Justin Welby’s suggestion corrupt politicians should be forgiven misses the need for reparations in Christian teaching, explains Reverend Joe Haward

There is a danger that the sheer weight and regularity of political corruption we are currently witnessing in the UK will begin to desensitise us to its reality.

Day after day, week after week, story after story emerges of cronyism, dodgy contracts, and lobbying scandals. Such is the regularity of these revelations it can leave us exhausted with frustration, numb to its ongoing impact.

But it is because of this avalanche of corruption that we must continue to hold the powerful to account – never letting up, never looking away – until justice rolls forth like a mighty river.

It is therefore discouraging that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in an interview for the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast, would seek to downplay the scale and seriousness of the corruption that is being witnessed within UK politics right now.

In the interview, Welby rightly contests that the public must hold politicians to standards whilst at the same time not despairing. He also says that “it’s not right to help out your chums or lobby inappropriately”. But then goes on to say that political standards are better now than they ever have been and “let’s not pretend that politicians are worse; if anything they’re better”.

Welby argues against nostalgic ideas of what politics used to be like, asking: “Isn’t this the golden age ‘myth’ syndrome? Churchill was given huge amounts of money by his mates. He helped people out, they helped him out. It’s how politics works.”

He went on to say that, if standards are raised, “you need to have a strong ethic of forgiveness, and compassion, and understanding. You’ve got to be able to forgive when people mess up”.

What is remarkable about this interview is Welby’s lack of insight (or deliberate denial) into the political reality we are faced with here in the UK. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been used by the Government to bypass parliamentary democracy and line the pockets of colleagues and friends with billions of pounds of public money. Every single day they lie and deceive in plain sight, overflowing with arrogance because they know they can get away with it as the mainstream media and political opposition engage in distraction and denial. 

Welby’s moral and ethical duty, as someone in a position of power and influence, is to declare that political standards are not better – that there appears to be widespread corruption throughout the Government. To say “it’s how politics works” is an abdication of moral duty, remaining silent on the mendacity oozing out of every pore within the corridors of power. 

Making Things Right

Forgiveness is foundational to the teachings of Jesus. Yet his call to forgive is not a call to ignore injustice.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus named the systems, and the people within those systems, that perpetrated violence to others. To those in power he said: “Alas (woe) for you scribes and Pharisees, charlatans, because you tithe… and have neglected… mercy… Alas for you scribes and Pharisees, charlatans, because you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear lovely, but within are filled with the bones of the dead.”

Forgiveness demands that the truth is brought into the light for all to see so that justice can prevail. Forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences to actions. Justice means to put things right. Sometimes that means experiencing the reality of what we have done.

Jesus was always on the side of the outcast and vulnerable, defending them against the rich and the powerful and the systems of oppression that stripped them of their humanity. That is not to say that he hated those in power. Indeed, it was quite the opposite: love alone has the power to bring transformation and justice. Love does not ignore the suffering of our fellow humanity but seeks ways to relieve such suffering and implement transformational actions, out of words of change. 

When Jesus famously told those under oppression to “turn the other cheek”, he was not saying ‘accept your lot and be trampled on’. Jesus told his listeners that “whosoever strikes you upon the right cheek, turn to him the other as well”. In the right-handed culture of Jesus’ time, a strike on the right cheek would require a back of the hand slap, the normal way those in power admonished inferiors.

Who is Jesus’ audience? Victims and the powerless, those who knew what such a strike meant. So why did he counsel them to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of their power to humiliate. To strike the left cheek would require a fist or open palm, an action of equals in that time. In effect, Jesus was saying ‘try again, your first blow failed to humiliate me and I deny you your power to do it again. I am a human, just like you’. It is non-violent subversion against those in power.

Justin Welby must use his position to speak out against the reasons why people are suffering and suggest ways to shame those in power. As the German pastor and Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should… take a much more definite a stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.”

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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