Today is Palm Sunday. In churches up and down the land we will recreate Jesus’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The atmosphere has the feel of an enthusiastic political rally with people waving flags and cheering the successful candidate who, they feel, is about to change everything.
‘Hosanna,’ the crowd shouts out. This man is being held up as the saviour. But a week is a long time – and not just in politics.
Within a few days all this support has dried up. Something flips and the crowd start pelting Jesus with stones and spitting on him. By Good Friday, the same people who were shouting Hosanna are now calling for his death. Even his own party has rejected him.
Is it any wonder that politicians – who are always in the popularity business – find it so uncomfortable to travel alongside Christ on this dark journey?
Yes, some of them make the right sort of noise.
The Prime Minister has previously insisted that he believes in God and that this is a Christian country.
Now he has gone further, using an Easter video message to praise the ‘countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ’.
He continued, expounding a little of his personal theology: ‘The heart of Christianity is to love thy neighbour and millions really do live that out.’
He spoke of the good work Christians do in prisons, their efforts in setting up food banks and the support people gave each other during the recent floods. ‘Parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved once again that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds.’
I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support for Christians. Yet most politicians who speak of God look about as comfortable as my dad does break-dancing. Perhaps that is why Alastair Campbell advised Tony Blair so strongly against it.
Even Gordon Brown, son of the Manse, looked awkward when he was trying to sound pious. He too reached for this practical, moral aspect of Christianity when he came to recommend it: ‘Do to others what you would have them do unto you,’ he told the gathered faithful at St Paul’s Cathedral back in 2009.
Now there is nothing wrong with all of this – as far as it goes.
But here’s the problem: no-one was ever crucified for kindness. Jesus was not strung up on a hideous Roman instrument of torture because of his good deeds. If Jesus is just a remarkably good person whose example we ought to follow, why the need for the dark and difficult story of betrayal, death and resurrection that Christians will commemorate this week? . . . .
Look at the current crop of well-loved TV vicars. Both Rev (which depicts a parish similar to my own near the Elephant and Castle in South London) and The Vicar of Dibley show plenty of good deeds and kindness.
These gentle people with wet handshakes are approachable community figures, helping knit together the fabric of society with bingo and Sunday school. And we also want them to be figures of fun because that is how we keep religion safe.
It wasn’t always this way. Thousands were butchered during the Civil War in the name of their different understandings of God – probably the last flowering of popular religious fundamentalism in England. I suspect it was in reaction against the deep political traumas of the 17th Century that the English re-invented Christianity as something to do with kindness and good deeds.
When religious ideology got as toxic as it did, it was an act of genius to redefine religion as being primarily about pastoral care. From the 18th Century onwards, Christianity ceased to be about pike-toting revolutionaries hoping to rebuild Jerusalem in here in England.
Instead, through the Church of England, it increasingly became a David Cameron-type faith: the religion of good deeds . . . .
There is nothing distinctively Christian about this sort of virtue. And it’s hardly the sort of message that is going to fill our churches. No, the sort of message that makes a difference to people’s lives – and gets them out of bed on a Sunday morning – has to be much more powerful.
Speaking last week, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of teaching children the religious meaning of Easter. It’s more than chocolate eggs, he emphasised. That, of course, is quite right.
But will any politician really have the gall to preach the full story of Christ’s crucifixion? As St Paul himself noted, it is offensive and scandalous stuff. It means being brave, taking risks, standing up to wrong, even when – and this is bound to happen – it is personally distressing for us to do
that. It means real belief and absolute commitment. It is so much more than a brief nod to Sunday school truisms.
It is sad – even if it is understandable – that so much of what we hear from leading figures in politics and elsewhere is a pallid imitation of Christianity, the equivalent of empty-gesture politics. Real faith, like real leadership, means taking hard decisions and standing by them.
Unless Christians in politics are prepared to address the darkness and struggle that we face on Good Friday, it is probably better that they steer clear of preaching altogether.
For in order to be reborn at the resurrection we have first have to die with Christ. We have to walk the way of the cross. We have to face rejection and humiliation. Little wonder the Prime Minister avoided all this in his Easter broadcast.