The thing that matters most.

‘It’s the economy stupid’ is a well-known American political catchphrase that had its origins in the 1992 presidential campaign in which Bill Clinton was running against the incumbent president George W H Bush.

A man called James Carville , who was a political strategist on the Clinton campaign team, originally came up with the catchphrase. In order to keep those involved in the campaign on message, Carville hung up a sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock that listed the three key messages that campaign workers needed  to get across to the voters. It read:

‘Change vs. more of the same.

The economy, stupid

Don’t forget health care.’

The second item on the list, in the form ‘It’s the economy stupid’ used by Carville in a television appearance, took on a life of its own and became the de facto campaign slogan for the whole of the successful Clinton campaign. In 1992 America was in recession and ‘It’s the economy stupid’ successfully communicated the message that the key issue in the election was the US economy, and that Clinton would do a better job of handling the economy than Bush.

What this piece of American political history reminds us is that any successful communications strategy has to have a clear focus. Those seeking to communicate need to decide what really matters in terms of the message they are trying to convey, and then work out how to get this across in the clearest and most memorable fashion possible.

What prompted me to think about this issue is the fact that in the past week the comments by Church leaders that have been reported in the media have been of a political nature. Earlier in the week the five British and Irish Anglican archbishops warned of the dangers, as they saw it, of the Government’s Internal Market Bill,[1] and yesterday there was an article in the Yorkshire Post by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Manchester and Leeds highlighting the disproportionate effect of Covd-19  restrictions on poor people in the North of England and calling for a ‘collective, nationwide response’ involving ‘further injections of money to support poorer communities.’[2]

Church leaders commenting on political issues is not a problem. Indeed, Church leaders have an obligation to do so. The temporal well-being of human beings, i.e. their well-being in this life, matters, and so Church leaders need to warn against political policies which seem likely to cause people temporal harm.

However, a problem occurs when the messages coming from Church leaders focus primarily or exclusively on temporal matters. This is because Christian theology tells us is that what matters most for human beings is not what happens in this life, but what will happen in the life to come.

In the final clause of the Apostles Creed, Christians affirm their belief in ‘the life everlasting.’  If we ask what this affirmation means, a very helpful explanation  is provided by the seventeen century Anglican theologian John Pearson in his commentary on the Creed. Person writes that the affirmation means:

‘I do fully and freely assent unto this as unto a most necessary and infallible truth, that the unjust after their resurrection and condemnation shall be tormented for their sins in hell, and shall so be continued in torments forever, so as neither the justice of God shall ever cease to inflict them, nor the persons of the wicked cease to subsist and suffer them; and that the  just after their resurrection and absolution shall as the blessed of the Father obtain the inheritance, and as the servants of God enter into their master’s joy, freed from all possibility of death, sin and sorrow, filled with all conceivable and inconceivable fullness of happiness, confirmed in absolute security of an eternal enjoyment and so they shall continue with God and with the Lamb for evermore.’ [3]

The converging witness of Scripture, tradition and reason testifies to the truth of this affirmation, [4]and if it is true then it radically relativises the importance of all temporal concerns.  Jesus makes this point in Matthew 16:26 when he asks: ‘For what will it profit a  man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’  By the word ‘life’ Jesus means the life in relationship with God which will be enjoyed forever in the world to come, and the point he is making is that compared with the possession of this life even having the whole world as one’s possession is not a benefit.

 If we have to choose between possession of this world and everything in it and life with God forever, then life with God forever is the only rational choice to make. Our enjoyment of the things of this world will only ever be temporary and, as Pearson so starkly reminds us, if we do not have a right relationship with God then what awaits us in the world to come is an eternity of misery. As J I Packer further notes, such misery is not the result of an arbitrary infliction of pain. It is instead:

 ‘… a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [5]

In his justice God gives the lost precisely what they have chosen for themselves.

What the Christian faith also tells us, however, is that this does not have to be our fate. We can instead choose to  put our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died and rose for us that we might enjoy life with God forever. In the words of Jesus in John 3:16:  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Because all this is so, it follows that the core message that the Church is called to proclaim is, to misquote Carville, ‘It’s eternity, stupid.’ In other words, what the Church really needs to tell people, because no one else will, is that this life is not all there is, that in the life to come they will experience either an eternity of unutterable misery or an eternity of unutterable joy, and that if they want to experience the latter then they need to put their trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for them. 

To sum up, it is appropriate for Church leaders to comment on temporal matters as Anglican archbishops and bishops have done this week. However, it is even more important that they talk about eternity. When all is said and done, the Church’s core business is saving souls, and the only way that souls will be saved is if people come to realise that this life is not all there is, and that they need to put their trust in Jesus in order to avoid an eternity of damnation and enjoy an eternity of blessedness instead.  The Church’s calling is be God’s instrument to bring people to this realisation, and for this to happen the leaders of the Church need to switch the focus of their message to the thing that matters most, the life of the world to come.

It’s eternity, stupid.

[1] ‘Brexit, Anglican leaders issue Internal Market Bill warning,’ BBC News, 19 October 2020.

[2] ‘Exclusive: Bishops fear ‘unrest’ in North over virus unless Boris Johnson acts,’ Yorkshire Post, 24 October, 2020.

[3] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed (London: George Bell, 1902), pp.600-601. 

[4] See for example, E B Pusey , What is of faith as to Everlasting Punishment? (Oxford: James Parker 1881) and Jerry Walls, Hell – The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

[5] J I Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), p.170.

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