1 Mar 2019 • From the Clergy
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, John Major launched what became one of the most widely-derided and satirised campaigns of modern times: ‘Back to Basics’. To be fair, the Prime Minister’s words were wilfully misinterpreted by the media; as he himself would observe years later, it was an example of how soundbites taken out of context can be misleading. As the speech itself shows, Major was encouraging a return to what he termed the ‘core values’ of ‘neighbourliness, decency [and] courtesy’, in itself a perfectly reasonable appeal. However, some generic comments about respect for the family led to it being portrayed as a crusade for a conservative personal morality, especially aimed against single mothers on benefits, in part because several more right-wing ministers had recently been pushing that agenda. The media thus reacted with glee as a dozen ministers – some of whom had been fierce advocates of the moralistic agenda – were forced to resign in sex scandals during the government’s final years, along with those MPs caught up in the ‘cash for questions’ affair. Whatever Major’s original intentions, the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign ended up appearing as a hypocritical move by a sleaze-ridden government and entered common parlance as a term of ridicule.
The main problem was that the campaign was seized upon by those who wanted to bring about change and renewal through other people amending their behaviour, while they themselves happily carried on as before. Government ministers are too apt to look for problems in the society they allegedly serve, ignoring their own faults and responsibilities. It is a hypocrisy echoed in the current government, too many of whose members have spent eight years speaking of the need for austerity and the lack of money for public sector workers, and overseeing manifestly unfair reforms of the welfare system, while themselves enjoying generous expenses, often having enormous additional ‘income’ through directorships or consultancy roles, and in several cases avoiding the taxes on their millions which they decry those on pitiful wages for not paying. All too often, blame for the ills of society is placed upon those least able to defend themselves or cause problems for the ruling elite; it is far easier to blame fraudulent benefits claimants (who actually cost the country very little) than corrupt bankers and politicians (who cost the country an awful lot). Renewal and changes in attitude are a fine political programme, as long as they are required of someone else. Try to think of the last government-initiated reform programme which demanded the same sacrifices from MPs and politicians that are so often stipulated for the wider population.
The same hypocrisy can be found in the church, where all too often the language of sin is used as a weapon. Think about the logic especially beloved of fundamentalists in the USA: People who disagree with our understanding of Christianity, who commit the sins we have arbitrarily decided are the more serious ones rather than the minor ones we commit and are thus irrelevant, are the real sinners and they need to repent and come round to our way of thinking before we will accept them as Christians. There is the problem. Too often, we demand repentance of others and (at best) pay lip service to our own need to repent. This is not the message of the gospel. Jesus forgave all who were willing to confront their sinful nature, while reminding us that we are all sinners.
As we enter Lent, with its core themes of penitence and renewal, we should think of the publican and the Pharisee before Jesus, and recall that it was the publican who acknowledged his own sin who went home justified, not the man who proudly observed the sins of others. Penitence and renewal begin with an honest appraisal of ourselves, acceptance of and repentance for our own sins. If we examine ourselves in this way, then we might become more understanding of the sins of others, and perhaps begin to love one another and help put an end to the bitter divisions and hateful rhetoric which is tearing us apart, in so doing renewing our broken society and doing something to bring about God’s kingdom.