A less than seasonal greeting to our political masters….
If it is as blessed to give as to receive then taking benefits from the poorest means much more than saving the odd billion. It means it is a Christian duty to cease giving this government the benefit of the doubt.
A man has just rung my doorbell. By the time I got to the door no one was there. I could have closed the door but oddly something told me not to and without thinking I called out ‘ hello’. As fleet of foot as Gabriel a young man ran back up the path to the front door. Breathlessly he announced to me that he had discovered the cause of the world’s unhappiness. It is rooted he assured me in what we eat; and in the fact we are consuming too much. And if I give him just £1 I will enable him to tell this good news to thousands of people and thereby change the world for the better; thereby making everyone happy. Though I had the gravest reservations about his argument without consideration I chose – out of character – to give my visitor the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve duly parted with my £1. I did so with a smile. I did so with no expectation he will spend my £1 wisely; or that he will change the world; or, indeed, that he has any intention of so doing. He parted from me promising me that I was bound to feel happy for doing something to make everyone so happy. And as strange as this knock on my door; out of the blue thanks to this young man I was inexplicably happy. I am still happy as I write this. I’m still happy as I re-read this a day later. I’m clearly irrational. Yet arguably as I’m happy even remembering what I’ve done, irrationally, this is the most rational thing I’ve probably ever done in my life with £1.
I call myself a Christian – well Roman Catholic more like; I go to church; I try to be a Good Samaritan. Then on my doorstep suddenly I’m faced with the essence of the Christian promise. Jesus instructed his followers: give all you have to the needy, the hungry, the thirsty and the destitute and follow me. Give in no expectation beyond the obligation to give. By giving willingly he tells us we fulfill God’s kingdom. For as we give readily to these, the least of our brethren, we are giving freely to Christ and, through Him, to God. In return for this act of trust Christ offers you happiness now and eternal life hereafter. If one calls oneself a Christian then this injunction must needs be taken seriously. The man to whom Jesus said this we are told in the gospels went way sorrowfully which then drew from Christ this most telling of observations – it is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
One of the problems with Christ’s instruction to give everything is it seems extremely risky. We don’t as it were get a chance to test-drive its promise. It’s all or nothing. And few of us have the courage of St Francis of Assisi. Few of us are willing in practice to give all we have to the poor and follow Christ. Letting go of all we have is fine and good in theory but it isn’t practical. We find good practical excuses to excuse ourselves from any sense of obligation to follow Christ’s injunction.We will do more we promise ourselves – tomorrow – and leave things as they are for today. But we are playing with words, for, in our hearts, we know we value too much the things we have in our hands and too little to love we all have in our hearts. Truth told, parting from even a little of what we own perplexes us; causes us anxiety. We would like to believe we might one day be brave enough to risk it – but we lack the courage to actually follow through. That however, doesn’t dispense us from the singular obligation placed upon us if we call ourselves followers of Christ – or Christians.
I can now see in hindsight that was allowed to pick up a real bargain the other night. I’ve been given by grace the opportunity to give a little; I’ve given; and in return I’ve been given a huge sense of pleasure. We are in the season for giving. I’ve gave without expectation. I took the risk on just giving. Even if I gave foolishly what an irresistible opportunity it is that I’ve been given. For a meager £1 I’ve been offered an opportunity to rediscover my better self. I could hardly have spent my £1 better. If our bankers had only invested as well we would all now be in a better place and also all so much better off than we are. So, with the benefit of hindsight my little foolishness has taught me to take a bigger step into another bigger world. Now that, that indeed is a miracle. That proves Emmanuel – God is indeed with us.
A little earlier in the week I had also watched the news as David Cameron also took a step into another’s world. He visited the UK troops in Afghanistan. He took this also as an opportunity to sing carols with soldiers.
There has to be a serial foolishness in any society which puts young men into uniform; hands them guns; sends them to foreign lands; and then asks those same young men, who know no better, to sing songs of a Christ; a Prince of Peace, inside a country whose Muslim peoples have good reason to suspect Christians of owning intentions which have little to do with peace and goodwill towards men – or women, or children.
Amongst the carols of Mr Cameron and the soldiers sang were: Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye merry gentlemen. These two are both staples of what we call the Victorian Christmas; the Christmas of Charles Dickens. This is a typical Victorian infelicity with truth. The Christmas Dickens makes famous was rooted in the times of the author’s childhood; rooted in the religious revival fired by Methodism and the Oxford movement. This religious revival was a pan-European phenomenon rather than one solely in the United Kingdom. It also for example created the Missionary Orders that evangelised Africa; South America and Asia. It inspired the anti-slavery movement. It created the Born Again (Baptist) Evangelical Christian tradition which become dominant in the prairies of the USA and the wild West. It was a movement already on the wane by the 1850’s. It was heavily satirised by the Victorian elite. It was a religious movement that had dominated the first forty years of the nineteenth century – the years before Queen Victoria’s reign had started in earnest.
