypt question’, one of the big political issues of his day. Which basically boiled down to whether to seek refuge in the land of Egypt or not. Jeremiah was clear that the answer was ‘no’, that God thought that the answer was ‘no’, and that to do so was a fatal mistake. But that didn’t stop the people doing just that, and taking Jeremiah with them, against his will. I strongly suspect that whatever the outcome on Thursday, many people will feel that they have been carried to a different country against their will.
One of our problems is that we say politics and we hear ‘party politics’. But politics is far broader than that, and far too important to leave to a few professional politicians. Jeremiah and the other prophets weren’t afraid to get involved in the politics of their day. And neither should we. Politics is about how we organise our society, about how our society works, about the choices our society makes. We are called to pray, and work, for the peace and prosperity of our country. And we’re called to do so in a way which reflect the God of love, mercy and justice whom we worship.
So, if we focus on God’s love, mercy and justice, that will cause us to reject political arguments that focus on hatred, fear and self-interest. It will cause us to question our own motives, and the motives of those who try to increase our fear and hate. That’s some politicians, some journalists, some commentators. But by no means all.
And we’re called to focus on God’s love, mercy and justice in our own political activity. And that includes much more than we often recognise. It includes our work: how we care for people, how we work for the common good. It includes our voluntary work: being governors or helpers at schools, serving in charity shops, donating money and time to charities and voluntary organisations, picking up litter and caring for public spaces. It includes our lives: how we care for our families, friends and neighbours.
Please pray and vote on Thursday. Please pray that God’s love, mercy and justice will influence people’s decisions on how to vote and reactions to the outcome. Please don’t fall prey to fear or hatred, or even to a desire to give politicians a good kicking by voting one way or another.
Please pray and work in the coming weeks as an expression of God’s love, mercy and justice in our shared political life. Please pray and speak and act in ways which reflect God’s care and concern for individuals and communities.
Let us show that there are people who care, that there are people who care because God cares. Let us show that the offer of God that we can become part of his people is still being made, and still makes a difference to how we live. Let us show God’s love, mercy and justice in all that we do. Amen.