POLITICS MATTER BECAUSE PEOPLE MATTER
"When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
"The sheep follow the good shepherd because they know his voice... The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I cam that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
I vowed and declared after last week's meditation that I would go silent on Donald Trump, leaving his fate in God's hands who has a record of humbling the proud, and bringing down the mighty. But some of the media images of his rallies are deeply disturbing. This is no laughing matter, for they remind us of similar Nazi and Fascist rallies in the 1930's. How is it possible that this should be so in the country that claims to be the heartland of democracy and the bastion of Christianity? But then how could it have happened in Germany and Italy, two of the great nations of culture and Christianity less than a century ago? Political commentators give varying answers, but they agree that those who are rallying in their millions to support Trump are not just bigoted racists, but people disaffected with mainstream political leadership and angry about economic policies that affect their well-being. To hell with political sweet-talk and dilly-dallying. They want a real "leader" to put things right and fight for their jobs. Trump is the Moses who can lead them out of Egypt into the promised land of milk and honey. All the other candidates are jerks! In fact the more Republican leaders appeal for them to reject Trump the more they rally in his support. So Trump's supporters adore him as they would a pop star or war hero, not a pathetic comic figure, a downright liar, or a potential tyrant. They trust him irrespective of what he says, or what policies he says he stands for, or whether those policies change from day to day to suit the crowd, because they believe he can get the things done they want done.
Understandably many people who watch these shenanigans, and some of our own, despair of politics and withdraw into a holy huddle or switch channels to watch a sit-com or cricket match instead of the news. But as Christians we know that politics matters because people matter. If we are concerned about the welfare of people, our parents or children, our neighbours and friends, the next generation, and planet earth, then we cannot be unconcerned about politics, or remain undisturbed by the images of crowds adulating leaders who lie and bully their way to power. Politics is about implementing policies that serve the common good and therefore opposing policies that don't.
And there are signs of hope both in South Africa and in the United States. In fact, the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is also appealing to Americans who are disaffected with the political situation, and he is not doing so by manipulating emotions and appealing to narrow selfish interests, but by speaking of economic justice and fairness, human solidarity and service, inclusion not exclusion. And his message is attracting widespread support. He probably won't win, but he is offering an alternative that appeals to the better not the base instincts of people. And that is a refreshing change. By the way, Sanders is a secular Jew, but far closer to Jesus' teaching than the right-wing Christian fundamentalists that support to Trump. So where does Jesus fit into the picture? Can his teaching ever make it in the maelstrom of power politics?
When Jesus saw the crowds who were following him, "he had compassion for them,' says Matthew, "because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (9:36) Like then, many people today across the world tday are desperate for political leadership they can truly trust because they feel let down by the system and manipulated by the politicians in office. Many are angry and disillusioned, sensing the collapse of the American dream or feeling let down by the failure of promises made to them over the past twenty years in South Africa. Like the crowds Jesus attracted, they are harassed and feel helpless. And that, of course, is the background to our reading from John's gospel today about the Good Shepherd,
To understand what Jesus is saying you need to know that "shepherd" in the Old Testament is not just someone who looks after sheep or is a religious pastor, no, the shepherds of ancient Israel were its political leaders. That is why the prophets keep on saying that Israel fails because its shepherds, that is, its rulers, are too often inept or rotten. They pursue their own interests rather than seek justice for the poor. Even King David who is held up as a model shepherd, turns out to have feet of clay. That is why the Psalmist in his helplessness declares that "the Lord is his shepherd," because in the end he can only trust God to lead him in the journey of life. And that is why Matthew reminds us that out of Bethlehem will come a ruler "who is to shepherd my people Israel," and applies this promise to Jesus himself.
We cannot elect Jesus as president he does teach us what true leaders should be like. He does not say they have to be religious or Christian, but he does say that they are not thieves and robbers, that they truly care for those they lead, and know how the system too often fails them. We don't need shepherds, whether political or religious, who manipulate people for their own ends, but those who serve them in building the common good. That is why we have to grasp the responsibility to vote. But our responsibility goes beyond voting. As Christians we need to be right up there with the rest of people of goodwill and moral responsibility who are seeking to ensure better government, better policies, and better leadership. And because good leaders don't just happen, we also have the responsibility to help nurture and encourage the next generation of leaders, which is part of what our own youth leadership training programme is about. We need your prayerful support as the time for its launch comes close.
John de Gruchy
10 March 2016