The Sick Nation and it’s Healing
‘If you’re someone who was sitting at home watching a lot of the media over the last three days, then I think lots of people would be very angry.’
The United Kingdom is sick. Over 260,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid 19 (probably the real figure is many times that) and over 37,000 have died with this virus. The economy has been crippled; people have been locked down; fear, anger and depression stalk the land. And there are the physical consequences – there will be many empty seats in homes because of the deaths – effects that will be felt for a lifetime. It will take years for the economic and physical consequences to be overcome and perhaps even longer for the psychological and mental effects to be healed. But the United Kingdom will recover from this.
But the UK is sick in another way. This forcibly struck me this morning as I listened to the BBC news (it was 10pm in the UK) – half of which was taken up by the Dominic Cummings story. As I indicated yesterday I have found the whole story profoundly depressing – regarding it as at best a meaningless expression of the kind of hysteria that can sometimes overtake a nation. I thought it was a temporary blip that would soon be over – but now I am not so sure. I think this story is important (not because of the story itself) but because of what it reveals about the state of British society at this moment in time – and indeed the state of the Church. It’s not just that there is something rotten in the state of the UK – it is a cancer that is in deep and I don’t think this one will come out just by ordinary means.
The story itself is fairly straightforward – Dominic Cummings is a senior government advisor (some think Boris Johnson’s right hand man) who is considered a Machiavellian evil genius by some. He ran the successful Brexit campaign and did the same for Boris Johnson’s election campaign. He is noted for despising the Westminster system and the media – who in turn despise him back – with a hatred that is visceral. If you read the tweets of Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor Alistair Campbell, or Piers Morgan you can feel the obsessive hate. Cummings has powerful enemies everywhere – not least the editor of The Daily Mail. I have no real idea about Cummings – I have no idea if what they write about him is true. I have long ago stopped believing what the ‘experts’ in the media write. With the current politicisation of everything (at lest partly due to our following America in its tribalism of everything), the decline in any concept of truth as an absolute, and the necessity of click bait journalism in order to generate hits – I find that it is not just stories on social media I have to check but stories in the mainstream media. So often these stories are repeated as gospel truth by politicians and commentators and quickly pass into the ‘everyone knows’ category (and if you don’t you’re an idiot or a ‘denier’ or a fascist). For example as regards Cummings – everyone ‘knows that he argued against lockdown because he wanted to let the old people die of in order to save the economy. Except what everyone knows is wrong. It was precisely the opposite. But whilst truth is getting its boots on, a lie has winged round the world – and become permanently fixed in the folklore of the ‘please tell me what I want to hear’ algorithms of the Internet.
The Cummings Story
I don’t want to go into the Cummings story. Because I don’t want to make this a defence of what he did or didn’t do. At one level that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the reaction to the perception of what he did and what that reveals about the UK today. But I guess the background doesn’t make sense without knowing something of the foreground. So let me list the simple facts.
On the 27th of March – because his wife was sick and he did not feel well and they had a four year old child Cummings decided, without telling the Prime Minister, to head to his parents home in the North East, where he and his wife would self isolate in a separate cottage whilst his sister and two teenage nieces (who had another cottage) could look after their son if necessary. Cummings states that he was concerned because in his London home he was being threatened, abused and posts on social media were calling for him to be attacked (if you doubt this could happen look at the footage of the mob outside his house yesterday). The nearest homes to the family ones are more than half a mile away. Cummings says he drove all the way to Durham at midnight without stopping.(You can read his full statement and the questionshere).
He and his wife were ill so he did not return. His son got so ill that on the 2nd of April he was taken to hospital. Cummings states that other than going to pick up his son from hospital he did not leave the grounds of the house. On Sunday the 12th of April Cummings was recovered enough to return to London but he and his wife drove 30 miles to Barnard castle. He says he did not visit the castle – you can again read the details in his statement. On Monday the 13th of April he returned to London.
The media have reported that he went back to Durham after this. That report has turned out to be a lie. As were reports that he attended his uncle’s funeral.
That is the substance of the story. A man travels overnight to stay, self-isolated, with his family, in a house where they had no contact with other people. It is clear from that they put no one’s life in danger. You could argue that he should have stayed in London and faced the mob. Some have attempted to argue that he broke the law – but the police (at the time) did not think so. He was not questioned nor charged. Cummings argues that he was following the guidelines given out by the government’s chief medical officer on the 24th of March that said parents who are ill and may not be able to look after a child created “exceptional circumstances” where family members could be called upon to help.
