Last night I was contacted by someone with a question. They had watched the news and seen that two cabinet ministers had resigned, saying they could no longer be part of the present Prime Minister’s senior team. The questioner wanted to know if I thought Christians should be involved in the mess of politics. Good question.
The Prime Minister seems to have found himself in many crises recently, which have brought into question not only his judgment but also his honesty, and as a result Mr Johnson’s future as Prime Minister looks precarious. People, after all, want to be led by leaders they trust, and at the heart of trust is telling the truth. If we don’t have confidence that someone is telling the truth, we are unlikely to want to support, or be led, by them.
Five years ago a teenage refugee came to live with us who was escaping political persecution in his country. We brought him into our family, helped him get settled in school and walked with him through the demanding asylum process and many other stretching and challenging things. One thing we said to him from the beginning, was that we would always tell him the truth. That meant he could trust that we would not lie to him. That, we said, was important to our family life. In response we asked him to do the same: to always tell us the truth, even if circumstances were difficult or he felt fearful or uncertain. We said that without honesty, it is hard to trust. He agreed. That advice proved so helpful as we journeyed through the next four years together.
Telling the truth builds a culture of trust. That’s the case not just in family-life, but also in churches, in work places, and in politics. And it starts at the top. Leaders need to know this, live this, and model this. We call this being a person of integrity.
Brené Brown helpfully defines integrity as ‘choosing courage over comfort, choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.’ Someone asked me recently what it practically looked to like to be a person of integrity. I answered that it starts with being someone who is honest and tells the truth. Integrity also involves being a person who is consistent in character, both in public and private. And it’s also about being someone who admits to mistakes – because we all make them.
There are essentially two kinds of mistakes which people make: one is unintentional; the other is intentional. Unintentional mistakes are very common, especially among leaders. Leaders have to make regular decisions about all sorts of things, often under considerable pressure. Even if we’re surrounded by wise counsel, most decisions are based on limited information, and it’s likely that we look back on some things and think that despite good motives, we didn’t do that well, and it’s good to stay reflective and learn lessons for the future. But then there are intentional mistakes. These are things that we deliberately do wrong. Ideally there should be none, or few of these. However we know that selfish human nature is such that everyone is tempted to cover up errors and to lie. The pressure to do so increases as more responsibility is given. That’s why we need to be quick to say sorry – to God and to people – and to forgive. We also need to practice and encourage honesty from an early age, and in the making of minor decisions. The teachings of the Bible encourage this, with Jesus saying that integrity in the small things prepares us for future responsibility for greater things (Luke 16:10).
When I worked in law as a very junior legal assistant, I worked under a senior partner called Gareth. I remember Gareth saying to me when I arrived, that if I thought I had made a mistake of any sort, I should come to see him and tell him. ‘Don’t cover it up, and don’t wait a while’ he said. ‘Come and see me, and we will find a way through.’ I know it helped that the firm was insured for many millions of pounds, but nevertheless I have never forgotten that advice. It was assuring, wise and astute. It reminded me that we all make all kinds of mistakes. And it is tempting to cover them up. But it’s best not to do that, and instead to be honest and to put things right as early as possible.
Followers of Jesus are not immune from mistakes – unintentional or intentional – although less would be made if we were accountable to others and listened to the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit wants to help us in our decisions, and will empower us to be brave and face up to the mistakes we make. That’s why it’s good for leaders to be prayerful, and to regularly hear the practical advice of Scripture, urging us to be honest people, who ‘put off falsehood and speak truthfully’ (Eph. 4:25). That way people know who we are and trust us.
Leaders don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to be people of integrity. The current political crisis probably represents a vacuum of integrity, common in many aspects of society. Something needs to be done, which starts with praying for leaders and holding them to account. But more is needed, including real engagement. That’s why I answered the person who asked about Christian involvement in the mess of politics, by suggesting that rather than abandoning party politics, now more than ever followers of Jesus, and people of good character, should get more involved.
In every sphere of life, our nation and our world is crying out for leaders of integrity.