Gavin Matthews suggests that the new prime minister should turn to scripture as a useful guide for his premiership in a deeply divided country
As I write, the most controversial incumbent in living memory has walked into 10 Downing Street as the UK’s 77th prime minister. Whether Boris Johnson is still in power by the time this is published remains to be seen – few premiers have taken up the reins facing such daunting parliamentary arithmetic.
Over in the USA, the churches are divided around their responses to their own unique president. The highly-politicised nature of American religion means that opinions polarise around denouncing him as an enemy of Christ or heralding him as a latter-day political messiah. (Determining whether someone is the messiah or just a ‘very naughty boy’ still seems to be problematic).
Thankfully, churches in the UK are not defined by political allegiances or denunciations. However, Christians here are often asked for commentary on what we are experiencing. The response we offer is not one of unequivocal endorsement or condemnation – rather a series of considerations and reminders of what the gospel of Christ demands.
So, what would Jesus say to Boris Johnson?
Firstly, politicians talk about being responsible to the electorate. When they are feeling more grandiose, they emphasise the sense that they will be judged by history. Jesus though, emphasised that our ultimate accountability is to God. His judgement goes far deeper than the shifting sands of electoral success, and is far more exacting than that of history, because God assesses our deepest motivations, not just our headline grabs.
Secondly, I suggest that Jesus would remind Johnson that God is no respecter of persons. While humans tend to view each other through the lenses of power, wealth, status and ascribe value thereupon, God does not. Such privileges give huge advantages in life; but they singularly don’t impress God.
In fact, in Jesus’s estimation, possession of great wealth is a hindrance to pleasing God. As such, the judge of all the earth is as much concerned with how we treat the homeless, as how we treat royalty. As he became prime minister, Johnson ‘kissed the hands’ of royalty; but Jesus, who the Bible calls the “King of kings”, distinguished himself by washing people’s feet.
Thirdly Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. Boris Johnson not only assumes office in a deeply divided nation, but also in a deeply troubled world, in which he has direct control of a powerful military force. Playing to the gallery and exacerbating divisions by hyping up the party faithful is too easy. Bringing healing to division and de-escalating conflict is hard. Churches pray that Johnson will be given the wisdom to do that. Premiers from Tony Blair to Lyndon B. Johnson had their domestic achievements overshadowed by conflicts.
Fourthly, government office is never deserved by rulers, so much as entrusted to them by God. In his opening remarks after winning the leadership contest, Johnson claimed to be “undaunted” by the task ahead. I suspect that Jesus would confront such self-confidence head-on.
Boris Johnson likes to invoke the example of Churchill, the inspirational war prime minister. Of course, when the British Expeditionary Force faced annihilation as the Nazis overran France, Churchill endorsed King George VI’s call for a national day of prayer, and subsequently lauded the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. Even someone as bullish and resilient as Churchill sensed that ultimately we are not self-made men, but are reliant on forces far greater than ourselves. I suggest that Jesus would say to our new Prime Minister, “be daunted”, but humble yourself before God, who will give you wisdom for the task, if you ask Him.
Finally, Jesus would tell Boris Johnson that the greatest need he has is not a place in the history books, but forgiveness for his sins and failures. That of course, is not a message unique to Johnson (it’s true of all of us), it’s just that Johnson’s flamboyance and prominence mean that his sins appear publicly in a way that most of ours do not. If even half of what the newspapers allege Johnson has done wrong in his public service and private life is true, his great need is forgiveness and redemption. Happily, it is precisely forgiveness, grace, redemption and cleansing from our sins and their awful consequences that Jesus came to offer humanity, from the least to the most powerful of us.
“You are accountable to God, seek service, peace, humility and above all receive my forgiveness”, is what I believe Jesus would say to Boris. And to us all.
Gavin Matthews for SOLAS.