The past week or so has seen two men at the top of our government apologising for their shortcomings: one (Nick Clegg) for breaking election promises and the other (Andrew Mitchell) for swearing at and abusing police officers (then lying about it even as he apologised). There have been calls for the resignations of both men, amid suggestions that people who are prone to lie, swear, lose their tempers, disrespect others and break their promises are not fit leaders for a nation.
Why should this matter? Everyone else in the country lies, speaks intemperately and gets frustrated at bureaucracy after a long, hard day. Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Yes, Prime Minister or The West Wing knows the dreams of politicians and the policies they’re most committed to are often scuppered by realities they were unaware of when running for election. Why do we seek to hold our leaders to a standard we could never attain?
I’m told there is a Greek proverb which says: “The fish stinks from the head down.” In his book Incomparable, Andrew Wilson writes that this proverb is a great metaphor for leadership:
“If you see a floundering family, country, company, or church, the odds are that it will start with the leadership. If a soccer team is letting in too many goals, they don’t fire the goalkeeper; they fire the manager.”
If the cause of a crumbling nation is its leadership, so crumbling leadership reflects badly on a nation. We ask a lot of our leaders because the world looks at them and sees us; because their reputation becomes our reputation.
The bad news is that, unless I’ve missed something, there is no one waiting in the wings to whom the country is ready to turn; we don’t have any good, wise, trustworthy, temperate leaders behind whom the nation is united. The stink has gone on so long it has permeated the whole fish. (And of course, many of the issues which have come to light in these cases are to do with our sinful natures, passed down to us from long before the invention of the British parliamentary system!)
But there’s good news, too.
The good news is that despite the moral relativism we hear expressed in the sorts of discussions that take place on Radio 4 or late at night on BBC2 (and more subtly across the media as a whole), these stories reveal that we do at core hold to some moral absolutes. There are some things that the majority of the population think are just wrong:
Lying: just wrong.
Swearing at police officers: just wrong.
Disrespecting those who serve you: just wrong.
Breaking promises: just wrong.
Some of these examples could be justified with the assertion that they’re wrong because they hurt others – Andrew Mitchell has the right to use whatever words he chooses, so long as they are not aimed at another person – but even this reveals the absolute that people are valuable and deserve respect and protection from harm.
When our leaders stumble and let us down we should be slow to judge, remembering that we too are sinful and prone to fall, and we should be quick to rejoice that despite our society’s many failings, it still considers corruption, profanity and deceit to be undesirable characteristics, not legitimate ways of doing business.
Who knows, perhaps if Christians start modelling grace under pressure, faithfulness in keeping their promises, and truthfulness at all times, we may just be able to stop this fish from stinking quite so badly.
This post first appeared as the Evangelical Alliance’s Friday Night Theology.