This is part three of a three-part interview with Mark Meynell, pastor, chaplain to Britain's Treasury and author of A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World. In part one of the interview, we discussed his general background and the spiritual struggles that come with working in or caring about politics. In part two, we discussed cultural extremism as it relates to the theme of his book.
The Body Politic: I love the quote you included in the book from W.H. Auden about God's command to, "Love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart." In eight words, Auden manages to pack in three things that almost impossible to do simultaneously: Remember that our own hearts are crooked, recognize that someone else's heart is crooked, love someone else despite seeing clearly that they are reprobate. Can you talk a bit about the tension inherent in these three commands?
Mark Meynell: In a world of spin, the whole point is to mask our flaws. This is what we mean when we say someone is, "good on TV." If someone publicly admits their personal flaws in politics, it's because doing that adds to a narrative they are trying to sell. But the interesting thing about Auden's quote is that Jesus commands nothing less: His parable of the debtors—the servant owes a lot and is forgiven by his master but does not forgive a small debt owed to himself—hits the nail absolutely on the head.
If you do not love someone else, you are proving or indicating that you don't realize how much it costs to love you. Paul picks this up in Ephesians when he says to love one another as dearly beloved children.
The key to it is our identity. We've got to get our identity very, very clear. My identity in Christ is that I am loved despite my crooked heart. In fact, not only despite my crooked heart, but in the full face of my crooked heart—Christ knows me better than I know myself. He knows me and yet he's still interested in me. He died for me. Therefore, my love for somebody else is unconditional, because it can not be dependent on how well they perform.
That kind of patience or charity for other people is completely alien to politics in our world. You get votes purely on conditions. You get support, you get backers, only for as long as you seem like you can deliver something to them. And then as soon as you are less popular or less of a vote-winner, you are dropped. That stands in total contrast to the way Christ works. He does not drop people. That is the kind of grace that changes everything. You give to others not not to earn anything but because you've been given to.
Let me tell you a little story I sometimes use. I heard it a few years back: There was a seasoned pastor at a small Church in Ireland who had a new assistant pastor who was just in his first few weeks of ministry. In the first weeks and months, you're just learning the ropes. The experienced pastor is introducing the junior pastor to different people, helping him get to know the way the church works, all the usual finding-your-feet kind of stuff.
There was a guy in the congregation who had completely messed everything up in his life. You name it, it had gone wrong: his marriage was in real trouble, the police were involved, he might go to jail—things were as bad as they could be. So, the senior pastor was walking with the junior pastor to this man's house for a pastoral visit. While they were walking, the senior guy turns to the junior guy—let's call him John—and he says, "John, do you think you could ever see yourself in the kind of mess our friend has gotten himself into?" John has a think for a minute and starts mulling it over. Eventually John says, "Well, it's truly terrible isn't it? What has happened is just...I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. My heart goes out to him, and I feel so bad for him. It's ghastly. I can't bear it. Yet, as I think about it, you have to say that he brought it on himself. And quite frankly I don't think I could. I don't think I could see myself in that position."
In response, the senior pastor turned to John and said, "Well, in that case, you go back home and I will go on alone."
Each of us is capable of anything. But in Christ we are still deeply loved and he is committed to us even when we completely hash it up. That provides the level ground at which we can meet anybody. That's where the rubber meets the road in terms of holding the image of God and the fallenness of man together intention. We don't put other people on pedestals, but we don't think they are the demon of hell, either. Nothing someone else can do can surprise us, yet the other person is still capable of being loved.
The Body Politic: Admitting that you could mess up as badly as or be as craven as the person or the group of people that you're used to considering "other," thinking of as "the problem," is almost emotionally or psychologically cataclysmic—without that grace there for you. I'm almost tempted to call the degree to which you're able to extend grace to those doing things you find politically objectionable a litmus test of the degree to which you've internalized the gospel.
Mark Meynell: It is profoundly countercultural. Both left and right hold people to their party's measures of perfection. It's legalistic righteousness. We each have our litmus test. You can look at how somebody votes on some particular issues or how they deal with a particular question or the solution they might propose to a particular problem and fail to recognize that what we all have in common transcends that. This sort of legalistic righteousness is everywhere—I think that's the nature of both Christian legalism and secular legalism—but it's especially very difficult to avoid in a political setting, where you're involved in the whole business of making laws and passing laws.
But once you recognize your own brokenness, you recognize your innate hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites. I cannot live up to what I preach. The difference is, we can admit that and so not give people false expectations.
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Mark Meynell is Associate Director (Europe & Caribbean) for Langham Preaching, part of Langham Partnership. He is also part-time Chaplain at the Cabinet Office, HM Treasury, HM Revenue & Customs in Westminster, London.