General Election 2017: a reflection
This Sunday is St George’s day, and somewhat unexpectedly has also become the first Sunday in an election campaign that has the signs of being like no other. The mood of the nation has perhaps already been expressed by the now legendary Brenda from Bristol, whose “Oh no – not again” doorstep interview with the BBC has even earned her a hashtag (#Brenda). Yet I suspect that with time, those who aspire to lead us are likely to seek to invoke the spirit of St George rather than the spirit of hashtag Brenda. We will no doubt be urged to appoint a Government that can slay the dragons that stand in the way of Brexit, along with just about every ill that might befall us in the next parliament.
So perhaps this is a moment to explore the life of the real St George, the accounts of whom are somewhat disputed, but do not take seriously any legends about killing dragons. In reality he was a member of a Syrian migrant family who, for reasons unknown, found themselves living in an area that is now part of Turkey. He lived in the fourth century, and when his father died, returned with his mother to their homeland. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the Roman army which by then was more an instrument of Government and law enforcement than a military conqueror.
He rose to the position of military tribune and by all accounts was a dedicated and loyal civil servant who was also a man of devout Christian faith. It was only when the Emperor Diocletian issued a decree that every army office must denounce any religion other than the Pagan Gods of Rome that things became difficult for him. Faced with the choice of complying with the Emperor’s decree or holding fast to his Christian belief, George chose the latter, rejecting significant persuasion and incentives to renounce his faith. It was for this that George was eventually executed.
We cannot read the story of St George and not hear resonances with the Biblical story of Daniel, another man of faith, who was willing to hold senior political office within a regime that in many ways would have been seen as the enemy of his native people. He too was faced with the choice of complying with manipulative decrees that placed the ambitions of individuals above the greater good; he too was willing to stand by his faith in the face of execution, though in his case he was delivered. To a lesser degree, we might also notice some echoes with the story of Joseph, another servant of God whose calling was to serve in high political office.
All of this reminds us that the business of politics is not in and of itself anything but a commendable and noble pursuit. Yet we are also reminded that it is not the position that someone holds, but the principles to which they remain true that will ultimately define their virtue. Daniel, Joseph and St George were all committed to pursuing the wellbeing of communities that extended well beyond their own immediate people group, and indeed as we seek to nail any aspect of our national identity around the spirit of St George, we might do well to remember that we share him as a Patron Saint with communities as diverse as Malta, Portugal, Catalonia, Ethiopia and several Eastern European nations.
Few of us are likely to be faced with the same threats and challenges as St George, though we might note that Tim Farron has already attracted criticism for certain aspects of his Christian belief. What we can all remember is that we are called to live as citizens of earth who are also those who belong to the Kingdom of God. This calls us to play our part in the political processes of our nation, but to do so in a way that places the values and principles of our Christian identity above any earthly agenda or allegiance. And when the two do come into conflict, to stand firm in our faith. As a prophetic people, we might also ask how we should be using our voices and influence in the days ahead, to not only embrace the values of God’s Kingdom for ourselves but to promote and commend these in the public square.
Inspired by the story of St George and these other Biblical examples, we might engage in the forthcoming election campaign aware of three key realities:
We are world citizens: As Christian believers we belong to a faith that makes us sisters and brothers with people from every culture and continent. While we would expect our political leaders to give high priority to our well-being as a nation, there are also questions to be asked about our international responsibilities. We remain one of the richest and most influential nations in a world where millions are wracked by poverty, injustice, conflict and oppression. Much is required of those to whom much is given.
We are a people of truth: God’s Word emerges from and speaks into a variety of historic political situations. The challenge for God’s people is to consider how the principles of God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness translate into the current political narratives and landscape. We will be confronted by many claims and counter-claims – rather than simply responding with personal opinion, our instinct can be to ask what deeper truths lie behind them – do the facts stack up? Can the claims be substantiated? Are they fair? Are they honest? What are the motives of those who promote them? Whose reputation is being sacrificed for the political gain of others? How does the debate reflect or undermine the values of God’s Kingdom?
We are a people of prayer: No doubt every political activist will claim to be serving the best interests of our nation, and in the face of this we might well remember the words of Proverbs that it is righteousness that exalts a nation. This is a time to pray that righteousness will prevail, not so much in terms of the immediate outcome of the election, but in the agendas that a pursued in its wake. As God’s people, we might also prayerfully seek God’s guidance in understanding what true righteousness looks like in the present political climate. As a people called to proclaim truth in every circumstance we might pray for wisdom, courage, humility and integrity of spirit. We can pray for all who seek office and those who eventually hold positions of power, responsibility and influence. We can pray that the direction of the debate will not pursue political ideologies at the expense of human wellbeing, that the issues which matter are not overlooked, and where there is disagreement, for wholesome and honest debate.
God of every time and season,
Whose reign and rule extends beyond any earthly realm;
In the midst of the uncertainty,
The debate and expectancy of a forthcoming General Election,
Help us to centre ourselves afresh on you;
Not to escape the issues and argument,
But that we might be engaged
With wisdom and faithfulness
That reflects our identity as your people.
Protect us from indifference
That we might promote attitudes of grace
And seek to uphold the narratives of truth and goodness.
And may we not become so consumed
With the agendas of our own concern
That we forget the lives and needs
Of a world that extends beyond our immediate horizons.
We pray for those who seek office
And those to whom this responsibility will be given
May we never take for granted
The service that they offer
Or the freedom we have
To determine those who govern us.
Help us to act wisely;
To listen prayerfully;
To debate honestly;
To disagree graciously;
And to seek the ways of your Kingdom
In the decisions we make together.
Through Christ our Lord and King AMEN