Partisan application of the rules

Danny Finkelstein has written this comment piece in The Times (paywall) with which I am in full agreement. Perhaps one of my friends who is still on Twitter would be good enough to share this with him, he has always been kind when I have engaged his articles before, though usually disagreeing in some way previously. But on this one, it is impossible to disagree.

The essence of his article, if you either can’t be bothered to read it or cannot get access behind the paywall, is that – much as he does not like Suella Braverman for reasons I also cannot fault, the latest shenanigans surrounding her are not a resigning matter. He would dearly love her to resign, preferably in disgrace, but her speeding fine and her various requests about it is not a legitimate reason to expect her to do so. Here is what he says:

I would be only too happy to see her fall from office at a moment not of her choosing, brought down in a mixture of comedy and drama by a scandal resulting from her personal flaws.

Yet here we are, with all the comedy and drama that I might hope for, and I find I cannot call for her to resign over her speeding points. Because however important it might be for her not to be home secretary, the principle that there cannot be one rule for Suella Braverman and one for everyone else is at least as important. And I can’t bring myself to say that if the subject of this story was someone else, I’d be calling for them to go.

He goes on to say (entirely rightly):

She behaves in an abrasive manner and deliberately taunts those who don’t agree with her. She has chosen, as a political strategy she hopes will take her to the top, to be a polarising figure. She has made enemies on purpose, courting the dislike of her opponents in order to amuse her friends. There is something grimly amusing in her becoming entangled in the results of this. It’s hard to feel sorry for her. Actually, let me be firmer. I do not feel sorry for her.

But, unfortunately, she is not the only one to suffer from getting this wrong. The neutrality of rules — applied the same to everyone, whoever they are — is a central principle in a law-based liberal democracy. If we sacrifice this, we are all lost, not just her. This is only a resigning matter for Braverman if it would be for anyone. And I don’t think it would be, or has been, a resigning issue for anyone else.

In essence, Finkelstein makes a startingly simple – yet important – point: the rules must apply equally to everyone. If we wouldn’t expect anyone else to resign for asking a question, and then accepting the answer no, we shouldn’t expect it in this case. It doesn’t matter how objectionable you find the person at the centre of the matter, if you wouldn’t expect someone you like to resign, you can’t expect this individual to resign. If you don’t insist on the neutrality of the rules, you necessarily end up with partisan rule. If you allow the principle of partisan rule, you cannot be surprised when those who are partisan use the rules to unfairly work against you.

Not only do I think this principle ought to apply in public life, it ought to apply within the church as well. Jesus famously said, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. If you would wish the rules to apply fairly to you, then you must apply them fairly to others. James, when speaking to the church, insists ‘My brothers and sisters, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 2:1). He goes on, ‘Indeed, if you fulfill the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. If, however, you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors’ (2:8-9).

Unfortunately, we are often not good at this in the church. I have regularly said to folks at church, we often want grace for us, and justice for you. You have wronged me (so I believe), I want justice. If I have wronged you, however, I want grace and mercy. When people upset us, or don’t do as we would like, we want God’s justice brought down on them. When we upset people and don’t do as they like, we want understanding and patience from them. We are, every one of us, self-interested favouritists.

This also goes on in the sometimes tricky relationship between elders and members. Particularly, I think, between pastors and members. It is rarely so clear as in the vexed issue of spiritual abuse and bullying. It seems many members want to cry foul when their leaders act in ways they discern to be a problem (by no means are they always wrong to do so), but are less interested in hearing about how members frequently treat their leaders the same way or worse. Many members want to treat their leaders much like some wish to treat Suella Braverman. Namely, they don’t much like their pastor (for whatever reason) and so they wish to apply the rules in the least charitable way they can to be rid of them. They know full well, if the shoe were on the other foot, they would want leniency or to wave it away as a non-issue. But because they have decided, it must be so. Favouritism and partisan application of the rules abound.

The same, of course, works in reverse much of the time too. Pastors who would be livid to be treated in the way they treat others somehow expect everyone to be fine with how they are. Again, it is partisan application of the rules. Grace for me, understanding in my case, but not for you. You must suck up my behaviour but I certainly wouldn’t wear it from you if the shoe were on the other foot. But for that charge to stick, you have to offer some evidence of his treating people one way and then refusing to accept others doing the same back to him.

The point in all this is that we would all be helped by a more equitable application of whatever rules we operate by. But we would all also do well to apply the measure of grace we would wish applied to us. If someone treats people a particular way, but has no problem with people doing exactly the same to them, that would be good evidence that they do not consider the behaviour to be an issue but ordinary interaction. If they treat everybody one way but get agitated if anyone ever does the same to them, you have grounds to consider the behaviour knowingly wrong and intentionally applied. But we have to tread carefully on these things because, as Jesus said, ‘For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use’ (Matthew 7:2). In other words, if you are going to call something out, be sure that you aren’t being partisan in your application of the rules. If you would offer grace to anyone else, if you would expect grace yourself, then grace ought to be given. If you would resign under the same circumstances, and would call anyone else to do the same even if you really like them, then you may have grounds to do the same here.

Just as it is unreasonable to hold Suella Braverman to account for things that you would let slide in any other case, so it is unreasonable to hold church leaders and members to account over matters on which you would expect grace or offer it to others you like more. Not only is it inappropriate to push for partisan application of the rules, if we advocate it, the chances are we will end up hoist by our own petard.