Three scenarios that seem to play out fairly frequently in the lives of nations around the world:
An opposition party sweeps away the ruling party which is seen as inefficient, stale and unable to deliver change. A couple of years later the opposition party finds itself at an all-time low in the polls. It in turn is under attack from the former ruling party which is now seen as having a better programme for change for the country.
A nation is liberated from a repressive dictatorship. Amid wild celebrations a new government is formed, promising major reforms and rapid reconstruction of the shattered economy. But early promise does not translate into effective action. Frustrated revolutionaries begin to complain about the slow state of progress, the problems the new government face seem to be far more difficult to overcome than they first imagined.
Disaffected youth riot on the streets. Everyone agrees this is completely unacceptable behaviour and that something must be done. But a generation on, despite all the money poured into a multitude of programmes, the issues essentially remain the same.
What has gone wrong? When I first thought about this, I was going to say that it’s easier to know what you are against, than what you stand for. But actually that is wrong. There seem to be some fairly universal principles that people agree that are good things – such as peace and security and rights for all. When you are in opposition, you can afford to deal mainly in principles because you are not in power. But when it comes to taking positive action, the question arises as to how you put those principles into action.
The cry of the French Revolution – liberte, egalite, fraternite – was inspiring because it summed up exactly what was wrong with the nation at the time. But when the revolutionaries got into power, the results were disastrous. That is admittedly an extreme example. But it seems that almost any government has a hard time putting the principles they believe in into detailed, practical action. Liberte, egalite, fraternite do not directly help solve the problem of waste management, for example, or how to get traffic moving.
And there’s a challenge in all this for us as Christians. It’s easy to decry the world around us as not living according to God’s standards. Indeed we have an obligation at times to speak out directly about injustice and violence. But it seems to me that we need to go beyond that and promote a positive example of what it means to put God’s kingdom into practice. If it is true that the government is upon Jesus’ shoulders (Is 9:6), then we need to live as ambassadors of that government.
I am at the moment reading William Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce who became the great parliamentary campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. When Wilberforce was first converted, however, he seriously considered for a time withdrawing from public life. If he had followed this course of action, so much of the social change at the turn of the 19th century would not have happened, or at least taken a very different course. How we need wise men and women today who like Wilberforce are prepared to turn Christian convictions into solid, tangible action and show the relevance, and indeed the necessity, of following Jesus as Lord and Saviour.