Nick Spencer: You can't separate politics and religion - whatever John Humphreys says
Over the years, many politicians have drawn on the Thought for the Day slot.
Jesus walks into the Today programme studio. He’s expecting another grilling. John Humphrys is well briefed. He knows his lines. More to the point, he knows the law and he wants to make sure this self-appointed “teacher” does too.
Humphrys soon gets frustrated, however. As often as not, Jesus answers a question with another question. When he doesn’t, he is so abrupt as to be almost rude. And then, when he finally appears to have been backed into a corner, he tells this long rambling story about a man on the way to Jericho being mugged and someone crossing the road to help him – and then has the temerity to ask the interviewer what it means. This is going nowhere. Humphrys wearily thanks his prey and then gratefully – for once – introduces Thought for the Day.
The scene is improbable but not perhaps as improbable as the idea of wheeling Jesus in to do the Thought for the Day slot itself. Whether the slot is in fact as anodyne as the Today presenters claim (or whether it is dull because the BBC is terrified of letting its thinkers say anything edgy), Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan somehow seems better suited to politics than religion. After all, the story is told as part of a hostile dispute with a lawyer. It is about bitter ethnic rivalry between two neighbouring communities. And it is bluntly demanding and provocative in its call for action. Altogether, it seems more like a political interview than a religious homily.
That could be why so many politicians have drawn on it, even in modern Britain where it is not wise to rely on your audience’s biblical literacy. Although the parable had been used many times before, it was Margaret Thatcher who started the modern tradition with one of her first big speeches, the 1968 Conservative Political Centre Lecture, entitled ‘What’s wrong with politics?’ Ethical and exhortatory in tone, Thatcher parenthetically remarked at one point “the point is that even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side.” It was an interpretation for which she would become famous, remarking in an interview with Brian Walden for London Weekend Television’s Weekend World a decade or so later that “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
Throwing theological stones
Labour politicians tried to hang this interpretation round her neck. In a noisy post-budget debate in 1988, the Labour MP Win Griffiths, asked rhetorically whether, since the Prime Minister thought the parable was about how much money the Samaritan had in his pocket, “will she now, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, advocate that all those who have received money beyond their wildest dreams from the Chancellor… give it back to help those people. Or does she prefer the parable of Lazarus and the rich man?” By this time, however, Thatcher preferred not to use the parable which was notably absent from her remarkable Sermon on the Mound that year.
Throwing theological stones is, however, a perilous business, particularly for those politicians who aren’t without theological sin. Labour politicians of recent decades have been as keen on the parable as was Thatcher. Tony Blair referenced it in his Clause IV leader’s speech in 1995 – “I am my brother’s keeper, I will not walk by on the other side” – more or less his last biblical reference before he stopped “doing God” in public. Gordon Brown was particularly fond of the tale, telling his second Conference as Prime Minister, as the world economy teetered on the brink, “Doesn’t each of us want to say of ourselves: that I helped someone in need, that I come to the aid of a neighbour in distress, that I will not pass by on the other side?”
Even, improbably, Jeremy Corbyn has used it, telling his delirious fans in his leadership acceptance speech, “I want us to stand up and say ‘we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system’,” and motivating them again 18 months later at the start of the 2017 Election campaign by claiming, “we know that the people of Britain don’t pass by on the other side.”
One might read many things from the Labour Samaritan but two in particular stand out. The first is that Labour politicians, or at least leaders, use the parable with deniability. Eschewing the story’s details, they invariably talk about “passing by on the other side”, a reference for those with ears to hear, a decontextualized general moral exhortation for those without. That way they can borrow the ethical weight of the story without being accused of getting preachy.
The second is that they use it with as much precision as Margaret Thatcher; for if one cavils at Thatcher’s materialistic interpretation of the story, it is hard to feel much more comfortable with Labour’s general “the state should jolly well get involved and do something” interpretation. After all, where might this lead?
We heard an answer to that in December 2015 when Hilary Benn gave his barnstorming speech at the end of an epic debate on whether to bomb Syria. “As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism”, he told his Labour colleagues, divided over the issue. “We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road.” This was a creative reading, which raised a few eyebrows, including those of comedian David Mitchell, who wrote in the Guardian a few days later, “Hilary Benn has quite a robust interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his version, the Samaritan doesn’t just help the traveller who’s been mugged, he volunteers to seek out and blow the living crap out of the poor chap’s assailants.”
The uncomfortable fact
So: is no-one right? Does no-one use the parable correctly? And does it matter? Wouldn’t it be better if we left the religious stories to the religious leaders, perhaps in the Thought for the Day slot, whilst we let the politicians get on with the politics.
I think not. The uncomfortable fact is you can’t separate the two. Whatever you think of its author, the parable of the Good Samaritan is rhetorically powerful, ethically profound and existentially challenging. Politics needs all of those qualities; their absence leaves it bland at best; self-serving at worst. Bluntly, politics needs what (the best of) religion has to offer.
And if such stories are used badly, we can always point out that they are being used badly. In one sense, their use constitutes one more form of accountability, as those politicians who like to draw their moral and rhetorical power from religious traditions must do so at the cost of being judged by those very traditions.
Ultimately, if the idea the political Samaritan – of introducing openly religious texts and motifs into political discourse – leaves us uncomfortable, that may be because the business of negotiating different conceptions of the personal and public good that lies at the heart of politics, is an uncomfortable business. And it also suggests to us that if we have a problem with Thought for the Day, the solution might be not to abolish it altogether, but to allow this religious slot to be a bit more political and encourage the political bits of the programme to be a bit more religious.
Nick Spencer is research director at Theos. His book, The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable, is published by Bloomsbury.