Mick Lynch, Keir Starmer and more lessons for the church

Here is Mick Lynch – General Secretary of the RMT – speaking about Keir Starmer’s Labour Party:

Starmer recently sacked a member of the shadow cabinet for daring to join the RMT on their picket line. It was claimed that he was actually sacked for giving unlicensed media interviews. But it seems apparent it was the act of joining in with the striking workers that did it for him. The very people that Labour were created to represent are being told that Labour will not stand up and support them in any meaningful way. Which is interesting isn’t it.

Lynch said two things that I thought particularly apt. First, that values must come first, policies come second. You must be clear what your values are as a political party and then find policies that suit the day and accord with those values. Your values as an organisation matter, your policies then exist to advance your values. What you decide to do, and what you decide not to do, must flow from a clear sense of what you are trying to achieve and what your values are as you seek to achieve it.

Second, he took aim at Starmer himself. When asked what Labour’s values were under Starmer, he simply answered that he didn’t really know. The only value on display appears to be not saying anything controversial. And like it or not, strikes are controversial. They are rarely nationally unifying affairs. They aren’t always unifying affairs within unions, with some inevitably casting ballots for action and others against. At some point, you have to decide whether you support the people striking or you don’t. And the only way you can figure that out is if you are clear about what your values are and whether these particular strikes align or transgress them.

I think these are two lessons the church would do well to hear. First, we need to understand our values first then we need to find appropriate means of enacting and advancing them that suit the day. We can’t just come up with a set of things that might be nice to do without having any real understanding of what the church is actually there to do and what governs how it is supposed to do any of it first. There is absolutely no point in us saying we want to feed the homeless in our town, for example, if we don’t really know why we are doing it. Nor is it clever to spend all your church money on running a soup kitchen if, it turns out, there are other more important things you realise the church is supposed to be doing.

Similarly, you might be clear that the church ought to be about the business of sharing the gospel – your mission is somewhat identified. But if you have no idea what your values are as a church, how do you tell apart a good gospel opportunity from a bad one? Your church may wish to reach drug addicts, but if your only aim is to share the gospel, what is stopping you from deciding you will try snorting cocaine in pub toilets because it’s a good way to get to know other users? You may wish to reach sex workers, but if the only aim is sharing the gospel, what actually inhibits you from paying for the services at a knocking shop to meet those you wish to evangelise? Of course we all know these would be terrible ideas. Not only do the commands of Jesus make these things off-limits, we also don’t want to encourage and exacerbate the very things we apparently want to help people escape. These would be, to some extent, a product of values. If the aim is to share the gospel with needy folks, and help them escape dangerous and destructive lifestyles, we need approaches to doing that which accord with our values of human dignity and the imago dei, sin being destructive, the gospel being the solution to the problem of sin, Jesus being king and ruler of our lives, and other such things.

Whilst we can all see the problems with those evidently extreme examples, we often don’t recognise them in the less obvious examples. Often that is because we create the equivalent of Christian policies before we really understand our Christian values. We are too often guided by a pragmatic whatever-seems-to-work mindset without thinking about whether what might work for a certain end is actually appropriate or right. We need to know what we are about and how we ought to be about it before we start thinking about the specific things we will do to achieve those aims.

The other lesson we can learn is about not saying anything controversial. Just like strikes, the Christian faith is inevitably controversial. If it weren’t, everyone would be a Christian already, wouldn’t they? But we cannot be governed by not saying anything controversial. What could be more controversial than insisting in public that Jesus is Lord?

The issue for Keir Starmer is that he is trying to be popular. That is inevitable as a politician. You need votes and people vote in numbers for what is popular. Ironically perhaps, it is not popular to never say anything controversial. Counterintuitive as it may seem, people will vote for politicians who stand for something and are clear about what that something is. It may feel as though only saying uncontroversial things everyone can agree with would be more popular, but in truth, people want leaders who actually stand for something clear. As an opposition leader in particular, you need to stand for something different. If you don’t, if people want more of the same, they will stick with what they’ve already got.

In the same way, nobody will be won to Christ is we are desperate to avoid saying anything controversial. Our message is fundamentally controversial. And if we only ever say things that most people naturally agree with already, what reason have they got to throw their lot in with Christ? If he isn’t offering them anything different, what is the point of leaving the world behind? If the church is just religious-sounding worldly-wisdom, what exactly does it offer?

That isn’t to say we should be controversial for its own sake. Nobody should be going out their way to say controversial things just for the sake of controversy. But it is to say, if all we ever do is parrot back the wisdom of the world, things that everyone already agrees with, we can’t be that surprised if they don’t see any value in joining a group of people who only ever say what they already think without the hassle of anyone making any specific demands upon them. It is in our different – and yes, sometimes controversial – beliefs that people have any reason to consider Christ. The world already offers what the world offers, nobody needs the church to offer exactly the same. If we shy away from anything controversial, we can’t possibly be saying anything the majority of the world don’t already think. If that is the case, who is actually going to bother joining the church?

This is Keir Starmer’s problem. If he won’t say anything controversial, it means he ultimately doesn’t say anything of any substance on any of the issues that matter to people. Whilst nobody will be offended by him, equally, nobody will vote for him because they simply don’t know what they are voting for and what the point of doing so would be. In the same way, whilst nobody might be offended by an uncontroversial church, nobody will see any need to join it either because there will no evidence it has anything to offer that can’t be found elsewhere. In the end, we have be clear what our values are and not shy away from saying controversial things when our values suggest we must. Otherwise we can consign ourselves to ongoing decline as we offend nobody and wrestle with the fact that nobody sees the point of us altogether.