It was reading a letter in the Times one morning this week that my disquiet about the way the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi last Sunday crystallised. The letter from a David Steel of Diss said “having read the letter of Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus and Nadhim Zahawi’s response, both to the prime minister, it is absolutely clear that there is no element of contrition in Mr Zahawi’s script. Having worked extensively as a probation officer (now retired), it was a basic concept regarding wrongdoing that acceptance of the behaviour, acknowledgment of the harm caused and motivation to change were critical for the individual to move forward. It is shameful that Mr Zahawi has shown none of these in his reply.”
Zahawi’s letter having been sacked seemed to encapsulate perfectly the gangrenous culture that flowed from former Prime Minister Johnson, whose contempt for rules and those who feel the need to abide by them had been identified even in his school days. That culture was summed up by the approach “never apologise, never explain”. This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated when Johnson corralled his MPs into voting to prevent the confirmation of the Standard Committee recommendation that Owen Paterson had committed ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy’ which would have led to a thirty-day suspension and possible recall by-election. This was just one of a plethora of similar episodes that seem to have inculcated a belief in ministers’ impunity.
As Christians, such an approach is the very antithesis of the Gospel. “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). “But the good news is that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:9-10).
As Christians, we cannot imagine impunity. Jesus’ death and atoning sacrifice on the Cross is the clearest possible demonstration that a perfect, righteous, holy God must punish sin, because that is what justice demands. Jesus willingly took on Himself the punishment which my sins deserve, because God cannot turn a blind eye to sin. Jesus knew what was in each person’s heart (John 2:25), yet knowing the full extent of the evil there, He still loves us and died for us.
Zahawi and Johnson still give the impression they do not believe they have done anything wrong, and in the latter’s case, he is still indulged by many who appear to share that view. This conviction that they will not be punished leads those in positions of authority increasingly to behave in ways that lead to poor governance, a weakening of trust between them and the rest of us, and a sense of hopelessness that things can and will change for the better.
How can we avoid this?
The obvious starting point is to insist on the accountability of those in power. Romans 13:1 tells us that there is no authority except what God has established. Our political leaders may believe they are not answerable, but we know the truth and must insist on it.
One of the ironies about the Qatargate scandal that is convulsing the European Parliament at the moment is that the NGO through which former MEP Antonio Panzeri is alleged to have benefited from large corrupt payments is called Fight Impunity. Its vision statement states “impunity constitutes a severe threat to international peace and security, as well as a major challenge and a priority objective for the EU. It is necessary to contribute to the efforts to respond effectively to serious crimes and gross violations of human rights. It is crucial to have a consistent and effective approach aimed at ensuring a proper involvement of all key actors and scrutiny both at European and National levels throughout a dedicated action.” The actions of a corrupt individual only underline the need to end impunity if we are to establish justice, i.e. God’s kingdom here on earth as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
The European Parliament did take one important step to this end last week when it voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of two MEPs whom the authorities want to question. It is a welcome sign that those in authority are accountable, that punishing sin is important and justice is essential to pursue.
The Zahawi letter was the most graceless example of its type, defiant, blaming everyone else for being unpleasant by pointing out his wrongdoing and ignoring the problem. However, that lack of grace serves to show us the riches of God’s grace revealed to us in the Gospel. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We know that the day of judgement will come, when every knee will bow to Jesus, either willingly or unwillingly. The days of impunity will be past. The Cross was the place when justice and mercy met, where death was defeated, and Jesus’ victory was sealed. The good news is that we serve Jesus, the holy, righteous ruler, not fallen humans. That is good news in the midst of the moral squalor of too much of contemporary politics.