Do Not Worry

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.

The kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

When the columnist Mary Schmich wrote these words in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 they, along with the rest of the column Wear Sunscreen became a viral sensation. They so struck a chord that when Baz Luhrmann turned them into an ambient dance track, it became a number 1 hit in several countries.

I was partly responsible for the success of this single (well, I bought the CD along with thousands of others). There are some great one-liners in there: Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone; The older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young; Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85; and of course, wear sunscreen. But the stanza above has always particularly struck me.

I was recently blindsided in Guatemala when I met José*. I’d gone with my colleagues from the Bible Society to a government-run shelter for children just outside of Guatemala City. All of the 800 boys and girls in the shelter were in some way or another wards of the State. Some were orphans, some had special educational needs, and some had been rescued from gangs – nine year-olds who had been given a gun and told to kill. These children rarely if ever leave the shelter, both for their own safety and for the safety of others.

During my visit I had the privilege to speak to fifty of the boys as part of a gathering organised by the Bible Society volunteers. What do you say in such a situation? I’ve rarely felt so inadequate. As I stumbled through a short talk about David the Shepherd boy, I was increasingly aware of the privileges of my childhood and that of my own children.

After I’d finished a young man, José, asked to speak with me privately. As we withdrew to a corner I asked, via translation, what was on his mind. Immediately his face, which had been a hard and expressionless mask, crumpled as the tears rolled down. Between sobs, José told us that when he was a young boy, he was abandoned by his parents and taken in by his aunt. Not long afterwards, his aunt also abandoned him and he became a ward of the State, entering the government shelter aged 11. In the intervening years he has never been visited by a family member. Not once. This is the same experience as eighty percent of the children in the shelter. Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, he is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls. And he was terrified. He was preparing to leave the only home he’d ever known, for a world that had, in the experience of his short life, totally rejected him.

I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, the isolation. And the reality was, as I stood with José in the concrete yard of an institution full of forgotten children, that Schmich’s words on their own, however valiant in sentiment and however beautifully-crafted, had a hollow ring to them.

But there’s another famous passage that exhorts us not to worry. In the Gospels, Matthew records Jesus saying:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6

These words took on a new meaning for me that day. And how, might you ask, do they differ from Schmich’s poignant soliloquy? Because we are in the hands of God himself. Not a distant, impersonal God, sitting on a cloud, itching to punish us. But a God who broke into our world as a helpless baby, born with the hint of human disgrace hanging over his head; the child of refugees, hunted by the authorities, raised in poverty and persecuted for bringing a message of mercy and love.

Guatemala Volcano Antigua

In the light of Jesus’ own story, every one of those children in that shelter can afford to hope. All of them can have a bright future. And if the Bible story and its message of restoration seems distant to them, all the children have to do is look at the lead Bible Society volunteer, Michael*: his tattoo-sleeves, his jail-time for gang membership, and the humility and fatherly love that he brings to them every week in a place that so few will visit.

I and the Bible Society volunteers were able to remind José of some of this. Where my words failed me, God’s words were enough. As we wept together, I was able to remind José of God’s promise to Jeremiah, that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you“, of the words of the Psalmist that he was “fearfully, and wonderfully made”. And I was able to share those other words God gave to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 

 

*I’ve changed names for the sake of the safety and dignity of the people concerned.

Redeeming Politics?

What would it be like to be awoken suddenly by your parents in the middle of a starry night, to roll yourself out of your bed, run down the close, and tumble into the Anderson Shelter for fear of the incendiary bombs that are falling from the sky?

What would it be like to drive a truck back and forth to the front line, constantly under fire, bringing back the dead and wounded from the battlefield slopes of Monte Cassino? How would that affect your view of the world? What would be your reaction to losing your best friend to the arbitrary trajectory of a high explosive shell? How do you think you would spend your life in the aftermath of these events?

