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A testimony for dangerous times

20 December 2019

Ken Leech still has much to teach the Church about how to oppose injustice, argues Mark Oakley


Far-right supporters of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, clash with police in central London, in August

Far-right supporters of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, clash with police in central London, in August

I WANT the Church to learn again from Ken Leech. One of the things that Ken wrote a lot about was the rise of the Far Right in this country, and, with hate crime increasing, with leaders who campaign in graffiti and then govern in tweets, with the populist strategy of calling everyone liars so that their one big lie goes unnoticed, this is a place that Ken saw could expand and take grip in ways that we wouldn’t even notice.

In his book We Preach Christ Crucified, he argued that “the world system is organised against the Kingdom of God and sometimes the religious powers are also in opposition to it.” Hence the need to restore the political dimension of faith and the visionary dimension of politics.

Revisiting Ken’s work has been an inspiration and has made me reflect on our own strange times. It is not a time for clairvoyants: we never know what a new day will bring politically. But there has been a great deal of exchanging the honestly complex into the dishonestly simple populist slogans: generalisations that smooth over or distract from the truth. This is not new, of course: it’s just particularly bad at the moment — and such abuse spreads around our globe very quickly. It leads to confusion in society about what we believe, what we want, and what is possible. Consumerism makes words seductive, not truthful; technology gives us too many words, our care for them decreasing as they proliferate.

We are living at a time when there is a great deal of cynical use of language. It is what has been called society’s Truth Decay. It is making people ask whether, as a society, we are losing interest in truth; whether the idea of there being objective truth, facts, is now less important to us than opinions. Crisis chatter or infotainment? Is to be interesting more important than to be right? Is there a declining value of accuracy, as society’s reserve currency? Is what matters not veracity but impact? Is dishonesty, therefore, not held to account as it once was? Is lying just a laugh that amuses by messing up a system of value?

NOW, if this is our situation, it is tempting to blame some political and state leaders. Some seem to think that what is truthful is merely what reinforces the mood of the crowd — even serving us “alternative facts”.

History, thankfully, is peppered with those who warn us about such political manipulation. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, one of the Founding Fathers of America, argued for a system of constitutional checks and balances to guard against the possibility. He wrote “of a man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” one day arising, who might “mount the hobby horse of popularity” and “flatter and fall in with all the non-sense of the zealots of the day” to embarrass the government and “throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind”. Wow. Imagine that. . . Could it ever be? Perhaps that is why it was always important to believe that the first President, George Washington, said “I cannot tell a lie.”

Those such as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, read by Ken very carefully in his dissection of fascism, warned from experience that totalitarian rule ultimately takes hold by slow injections of falsity which people then begin to repeat. And so, for all practical purposes, Orwell concludes, the lie will have become truth. It spreads and leads to a general distrust of experts, the belief that, say, science, if inconvenient somehow, is a conspiracy, and that historical studies that do not back up your arguments can be revised.

Journalism begins to reflect a selfie-stick culture, seemingly holding things at an objective distance, but, actually, at the end of the day, reflecting only yourself and your tribe. Religion, too, can hide its darker truths, with pious religion-speak or some deference to authority, and expect the congregations to say “Amen.” If there is anything to what I’m saying, this is a very dangerous place to find ourselves in. And this is a time for that Christian testimony that Ken demanded.

OUR testimony will need prophets. This is a word that we like to use when we are worked up. But please note: being angry alone doesn’t make you a prophet. A prophet does not just get up, sound off, and clear off, feeling a bit better for being so obviously right (“Right, I’ve told them, now it’s up to them.”) John Donne said that it wasn’t the wit or the eloquence or the intellect of a preacher which moves his listeners, but his nearness. How near is this speaker to my humanity?

And, first, the prophet must be speaking out of a humanity to a humanity. The prophet looks into the future and reports back, warns us who we have become and where it is leading, cattle-prods us into some amendments — not as a fiery, rapid ranter, but as someone who wants to help reconcile the world to God and God to the world. Prophets are urgent for restoration, not condemnation.

© ANDREW WIARD 1991The Revd Dr Ken Leech preaching in 1991

Often, this still means that the Christian needs to have courage, because things need to be said that will not go down well with some. It is really annoying, but the gospel gets in the way of trying to keep everyone happy.

The prophetic Christian will speak confidently, with conviction, but not reflecting the poisonous ridicule, sarcasm, demonisation, and cruelty of the present climate. To be truly prophetic will mean not imitating what you condemn. The prophet is working to dispel illusions without leaving you disillusioned. Hope has two beautiful daughters, Augustine says: Anger at the ways things are, and Courage to put them right. The prophet has passion, a passion for God’s justice, and will often be angry. But the purpose of testimony will be to enable the Kingdom, not to enable our self-righteousness.

THIS means that the Christian will also need to be a protester, protesting against the status quo, protesting on behalf of those who haven’t the privilege of a public voice, protesting for change. And, at the moment, there is much protesting to be done in this world, where, if you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu; where a move to the Right is shifting the way we talk about the most important things: asylum, safety, refuge, the poor, the minority, the vulnerable, the other, human rights, and an equal human dignity. And, beware, many talk as if this shift were of God, as if it were Christian.

Much of our protest should be close to home. Christians should take the lead in correcting what Christians have helped to bring about. Never has that been more the case than in the hate thrown to the LGBTQ community, and we still get it wrong.

Many will tell us that we should stay out of the political, assuming that God, Jesus, and the Bible are all apolitical. But, as these people tell us that faith should be personal, protected, and pious, we look at the Christ whose execution was not personal, protected, and pious, but, as Professor Bill Brosend argues, public, brutal, and political.

Christ’s message had consequences that were not welcome. Sometimes, you might get applause, Christian, but sometimes you will know some cost, too. Your spirit might be crucified. In some places in our world, your life might be at risk.

And there is darkness in this world at the moment, as we well know: lives are being ruined, diminished, and even ended by militarised regimes, by poverty, by hunger, by terrorism, by hate crime, by an inability to imagine what it might be like to be someone other than us.

The real danger is that we start to fail to notice. We get used to the TV pictures and we get used to the language that the press, politicians, and society at large begin to use casually; where the bombing of a school full of children is referred to as collateral damage; where someone fleeing for refuge, leaving home for their family’s safety, becomes an immigrant; where degrading sexualised boasts about behaviour towards women are just “locker talk”; where God is praised as a head is cut from a body; where people who are trying to sleep on streets outside must have chosen to be there; and where upholding human rights based on a belief in equal human dignity is smirked at in pubs and papers — and churches, too — unless, of course, they’re talking about their own rights.

ALL this is increasing the darkness. Who will rescue the victims of it? Who, when society wants to push a person into a dark background, out of sight, will shine a light and say “Don’t you dare!” Who will rage at the senseless death of children, at the discrimination and hate shown to the vulnerable, at the convenient casual categorisation of human beings into first-, second-, and third-class citizens? Who will rescue from the darkness?

The answer: the one who believes in God — not a God utilised to back a political campaign, not a God weaponised into a big version of our own prejudices, not a God who likes some more than others, but the God who loves equally all that he has made: the God who gave us diversity, although we tirelessly make division out of it. This is the protest against the darkness of the age, to let the oppressed go free.

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and winner of the 2019 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing, for The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry (Canterbury Press, 2016). Canon Oakley is a trustee of Liberty.

This is an edited extract of the Ken Leech Memorial Lecture, “The Viciousness of Injustice”, which was delivered last month at Luther King House, in Manchester.

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