BBC Radio 4:Rhidian Brook - 22/09/2017

Good morning,

It’s a week for speeches – President Trump’s maiden address to the UN; Aung San Suu Kyi’s on the Rohingya crisis; Prime Minister May’s to the EU in Florence today. It remains to be seen whose words – or choice phrase - will be remembered; or which speech will have a lasting impact on the world.

There’s certainly plenty to remember from Donald Trump’s. His threat to totally destroy North Korea, the ridiculing of its leader as ‘Rocket Man’ and his insulting of Iran stick in the mind; but amongst the bluster the most disturbing element for me was his division of the world into “the righteous many,” and “the wicked few.” We’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before – and indeed from a previous US President. It draws on a belief that life is a struggle between the forces of good and evil. It is often described as Manichean – and I do think it brings dangers with it.

Manichaeism was actually a dualistic religious philosophy taught by the Iranian prophet Mani in the third century. It was rejected by orthodox Christianity as a heresy – and later by Islam. And yet it often surfaces in the fundamentalist extremes of these faiths and can be used by those wanting to stir up a binary nationalist feeling by calling ‘them’ the bad people and ‘us’ the good. In my view, it’s not only bad theology (which, as we keeping seeing, can kill), but it’s not what the gospel or the general weight of scripture tells us about God, ourselves or the world. Whole people groups can’t be righteous any more than whole countries can be evil. The prophets constantly warned against thinking in these terms. Righteousness was not a birth-right.

But it’s a tricky word – righteousness. Marrying the concept of goodness to an idea of justification. It has something to do with right action – seeking justice for the poor and the outcast, as well as speaking with respect – but it has nothing to do with where we come from. And it is something we should be very careful to claim for ourselves – and deny others.

Jesus tells a parable about a religious leader and a tax-collector who went to a temple to pray. The former prayed about himself, thanking God that he was not like those other ‘bad’ people, and pointing to his good deeds; but the tax collector, feeling unworthy, simply asked for God’s forgiveness. No prizes for guessing which one walked away justified before God. ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; he who humbles himself will be exalted.’

In a world of wild rhetoric and hot boasts we have to listen carefully to hear what’s really being said. The words of the righteous have been described as being like ‘a fountain of life’ or even ‘apples of gold.’ Perhaps when anyone makes a speech claiming to be righteous we should check for the evidence of that life and look for its fruit.