Even in our turbulent times, it’s hard to imagine what my Grandparent’s and their peers had to endure during the Second World War. It’s also difficult to grasp how, after all they experienced, they managed to pick themselves up and throw themselves into building the peace, and to renewing a society which until that point had been grossly unequal. My Grandpa in particular found an outlet in the Union movement and in local politics to play his part in creating a new kind of society. If Union and Political Party membership is anything to go by, so did millions of others.

But by the early stage of the 21st Century this civic engagement – and in particular, engagement with politics – has become much more of a niche pursuit as apathy, disenfranchisement and disaffection with our political process has grown. Just ask any taxi driver the views of their customers on politics for a depressing insight into the rise of cynicism.

It’s become an almost-hackneyed idea to encourage voting by an appeal to the sacrifices of previous generations. For me, the stark contrast of how things could have been without the victory over Fascism secured by people like Bill and Cath, remains a powerful reason to not just vote but to get involved in our political process. But the truth is, it’s not really enough for many people today. Many feel that politics is something which happens to them, not through them, and have entirely given up, on the trip to their local polling station on Election Day, let alone any more active involvement in politics.

Although this spectrum of non-voters includes those of all Faiths or none, it’s interesting to note that, according to recent research, 8 in 10 Christians are likely to vote in the election; double that of the general population. With the first General Election in the UK in five years nearly upon us, one which is likely to be the closest and most unpredictable in a generation, why is it that Christians generally feel more of a compulsion to use their democratic franchise than others? And can this inform those who have lost hope in our democracy?

First though, a confession for the Register of Interests: I’m not only a Christian, I’m a Labour Party member and on the left of the political spectrum. Everything I say here comes from that perspective.

So, what kind of politics are we aiming for? Let’s assume we’re talking about democracy only. It’s what we’ve got, and as Churchill famously said,

“democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Simply put, democratic politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, and through which we express our understanding of Public Good.

This should be a concern for all people in society, and it’s certainly the concern of a Christian and Biblical worldview. Understanding and then creating Public Good is something that we can either participate in or not. But it’s never something which we can remove ourselves from. As Nick Spencer has said, “However much we might attempt to privatise life – whether through the adoption of human rights or the extension of market mechanisms into every aspect of life – shared public “space” is an irreducible phenomenon, and public space which is not simply anarchy must be governed by some idea of the public good”.

So why is Public Good so central to a Christian worldview, and how can this guide how we assess our politics, and even how we use our vote? I believe that the political party which most closely applies the following ideas in its policies and vision is both worthy of your vote and likely to form the best government:

Love of neighbour – we might as well take first things first. The injunction of Jesus to love your neighbour as yourself is the core idea at the heart of Christianity on how Christians should aim to live with other people. For the avoidance of doubt, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes it abundantly clear that this means all people, including our enemies. If politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, loving your neighbour through politics means that we should shun individualism, selfishness and sectionalism in all areas of life, including in government.

The equal worth of all humans, before GodPart of the reason that we’ve to love our neighbours is because we’re all equally sinners (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and because we all equally and beautifully reflect the image of God. In this sense, all humanity is equally precious and equally broken: no-one is inherently more valuable than another. Our political system and the Government it produces should reflect this in the way it views individuals, taking as a first principle the idea that all citizens have the same intrinsic worth – regardless of their social standing or background. But Governments should do more than recognise our inherent equality; they should actively work to reduce inequality. The Biblical understanding of human nature recognises both our tendency towards fallibility and the immense capacity within humanity for progress. If applied by governments, this understanding would lead to policies that encourage the goodness within humanity to rise to the surface and empower those who have been marginalised by the brokenness of our world.

God’s deep concern for Justice Love and Justice are closely intertwined. As renowned Evangelist and theologian Tony Campolo has noted, “If we stop to think about it, justice is nothing more than love translated into social policies”. Although the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross is the best example, God’s heart for justice is a consistent theme throughout the Bible and indeed throughout human history. Reflecting our creator, at our best humans recognise and express justice in our relationships with one another as we act upon the Moral Law (as described by C.S. Lewis) which we find within ourselves. In this sense, justice is simply love manifested in our interpersonal and social relationships. This is equally true when we think of government. So, to reflect God’s desire for justice, the Politics that Christians support should be that characterised by justice: economic, social and criminal.

