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The Church And The Politics Of Polarisation

Address to Rochester Diocesan Synod, March 2, 2019

Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary publishes a Word of the Year; a word which has caught on. These are usually neologisms; words that are new to the vocabulary. Recent choices include omnishambles, selfie and vape. For 2018, the OED chose an old word which has become newly fashionable. Poison.


The attack by Russian agents on the lives of Sergei and Julia Skripal with the nerve agent novichok a year ago this weekend was a shocking crime. In assaulting them with poison, the lives of countless others were put at risk too, leading to the death of one poor woman. No-one knew where the poison might be smeared in Salisbury, making for an uncertain and frightening time. In a way, it stands for how poison has begun to course through our public life too.


An illuminating finding from the US has shown that as people have become more accepting of racial and cultural differences, they have become more intolerant politically. The percentage of Americans saying they would be happy for their child to marry someone of another ethnicity is going up, while those who would be happy for the child to marry someone from another political party is going down.


I think there are legitimate questions about whether racial tensions are easing in the US after Charlottesville and with a coarsening rhetoric in American leadership, but let’s take the survey’s finding for what it is. We know that US trends often spread across the Atlantic. If so, we may be at the start of an era where we tolerate people’s values and beliefs less because this is the last acceptable refuge of prejudice.


Something has happened in the UK too. The dividing lines have historically been between parties of the right and left. In the space of under three years, this has morphed into the hardening division between Leavers and Remainers. There are many different reasons people think the way they do about the European Union. The former editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart made a perceptive stab at this when he divided people into those who think they are from ‘anywhere’ and those who feel they are from ‘somewhere’. But the fundamental argument in his book ‘The Road to Somewhere’ is that each side needs to recognise the other is not going to go away and no-one should be villainised simply for voting as they did and thinking as they do. Except, that’s exactly what’s happening. And it has become a source of poison in our public life.


For us there is a bigger question still to address. What does it mean to be a country that reflects the character of God? One where people, their relationships, laws, customs, institutions and economy have something of Christ about them. Do we have the theological tools, confidence and openness to other views that enable us to forge agreed and meaningful things to say in the public arena? When the new Bishop of Harare was consecrated at Epiphany this year, it was celebrated by over six thousand Africans, singing, dancing and banging drums in a municipal sports stadium. In welcoming Bishop Farai, I put this question to the gathering: what does it mean for your country to be shaped in the character of God? Zimbabwe has endured many years of corrupt, strong man leadership and is reaping the whirlwind of mismanagement. Only a week after departing, a new and depressing cycle of uprising and crackdown erupted. These are the effects of a country deprived of justice.


In our different ways, the question of how God is honoured in public life remains for both them and us. In the UK, a necessary fixation with the question of leaving the EU has distracted us from the routine workings of our own Parliament. Unless there are rifts, scandals and vendettas to assess, most people ignore it. We are disengaged from the political process and our political parties are not strong. A recent poll said 68 percent of Britons feel there is currently no political party that represents them. They also remain unrepresentative of the wider country. The journalist and broadcaster Isabel Hardman has calculated it costs £35,000 to stand for Parliament. How many people have this kind of money set aside to blow in a potentially unsuccessful bid? Big wage earners and those who have inherited their wealth are over-represented in the House of Commons. Does this reflect the character of God?


Once elected, many MPs lack the skill, time or inclination to scrutinise legislation for its effectiveness. The modern bureaucratic state, inside the EU and outside it, is so complicated and interwoven that it is hard to interpret. The sadness is that many bad pieces of legislation only come to light in MPs’ surgeries as their effects work out in practice in the lives of the most vulnerable. More attention to the task of reviewing legislation is called for. A country forged in the character of God should have laws which promote human freedom and protect the most vulnerable. If we cannot give the UK Parliament the attention it deserves, have the shared attention span needed to reform some of its practices and make standing for it accessible for all, its reputation will suffer further damage.


As MPs surgeries turn them increasingly into social workers, the Church has been stepping into the breach left by austerity cuts over a decade long. And we should be proud of what we have achieved, especially in this diocese. The national Church asked questions about social action and community outreach in its latest Statistics for Mission. In Rochester Diocese, 233 churches responded to the question and between them are involved in about 900 social action projects. Ninety-three percent of our churches which responded are involved in one or more forms of social action, compared to 80 percent nationally. Seventy-three percent of our churches ran at least one social action project, compared with 49 percent nationally. These are impressive figures and testimony to the expression of Christian love in practical action and a holistic understanding of the Gospel which looks for the salvation of the person in a wider, flourishing community.


Our social projects should be backed up with something else. The Church has a strong history of political engagement in the UK and we need to demonstrate this afresh today, for our community is more polarised than in living memory. How has this happened, so quickly? There are two interlinked issues to consider.


Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge theory, speaks of ‘the law of group polarisation’, where people act a certain way because they think others do. Online, we have the freedom to unfriend people on social media (unfriend, incidentally, was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in the States as early as 2009). It is much easier to unfriend online than blowing off a friend socially until they get the message you don’t like them anymore. All we have to do is lightly press the touch screen. This is how we create online bubbles. It irritates us to see someone sounding off on social media when we don’t agree with them. How dare they use my feed to make a point I disapprove of? No need to love our enemies, we can simply unfriend them. Bit by it, we surround ourselves with like-minded people who shore up our view of the world and never challenge it. And the law of group polarisation means each online bubble tends to become more extreme as its members feel the need to prove their orthodoxy.


