Jeremy Corbyn is running down the street one day, and he sees a little girl who is giving away puppies that her dog just had. He goes up to the girl and says, “Little girl, I think that it’s wonderful that you’re doing such a good thing.” The little girl says, “Thank you, Mr. Corbyn. Would you like a puppy? They’re Labour supporters.” Jeremy declines and jogs away. The next day Jeremy jogs past the same girl and decides to talk to her again. “You know what, little girl? I think I’ll take one of those puppies after all, seeing as how they’re Labour supporters.” The girl says, “I’m sorry Mr. Corbyn, but they’re not Labour any more. They’re Conservative now.” Jeremy says, “They are? How do you know? As a matter of fact, how did you know that they were Labour to begin with?” She says, “Well, just after they were born they were Labour, but now their eyes are open.”
So it’s election time, and I’m going to try not to upset anybody! So let me start off by saying that I’m not voting Labour or Conservative in this election. And that is the last I’ll say about party politics. But what I do want to talk about is having your eyes open about politics.
Today we start to read 1 Samuel together. Over the last few months we have read the story of how the Israelites escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. It is the story of the beginning of the formation of a nation. 1 Samuel picks up that story about 200 years later. The 12 tribes of Israel are now settled in the land of Palestine. They are not a wealthy people, in fact they are not really a people, a nation at all. The 12 tribes have their own identity, and they rarely work together on anything. They are like independent states within a small country that has no central government.
Every so often that country is threatened by an enemy, and the tribes have to unite around a Judge who will lead them as a nation, before they go back to being separate tribes. That is until Samuel comes along: Samuel is a prophet and judge rolled into one. He is anointed by God, and leads the nation both spiritually and politically. But as we get to chapter 8, he is growing old, and the nation does not wish to be ruled by his sons, who do not share their father’s integrity. So they ask Samuel to appoint a king for them.
Now why would they want a king? Well, it’s obvious: the nation is much stronger when it is united, it can better fight off enemies, it can better resolve disputes between tribes, it leads to less violence and greater security, and security leads to more prosperity.
But that is not the whole story. Samuel is not happy about their request for a king, and it seems that God isn’t happy too. And here’s the reason, it’s an old adage but it is still true: power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. The quote is attributed to Lord Acton a British writer in 1887, and he continued: Great men are almost always bad men.
Now that may seem an unduly pessimistic view, but Samuel and God seem to take a similar view. Samuel tells the people that with a king will come: taxes, forced labour, standing armies, social division, and in the end more wars. You see it goes like this: to begin with a new King has his hands full sorting out disputes and acting as a judge, but then he makes some enemies, because not everybody likes his judgements, so then he needs an army to protect not only the borders, but himself. And his army needs paying all year round, so he has to raise taxes. And then because he is king, he gets to thinking that he is better than other people so he needs a special palace, and more than one wife, and he needs to entertain his friends and his enemies – to exercise soft power. And before long he needs to raise more taxes to keep up the standard of living. But people don’t like paying taxes, so he needs to invade another country to plunder their resources, so he starts a war, and makes more enemies….and so on.
The King who was meant to keep the peace has ended up starting wars to justify his existence. Samuel sees the dangers ahead, and God adds that asking for a king is in fact an act of apostasy – they are rejecting God as king and starting a slippery slope that leads to the destruction of the nation 300 years later. That’s all it took. The king of Assyria destroyed the 10 tribes that had their capital in Samaria, because their king decided to try and punch above his weight. The 10 Northern tribes were forever lost to history, as the prophet predicts. It started with choosing a king, instead of allowing Judges to arise as God enabled and as the occasion demanded. Choosing a king was in fact the whole nation abdicating from its responsibility under God.
So what has this got to do with politics today? Well, of course some things are very different now. We now elect politicians for 5 years at a time, which means that we have learnt the bitter lesson that inherited monarchies are not very good forms of government. Democracy is closer to the system of Judges that existed before Samuel gave in to their request for a king.
But democracy is not that strong a form of government. We are already seeing that lots of people don’t bother to vote. They are abdicating from the political process: “give us a king” they are saying “to make all the decisions for us”. Not voting is a spineless abdication of responsibility. Better to vote badly than not to vote at all. Or stand as a politician yourself if you can’t vote for anybody else
We are also witnessing the breakdown of some of the supra national organisations in favour of more nationalistic sentiments. Britain is leaving the EU. Scotland might leave the Union. The USA has elected a much more isolationist President than before. At one level this is a return to politics that is closer to home. We want to take back sovereignty, which is all well and good. But what happens next? The insight of 1 Samuel is that more kings leads not to peace, but war, as each nation jostles for superiority. The very institutions that we are withdrawing from were those set up in response to 2 world wars.
The language about making Britain or Scotland or the USA strong again is worrying. From a Christian perspective strength lies in sacrifice – the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. From a secular perspective strength is the ability to get your own way. As you come to vote you need to ask yourself what vision of a strong Britain am I being offered here? Strong is not a bad thing, but strength comes in very different guises: there is the brute strength of the bully, and the quiet strength of the counsellor; there is the strength of the protector and the strength of the aggressor. Which strength are you voting for?
So from Samuel we move to John 10 – Jesus tells us that he is the gate to the sheepfold. He goes on to say that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but that comes later. Here he is telling us something else: there are shepherds who are doing it for gain, and there are shepherds who are doing it for love. The word shepherd means leader in the bible; in biblical times shepherds led their sheep to pasture and away from danger; so a shepherd is a leader, both religiously and politically, because the bible recognises no distinction between religious and political leadership. Jesus is talking about leadership. He is a leader who is motivated by love, by the desire for the best for those he leads. But other leaders are just hired hands, who care nothing for the flock. Now this is just as relevant today as it was when Jesus first said these words. There are religious leaders who seem more motivated by money and power than by love. There are politicians who seem the same.
How do we tell the difference? Jesus says that his sheep recognise his voice; there is something inside them that recognises the quality of the person who is trying to lead them. We all have an intuition about politicians and religious leaders, much of it is false. Psychologists will tell you that people vote for politicians based on their appearance. That is a blinding stupid way to vote.
What you need to do is listen and listen well. When you hear a politician or preacher speaking do they resonate with the character of Jesus. Are they driven by love, or by anger, ambition or greed? You can discern these things, and you must do so. There is no excuse for not reading a manifesto and doing your best to hear, actually hear the words of somebody who you might vote for. Words are the best way that we can discern the heart of a speaker. Actions speak loud, yes, but politics is the art of using words to produce actions.
But let’s come back to personal spirituality, as we close, 2 questions:
1. Have you become cynical about politics? Have you decided not to vote or stopped asking questions? How does that connect with Jesus and the OT prophets who were absolutely involved in the political process? Let’s not allow cynicism about politicians to make us disengage. If we do, we will surely get the wrong kind of politicians leading us.
2. How do we develop our ability to hear the voice of Jesus? We have this habit of delegating our responsibility to hear God for ourselves: give us a king, we say, give us a preacher, we say, let me read a good book, we think. But how do we learn to hear the voice of God ourselves? What do you think?