Righteous and Servant Leadership – Whereas the typical approach to politics in general and leadership in particular has centred around the control of power – most often of one group over others – the Biblical template for leadership is one of humility and service to others. This template for leadership and authority again stems from the idea that we are to put the needs of others before our own. In the New Testament we see the explicit teaching of Jesus about the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last first. Practiced in politics, this counter-cultural worldview would create a system of governance in which elected officials would truly be public servants. This therefore requires a leadership which doesn’t accrue power for its own sake, but for the sake of the society it serves. It also implies the need for a political process which is open, transparent and which provides checks and balances against our autocratic tendencies. Finally, righteousness (often called integrity) is a characteristic of a servant leader who doesn’t accrue power or wealth for themselves. If you are truly serving others, you are not seeing political leadership as an opportunity to benefit yourself or your clique.

No political party perfectly reflects these values in their ideology. And political leaders will always let us down. But it’s incumbent on each of us to make a judgement about the individuals and political party which we think most closely characterise them, and give them our support, if only to hold them to the standards that we expect.

I know I have. And so did Bill and Cath.

Live at Peace with All

Stumbling along the dusty alleyway in the pitch black, guided only by the light of my mobile phone, my mind grasping for the lessons of my recent Hostile Environments training (Hint: don’t walk down a dark alleyway overseas), I really could have been anywhere.

Unless, that is, you ignored the wall of sound assailing me from both sides of the alley. On one side, the rhythmic chanting of the Muslim call to prayer jutted up against the melodic praise songs coming from the Pentecostal worship event, opposite, that I had just left. It was this fact which placed me in northern Sub-Saharan Africa; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to be precise.

For it’s here, in the Horn of Africa and the region known as the Sahel, that the populations – and necessarily the worldviews – of Christianity and Islam live cheek by jowl in the most explicit way. It’s not that the people of the world’s two largest religions can’t be found living in close proximity elsewhere; from Indonesia to the Balkans.  But it’s in this region of Africa that the populations tend to be both the most numerous and the most equally-balanced numerically. Regionally, there is no overwhelming majority of one faith group over the other: such as there is in the United States, or in the Middle East.

Of course, you also find a liberal sprinkling of secular democracy and other political ideologies, and those of both other religions and none. Ethiopia is, after all, a strictly-secular post-Communist, semi-authoritarian state. But it’s arguable that the majority of the population tend to find – perhaps increasingly – their transcendent identity (that is, beyond national, tribal or temporal boundaries) in their faith.

This scenario is peculiar to the popular culture of Western Europe on two counts. First, these are overwhelmingly-religious societies. The language of God is the norm, not the exception. Second, the significant and long-term influence of two of the world’s great religions makes for an interesting mix when it comes to negotiating contested public space. I suspect that – in the UK – the wall of sound which I experienced in this Addis Ababa alleyway would quickly attract the attention of a local government official in a High-Vis waistcoat, investigating complaints of noise pollution.

So what can The West learn from Africa about religion in the public square?

Not all religion is the same: Religion is being increasingly discussed in publishing, the media and politics. There was a time when the mantra ‘We don’t do God’ seemed to fit perfectly with the times. No more. The twentieth century axiom that religion has had its day, and that social progress will see the inevitable triumph of secularism and rationalism over mysticism and faith is looking very tired indeed.

But even as religion is increasingly discussed – in the polemics of militant atheists or in BBC documentaries – there is an astonishing level of illiteracy on the subject. The preceding hundred years of religious decline in the West really has impacted the common understanding of what were previously well-understood (if not always accepted) beliefs. Aside from a general ignorance of religious beliefs and practices, the most common mistake by many commentators is to lump all of the world’s faiths into a silo marked ‘Religion’. This is rarely explicit. But it’s often very clear to the faith-based viewer that many commentators really don’t understand the very fundamental differences between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and the rest. Sure, these religions share many things in common; for example, the Golden Rule. But their core existential beliefs are also fundamentally at variance, leading to very different practices and worldviews across a range of subjects and even in their understanding of the purpose of life itself. The three Abrahamic faiths share much in common. But you only have to raise the question of the nature and purpose of Jesus and soon very different beliefs with their consequent implications will emerge. Even within religions, there can be considerable differences in belief between different denominations, sects or branches; Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Reform and so on. These differences need to be acknowledged and understood.

