When gesture politics go wrong.
It hasn’t been a good year for Zac Goldsmith. First he fails in his bid to become the Mayor of London. Well, that’s politics – these things happen. But then he chooses to resign his safe Richmond Park seat in protest at the government's decision to back a third Heathrow runway. A dramatic move: it was meant to be. And altogether unnecessary. However, as we found out this morning the voters of Richmond Park were unimpressed and have elected a political unknown, Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, to represent them at Westminster. “This by-election was not a political calculation” Goldsmith insists. “It was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept.” Clearly you have to be very sure when you make a promise, particularly in politics. One of the reasons why Ms Olney’s party crashed so badly in this summer’s General Election was their reneging on their pledge on student tuition fees. Why Goldsmith made his promise in the first place is uncertain. However, he has paid the ultimate price for this act of gesture politics, defined by sociologist Frances Heidensohn as actions that are done or made chiefly as symbolic gestures and have little or no practical effect. It is a temptation facing all of us – to make a gesture simply for the effect, usually devoid of content. Simply to look good rather than to be good. John Sergeant, the former political correspondent for the BBC and the Ed Balls of his day in Strictly Come Dancing, writes in his autobiography of his father who was a vicar in some delightful rural parish in Oxfordshire. Apparently his father would get up early each morning, head for the church, toll the bell a few times – and then go back to bed in the sure knowledge that his parishioners thought he was hard at work. I’ve tried it here – but once you’re up, you might as well stay up. And anyway, no one heard the bell. But there are always other ways of making out than we are busier than we actually are. In other words the danger is that we value what people may think of us rather than the reality of who we are. Maybe the biggest temptation each of us faces. The apostle Paul had a hard time here. Apparently, he did not have a strong personal presence. Moreover, he was not a good speaker. He says as much to the Corinthians when he refers to what his opponents were saying about him. “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul was under every pressure to project himself as someone he wasn’t’ – to make some bold gesture to face-down those he called “these super-apostles.” In fact, what he did was the very opposite – he highlighted his weaknesses, he displayed his inadequacies. He could do so for the simple reason that he had every confidence in the Christ who had called and equipped him as an apostle. Such was his security in this vocation that he could write “But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Once we realize this truth about ourselves – that we are loved, valued and forgiven by God himself, then there is no need to be anyone else other than the person we are. We do not rely on the opinions of others to validate ourselves. No need for empty gestures or status symbols. Above all it is Jesus who shows us what it means. As John recounts “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” (John 13:3) Here is his security: all he needs. And how he expresses this tells us everything. And so John continues “So Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel . . and began to wash his disciples’ feet.” This is no gesture; this is the real thing. His cross shows the extent of his service. In complete contrast, it was the person he was about to stand before who engaged in the ultimate in gesture politics. “So Pilate took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood.’’ (Matthew 27:24) No doubt it looked good at the time. In the film Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate literally washes Jesus’ blood from his hands. A powerful gesture but a complete travesty. And yet it tells us everything about Jesus himself, who shows us what true integrity looks like, what it means to walk in the truth. He calls us to follow him.