The second and most insidious force are the adaptive algorithms which make incremental changes in their interaction with us to get more profitable results for advertisers. Little by little, they reel us in. Our reading from James describes the tongue as a rudder which, unseen, directs life. The algorithms of modern life are the unseen rudders which control the tongue. A strong body of evidence shows that in a contest between positive and negative feedback, negative feedback wins out. If someone says something nice to us, the feeling evaporates much more quickly than when they criticise or attack us. As someone said: an encouraging word is like Teflon; it just won’t stick. A spiteful comment is like Velcro; we have to prise it off. By naturally giving more attention to bad things online, we attract the algorithms which then attach to us and make the problem worse by feeding us more stuff to depress us, to make us insecure and to divide us more sharply still from those who think differently to us.


In Philippians 4, St Paul says: if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. The moment we close our Bibles and unlock our smartphones, this calling faces a huge challenge.


The vitriol unleashed online is shocking and we have heard fragments of this in the resurgence of antisemitism in the political arena. At a Westminster Hall debate in 2017, it was revealed that the Conservative whips office deals with ‘at least three credible threats’ to their MPs each week. Labour’s Jo Cox was murdered by an extremist as she served her constituents. Four out of five in a survey of MPs said they were the victims of aggressive or intrusive behaviour. The MP who seems to get the worst of it is Diane Abbott and her case highlights the prevalence of abuse towards women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.


We can debate whether things have got worse; that we are getting angrier than before. One thing is clear: the environment has changed. Jesus said it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Until recently, the mouth could only speak to a few people at a time; now it has a large, potentially limitless audience. It’s like a public function where, instead of one microphone being used to communicate with others, everyone has a microphone and they are all speaking into it at the same time, producing painful feedback and disorientation. We still have the chance to democratise the internet in a way that makes it better. It can, and should, be shaped in the character of God, but right now, we have no idea how to enable this. How many of us, alone or together, pray for the work of software engineers in our world? Their coding is shaping human society and it is kept a business secret. We have no traction on this, like we have with legislation. But our common life will be almost exclusively determined by it in the decades ahead.


St James’ argument about the power of the human tongue convicts each of us. We all know we have further to go in our life with Christ when it comes to how we sound off. But we can offer something distinctive to address polarisation, for we believe in the sanctity of each human life, the person for whom Christ died. We are called to love the unfriended. I don’t suppose this is easy, but if we cut ourselves off from people who think differently to us, we limit our capacity to bless others with the good news to those we agree with. One by-product of this is the weakening of Christian apologetic, because we are surrounding ourselves with those who recite the Nicene Creed and vote the same way.


Can the Church, through the way it handles its own disagreements – large and small – help to reverse polarisation? I have seen some impressive examples of people disagreeing in love in this diocese. But we must not be ignorant of prevailing trends. Much of our public life stokes anger, enmity, poison. We are not immune to this in the Church and, as the chances are things will get worse on this front in the UK before they get better, we need to be alert to the way we are infected by, and in turn infect, our own culture. The way we conduct our public worship, our common fellowship, our social outreach, should speak of hospitality to those who look differently and see the world differently. And it should minister to the vulnerable; the outsider; the easily victimised.


There are pressures on us to blow up over trivial things, to exaggerate for effect, to bully others actively or passively. Each of these happen in our churches. It’s not that conflict is wrong – it is an inevitable component of life - but how we address the conflict is the test of our faith. Whether we reverse polarisation or make it worse.


And finally we come to the question of trust. There has been a collapse of trust in the institutions which make up society. As our identity is formed through these institutions, it makes us more insecure and uncertain of ourselves. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, sees this loss of trust as the most worrying component of modern life. Public bodies and the professionals that staff them are deemed to be out of touch and in it for themselves. The language of ‘the people’ and of ‘elites’ contributes to this. The amorphous use of ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarises. It is one reason why we should try to speak in this diocese of ‘us’ and ‘our’; not ‘you’ and ‘your’. The diocese is not another, different group of people; it is us. We have all failed on this account along the way, and I make this point not to inoculate against reasonable challenge and criticism of others, but to help us in our witness against polarisation.


We will continue to disagree on a number of things, but God in Christ says ‘yes’ to us, and calls us to encourage the brother and sister for whom Christ died. And here’s the really good news. If large institutions are believed to be tarnished, local bodies are more resilient. We know the people who inhabit our clubs and associations; we can join them and influence them. And they shape the local landscape, its people and their relationships. This shows, above all, the calling and the capacity of the parish church. Even if the Church with a capital ‘C’ is more mistrusted than we would like, the church with a small ‘c’ can reach people locally with the Gospel in powerful, life-defining ways. The baggage of mistrust does not weigh it down the same way; the footprint of mission remains light and appealing.


The findings on trust levels have been assessed in an illuminating way by William Davies in his recent book Nervous States. He notes that the professions experiencing the severest decline in public trust are those who work in words: politicians, journalists, advertising executives. He could have added clergy to that list, but didn’t. Words have become devalued today. The professions whose trust levels have held up, Davies notes, are each concerned with the human body, its protection and nurturing: doctors, nurses, the armed forces, teachers. When we demonstrate the love of God through care for the whole person in front of us, we touch others deeply and restore trust. When we look at the early Church, its evangelism was supported by a ministry of healing. Care for other people’s bodies did not simply authentic the Gospel, it was a component of it.


And we are invited to trust the Lord for our salvation and to believe in his enduring goodness, even when life is bad; something our Zimbabwean and Tanzanian sisters and brother show in spades. When we do this, it gets noticed. God also asks our trust in him to be shown towards others. We are to welcome the stranger; to extend trust towards people we do not know. This embrace show God’s love in ways that will draw people to him. It is in the decision we take over whether to accept someone on trust that polarisation is reversed. And today, that trust begins in this building.



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