Religions are often competitors but not necessarily antagonists:  In spite of these differences, antagonistic relationships between religions are not inevitable. Of course, antagonism can be found easily enough. But conflict between humans of divergent identities can be found everywhere, even where religion is largely absent. 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – need I say more? Indeed, religions abound with resources to support an ideology of social harmony, peace-making and conflict resolution. Disagreement – even fundamentally so – is not inherently unhealthy. It is how we manage and accommodate our differences that matters.

There is a place for religion in public – and not just private – spaces: Part of the dominant narrative of Secularism is that, in order for fairness to be delivered, competing religious worldviews (interestingly, not other worldviews, only religious ones) should be consigned to the private sphere; what you do in your own home is up to you, but don’t bring religious reasoning or practices to the public square. As a result, religious groups who take their faith seriously have often found the public square to be a cold house for them. This is particularly true of counties like France, where the only religion allowed in the public square is the Cult of La Republique. Make of that what you will. But one thing is certain: if we are to address the threat of Religious Extremism, we must be careful not to marginalise religion as a whole. Which is why:

Theology Matters – Much of the lurch to Islamist extremism has been fuelled by bad theology. Of course, it has also been fuelled by an autocratic Saudi state awash with petro-dollars. But an extreme Wahabist interpretation of the Quran and Hadith in Sunni Islam is primarily a theological issue. The solution to this bad theology cannot be no theology: it is not an effective option to simply disengage with or parody the warped theology of ISIS or the Charlie Hebdo murderers. The ultimate solution to the problem of Islamism, Hindu Nationalism – or even the attempted co-option of Christianity by some elements on the extreme right – is good theology.

We need to do more to understand the complexities, differences and, yes, similarities between religious worldviews in order to understand how we can best live together. To this end, I’m reminded of two sayings of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. As we seek to address the core existential questions and understand divergent beliefs, we need to ‘Be transformed by the renewal of our minds’. As we seek to learn how to live together we should follow Paul’s injunction:

“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good”.

What would it be like to live in a Society and not an Economy?

Did you know that in California prisoners can pay for a cell upgrade ($82 per night)?

Or that you can pay for the right to shoot an endangered Black Rhino in South Africa ($150,000) and Walruses in Canada?

Did you know that some companies will pay you to tattoo yourself (permanently) with their Logo?

tattoo 2

Or that you can buy the Life Insurance policy of an ill person while they are still alive and then collect  payment upon their death?

At first sight, the question in the title of this Blog might seem strange. Clearly, a modern Society needs an Economy to prosper and a modern Economy needs a stable Society to function. But which is ultimately more important as we think about how to build a progressive country in the Twenty-First Century? Which should be at the front of our minds as we think about the purpose of politics, for example?

It can be argued that, since the end of the Cold War, and in the absence of the old ideological fault-lines, Free Market Capitalism and the neo-liberal worldview which underpins it are completely dominant. After all, in the infamous words of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, haven’t we reached the End of History anyway?

And yet, through this way of looking at life, moral decisions about what constitutes Goodness have been downgraded in favour of Market Efficiency. It has become increasingly possible to consider the impact of business decisions on the workforce, community or the environment as superfluous. It is the size of the shareholder dividend which really matters.

Taken to its logical conclusion, in the paradigm of the Market Society, politics becomes a process which is simply about the most effective management of the Economy. The winner of the electoral process should be the Political Party which can promise and then produce the best economic results for the largest number of people. The only thing we need to (or even can) agree on is that we all want to be more materially-wealthy, whilst agreement about what constitutes Public morality and social capital become increasingly rare.

