Tuesday, May 18, 2010

God's Election Manifesto

Acts 11.1-18, John 13.31-35, Revelation 21.1-6

I wonder what you've made of the election leaflets that we've had through our doors over the last few weeks? Perhaps you haven't looked at them, in which case you won't know that we have the youngest parliamentary candidate in England. He says he represents a real change from the traditional career politicians. Perhaps that's because he hasn't yet had much of a career of any kind. Aged 19, Alan Belmore looks more like a 13 year-old in the picture on the front of his leaflet. Not surprisingly, he's not really chasing the grey vote. Another picture inside the leaflet shows him discussing politics with an ardent admirer, perhaps his girlfriend. The caption says he's with a group of young people - but there's certainly no one else visible.

Are children and young people going to influence the way you vote on May the 6th? Perhaps they should. Young people are blamed for most of the crime and anti-social behaviour in our communities and we're often very wary when we see groups of young people hanging around on street corners. But actually, young people themselves are far more likely to be the victims of crime than we are. They're also more likely to be unemployed at the moment, especially if they've no work experience. And young people in care, or leaving care, are particularly vulnerable. We need a positive vision for how we're going to give young people a stake in society and how we're going to support struggling families to look after their children and young people better. But is that something which is at the heart of the debate between the political parties? What are our local candidates saying about young people and families in their election leaflets? Even Alan doesn't have anything very specific to say. He's just calling for more facilities for the young.

A poster on the way to Wakefield shows a smiling Gordon Brown next to the caption, 'I've released 80,000 prisoners early.' If that's the level of debate on the subject of prisons it's disappointing because there are some important issues which need to be addressed. Most of the prison population have mental health or substance abuse problems, or learning difficulties, so getting crime down further - and it has been going down dramatically anyway - means doing something about these problems if we really want to reduce reoffending.

David Cameron promises on the back - or is it the front - of Ann Myatt's leaflet that he will fight back against crime - but he doesn't say how. Christians have been at the forefront of developing a new approach to crime, called 'restorative justice', where the offender is asked to take responsibility for the harm they've caused to their victims and put it right, by saying sorry but also by doing something practical to make amends. Not everyone thinks that's a good idea. Would you want to meet the person who had stolen your wallet or your handbag? How could they - or someone like them who had committed a similar offence - make amends to you?

So what do the politicians have to say about these things? Are they just churning out the same old discredited statistics and alarmist stories? David Cameron talks about fighting back against crime as though it's still on the rise, whereas the crime rate is actually lower than it's been for many years.

Ann Myatt is not only old enough to be Alan Belmore's mother but she's also a hospital consultant so health figures very prominently in her election leaflet. Even so, she doesn't say anything about the biggest challenge facing the health service. As we all grow older, how are we going to afford the extra health and nursing care that older people inevitably need? And how are we going to solve the pensions' crisis? Ian Kitchen from the BNP wants to increase the old age pension by taking money away from the help we give to developing countries to reduce global warming, but that doesn't seem very wise unless - like Mr Kitchen - you happen to think that climate change is non-existent.

Of course a lot of the political debate - on TV, on the radio , on the Internet and in the newspapers - has been about the economy. Everyone agrees that there are going to have to be cuts in public services and higher taxes, to pay for the bail out of the banks. But should we pay more national insurance, or should we have higher pollution taxes to help persuade us to reduce the energy we use? And how are we going to make sure that the cuts in public services don't bear down hardest on the most vulnerable people in our society - the elderly, the unemployed, the sick and the poor?

None of the leaflets say anything about that at all. Jon Trickett has a lot to say about what has been achieved in the past but nothing at all about the future, except that he's going to keep trying to bring more jobs to the constituency. Actually we've had a cornucopia of leaflets from Jon Trickett and my wife was very annoyed to find that - among them - he had sent my son and I a personal message about immigration, but seemed to have missed her out. Until we discovered - in the bottom corner of another leaflet, this time about the health service - a very discreet address label showing that it had been sent to her!

But in common with all the candidates from the main political parties, all of Jon Trickett's leaflets are very policy lite. Will it be all right, for example, to reduce spending on our schools? Or what about increasing the financial burden on students and reducing the money spent on universities? Should we have more vocational courses in schools and colleges, training young people to do a particular job rather than developing their minds? Do we need better discipline in schools, as David Cameron said in one of the televised debates, and if so how is that going to be achieved? And what's the role of social and moral education in our schools? None of the candidate has anything to say about these questions.

Or what about living in a multi-cultural society? Is it something that we feel good about or something which frightens us? Do politicians play on our fears about this, or do they have constructive ideas about how we can make things fairer all round? What role should the UK play in the world? Should we still be trying to be a world policeman - sorting out failing states like Afghanistan, or should we retreat and try to create a Fortress Britain that keeps troublemakers out? And how do we feel about the whole European project? Is Europe another bogeyman that politicians can use to frighten us, or does an ever larger European Union strengthen our economy and help to make the world a safer place?

