Are we right to be cynical?
The question I kept asking myself watching BBC’s Roadkill this week was “Is this really true to life or simply David Hare projecting his cynicism onto our political leaders?” Occupying a totally different world to the sunny uplands of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, this four part drama portrays our politicians as utterly ruthless in their pursuit of private ambition. Thanks to BBC iPlayer Jacqui and I were able to watch it over four consecutive nights rather than wait seven days for the next Sunday evening broadcast. Sadly one of the effects of the ageing process is that I lose track of weekly episodes. Even so, I’m not going to give anything away and so no need for a spoiler alert. The main character, splendidly played by Hugh Laurie, is an ambitious cabinet minister, self-made, forceful and charismatic. And his past is beginning to catch up with him as skeletons start to tumble from his various closets. You soon realise, as he does, that he can trust no-one – which is just as well, for they are as ruthlessly self-serving as he is: political advisors, civil servants, prison governors, newspaper editors, barristers – the whole political class. And not least the prime minister, as portrayed by Helen McCrory, a frightening combination of Margaret Thatcher and a Rottweiler on a bad day. Loyalty and a commitment to principle seems altogether absent – which is depressing, especially if you want your leaders to be like WW’s President Bartlet. As American political commentator, Ben Shapiro observes “Distrust of government isn't baseless cynicism. It's realism.” But how realistic is David Hare’s presentation? Do politicians really scheme, even speak to each other as in Roadkill? It certainly doesn’t help knowing that Dominic Cummings is still in post. It would seem that playwright David Hare admits to a low view of human nature, “Our lives must be shallow,” he writes, “because we live in a country where nobody believes in anything anymore.” Certainly as Christians we are not to be taken in by the empty promises along with the back-stabbing of this world. Moreover, we are not to be taken in by appearances. The apostle Paul, for one, does not draw back from seeing human nature, made in the image of God but caught up in the disobedience of Adam, as hopelessly flawed. His most carefully worked out presentation of the Gospel of Jesus is in his letter to the church at Rome. Something is wrong, very wrong in our human nature – so wrong that only God can fix it. He is unsparing in his analysis. So he uses several quotes from the Old Testament, to make his point. For example from Psalm 14:3: “All have turned away from God; they have all gone wrong; no one does what is right, not even one. (Romans 3:12) All means everyone. Only this morning, in my BRF Guidelines, I’ve been reading how Paul is brutally honest in his self-awareness: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19). This key passage has been endlessly debated over the centuries. However, the commentator this morning suggests, somewhat controversially, that when Paul says “I”, he is speaking of himself! Sadly he concludes “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7:20) So no human endeavour can rise above our capacity for doing the wrong thing. To quote Jeff Lucas from this Wednesday’s zoomed St Mark's house group, “Everything is broken.” So why do Christians not share the cynicism of David Hare? After all we see our human nature in a very similar light. Because we are assured that God does not leave us to our own devices. And more, through the cross of Jesus he has intervened in such a way as to transform the fundamentals. The apostle Paul may be only too aware of his personal frailties but can rejoice “For (God) has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13f) Empowered by the Holy Spirit we can work for the welfare of others, even against our own self-interest (i.e. walk like Jesus), knowing that we are not going against the flow but in sych with the very purposes of God. And more, that God is quite capable of working through others, even through their own selfish ambitions, to achieve his good purpose. This understanding frees us from world-weary cynicism as our faces reflect the radiance of God’s glory. “We’re free of it! All of us!” rejoices Paul, writing to a church in turmoil. He would have been within his rights to pull the plug on this dysfunctional church in Corinth but such is the light of Christ that he can persevere. So he continues: “Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus has saved/is saving/will save us from everything which would demean and destroy us -and that includes the disease of cynicism. His cross makes all the difference, even to our appearance! As Hare himself says, albeit wistfully “I believe love opens people up."