As political ideology has narrowed toward the centre-right over the last 30 years, the range of the political discourse has narrowed along with it. And yet the question still remains: How will we live together?

And something seems to be changing. In the last seven years since the financial crash, we have seen the unchallenged dominance of neo-liberalism and the idea that the Market Knows Best increasingly called into question. Whether in academic journals, the Bank of England and Federal Reserve or the Occupy Movement, more and more people are asking if our primary identity really should be HomoEconomicus after all.

Meanwhile, the – often brutal – rise of Islamic extremism across the world has seen the pursuit of a worldview which seems to be primarily-rooted in an idea of what a Society should look like, with relatively little reference to economic structures at all. Whilst the West continues to move towards the ultimate commercialisation of everything – including social Goods like education, healthcare and policing – ISIS and their allies fight from and for a worldview that has very clear ideas of how Society should be structured.

It seems like we may have a window of opportunity to ask anew what Goodness is, to publicly articulate our answer to the question and ultimately even to change the way that we organise our society. In this space, we could do worse than return to the Christian teaching on the Common Good, such as that found in Catholic Social Teaching.

And what is the Common Good? The best description that I have found comes from one of the supporting documents to Vatican II – “The Common Good is a vision of the social order which is founded on Truth, built by Justice and animated by Love”.

In contrast to this Michael Sandel, the renowned Harvard Moral Philosopher, notes that there has been a moral vacancy in contemporary politics, in which there is an:

“…attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.”

This is what happens when the Economy becomes our only focus. Alternatively, we see in the Bible that God views Society as a worthy aim in itself – an Oikonomia that includes the Material but which frames society as being much more about relationship than material possessions. As Jesus  said in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, in the words of the prophet Isaiah :

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

We could do worse than start with this as we seek to build a progressive society.

Jeremy Bentham’s Lost His Head

‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher”, they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking”, Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” “We can”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to whom they have already been prepared.”

‘When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As the founder of Utilitarianism, a particularly influential 19th Century political theory, you could argue that Jeremy Bentham was entitled to be proud of himself. His critique of social values, and pursuit of ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ was already beginning to shape the thinking of political leaders of his day – and as it turns out has continued to do so up to the present. But leaving instructions in his Last Will and Testament for his body to be embalmed, stuffed, dressed in a suit and placed in a glass case at University College London was perhaps a step too far.

And his acolytes have not stopped the posthumous grand-standing there. Each year this ‘auto-icon’ is rolled out for a meeting of the College Council, where Mr Bentham is recorded in the minutes as ‘Present, but not voting’. This hubristic tale is mitigated somewhat by the frequent student pranks over the years since in which his head has been repeatedly pinched and ransomed back to the University. But the impression of an ego writ large remains.

In our world, what we tend to value most are honour, power, wealth, beauty, authority, and yes, intellect. These are the things that seem to make the world go round. But these things in themselves are empty. At root, they’re an attempt to remake ourselves in the image of God, to claim even just a scintilla of his Glory.

I travel regularly to China, and it’s a fascinating country. Chinese culture values good hospitality, respect for authority and the importance of relational capital. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in the etiquette surrounding hosting guests to a meal. The table is always round so as not to offend guests by placing one person at the head of the table. And yet this nicety has been infiltrated by a convention whereby the Host is still given the ‘head’ of the table (the chair facing the door) and the most-honoured guest will sit in the seat to his right-hand side, with the second most-honoured to his left and so on. The elevation of the Host and the Honoured Guest continues with further etiquette, including serving special courses either before the other guests or to them alone, an ‘honour’ which I have at times had to face, as the picture below testifies:

IMG_00000046

In the startling encounter from Mark’s Gospel, above, we see Jesus subverting this human will to power in his response to the egotistical aspirations of James and John. Incredibly, as the most powerful being in the universe, Jesus nevertheless submits himself to the authority of God the Father, in his assertion that even he cannot offer the right and left-hand seats to his disciples.

