Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dr Fox, Tony Blair and The Counsel of the Wicked

Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8

‘Happy is the one who does not take the counsel of the wicked for a guide.’ Why might Doctor Fox come to mind when we read those words? He didn’t take the counsel of the wicked, but neither did he take the counsel of his civil servants for a guide. Despite repeated warnings he failed to stick to the path laid out in the ministerial code and - in the end - he didn’t prosper. When judgement came he found that he could not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

Of course, he’s not alone. Tony Blair didn’t take the counsel of the wicked either, but he did take the counsel of spin doctors for a guide when he wanted to justify the war against Iraq. He followed the path laid out in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and - like Dr Fox - he has been driven hither and thither like chaff, by the winds of public opinion. When judgement came, in the shape of the Chilcot Inquiry, he had plenty to say in his own defence - because Tony Blair is never wrong, of course - but will he really find, after the verdict is handed down, that he can stand firm in the assembly of the righteous? In the meantime at any rate, Tony Blair still prospers in all he does. In fact, he’s made his fortune since he resigned as prime minister.

Righteousness took a long while to catch up with Colonel Gaddafi. He began as a radical reformer, but his head was soon turned by the counsel of the wicked. He followed the path set out in his own Green Book. ‘Women are females and men are males,’ he wrote in one of the sillier passages. But in other sections of the book he could be quite philosophical. He called for a universal cultural revolution to rid the world of fanaticism. But, of course, that didn’t extend to ridding the world of his own peculiar brand of fanaticism. When there was a revolution against him, Gaddafi proved the accuracy of one of his own sayings by the barbaric actions that he ordered his troops to take: ‘Boxing and wrestling,’ he had said, ‘Are proof that human beings have not rid themselves of all savage behavior.’ Gaddafi was certainly driven like chaff before the wind, and he was certainly doomed, but he didn’t come to judgement.

Yet is the way of the wicked really doomed? Adolf Hitler came to a bad end, but not Joseph Stalin! Sometimes righteous people do not prosper because they seem too good for a world like this. They seem to suffer because they won’t take the counsel of the wicked - they refuse to take short cuts, or appease the crowd, or short change their customers, or bend the rules.

What about the Welsh ruby team? They considered cheating in their match against France. But the coach did not the counsel of the wicked, nor take the path that sinners tread. His delight was in the international laws of rugby. However, the team didn’t prosper, it lost. Who can say what would have happened if they had bent the rules, instead. Would they have been found out, or might they have won the game?

Later writers got around this problem by coming up with the idea of life beyond death. If judgement comes at the end of time, after death, it doesn’t matter whether or not we have prospered in this life. We can still imagine the wicked being driven like chaff driven before the wind until they perish, while the righteous are like a tree planted by streams of water which stands firm.

The final question to ask about this psalm is, ‘What about the scoffers?’ The Psalmist imagines that the wicked take refuge among the scoffers, but that was before the creation of a free press. The newspapers have taken a battering in recent months, after the scandal of mobile phone hacking. Picking up on the widespread revulsion which people feel about tabloid journalism, Dr Fox couldn’t resist taking a swipe at some of the people who had scoffed at him, accusing journalists of vindictive and hurtful reporting.

In his speech to the Levison Inquiry into the Media, a week ago, Paul Dacre - editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail - put the case for press freedom. He said, ‘I’d … like to persuade you that there are thousands of decent journalists in Britain who don’t hack phones, don’t bribe policemen and who work long anti-social hours for modest recompense – and if they’re in the regional press often for a pittance – because they passionately believe that their papers give a voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous.’ He suggested that those who feel the press ought to be more regulated should try living in Zimbabwe.

Scoffers today, then, can sometimes be the very people who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, to the discomfort of the powerful. But, of course, the Psalmist is thinking of a different kind of scoffer, the person who deliberately scoffs at the very idea of principles and righteousness and seeks to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, to human greed and veniality.

Last Monday, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, I heard the famous atheist Richard Dawkins trying to defend himself from just this charge. Although he believes the world doesn’t have any meaning or purpose, nonetheless he was still capable, he insisted, of recognising beauty and mystery - a magical quality he called it - in the world around him, and of finding inspiration in music and so on. In that sense, he wants us to understand that he is not a scoffer. But, of course, plenty of other people, who are less intelligent and thoughtful, have concluded that if the world is without meaning then it no longer matters how they live or what they do.

Another atheist on the same programme, cosmologist Lisa Randall, said that - although she didn’t believe in anything - she still took pride in being the best scientist that she could possibly be. But a lot of people who don’t believe in anything don’t take pride in anything, either. They scoff at effort of any kind, preferring the counsel of the wicked and the feckless as their guide, following the easy path that sinners take, which is why the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs - who was also a guest on the same programme - insisted that without belief there is no real hope.

Standing up to the scoffers may not be easy if you are a politician caught out misusing your power, but neither is it easy for Christians and other believers in a secular and deeply cynical world. The scoffers of today are not necessarily deliberately siding with wickedness, as the Psalmist imagined. They are simply people who refuse to commit to any principles at all and who find it easy to criticise those who do have principles, especially when they go wrong or if they stand up for what they believe.

This is what Paul and his companions were doing - standing firm for the Gospel despite the outrageous treatment meted out to them in Philippi, where they were stripped, flogged and thrown into prison. When Paul talks about the great opposition they had faced he is referring to mob rule. Anyone would think - from the way they had been treated - that they were trying to deceive people, or cheat them, or that Paul and his companions were somehow deluded and needed saving from themselves. But, of course, all they had been trying to do was delight in the law of the Lord and yield God’s fruit by proclaiming the Gospel.

They didn’t follow the counsel of the wicked, or the path that sinners tread, by currying favour with the angry mob. They were, instead, ever mindful that they would need, one day, to be able to stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

And, of course, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Now that they have been to Thessaolonica too, the Thessalonian Christians know only too well that Paul never minces his words or resortes to insincere flattery. He tells it how he sees it.

Although Paul clearly felt that he was entitled to claim authority over the churches he ministered to, because of his call from the risen Jesus to be an apostle or messenger of the Gospel, he prefers - or so he claims here - to take a gentler approach, sharing his very self with the congregations he worked alongside, out of deep affection for them.

In the short term, Paul’s approach appeared to meet with failure. He was eventually taken to Rome in chains where he was almost certainly martyred for his faith. His letters were so easily disregarded, and so little cherished, by the people who had received them that whole sections of some of them, and in other cases the entire correspondence, was lost to posterity. Yet, in God’s good time he was vindicated. Many of his lost letters were rediscovered and dusted off; some new ones were even written around a few scattered fragments of the missing originals; and his theology has come to dominate much of Christian thinking. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

What are we to conclude? God will make our cause to prosper, he will help us to yield fruit, he is watching over us. But God’s ways are not the world’s ways. The counsel of the wicked will suggest that we are misguided. The scoffers will insist that we are deluding ourselves. But in the end their opinions will be driven before the wind like chaff. They will not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous. Their worldly wisdom is doomed. And, in the meantime, we must continue to gently share our very selves with the people around us as we seek to impart - fearlessly and frankly - the truth that has been entrusted to us.

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