Monday, June 22, 2009

Judging our political leaders

1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5.10-17

The Old Testament reading for the second Sunday in June was about a leadership struggle. How topical is that?

Samuel had anointed Saul as king, feeling sure that he was God's chosen leader. But then things started to go wrong and Samuel began to have doubts. Part of the trouble with Saul was his unpredictability and mood swings. Sometimes he was a highly charismatic and effective leader, sometimes he seemed to alienate those closest to him. (Does that remind you of anyone?)

But, finally, what upset Samuel was Saul's lack of killer instinct. On one occasion Saul led an army in a holy war against their enemies the Amalekites. Saul was told to utterly destroy everything but, instead, he and his soldiers kept the spoils of war which they had won in the battle.

When Samuel challenged him about this act of disobedience, Saul insisted that he had only kept the spoils - sheep, cattle and goats - to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord. Was this a typical politician's u-turn, like Hazel Blears writing a cheque to the Inland Revenue for the tax she had avoided, or was Saul being sincere? Either way, it did him no good. Samuel insisted that the Lord had now rejected him from being king.

It's difficult to know what to make of Samuel's insistence that genocide against the Amalekites, and the eradication of their whole culture and even their property and livestock, was God's will. This is the kind of attitude which we condemn in modern day Islamic terrorists, so it's impossible to believe that Samuel was right. However, Saul doesn't emerge from this episode with any credit, either. He didn’t balk at the idea of massacring all the people. He only argued with Samuel about the expenses. It seems he felt that being the leader of the nation gave him the right to reward himself, and his followers, with some of the loot.

Anyway, this expenses scandal was the last straw, and Samuel embarked on a leadership challenge. He went in search of a new king for Israel, even though - technically - this was an act of treason. A secret meeting was convened with Jesse, the leader of the Bethlehemites, one of the clans of Judah, because God seemed to be guiding Samuel to anoint one of Jesse's sons as the new challenger to Saul.

But then comes a huge surprise in the narrative. God does not judge by outward appearance. He looks deep into people's hearts and motives. How unlike the modern era! Just think about the recent row over the fashion photographs of former Europe Minister Caroline Flint, who was accused of using glamour to promote her own career? Or do you know when, for instance, the British people last chose a prime minister who was bald? (It was Clement Attlee, in fact, in 1950.) And consider the many unflattering comments there have been about Gordon Brown's manic smile in his U-Tube interview, or his glass eye? What do all these things tell us about the way we judge people today?

It's much harder, of course, for us to get to the bottom of our leaders' motives than to think about their appearance. We are surrounded by spin and counter-spin. George Osbourne, the Tory economic spokesman, condemned Alistair Darling for avoiding paying his own taxes despite being in charge of the Inland Revenue, but only last summer Mr Osbourne himself was being condemned for partying on a yacht with a corrupt Russian billionaire. How can we begin to fathom the motives of such people? No wonder that a large part of the electorate seems to doubt that any politicians can be trusted at all!

But then, maybe we expect too much of our leaders. Should we judge politicians by a higher standard than the standards we apply to ourselves? What would God find if he looked into the deepest recesses of our hearts?

Eventually Samuel had seen all of Jesse's sons, and had rejected them all, despite their strapping appearance – all that is except for one, the youngest boy, David, who was looking after the sheep. The role of the shepherd in ancient Israel was ambivalent. On the one hand it was a low status job, often given to the youngest member of the family. And here is the proof in our story. An important visitor had arrived, asking to meet all of Jesse’s sons, yet no one thought of sending for the shepherd boy – until Samuel specifically demanded a meeting with him! On the other hand, however, good shepherds were seen as an example of caring and courageous leadership. The good shepherd cared for his sheep and knew each one by name. The way that shepherds often, single-handed and selflessly, protected their flocks from thieves and wild animals, and led the sheep to good pastures and clean refreshing water, was seen as a model for how the nation’s leaders ought to behave and even as a picture of how God loves and looks after his people.

In our modern urban environment we perhaps find shepherds rather remote figures. A better comparison might be nursery school teachers and carers. Like the shepherd tending the flock, they are trusted to look after the nation's children and to protect them from harm. Some nursery school carers, however, betray that trust - like the nursery school worker who is accused of abusing children in Plymouth and taking obscene pictures of them. But many nursery school carers are inspirational. Only this week, on the radio, I heard an interview with the young woman who - aged just 21 at the time - faced down a man with a machete who was trying to kill the children she was looking after. Three times she carried armfuls of three and four year-olds out of harm's way in the playground and into the nursery where they would be safe. 'How could I abandon them,' she said, 'When they were tugging at my skirt and asking for help?' Suffering terrible wounds to her arm, hand and back as she rescued the children, she only thought about the pain and the injuries the man had inflicted when it was all over. That's the kind of protective love which we find on the Cross, where Jesus suffered and died for our sakes.