And, in this subversion, Jesus is not advocating a simple changing of the guard. This is not a spiritual coup d’etat in which the powerful are overthrown in order that their erstwhile subjects can take their places at the top table. It’s a root and branch revolution, a completely new way to live in the world. He is turning the world’s normative power dynamics on their head, insisting that the last should become first, and that his followers should be ‘the slave of all’. Strong words.

In a sense, I don’t blame James and John for their audacious request. In fact, it kind of reassures me. The Disciples have been lionised throughout Church history for the contribution that they made to the spread of the Gospel, and quite right too. But in encounters like this – and in basically everything that Peter did – we see the humanity of the Disciples. These were no Uber-Christians who would put us to shame with their holiness. They hadn’t got it quite yet: despite Jesus repeated teachings on his preference for the weak, the poor, the abandoned, and despite the fact that they’d actually lived alongside him for years. On a more positive note, and to their credit, you can’t fault the faith of the two brothers. They certainly believed that Jesus was who he said he was; otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time angling for a place at the top table.

But, ultimately, the Gospel is the great equaliser – the mountains shall be laid flat and the valleys raised up – and through it each of us become equal before God, taking on our full identity of the imago dei, the image of God. Our recognition of God’s authority goes hand in hand with our recognition of the equal and inestimable value of every human being. Yet so often we miss both.

This is not only the tragedy of the powers that be in the world; it has also been the tragedy of the Church itself. And yet again this comes back to our flawed human nature. Like the Fleetwood Mac song, we want to ‘Go our own way’ when the truth, in the words Bob Dylan so famously growled, is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Sadly we often only realise this when the pretension that we’re in charge of our own life falls away. An illness, natural disaster or accident strikes, and suddenly we become aware of our own powerlessness. All the things that we put our stock in – intellect, beauty, wealth, even human relationships – can’t cocoon us from the messy reality of life. As the author Kurt Vonnegut sagely advises in the song ‘Everybody wear Sunscreen’, “maybe you’ll have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse – but you never know when either one might run out.”

If you’ve travelled beyond Western Europe and North America, you’ll probably know what I mean. Oh what I’d sometimes give for an old-fashioned British queue in some airport arrivals halls! Everyone for themselves doesn’t cover it. Or the lifeless, mirror-shaded, eyes of the gun-toting Cameroonian immigration official who’s determined to exercise his authority before he decides to let you enter the country. Or the one on one interrogation and baggage search at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, knowing that just one mention of a visit to the wrong part of the country will see you end up in a room with nothing but a box of rubber gloves and a border guard for company. And in truth, these are relatively minor reminders of how easily our will to power is diluted.

So if, despite He-Man’s claims, we aren’t really Masters of the Universe, what are we to do? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dealt with a similar situation. The Disciples were once again letting their hubris get the better of them and were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Again, Jesus taught them that if anyone wanted to be first then he must become last, the servant of all. Jesus also taught that we should both have a faith like children and treat one another as we do little children. What might our world look like if we took the same approach? If politicians, journalists, soldiers, police officers, bankers, and we ourselves put others first, regardless of their status? What would it look like if we didn’t place our ultimate hope in our own power and were instead childlike in our motivation, if our attitude was innocent, simple, vulnerable even, and above all loving?

This is the world that Jesus calls us to make: it’s a world in which we serve one another, where we have a healthy distaste for the trappings of wealth and power, where each person is viewed as having inherent and equal worth, where the least and the last are lifted up by the rest and given the place of honour.

The Good News is that we are not expected to do all of this in our own power. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel: that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3, 21-24

Nelson’s Amazing Technicolor South Africa

1 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

Genesis 45

I think this scene is one of the most moving to be found in Scripture. In it we see Joseph, supreme Prime Minister of the greatest nation on earth, revealing himself to the brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before. Given the power that Joseph now had as Prime Minister of Egypt, he could easily have wrought a terrible revenge. What was it in his character that made him choose forgiveness and what does that say about his qualities as a leader?

