The new elite

Sunday 6th November 2016
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
1 Kings 3.1-15

In two days' time, the people of the United States will finish casting their votes after an election campaign of unprecedented intemperateness. There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton has occasionally gone too far but most of the decreasing band of independent commentators - an issue in itself - agree that the greater offender by far has been Donald Trump, lashing out at ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, welfare recipients, disabled people and anybody who disagrees with him; and, whether or not we think that the Washington political establishment is corrupt, or simply grid-locked for complex constitutional reasons, Trump's questioning of the balloting process and his promise, apparently without due process, to get his opponent thrown into jail if he wins, has taken the contest to a new depth. It is a commonplace of election commentary that the latest is the dirtiest but in this case the cliché is horribly correct.

But let us not wallow in the self satisfaction of a safer place for democracy. Commentators have sought to draw parallels between the discontent which promises to give Trump so many votes with the discontent that gave victory here to those who voted to leave the EU, apparently in anger at being left behind and/or ignored by the supposed 'liberal establishment'. But the real parallel of importance, in the long term, is not the discontent which, with political determination, could be assuaged, but the degradation of political language and the increasing inability to discuss difficult subjects with those with whom we disagree.

For me, it began with Prime Minister Thatcher's phrase that: "there is no alternative", when such a dire inevitability is extremely rare; but let us fast forward to today with a few examples of where we have got to:

All these are vitally important issues which are tossed around with a degree of linguistic carelessness, or deliberate vandalism, which makes discussion impossible; instead of using words to build up constructive dialogue for mutual support in the face of complexity and disagreement, words are being used as ammunition.

So what does all this have to do with Today's Readings? My answer, in brief, is that the notion of Wisdom acquired by Solomon, summed up in the story of the dispute between two women about their maternal claims on a baby, is all right as far as it goes, a convincing piece of psychological perception; but the kind of wisdom we need today is much more comprehensive than that, revolving as much around how we speak and when we remain silent as around the wisdom of our actions, always remembering that, as with almost all politicians, it didn't end up as well for Solomon as it began.

In the first place, if we are to survive as a democracy which practises justice, we are going to have to be much more careful about what we mean when we say something which, in turn, will result from a painstaking effort to understand the meaning of the words we wish to use; it simply will not be good enough for us to parrot the opinions of the newspaper which most nearly says what we agree with. Secondly, we need to understand that the purpose of speech in society is to build it not to destroy it; and, following on from this, restraint in speech is a fundamental necessity if we are to survive in any meaningful way as a community. There are times when restraint will be so difficult to achieve that the only remedy is silence. But silence should be a last resort.

All this is important for us because although we are not often put in Solomon's position to make quasi legal judgments about the rights and wrongs of conduct or the most advantageous course of action in foreign policy, we are called upon, as Christian members of society, not only to promote but to live out our absolutely over-riding obligation of love; and that means that we are obliged to find ways of building mutual understanding to promote mutual support. WE are never going to build real relationships with those amongst whom we live if we avoid difficult subjects like our exit from the EU or our obligations to the poor. If we start to rule out certain subjects from our conversation because they are too difficult, the muscle of our social imagination, putting ourselves into the position of the other, will grow ever weaker and more and more subjects will be ruled out.

And so we have to find ways of constructive living. A good starting point is to consider why we want to say what we want to say. Are we trying to help a friend improve self understanding or improve understanding of us; or are we trying to change somebody's mind and, if so, what grounds do we have for doing this and what is it worth if we succeed?

As I have got older, the number of issues which I think can be decided by discussion has steadily decreased. As far as I can tell, hardly anyone's mind was changed by the avalanche of supposed data and opinion from either side of the EU debate; the issue was, fundamentally, emotional. That being so, our obligations to those who disagree with us are heavy. To be on the losing side in a cause which engages our emotional loyalty is extremely painful and so far the conduct of the winners, with their relatively narrow 4% victory margin, has been brutally triumphalist, proclaiming a winner-takes-all approach which denigrates those who disagree with them as bad losers behaving non democratically.

But, in conclusion, there is one more issue which we must consider: on both sides of the Atlantic there is a fiction being perpetrated by the rich and powerful that we, who tend towards the rational and the moderate, who tend towards the academic, relying at least to some extent on evidence and not entirely on personal experience and personal advantage, who make an effort to see as many sides of a situation as there are, not presuming ourselves to be right nor presuming that there are only two sides to every issue, that we are the 'liberal establishment' which has turned its back on the poor and has refused to respect democratic decisions, when it is perfectly clear that the very powerful and wealthy, like Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump himself, the people who concur with Prime Minister Thatcher that there is "no such thing as society" but only personal choice and gratification, they are the new, post 'big bang' elite which has turned its back on the poor and uses money and media to control democracy. This is a fundamental issue for us for two reasons: first, without us, the deposed liberal establishment, the poor will be enslaved; and, secondly, without freedom Christianity will become a derided and then persecuted sect. Maybe that's what the Holy Spirit wants for us but as long as we can prevent this from happening, it is our duty to do so, not only for ourselves but for our children and for millions of people we will never know.