By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
It’s chapter 11 of 1 Samuel – and the people are rejoicing; they’re rejoicing because Saul, the king they asked for in chapter 8, the new way of doing things they demanded (for no better reason than that others had it), has won a great victory. But it’s obvious that, when the term ‘the people’ is used, it doesn’t really mean all the people. There had obviously been those, perhaps there still were those, who didn’t see the need of a king – or at least not this king. And we know that because his supporters now want to kill those who disagreed with them.
No political choice ever commands universal approval – and there has been a tendency every now and then, in all sorts of places, for those who disagreed with a government, or a system of government, to be branded as traitors, or quislings, or ‘the enemy within’. It’s amazing how often and how easily majorities can feel threatened by the very existence of people who take another view.
But Saul takes the high road. Things have gone well, he says; let’s give thanks for that, and not have talk about killing anyone. And Samuel who, in chapter 8, did his very best to dissuade the people from having a king, now grabs some of the glory by saying how well he has done by giving them a king who now seems so popular.
Political amnesia is not a recent invention, and neither is political opportunism. Saul says grandly that ‘it is the king who rules you now’, hasn’t my judgement been good for you? But back in chapter 8 he said:
‘In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
As in many a situation, it probably depends on who you listen to. The people we’re hearing in chapter 11 are those who have done well out of the new system, probably the nobles and the warriors – we are, after all, being told of the reaction to a military victory. And maybe the people Samuel was referring to earlier have indeed suffered in the way he said they would – the people whose precarious existence may now indeed have worsened, as power becomes concentrated at the ‘top’ of the societal pyramid.
Every result of an election will have winners and losers, those who rejoice and those who despair, those whose prayers appear to have been answered, and those who ask why God has abandoned them. And the church, like Samuel, has had a disturbing tendency to line up with the winners.
So, when we pray at the time of a General Election, we need to be careful what we pray for. We need to be careful, because there is a theory that we get the government we deserve – and that’s a scary thought! If we pray for a government that will benefit me against ‘them’, we may get a government of narrow and selfish self-interest; we may get a government that listens to the views of the selfish. When we pray at the time of an election we need to pray for a government that will be for all the people – the losers as well as the winners – because, who knows (and nobody does at the moment), we may end up among the losers.
Governments may be defined by their imagination, their creativity, their vision – or by their lack of these things. And that’s where our praying becomes, perhaps, most important; it’s when what we pray for becomes important; and it’s why we need to be careful about it. Perhaps we need not so much to ask our potential rulers what their specific policies are, not at first; perhaps first we need to get at their vision.
What kind of country, what kind of world, do they pray for? Is their government to be one ‘of the winners, by the winners, and for the winners’? Or might it have a grander vision, a broader imagination, a more generous idea of what it wants to create?
In a Godly society, said John Calvin, no one should have too little – and no one should have too much. And there is an enormous amount of evidence that the wider the inequality within a country, the more inefficient the society, and the unhappier the people. So it might be reasonable to ask why, when resources are scarce, the answer seems to be that the rich need more and the poor need less. Why is it that we can be told that ‘we are all in this together’ in one breath – and in the next that it is the poorest who must bear the greatest burden?
The Church of Scotland has for a long time argued that one of the most important ways of holding a society together, creating a nation in which we really are ‘all in this together’, is through a proper and properly progressive taxation system. Paying our taxes is one of the principal ways that we say to one another: ‘I am for you’; it’s the way we say that we are part of this collection of people among whom we live.
Paul writes to the church in Rome in a pretty challenging way. It’s a challenge to many of us because it talks not only about taxes but also about obedience – and so it has been used and abused by many an authoritarian regime – notably in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. There is, of course, the realisation that Paul was trying to keep the church in Rome out of trouble, trying to stave off persecution, trying to assure the authorities that the Christians were not a threat – and that does go some way to putting what Paul says in context.
But it doesn’t take away the challenge entirely – and especially not when it comes to this issue of tax. This is not, as in Acts, a story of equality and sharing among the members of the church – though that too might point us in the right direction. This is about the place of Christians in the society at large. It is a direct argument against those who, then and ever since, have sought to suggest that Christians can or should withdraw from society and form their own utopian sect.