The only ones who have anything to say about immigration are Ian Kitchen from the BNP and the independent candidate, Ian Womersley MBE, who says it's time to apply the brakes to the immigration gravy train and close the door. 'A recent example of lax immigration, ' his leaflet says, 'Is that a Portuguese national is allowed to claim child benefit, yet he does not work or pay any contributions to tax and national insurance.' It seems that before any of us goes to France, or Spain, or Portugal in future, Mr Womersely wants us to have a pre-arranged job, because that's what he wants other EU citizens to have before they come here. So my son's summer trip around Europe might not go ahead if Mr Womersley gets elected. Mr Womersley wants us to build up our relationship with our old allies - presumably the Americans and the Commonwealth - instead of being part of a European super state.

Mr Kitchen, however, doesn't have much time for Americans either. He says that the war in Afghanistan is only being fought to protect American oil companies. His leaflet says, 'At this election there is a clear moral choice: the BNP and peace, or the warmongering politicians.'

It would be easier, of course, for the BNP to take the moral high ground if their leaflet didn't contain an outright lie. 'I'm sick of asylum seekers coming here,' a young woman is quoted as saying, 'And being sent to the front of the queue!' Now I'm not sure what queue she's thinking about. The leaflet implies, without quite joining the dots, that she means the queue for pensions, housing and health care. Well I work with asylum seekers, and I can definitely say that the only queue asylum seekers are liable to go straight to the front of is the queue for deportation.

Mr Womersley says he's going to fight for some things - to do with the rights of migrants from the EU - which are actually already the law, so that shouldn't be difficult for him to achieve. He also has a dubious statistic in his leaflet, that the government has spent more than a billion pounds each year on housing for immigrants - presumably he means things like housing benefit to low income families - and I hope he went to the hustings meeting last night and that someone asked him how he justified it. But in fairness to him the other candidates have much shorter leaflets, pick and choose the issues they want to campaign for, by-pass the more difficult ones and fight shy of using any statistics at all.

The questions I've been asking, the ones which the candidates sometimes seem to shy away from, all come from the election website of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. They've been posed by different Christian experts. They're the kind of questions we should all be asking ourselves as we make up our minds how to vote.

I think it's instructive that today's reading from Acts is about the recognition by the first Christians that their faith could not be confined to one particular race, or culture, or religious tradition. If God is the father and creator of the whole human race then, as Peter realised after his vision, the Christian message must be intended for everyone and we have no right to draw distinctions between ourselves and other people or say that we somehow deserve better life chances than they do. Ian Kitchen's call to electors to 'Get even' on immigrants and foreigners by voting BNP doesn't seem to sit very comfortably with this passage.

John chapter 13, verses 34 and 35 remind us that Christians live under the commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ to love one another as he first loved us - and, of course, he loved us selflessly and without limit. When it comes to putting our cross on the ballot paper this means putting ourselves in the shoes of other people.

I expect you've seen some of the election posters from the Conservative Party which begin 'I've never voted Tory before but...' and then go on to explain why, this time, the person in the picture has lost patience with Labour. Of course, this has led to all kinds of mischievous changes to the posters - either on websites or on the actual billboards themselves. One poster was altered to read, 'I've never voted Tory before and I never will because Mrs T stole my school milk.' Another said simply, 'I've never voted Tory before, but I will this time because now I'm rich.' A third said, 'I've never voted Tory before, but being made unemployed sounds fun.' A lot of the changes have been much more scurrilous than that and I dare not repeat them!

Some people have actually suggested that the Conservatives designed this advertising campaign very cleverly to encourage people to poke fun at them because at least it gets us, and young people especially, talking and thinking about politics. It creates what the pundits call 'water cooler' moments. And maybe that's no bad thing. But, of course, as Christians we should not be casting our votes purely out of self-interest. We should be asking ourselves what is in the best interests of everyone, and especially what is in the best interests of those who are most in need.

And that brings us, finally, to the passage from Revelation Chapter 21, which is God's election manifesto. For Christianity promises that one day God will make all things new, and life on earth will be as it was always intended to be, a perfect mirror image of heaven. God will dwell among his people on earth, just as they now dwell with him in heaven beyond this life. And the centre piece of God's manifesto is the election slogan, the catchphrase, the soundbite which sums up the Gospel message: 'There will be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!'

As we go to cast our votes, and I hope we all will vote, we will have to ask ourselves, 'Which Party, which candidate, is - in my judgement - most likely to bring that promise a little closer?' Looking at the leaflets, they might seem a rather unpromising bunch but human beings are never perfect, and we all know how imperfect political institutions can be. Perhaps you will be thinking that we just have to choose the least worst candidate. Or perhaps you think the choice is a little better than that, and one candidate stands out from the crowd. But what we do have to ask ourselves is how the people who govern our land can help us to bring closer the new heaven and the new earth. And - after election day - we must remember that governance is a two-way process. Politicians can't make things better - if that's their aim - by themselves. We must work with them.

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