Legend has it that President Mobutu of Zaire (modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo) hired Concorde with public funds so that it could fly champagne fresh from Paris to his jungle stronghold, Gbadolite. Whether the tale is true or not, there’s no doubt that Mobutu did embezzle billions of dollars’ worth of assets from Zaire. Some of these national resources were used to build a palatial complex near Mobutu’s ancestral homeland, including a runway large enough to accommodate the world’s only supersonic passenger plane.

In the years after his surprise ascension to power, Mobutu had already changed his name from Joseph Desiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Soko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (the understated translation being: ‘The all-conquering warrior who goes from triumph to triumph”). He had also changed the name of the very country of which he was President (from The Belgian Congo to the Republic of Zaire) and had generally followed the example of the 19th Century Belgian King Leopold, becoming de facto Emperor of the nation. He was a ruthless leader, using his absolute power to imprison, torture and murder rivals as he extravagantly lined his pockets. And in this, Mobutu is far from alone amongst the roll call of African Statesmen of the mid-20th Century.

One year before Mobutu became President, prisoner 46664 was admitted to Robben Island Prison, off the shores of Cape Town. Nelson Mandela was to spend eighteen years in a small cell on Robben Island, followed by six in Pollsmoor Prison, only to emerge in the glare of the world’s media in 1992 as the political saviour of South Africa. His ascension to become President two years later is one of the greatest stories of the modern era.

So do these three African statesmen – Joseph, Mobutu and Mandela – share common characteristics? Or at least, what are the characteristics which distinguish Mandela and Joseph on one hand from Mobutu on the other? There are many, but a few in particular are worth mentioning.

In his closing speech at his famous Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela articulated his dream of a non-racial, non-sexist South Africa, saying that “It was an ideal for which I hope to live. But if necessary it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Mandela had a dream for what South Africa could become, one which ultimately captured the imagination of the people.

Joseph is also famed for his dreams – or at least, his ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh. In his interpretation of these dreams, Joseph articulated a vision for his adopted nation in which the disaster of famine might be averted.

So the ability to articulate a vision for their respective nations was a characteristic shared by both Mandela and Joseph. But Mobutu also had a vision for Zaire: to secure absolute power for himself and his cronies through ruthless Real Politik. So it can’t be just the ability to develop a vision which makes a leader good.

Instead it was the kind of dream which they had for their nations and the way that they spent their lives selflessly working towards the realisation of these dreams which distinguishes these African leaders of North and South from Mobutu.

In his Presidential inauguration speech, Mandela summarised his South African dream, saying;

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Joseph also outworked his dream for Egypt; taking steps to wisely govern the country on behalf of Pharaoh so that the seven years of plenty yielded crops and produce that could see the country through the seven years of famine which were to follow. However, Joseph is also part of a grand dream revealed in the big story of the Bible: God’s dream for the restoration of everything to himself. Joseph’s role was vital in setting in train a future Long Walk to Freedom for the people who would become the Israelites – a Long Walk that, through Jesus, offers Freedom to all.

Interestingly, both Joseph and Nelson came to a place of great authority out of a place of great suffering and hardship. Both men were persecuted and mistreated by their community, being viewed as second-class citizens. Both men had their liberty removed from them unjustly and both served time in prison.

But crucially both men retained their faith through these depths in order, in the end, to rise from them. Indeed they did more than rise above the hardship and injustice. Both forgave their oppressors – Mandela’s former jailer was a guest at his Presidential inauguration – and both enabled the reconciliation of parties in conflict through their example of magnanimity.

Ultimately their dream of a Good Life for all, their faithfulness to that which was beyond themselves, their willingness to forgive, the example of their public service and their wise application of the power of government meant that catastrophe – famine in Egypt and civil war in South Africa – was averted.

Perhaps the words of Isaiah, another Prophetic leader, and his God-given dream serves as a fitting eulogy to both Joseph and Nelson, and a tutorial for the world leaders of today;

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Isaiah 58