Words similar to those of the prophet Isaiah can be expected ‘in a Manifesto near you’ any time soon, “Behold I create new heavens and a new earth”, with the spin-doctors’ line following, “and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17)
Here in one sentence of scripture we have a big vision ahead and great confidence in putting the past behind us, but on what basis shall we hear and speak the millions more words that will flow in the next few weeks?
Can we hope for words that articulate a big vision, bringing to mind policy proposals new and old, stir thought, emotion and will – even leading to a considered vote?
Can we be confident in a future where those ideas and feelings will be spoken and heard with regard to the dignity and integrity of all persons, our common humanity and the words of the Golden Rule ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’?
Complex language is one of the features that distinguish the human from other inhabitants of the planet. It is used for good or ill, clarity and distortion, lies and truth, praise and abuse, love and hate. It mingles emotion and reason, heaven and hell and can even as a previous US President said of a former British Prime Minister ‘be mobilised’ and ‘sent into battle’.
Christians recognise the significance of words and especially the Word of God, Holy Scripture, with its speech that communicates powerfully and directly. For Creation, “God said. And it was so”. The Fall describing the change of relationship between the divine and the human is spoken in a distancing question “the Lord God called and said, ‘Where are you?’ “. Lord Jesus revealing his Kingdom speaks “But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”, he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home”. (Mark 2: 9-11)]
Christian faith joins the big vision to human experience with a pivotal claim that its founder and perfector (author and finisher) is Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2) whom the evangelist describes brilliantly as “the Word” who “became flesh” (John 1). Jesus who is known as the one who “has the words of eternal life” also invites humans with the words “Follow me” to engage with all things now. Here we find ourselves, common humanity, striving together with the divine commission to steward creation, battle between good and evil and live in suffering and joy. Here too that high intimate Word, crucified and glorified dwells amongst us in the Holy Spirit full of grace and truth, enabling even you and me to give a word of hope or make an act of kindness.
So how will we be led to a bigger public vision and confident personal practice?
For the vision we will do well to view political manifestoes in the light of our understanding of the Common Good. As the historian Tom Holland asserts, the basis of our arrangements of civil society and our personal ethics lies in the Judeo-Christian tradition, “the oneness of the human race and the obligation of care for the weak and suffering”.
One pressing matter in which greater confidence is needed urgently is thoughtful and careful use of words in a season, that Rowan Williams has called ‘…the oafish put down in Parliamentary “debate”, the incomprehensible burble of policy documents and “values statements” amongst ‘the laziness and imaginative carnage of public speech in 21st Century’.
This is an age-old dilemma ‘The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire” (James 3:5). Bishops have already taken a stand against the hateful and personally destructive language of public debate in the hope and expectation that a clearer view of our spiritual inheritance, renewed integrity in leadership and a mutual determination to speak the truth in love, will see trustworthiness return in Parliament, throughout all media, on the hustings and in our homes.
As we read the Manifestoes looking for a big vision and confidence that “God provides something better”, especially in our speaking, let us learn again from the challenge of the early Christians having a hard time of oppression in Asia Minor. It is a watchword for our public and private discourse in the weeks ahead,
“In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” 1 Peter 3:15