Infelicities with truth- lies as we may simply call them – like the late bottled vintage port they insist upon needlessly decanting before drinking it at Christmas – are the special reserve of the English governing class. This has been the case from at least the time of the Tudors and, as Sir Thomas More’s History of the reign of Richard III has long demonstrated, in England a well placed lie always over-rules a noble truth.
Therefore seeing Mr Cameron in front of the world singing carols led me to reflect upon the meaning behind the Prime Minister’s actions. For example does the Prime Minister by this very public religious act wish the public to measure his public actions by reference to these publicly expressed religious beliefs? The Prime Minister has previously asserted that he is a Christian. He has also implied that his faith in Christ places upon him no particular obligations – for example to regular attendance at church. Doubtless he therefore sees his carol singing as nothing more than a harmless bit of tradition – a bit like singing ‘White Christmas’ . For him this is merely a symbolic act – like wearing a poppy – it reverences ritual without being inconvenienced by its meaning; it is sufficient of itself; it dispenses with any concomitant need to act in accord with the sentiments expressed.
This cavalier attitude towards Christian religion may accurately reflect the wider mores of society. However, given that the Prime Minister has asserted his belief in Christianity this intellectual lassitude doesn’t dispense him from an obligation to live up to the standards of the religious faith he has chosen to espouse in public. Quite the opposite: Mr Cameron must defend or at least explain what he means us to take from his casual take on Christianity. He would not dare to be so casual about the Muslim faith for example.
Mr Cameron is well enough educated to know words have meanings; his chosen profession is one where words mean everything. Mr Cameron feels he is is well enough placed to be a judge of others and of their motives by means of the words they choose to use. By that same measure the public may choose to weigh his words against his actions and set both against his publicly stated religious belief.
As with so much of Mr Cameron’s public persona I suggest appearances deceive. I suggest that the prime minister has adopted a position which he believes signals something rather than meaning anything. This is a tactic he has used before: from Hug a Hoodie to compassionate conservatism; from leaving the Christian Democrat grouping in the European parliament to deploying the veto over the EU budget last year; from I believe in the NHS to I believe in gay marriage – the PM has a penchant for rhetorical grandstanding. He likes the ring of an inclusive sounding phrase – the Big Society is after all – like the true love and brotherhood in the carol he sang for us yesterday – something he thinks he can embrace without actually having to do much more than sing along. But he is wrong. If he wants the right to appropriate the feel good factor of Christmas; Mr Cameron, like Mr Scrooge, has to put up and do some good in return. Christmas is not a free lunch to those who have rather it is a free lunch for those who have nothing.
When the PM sang hark the herald angels sing did he for example truly believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate born of a virgin; the Deity veiled in flesh; the crucified Saviour; the Christ risen with healing in his wings? I doubt the Prime Minister has even considered what the words he sang really meant let alone what their meaning may require of him. The carol ends :Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Is this really what the Prime minister believes? Or when David Cameron says he is a Christian is what what he really means to say is that he believes in ‘God‘?
After all a generalised belief is some greater deity – God in the abstract – requires nothing very much of anyone beyond some anodyne nod in the direction of all belief systems as if they’re all much-of-a-muchness .Then the PM would simply be Anglican because he happened to be born in the UK. It is the sort of religious faith which means nothing very much but gives a suitable tone to one’s public life. it’s rather like the Prince of Wales fatuously expressed vague wish to be a Defender of Faiths for no very good reason beyond him thinking he might be fitted for such a task by the accident of birth.
As with most else David Cameron espouses this religion of his is all about striking a public pose – hitting the right note- reaching the right demographic. The PM and his busy advisers are adept as modern politicians are at using crafted phrases to convey the right signal to a particular audience. The words they employ speak nothing of interior faith. They stand proxy for mutable sensibilities and not immutable verities. They’re vague; they sound inclusive; they’re cuddly; they’re sort of philosophical guff that passes in the world of celebrity, where Mr Cameron happily rides horses with Rebekah Brooks, for a political philosophy. They imply intellectual depth without leaving the shallows of the banal. But sound-bites bite back.
A telling phrase may be easily spoken; it may sound pleasing to the ear; it may strike the right note; but it may yet still tell another story. These are words that stand for a meaning; they stand beyond the comfortable; they stand beyond the platitudes toasted over the clink of champagne glasses before going in to dinner. Like the angelic heralds they call all who use them – even David Cameron – to a new world. Even in these times; even amongst commercial glare that blinds us to its meaning; even today, on this December 25th, in this, the year of Our Lord 2012, that means something more than singing along to words you chose not to examine too closely for fear of being changed by them.
….to be continued