Lord Deben: you can't be Christian and support Ukip
Gillan Scott writes and edits God and Politics in the UK - one of the best religio-political sites in the Blogosphere. Most recently, he has been running as series on Christians who belong to political parties and justify their activism with appeals to Scripture. There is, of course, no consensus: Christians in their diversity derive quite different theological understandings from the same texts: if we cannot agree on matters such as baptism, birth control or church government, it isn't likely that we will find unity on taxation, immigration or other matters of temporal government. But each of us looks to Scripture for our inspiration to discern the extents of liberty and coercion, and our interpretation is coloured by our education, culture and tradition. The mature believer will appreciate that there is no single Christian position to take, and that the authority of the Bible may be universally acknowledged while being conflictingly applied: there is rarely one right answer. Since all of humanity is fallible, division is inevitable, and Christian participation in the political arena will be as muddled and perplexing as our discernment of God's will.
Gillan Scott's explorations have been received politely, and they have engendered some intelligent debate: we have heard from a Labour-supporting Christian, a Conservative-supporting Christian and a Green-supporting Christian. All of these, it appears, are legitimate philosophies which may reflect God's mandate. But the poor clergyman who dared to reason that supporting Ukip might accord with Christian social theory received a swift rebuke from Lord Deben (formerly John Selwyn Gummer MP):
You will note that Lord Deben's initial response to Mr Scott was simply that he found it "impossible to understand" how a Christian minister of religion could support a political party which is dedicated to cutting aid to the poor and "hating migrants & foreigners". But he wasn't acknowledging here any mental deficiency on his part: he was judging an Anglican vicar and finding him theologically awry and spiritually barren.
Setting aside for a moment that someone like Owen Jones would find it equally impossible to understand how a Christian can be Conservative, it is apparent that Lord Deben has a rather narrow interpretation of Scripture, if not a fundamentally erroneous view of Ukip policy. No matter how much the Rev'd Sam Norton reasons his politics intelligently and moderately, Lord Deben repudiates with pious maxims and pompous incredulity. It is hardly serious political debate under the aegis of Christian fraternity.
To Lord Deben, the gospel is clear: we should feed the poor, house the homeless and heal the sick. The Christian should not merely intend toward the good; he should act to intervene, alter outcomes, alleviate suffering and change lives. And Ukip, Lord Deben avers, is anti-Christian because it seeks to cut aid to the poor, alienate the migrant and expel the foreigner. He cannot equate these policies with the gospel. Christians are commanded to love their neighbour: those who seek to control immigration and leave the EU simply "hate".
Gillan Scott believes he should give a platform to a range of views, but, for Lord Deben, Ukip are simply beyond the pale: rather like the BNP, they should be given no platform (and certainly no pulpit). Lord Deben is not sufficiently gracious to examine the Rev'd Sam Norton's ideals, values or theories about the just or good society: the Vicar is simply wrong and a disgrace to his vocation.
But it was Nick Williams' assertion that "Aid fosters dependency" which elicited Lord Deben's most acerbic - if not un-Christian - riposte: "So said the priest and the Levi (sic) as they walked past on the other side". It appears that any Christian who believes that aid fosters dependency must be a Pharisee and a hypocrite, quite incapable of compassion toward the oppressed, battered and destitute. In the parable to which Lord Deben alludes (Lk 10:29-37), Jesus is concerned with the extent of neighbour love: the questioning lawyer assumes it to be restricted; Jesus makes it clear that the failure of the priest and the Levite to help the injured man evidences a fundamental hardness of heart.
Compassion is that which causes us so to identify with another's situation such that we are prepared to act for his or her benefit. What the Samaritan does is commendable because the law's demand for love of neighbour should extend to any needy human being: its practice should not be restricted to any closed community - even if that community is that singled out by God by divine covenant. Lord Deben is right that compassion should be unrestricted by national, racial or religious barriers. But he fails to understand the significance of the cultic figures of the priest and Levite - from whom aid might have been expected to be forthcoming - being shamed by the example of a wretched Samaritan.
Jewish listeners had a view of Samaritans somewhat akin to Lord Deben's opinion of Kippers: they shunned and despised them, and would certainly not have sunk so low as to debate with them, let alone accept their acts of hospitality. The gulf that separated God's covenant community from the Samaritans was actually greater than the distance between Lord Deben and the Rev'd Sam Norton, but Lord Deben is incapable of comprehending ("impossible to understand") this parable from the victim's perspective, which is what Jesus does. In extremis, a Samaritan will do very well for a neighbour, thank you very much.
Nick Williams' allegation of "Tory paternalistic arrogance" is not entirely unfounded: Lord Deben is playing both priest and Levite to the Kippers by misrepresenting their policy (they don't seek to eradicate overseas aid; simply reform it to ensure that it feeds the starving instead of subsidising nuclear missiles), and caricaturing their political objectives (controlling immigration is not "hate" of migrants; leaving the EU is not "hate" of foreigners). Instead of engaging the Rev'd Sam Norton in theological exploration and political discussion, Lord Deben puts his nose in the air and walks past on the other side, oblivious to the fact that many of his Roman Catholic co-religionists would agree wholeheartedly with the Anglican rector.
The world's starving, homeless and sick would be overjoyed to receive Ukip's aid, for it gives hope with responsibility: it is a social and moral mission to help the destitute through programmes of education, apprenticeship and job creation, instead of simply handing out wads of cash while they mill around without purpose or human fulfilment. Owen Jones may not agree, but 'compassionate conservatism' is a response to man's propensity toward indolence . The right approach to aid is about giving new opportunity, new hope and new responsibility to people who are trapped in a cycle of dependency.
These aren't His Grace words, but those of the Prime Minister - today. If cutting benefits to Britons may be part of a Tory "moral mission", it is entirely possible that seeking to reduce and better target overseas aid may be a legitimate Christian pursuit wholly consistent with the gospel. And if controlling immigration or desiring EU exit are manifestations of "hate", Lord Deben might humbly seek to convert the overwhelming majority of his fellow Conservatives before preaching infallible sermons to Ukip.