Saturday, 3 May 2008

A friend of tax collectors, sinners - and BNP supporters?

(Please note, no comments are published on this blog unless they include a real name, not a pseudonym, and a location. J Smith or John Smith are acceptable. Janet or Janet S are not. Likewise, no location, no comment.)

What has Nick Griffin got in common with Jesus Christ? The answer, as far as I can see, is two things: Jesus appealed to the ordinary people, and he mingled with those society regarded as ‘beyond the pale’.

This is not to suggest that Nick Griffin is particularly Christ-like, but I am not going to heap on him the opprobrium usually considered compulsory at this point, because I believe the Church has got it largely wrong when it comes to dealing with the challenge posed by the British National Party.

That challenge should not be underestimated. The Party’s performance in this week’s local government elections was modest and they only gained one member on the Greater London Assembly, but their candidate came fifth in the mayoral election and in many areas BNP candidates came second in the polls. On the other hand, they faced public opposition literally from all sides. Prior to this, in the eleven bye-elections where they have stood in 2008, the BNP have polled an average 17.5% of the vote, well above the Greens on 4.7% in those constituencies or UKIP on 8.5%.

As the Bishop of Durham pointed out, however, ‘the reason the BNP can even gain a foothold in people’s affections is because many people ... feel so disaffected after the last thirty years of national politics.’ I myself became aware of this several years ago after conducting a wedding in Canning Town. Standing outside a smoke-filled community centre, I listened to the complaints of the guests about immigration, asylum seekers, housing and so on. And as I mused on how easy it would be to build support for a political party that sympathised with these complaints, I realized that the BNP already fitted the bill. All they needed was the organization to field the candidates - and now they have it.

Of course the comments I heard were racist. Of course the BNP appeals to people’s worst instincts. But here is surely both the unique challenge and opportunity for the Church. The Church is in the business of salvation, not politics, but if salvation is from real sin (and it is), we should expect it to extend to real sinners.

Our familiarity with the Gospels, both in the Church and in society as a whole, has removed the scandal from what Jesus did. One modern Bible translation even uses inverted commas when it talks about Jesus mixing with ‘sinners’. But at the time these were not inverted-comma sinners, they were people decent folk did not want to mix with, much less live next door to.

The first challenge to the Church, then, is whether it is a real haven for real sinners. So when confronted with a racist, for example, will it be radical or will it follow the crowd? Does it reach for the stones to stone the guilty offender, or does it say to the crowd (as its founder warned), ‘Condemn not, lest you stand condemned?’

And secondly, will the Church speak unpalatable truths on matters which affect those who see their salvation in the BNP? Addressing this whole issue in 2006, the Archbishop of York said that during his time as Bishop of Stepney, ‘it was very obvious that the housing policy by the then Lambeth Council was not actually favouring the indigenous population’ (the latter, incidentally, being an expression favoured by the BNP itself), adding that this had also been true of Tower Hamlets Council. Well, it was helpful that he should say so - but could not more have been made of this at the time?

It is, perhaps, significant that the second recorded problem to affect the early Church internally was an accusation of racial bias in welfare distribution (Acts 6:1-6 - the first was lying about charitable giving). If the apostles had accused the accusers of being racists, this would no doubt have also have seen the first denominational division. Instead, they listened and came up with an effective solution. Might not the Church give a lead in doing the same today when people complain about perceived injustices?

A political party which is gaining influence cannot be ‘stopped’ by telling people to vote against it. If history teaches anything, it is that the effectiveness of a movement depends entirely on its ability to gain supporters willing to devote themselves to the cause. In those circumstances, establishment opposition may have precisely the opposite effect to that intended, by strengthening what is seeks to undermine. (Look at the history of the Church itself.)

In God’s plans and purposes, politics plays a very small rĂ´le, but in the life of the nation, the Church of England has an important part to play. Since the election results, Labour politicians have emphasised the need to listen. Support for the BNP surely teaches the need for that listening to include people like those I heard in Canning Town all those years ago. And if the Church won’t listen to them, who will?

Revd John P Richardson
3 May 2008

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