Sunday 24th November 2019
The Second Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
1 Samuel 8.4-20
John 18.33-37

In Samuel's list of things that a king's subjects would be asked to do, by any standard, the people were getting off lightly: there are no threats of slave labour, sexual exploitation, torture, disappearance or judicial murder. Indeed, compared with the economic uncertainties of ancient Israel, a job at court sounded pretty good. And, for the population in general, the tithe was tiny compared with modern levels of taxation. Nonetheless, we can get a flavour of Samuel's forebodings.

In our Gospel Reading the power game is more stark: Pilate can execute Jesus or let him go, but his problem is that he can't grasp what Jesus is all about and so he can't make up his mind whether killing Jesus would be good for his own political career. The general tendency is to come down rather hard on Pilate as a political coward who put his own career above the considerations of impartial justice but if I had been in his place under the rule of the quixotic Emperor Tiberias I would have done precisely the same thing. Any politician can easily persuade himself that a dead politician is no good to anyone.

This is a good time to think about power as we prepare to vote in our General Election. For most people, the default position is to slag off politicians as dishonest. "If only," we say, "they would be honest with us"; to which my reply, as a former Parliamentary Candidate is that if politicians were honest with us, we would not elect them. Imagine a politician standing up and saying something like: "Our manifesto will cost so many billion Pounds to implement and we will recover this by raising income, tax, VAT, fuel duty and airport taxes." What chance of being elected then?

In truth, we have an almost surreal relationship with our elected politicians whereby we and they both know that they must not tell us the truth; much better that they should lie, that we should pretend to believe them, and then have the luxury of grumbling about their dishonesty.

But taxation and the economy are not the only issues at an Election. There are usually two other sets of related issues and we are faced with both in this election: the first is the extent to which the state should regulate and redistribute income and wealth to support the least advantaged or the most advantaged; the second, and related set of issues, is the extent to which the state should acquire power from citizens or give power back to citizens.

With respect to the first issue, there are clear statements from all the political parties on where they stand in respect of regulation and distribution. In many ways the nub of the issue is whether we rank liberty over equality or the other way round. If we think equality is most important we are likely to opt for regulation; if we think liberty is most important, we are likely to opt for de-regulation. What we need to understand is that there is a trade-off between liberty and equality.

There is, however, an outstanding issue with respect to liberty which we need to bear in mind. When people use the term "take back control" the immediate question must be "who" is going to take back this control: Local Government, Parliament or the Executive? On the current showing, the Executive is continuing to acquire power from the other two which is a long-running trend but it is now being reinforced by proposals to make voting more difficult, particularly for the poor.

This has been a long introduction but the pivotal point is that the Christian view of power is that it should be enabling, not limiting. Jesus came to open doors, not shut them; to bring new life, not stifle it; to raise up the humble and meek, not keep them under foot; and, conversely, to put down the mighty from their seats and send the rich empty away. If you want a straight Christian yardstick against which to judge the proposals of political parties, you can do no better than the Magnificat which we say every time we meet. We are, after all, supposed to mean it.

But it's important for us to recognise that we are not only subject to power; in our different ways we are all powerful. I doubt if there is anyone in this congregation who does not sit on a committee, manage people or resources or influence the lives of people, most of whom we will not know. We must be scrupulous in exercising power, always careful not to let our own interests get in the way of a correct decision.

As it turned out, in spite of luminaries like King David and King Solomon, the monarchy did not work out well for the Chosen People but, given their close ties to God and their routine unfaithfulness, it's difficult to see how any form of political organisation could have worked for them. The Old Testament makes this link between unfaithfulness and political failure crystal clear but I am not sure that we make the same link. Do we think that we are in the political mess we are currently in because we have not been faithful to the teaching and practice of Jesus or do we think that our unfaithfulness and the mess are totally unrelated? If we think the latter then this is largely because we have made the customary mistake of believing that politics and religion do not mix.

That great theologian Carl Barth said that we should read with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. As i said earlier, we can save ourselves the weight of the whole Bible and just stick to the Magnificat, and we won’t go far wrong.