Politicians’ Expenses and Christian Living
The recent revelations concerning MPs’ expenses have made us very angry. We have been horrified at the way that many of our elected representatives - playing, for the most part, entirely within the rules - have manipulated the system for their own ends.
All right, it may be amusing to read that a millionaire claimed for a Mars Bar and a sandwich, while someone else put in a receipt for a bathplug costing less than £1. Far more worrying are the instances of Parliamentary allowances being used to finance lucrative property deals or to fund home improvements, garden refurbishments and even the maintenance of private swimming pools. It is clear that the system needs urgent reform.
But what has troubled me most is not the way that taxpayers’ money has been used to feather some honourable members’ nests - wrong though that has been. No; my concern is that many of the high-spending MPs seem to be totally unaware of the impression that they are giving to the public. For the Parliamentary reaction to these revelations has not been one of humble contrition - although the party leaders have fallen over themselves to belatedly express their regret - but, rather, one of outrage at the “mole” who leaked them to the “Daily Telegraph”. No-one likes their secrets to be brought to light.
I think it is true that, ever since the infamous “cash for questions” and “peerages for donations” scandals of the 80s and 90s, popular regard for the Parliamentary system has been in decline. The turnout in elections, both national and local, is so low that few MPs or councillors are voted in by even half of their constituents. One reason that is often given is, “It’s not worth voting for one party or another, they’re all saying the same thing”. But an even bigger problem may be people thinking, “They live in a different world to ordinary people, they are completely out of touch with reality, and they don’t listen to people like us - so why bother?”
This decline in respect has fuelled support for extremist parties such as the BNP, who like to portray themselves as groups standing outside the parliamentary mainstream. Harriet Harman has recently said that the scandal over expenses will “create an anti-politics mood” which “undermines confidence in Parliament and fuels a climate of cynicism”. Certainly the twin issues of voter apathy and political extremism have been a concern for the Joint Public Issues Group of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches: they are urging all Christians to vote in the European and local elections on June 4th to ensure that more moderate voices are heard.
But perhaps there is another lesson that Christians can learn from the current fiasco. For, just like Members of Parliament or local Councillors, we can all too easily live inside a church “bubble” and lose connection with the outside world. I am not suggesting that we are guilty of financial improprieties; but our worship can become self-centred and irrelevant to real life, we can forget how we appear to the community beyond our doors, we can stop relating to the needs of the people who surround us. Many Christians mix only with other Christians rather than making friends with their colleagues and neighbours.
We can’t imagine Jesus behaving like that, can we? For he went out of his way to step outside the religious community of his day and mix with ordinary, even marginalised, people. He had little time for a cosy faith which forgot about the wider world; instead, he plunged himself into that world and totally identified with it, without allowing it to engulf his divine integrity. That is the meaning of Incarnation, which we celebrate every year at Christmas. And it is how every church, every Christian should live.
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Revd Andrew Kleissner is the minister of Christchurch, Tacket Street, Ipswich