I don’t really believe in equality. There. I’ve said it. Actually, I needed a first line to grab your attention. Still reading?
Okay. So Equality. After moving to the U.K. from California in 2007, I noticed very quickly how important this word is in British political and public speech. It’s everywhere. It’s revered. It’s almost god-like in its capacity to produce secular genuflecting. In political parlance, Equality is closely related to one of the other favourites: Fairness. The Liberal Democrats absolutely adore that word. It’s rare to hear Nick Clegg, their leader, fail to use it – normally several times – in an interview. It fills his every political thought, I’m sure. Perhaps because, well, how can anyone be against Fairness? It’s a winner. Which little kid in each of us doesn’t remember some childhood memory when we didn’t get what we wanted? When life simply wasn’t FAIR! So good on you, Mr. Clegg, for enticing us with the promise of Fairness.
Because they’re related, aren’t they? At least they are in the political language of our time. How can it be fair that some people have more than others? That’s not fair. We need to take from some and give to others. Whoa, whoa. Hold on a minute. Before we become mired in Robin Hood politics, and Labour readers switch off while Conservatives begin to rant rather unhelpfully, I’d like to highlight my primary response to this issue. I believe our obsession with equality and fairness leads to what can only be described as the politics of envy. And that’s a bad thing. A very bad thing. Here’s a quote from Suzy Stride, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Harlow in Christianity magazine.
We know where some kids are going to end up (even) when they’re in their mother’s womb, and it’s just not fair. I believe we need a government that levels the playing field.
This is classic Labour reasoning. There’s inequality in society. The state should intervene and ‘level the playing field.’ There is so much to be said in response to such reasoning, but in order to encourage you to come back later this week, I will address the role of the state in a later post. Keep reading my blog and you’ll soon find plenty with which to disagree!
Right now, I’d like to voice my concerns about the kind of politics we’re encouraging by talk of ‘levelling the playing field.’ Because the politics of envy is everywhere. Last night, Labour’s leader, Ed Milliband, in his keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference, contrasted himself with the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Cameron, he said, is the one who sides with the wealthy while I will repeal the Bedroom Tax*. That’s a paraphrase. And it is classic politics of envy.
Shame on our politicians for doing this. In the Bible, envy is unequivocally condemned. God even included a prohibition on it in the Ten Commandments. It’s that last one, which we tend to forget. Do not covet. Covet: such an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? Try envy. Wishing you had something which doesn’t belong to you.
Before you think this is a right-wing rant, let me make clear right now that this post has nothing to do with party politics. Politics involves some measure of ‘slicing up the pie’ and talk of Fairness and Equality is bound to come into the picture. Along with Responsibility, Freedom, Economic Growth and the Common Good. Right now, however, I’m much more interested in the way that our politic language damages us morally. Or at least, evokes responses which can be potentially damaging to our character development. Think of your consumption of politics the way you think of hearing a sermon. Political speeches and sermons are designed to elicit a response. So what happens when you listen to a politician encouraging you to envy other people?
First, it drains you of your joy. It causes you to keep looking at your glass and seeing it as half empty. Stop looking at all that lovely liquid you do have and keep reminding yourself that your glass isn’t as full as the glass belonging to other people. Mr. Voter, let me remind you of how much you don’t have and what the government isn’t doing for you.
Closely related to this is that it radically undermines one of the key Christian virtues: gratitude. Gratitude is an essential quality exhibited by the mature Christian. The capacity to praise God in the face of hardship is recognized by all the great Christian writers as a highly sought-after virtue. However, it is extremely difficult to thank God for all that he has provided while at the same time feeling aggrieved that others have more than you. Just try it. Furthermore, the politics of envy has the potential of misleading you into thinking that material goods will satisfy you. If only you had a little more. If only . . .
There is one final point. It’s one which the people of Israel failed to learn throughout most of the Old Testament. They were terrified of Assyria. They trembled before Babylon. And they turned to Egypt! How could they? Because when things are bad, whom can you trust? Seriously. To whom do you turn when you’re in trouble? You turn to God. You trust him. The most egregious sin of the politics of envy might be that it sets up the state as a rival to God. Who’s going to save you? Who will you trust?
There are some who cite the reasons I’ve given above as sufficiently damaging to the spiritual life that Christians should be warned against engaging in politics. They divide flesh and spirit and argue that we should disengage from political life. I don’t agree. I applaud those who enter into the blood sport of politics, believing that they serve the cause of Christ in an arena which needs saltiness and light just as every area of life does. I’m also aware that running the country is a fiendishly difficult thing to do. I know I couldn’t do it. So, if you enjoy politics and perhaps are even a politician of some kind, be my guest. Be blessed in what you do.
But please don’t encourage envy in your voters. You wouldn’t advise people to murder, or commit adultery or take part in the occasional bit of robbery.
That would be a bad move. A very bad move.
+Next time . . . I will actually address the issue of equality!
*For my American readers, google Bedroom Tax U.K. and something helpful should come up.