That, says Paul, is not what Christian living is about. Christian living is lived for others – not just for other Christians, but for others, whoever they may be. We are not in the business of ‘opting out’ of our responsibilities, or our society, or our taxes. And we are in the business of urging others not to opt out either. So for the rich to squirrel their wealth away in offshore tax havens, to set up complicated schemes to suggest they have no income when they are, in fact, rolling in money, is not only to break the law of the land, it is to contradict pretty directly the tenets of our faith.
So in an election it is important not to allow ourselves to be bought by promises about tax. In an election it is important for political parties not to try to suggest that taxes are not part of any sensible plan to look after the country. And, I have to say, that to promise a law that forbids any raising of tax rates for five years, no matter what happens, is just plain irresponsible.
But, as I said last week about immigration, politicians tend to tell us what they think we want to hear. And, if all they hear from us, the voters, is about paying too much tax, then that’s what they’ll react to. They need to hear from us that the more we have, the more we recognise we should be contributing. They need to hear about the injustice of the richest of people paying hardly anything in tax. They need to hear that we really ought all to be in this together – and the tax system ought to show that; and the tax system is there to make it happen.
No, I don’t think we’re being asked to forget about food and drink, and clothes and shelter, when we go to the polling place on Thursday – and Jesus wasn’t suggesting they are not important. What he was saying, and what we still need to hear, is that those things will be there if the values of the kingdom are guiding us. Paul says in one of his letters that love is the fulfilling of the law – that the commandments are fine, but actually if we are ruled by love the commandments will look after themselves. And Jesus is saying the same here.
If, for example, we know that all people are made in the image of God, then we will know that they are all equal in the sight of God, all worthy of respect and consideration, all sharing the same human tendency to get things wrong, the same desire to get things right, the same need to be fed and clothed and housed. If we start with the kingdom, we will know that we are here for one another, and those we elect to govern us need to govern for all of us.
It’s about priorities; it’s about recognising that many things are important, but that there are some things that help other things fall into place – and, as a shorthand, Jesus talks (here and elsewhere) about ‘the kingdom’, the reign of God – the way into getting the other things right.
And I suppose there will be for many of us one particular issue that, in the end, decides our vote. There will be one thing that opens up a whole vista of interpretation – a key to how the people seeking our vote think, and therefore a key to our decision-making, our priorities, our choices.
Maybe it’s their understanding of poverty – whether they see the poor as people who need to be helped out of their poverty, or punished for it. Maybe it’s their understanding of the needs of the planet – whether it’s there to be protected for future generations, or exploited for this one. Maybe it’s our membership of the European Union – whether we see it as an expression of solidarity and a sharing of resources, or as a drain on our resources and a deficit in democracy.
For what it’s worth, here’s mine – not to persuade you, simply to explain myself. As at the last General Election, I have decided that I will not vote for any party that supports the retention of Britain’s nuclear weapons. After many previous years of saying that this was just one issue among many, I decided that, if a party couldn’t bring itself to oppose these weapons, I could not bring myself to vote for it.
And I came to that conclusion because the retention of Trident makes liars of us all: it makes us pretend to believe that we are defended by it – and the truth is that we are not. It’s about strutting our stuff on the international stage; it’s not about defence, and many very senior people in the armed forces would agree – and many politicians, in spite of their public arguments, know it to be true.
I came to the conclusion that the retention of Trident makes hypocrites of us all: we are forced into logical contortions by saying that it’s OK for us to have them, but not for India, or Pakistan, or Israel, or North Korea – and we just happened to have them sooner. It also forces us to argue that, while they are essential for our defence, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and most of the world, are fine without them.
I came to the conclusion that the retention of Trident makes fools of us all: it makes us believe that the most extraneous of arguments are valid – such as ‘Trident provides employment’, as if that were a reasonable or sensible justification – and we wouldn’t dream of using that justification for biological or chemical weapons, or trafficking drugs, or a host of other immoral things.
And I came to the conclusion that the retention of Trident makes paupers of us all: at a time when we can all come up with a long list of things we cannot afford, and would like to, we persist in throwing obscene amounts of money at a totem of completely useless vanity.
For decades now our church has opposed these weapons, asking in vain the question, ‘what are they for?’ My conclusion is that I cannot in all conscience vote for anyone who will not at least try to rid our country of them. We cannot serve two masters and, for me, these weapons have been, and continue to be, masters of our national politics – masters that need urgently to be overthrown. For me, there is no seeking of the kingdom that is compatible with keeping them.