We live in strange times. The world of politics grows daily more bizarre until we have reached the point where almost nothing surprises or shocks us. We have reached a point where the only predictable thing is the unpredictable.
Political commentators try their best to explain what has happened and what might happen but in the end they all conclude, “but anything could happen”. “Unchartered waters” has become an over-used phrase.
The familiar landmarks by which we guided our public life, the norms of political behaviour, have gone. For some this means we are entering into an exciting time of new possibilities. For others they are genuinely fearful of where all this will lead us.
But the hardest truth to face is that we are reaping the results of a whirlwind that we ourselves have sown.
For most of the final decades of the last century and into this century there have been certain political assumptions that were assumed to be held in common. It was assumed that economic growth and development was for the good of the whole people, that a multi-cultural, multi-faith society was enriching for all and that globalisation would bring benefit for everyone.
But so often those vaunting this wonderful progress, were not those experiencing their consequences. The rich were getting richer, but the poor were also getting poorer. The ideal of wealth trickling down was a delusion. Those championing the richness of multiculturalism were all too often not those seeing their local streets change beyond recognition. The globalisation that promoted the project of European union failed to take in to account that for many their local town hall felt remote and inaccessible yet alone those living in the gilded cage of London – a European parliament felt so remote it was beyond foreign.
If such thoughts were ever acknowledged, it was assumed they were just the views of a minority and not what most (good) people thought. Minority perhaps, but a significant minority and others would argue that actually it was a growing majority for whom the assumed political values of the age were not working.
These assumptions were stripped naked during the banking crisis. The richest in the West were bailed out by governments in the belief that this was for the good of us all. However, the resulting policy of austerity meant that the poorest once again suffered most. The growing deep dissatisfaction with the assumed political order finally found its voice in the EU referendum – they would be heard.
Our politicians are still struggling to come to terms with what has happened. Some are still hoping that the clock can be turned back, and we can pretend none of this has happened. But for too long, too many people have felt unheard. And when people feel unheard, they are more likely to turn to the more extreme political leaders, those least like those who have been ignoring them. Rightly those who have found a voice will not be silenced.
There is nothing in and of itself wrong with growing the wealth of the nation, nor of developing a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, nor of closer co-operation between the nations of Europe and of wider globalisation. But such developments need to take the whole nation with them and be clearly seen to benefit all not just some. However, people have learnt to be suspicious of proclaimed progress that in fact leaves them and others behind.
The Church has the potential to have a vital part in healing our broken and divided nations. Churches need to be rooted in their local communities, listening to the concerns and struggles of those living around them, and helping give voice to those who feel they have no voice. Much as the Church may want to win friends and influence people it must remember that Christianity is always essentially biased to the poorest. Where churches become obsessed with their own survival or growth, where they turn inwards, then they are failing their communities. If the Church is to help stitch our nation back together it will be the depth of our service to our neighbourhoods that will be the true witness to God’s healing work.
Each time I react to yet another stranger-than-fiction moment in our political life, I remind myself that we are in this place because for too long people like me listened too much to the voices that said what I wanted to hear. I ignored too long the voices from those not like me. Each new and strange political twist renews my commitment to reach out more to those who hold different views from me, whose perspective on life comes from a different place. In a divided society I need to learn to be a bridge builder and let others help me see life differently.