Brendan O’Neill sums up the problem with the Mail/Guardian/National/Mirror/Observer story –
The media’s Dominic Cummings story has completely collapsed. He did NOT go to Durham a second time, which was reported on the front page of the Sunday Mirror and the Observer. He did NOT have any physical contact with family members. The police did NOT talk to the Cummings family about the Covid lockdown guidelines. Cummings did NOT carry on doing things that everyone else had stopped doing — he even missed the funeral of his uncle who died from Covid. He did NOT leave his London home for leisure reasons — he left it because he was receiving death threats as a result of media demonisation. He was very ill, his wife was ill, and at one point his child was taken to hospital in an ambulance in Durham. His family has had a really rough time and the media have told lie after lie about him. The scandal is not Cummings’ behaviour — it is the collapse of ethics and objectivity in the British media.
On the other hand you could also say that Cummings is lying and in his arrogance thinks he can get away with it. And you may be right. Because I believe the Bible and I know human nature – nothing would surprise me. I’m intrigued by those who think in this postmodern world that any politician who lies should resign. By that standard would anyone be left?!
My position is simple. I don’t know. And the point is that neither do you. I’m not prepared to act as judge, jury and executioner on a matter that I do not and cannot know. I will believe what people say until I have reason to think otherwise. The trouble is that each of us seems to follow the Manic Street Preachers in saying “this is my truth, tell me yours’. We select our ‘truths’ according to what we want to be true. Surely we should have little more humility. Have you ever noticed how it is often those who cry out ‘do not judge’, who are the most judgemental?
The Reaction and the Witch-hunt
Why has this turned into such a major story? It’s partly because of the frustration and pent up anger in the country – you can only keep people locked down for so long. It’s partly because of the populism and feeling that there is one rule for the rich and another for the rest. That feeling is to some degree true – rich people like Piers Morgan (and Dominic Cummings) don’t have to worry about not having a garden to play in! Lockdowns and economic collapse are always harder for the poor – which is why again you see the rich being the ones who argue most passionately for them! But I think this has largely been orchestrated by those who just see a great opportunity to get rid of their bête noir. I have been reading Hilary Mantel’s brilliant The Mirror and the Light which charts the rise and demise of Thomas Cromwell. Like Cummings he was regarded as a king maker with too much power, and so like Cummings, the establishment had to bring him down.
Now whether this analysis is correct or not, I think that this incident has spotlighted what is wrong within the UK at the moment. For the sake of brevity I will only give one example from each area – but these could be multiplied many times. For the sake of balance I should also point out that there are exceptions in each of these areas – where people have refused to get caught up in the mob mentality and have behaved with a degree of decorum and dignity. But sadly they are exceptions.
Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, stated that this incident means that Boris Johnson is not fit to lead the country. That is the level of hyperbole and lack of perspective that infects our political classes.
Professor Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, says that if Cummings stays in post ‘more people will die’. Again the hyperbole and lack of perspective is stunning. If I was asked by my parents to travel to the Highlands of Scotland because they needed help – I would absolutely do so. And in employing the normal WHO guidelines of social distancing, hand washing etc. I have no doubt at all that I would not be risking lives. In fact it could be that the hysteria and fear engendered by people like Professor Reicher is what really costs lives. In refusing to treat us like adults and instead seeking to control us by putting the fear of Covid into us – they have ensured that thousands of people will not seek treatment for their cancer (and other serious illnesses) because they want to save the NHS. Meanwhile Professor Reicher is remarkably silent about a policy that the First Minister admits has cost lives – that of transferring elderly patients from hospitals to care homes – without testing. Why?
The Bishop of Manchester offered this gem –
"Religions have had thousands of years of saying actually human instinct on its own is not good enough. We need rules"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) May 25, 2020
We need rules, virtues, values and guidelines.” He, and several of his other bishops really stuck the boot into Cummings and the Prime Minister. They were ‘stunned’, ‘shocked’ etc. They delighted in pointing out this political sin. But what stunned me was the deafening silence from these same bishops when it came to the UK parliament imposing abortion on Northern Ireland. They are horrified at the sin of a man seeking to look after his child, but can turn a blind eye to thousands of babies being killed
Just as astonishing is the Bishops definition of religion as rules, virtues, values and guidelines. That IS religion. The kind of religion that got Christ crucified. There is nothing about grace, compassion and forgiveness. Some of the bishops in England are the equivalent of the Pharisees in Jesus’s day.