I guess our MPs, from whatever party they come, probably think of themselves as more important than childcare workers. That's presumably why they think they deserve to be paid so much more money. But it would be no bad thing if politicians were less self-serving and more like that courageous nursery school worker battling the madman with the machete without any regard for her own safety. When politicians think that it's clever to rock the boat or score political points, they are forgetting that their first duty is to look after the nation, and the wider world beyond it.

David’s career as a shepherd had, then, been the perfect schooling for his future role as king, and - guided by God's Spirit - Samuel had no hesitation in anointing him as the future ruler of Israel. But the writer of this passage wants to be able to have his cake and eat it. Yes, God does not see as mortals see, He looks into our hearts instead of being distracted by outward appearances. He chose a simple shepherd rather than a warrior to be the leader of the nation. But, as it happens, the passage tells us that David was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. And, of course, he went on to become a giant killer and a famous general, too.

Thank goodness that we have Jesus, great David's greater son, to look to as our model of leadership. He is the kind of leader who never held high office and never wielded a sword. The only authority that he ever exercised was his own moral authority, which came from his goodness and compassion.

Psalm 20 is a royal psalm, used either at the coronation of the king or perhaps at an annual enthronement festival when the king and the people renewed their vows to God. It begins with the people urging God to answer the king in the day of trouble and provide him with divine protection so that he would know what to do when things went wrong. Of course, God can only fulfil the heart's desire of the leader, and fulfil all his plans, if his motives are good and honourable, but that is taken for granted by the psalmist. There's no cynicism here about politicians, only a heartfelt prayer that when we face potential disasters like global warming, terrorism or financial meltdown and record unemployment God will help our politicians to do the right thing.

The people look forward to a victory celebration not unlike the ones that greeted the election of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, when many people genuinely believed that things could only get better. The psalmist has no doubt that God really will give victory to the nation and make things come right through his anointed leader.

Of course, the ideal picture of kingship depicted in the Psalm seldom came true in reality. Again and again the leaders of Israel proved as frail and fickle as so many of our own MPs have done. Thank goodness, then, that in Jesus we can have a real and enduring victory over evil and injustice, which is not dependent upon political power or good governance, but on the power of God's love.

Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthian Christians that all of us face a day of reckoning not unlike the publication of the MPs' expenses in the Daily Telegraph. What we have done in secret will be laid bare. Outward appearances will be replaced by the revelation of our innermost thoughts and motivations. We can only approach that day with confidence if we have clean consciences, because our true selves are well known to God and there is no Official Secrets' Act to save us from being exposed as frauds if we have been living a lie.

Perhaps we should all have a bit more sympathy for politicians, knowing that all of us risk a similar debacle to the one endured by MPs when the truth came out about their expenses claims. If we have nothing to fear it is only because the love of Christ urges us on. He has died for us all so that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him. In him we can become a new creation. We no longer need to be regarded - or to regard ourselves - in the old way, from a human point of view, as people liable to fail just as easily as our political leaders. For everything has become new.

Paul gets quite carried away in this passage with his own flights of rhetoric. It's stirring stuff, but what does it actually mean in practice?

First of all, if we're going to boast about our leaders - whether they're politicians, or community leaders, or bosses and managers or church leaders - it means that we need to find the right reasons to celebrate them. Outward appearances certainly don't count for anything as far as God is concerned. What matters is the purity of our motives, so we should celebrate and try to look for leaders of all kinds who are humble, kind, compassionate, caring and sensitive; leaders who are prepared to take risks for our sakes and to lay themselves and their own careers on the line; leaders who are made in the image of Christ.

And second, it means that this is how we should try to behave in our own little sphere of influence - as parents, grandparents, team leaders, friends, neighbours and church council members or stewards, or secretaries of the local neighbourhood watch or golf club. Sadly, the world and even the Church contains too many examples of people whose own lives have been made a misery by bad leaders of one sort or another, and who then look for a chance to exercise the same kind of leadership over others as a way of getting even.

If we are truly in Christ, we must be a new creation - breaking the mould of bad leadership and serving others with the same humility and compassion as our master. We must stand upright and take our pride not in human power of any kind, but in the name of the Lord. Then the Lord will grant our heart's desires and fulfil all our petitions.