But it’s not just the bishops – I have watched with astonishment as fellow clergy have jumped on the bandwagon – crying out for blood. And its not just the clergy – otherwise sane and lovely Christians have been sneering, mocking, joining the mob, congratulating themselves that they are on the right side and yelling at others for daring to disagree. It’s ugly.
It has become very difficult to distinguish between what used to be called the gutter press and the ‘qualities’ – as the Guardian, Independent, and Times etc. compete to join each other in the gutter. Two examples from this current farce stand out – the Channel 4 journalist (and her colleagues from the rest of the media) squawking and yelling at Cummings for breaking the rules whilst themselves breaking the rules in a press scrum outside his house. Then the editor of The Daily Mail inciting yet another lynch mob (this time not against immigrants). He sees the opportunity to get rid of someone he loathes and so he is taking it. And people join in. I am astounded at the number of people I know who usually regard anyone who cites the Daily Mail as from the Dark Side, now citing it with glee
The purpose of police is to enforce the law – not to make it, not to interpret it – but just to enforce it. The police are not there to tell us what or how to think. They are there to enforce the law – without fear nor favour. The police like the law should not be subject to political or mob pressure. In my view police should also operate with a degree of common sense. I remember once being pulled over for something and the police officer took a look at me and ended up giving me a warning rather than fining me. I learned my lesson. In the past 24 hours I have challenged those who said to me ‘he broke the law’ – to explain why if he broke the law, the police have not charged him or even warned him. But we have moved to a world where ‘breaking the law’ is now determined by Piers Morgan, politicians and social media – rather than police, courts and judges.
But there is another disturbing aspect to this. The police had done, and were going to do nothing. But now considerable pressure will come upon the Chief Constable of Durham to initiate an ‘inquiry’. Watch this space. If the mob shouts loud enough the police may act. The chief constables too have to signal their virtue.
The plebes in ancient Rome were the common people. It’s amazing how so many of the groups above say they are speaking for ‘the people’. A friend from Dundee wrote me last night and said that the Cummings story was hardly the talk of the ‘steamie’ or the pub! But no – our politicians, press and clergy all say they are speaking for ‘the people’. No-one of course speaks for the people because the people have many different voices and views. With one exception. When the people become the mob – then they speak with one voice. An angry one. An outraged one. Sadly many of the people have been manipulated into becoming that mob – especially (but not solely) on social media.
We have been encouraged to behave like East Germans in the time of the Stasi- reporting on our neighbours. We think it’s ok to yell at people if they don’t wear facemasks. We think we are justified in calling people ‘killers’ if they go outside more than once per day. We have become a nation of snoopers and, as they say in Oz, dobbers. And of course we are hypocrites. According to a survey I read last week 27% of people have already broken lockdown rules. In a free country it was always going to be impossible to enforce a tight lockdown for a longer period. In the short term you can do it through an appeal to virtue and instilling fear. But after weeks anger, depression and frustration will come to the boil. And that’s why our leaders and opinion formers are playing with fire when they stir up the mob with their inflammatory, hateful and exaggerated language.
Cummings was surely correct when he said this in his statement:
‘If you’re someone who was sitting at home watching a lot of the media over the last three days, then I think lots of people would be very angry.’
In the 16th Century when people formed mobs to kill the witches – they were genuinely afraid. They believed that there were witches who were making their children sick and killing their cattle. Round up a couple of not very popular ‘strange’ women and you have your scapegoat. They must be sacrificed for the good of the community. In the 21st Century we have our own versions of witch burning. We have our own witch finders. And we have our own polemicists who stir up the people with 24/7 zeal.
Watching the mob outside Cummings house I wondered when someone was going to hand out the pitchforks. Listening to the visceral anger on social media, I suddenly found myself switching from thinking that he probably had done something against the guidelines (but not deserving sacking) to thinking I would have done exactly the same thing. He said he didn’t care what people thought he was going to do the ‘right thing’. I now admire that.
Look Back in Anger
There was something last night that really struck me on the Australian media. A correspondent from the UK was asked whether Cummings would have to go. His response – it will be depend on the level of anger. I think that is true. And chilling. Morgan, Campbell, Blackford and others know this – and they know that they need to keep the anger going. One man wrote and said that Tory MPs would end up forcing Boris to thrown Cummings out because of the letters they would get. But many of these letters are not ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of the people’s anger. They are manufactured letters of a manufactured anger. For example even as I write I have received a tweet from an SNP politician encouraging me to write to my MP (especially if they are Tory). Alaister Campbell has just tweeted out how to do this. Other people write and tell me that I don’t understand the ‘will of the British people’ – which of course they do. I tend to think that anyone who says they are ‘speaking for the people’ is living in a fantasy world or displaying a frightening degree of arrogance. I struggle to speak for my own family – never mind anyone else!
At a personal level I have spent sleepless nights at times wondering why people can express so much hatred on social media. But Cummings has had that a thousand times over, combined with people threatening violence and a mob yelling at his house – with his family inside. Under the same circumstances I would have got out. This atmosphere of hatred, vitriol and abuse doesn’t just end with words. It will end with violence. Which is why it is so astonishing to see otherwise sensible people joining in. But that is the mob mentality. It’s more infectious than Covid.
And it infects Christians. Even today one Christian brother wrote me to tell me how a clergyman has defriended him because they didn’t agree about Cummings. There was an old chorus – ‘who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King?’. I fear that for some Christians it’s more important for them to know which political tribe you belong to – rather than what your view of Christ is!
I too have been guilty of being caught up in this kind of thinking which rejoices in the fall of others. When Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, resigned because of her visits to her second home – despite her own guidelines – I thought that was right. But now, even though I think her case is different from Cummings I don’t believe that Nicola Sturgeon should have given into the public pressure. It too was a form of mob rule. I think the rules are ridiculous but nonetheless they should be abided by. But I also think that if someone like Calderwood is doing a good job she should have been rapped over the knuckles, apologised and been allowed to continue. I allowed my political opinion (I didn’t like what the Scottish government was doing), and a sense of schaedenfreude, to overcome rationality, compassion and a sense of perspective. When I read Cummings story it just struck me that Calderwood also has a story – which I didn’t know. I was too quick to rush into judgement. I was wrong. And I am ashamed of that. My only consolation is that I work on the assumption that I am often wrong and the Lord is even more often forgiving!
From Sickness to Salvation.
Is there any solution to all of this? I think there is. But not if we continue the route we are on. We cannot save ourselves from ourselves. Humanity is the problem not the solution.
The Bible tells us that sin is a reproach to any people, but righteousness exalts a nation. (Proverbs 14:34). We need that righteousness. We need the biblical concepts of grace, law, justice, mercy, love, tolerance, equality, humanity, perspective, rationality and peace. Or we will end with precisely the opposite. We are heading towards being a graceless, lawless, unjust, merciless, hateful, intolerant, unequal, inhumane, distorted, irrational and warring tribalistic society.
Where can we get these positive biblical concepts? Education may help, the law may restrain, the politicians may rule. But at the end of the day the only way this will come is through the One who is the root of all these things. Christ is grace. Christ is just. Christ is merciful. Christ is love. Christ is tolerant. Christ is human. Christ brings equality. Christ gives perspective. Christ is the Logos. Christ is peace.
What the United Kingdom needs is not a return to Christendom, or Christian values, or Western civilisation, but a return to the One who all of that is built on. You can’t have Christian civilisation without Christ. Which is why those who profess to be Christians (and especially those of us who are Christian preachers/leaders) need to be less passionate about rebuking the government (or whatever tribe we don’t like) for their political sins – and instead start telling them all about the Christ who is – not the one we take along as a back up for our positions. And maybe, just maybe, we should do what Jesus did and start with the plebes – the common people. They received him gladly. Whilst we shouldn’t neglect the press, the politicians, the police, the prelates and the professors…we will go to the people first.
The church should reject the spiritual trickle down theory which seems to have become our modus operandi, (get the influencers, the wealthy, the ‘gatekeepers’ first and then we will be able to reach the poor). Maybe we should reprioritise? Maybe we should become populists- reaching the populace first – before the powerful? Then the world will truly be turned upside down.
This is my dream…my ambition….to glorify Christ, to proclaim Christ and in so doing to preach the good news to the poor and see the world being saved! Let us give up our small ambitions, our petty politics and our self obsessed greeds and instead lets go for Glory!
Sydney May 26th 2020