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The Prophrt And The Politician

Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it observed Karl Marx.

It is hard to disagree with this, unless we don’t think anything needs to change in life, which is a bit of a stretch, frankly.

Many who interpret this world – journalists, academics, think tanks – feel uneasy round this quote. A comfortable living can be made in political analysis. Columns of words do not answer back, giving a hermetically sealed feel to the judgment of the commentariat. The internet may make everything said online digitally available for ever, but in reality, no-one is likely to check on what a journalist said ten years ago.


Not so the political leader, who must make decisions on a daily basis and is scrutinised unsparingly for the outcomes, not least by these same commentators. Tony Blair will live with the Iraq invasion for the rest of his life. This is not true of the many other Britons who supported him, who have melted away from the spotlight.


This is not to excuse poor decision making, but to ask for some self-awareness and humility among people who never have to make the big calls.


Just occasionally, someone moves from one cohort into the other, from commentator to politician. And among this cohort, none is as exposed as the activist who argued for the ideal world. Step up, Samantha Power.


In her 2019 memoir The Education of an Idealist, Power explains how her advocacy for human rights and against the threat of genocide was forged by her experience of living in Sarajevo as a journalist during the Balkan war. For Power, this was no civil war, but the systematic extermination of ethnic neighbours by Serbia. Her subsequent book, Pulitzer prize winning A Problem from Hell, detailed the failing of the US government to use its unparalleled economic, diplomatic and military strength in dealing with genocides in places like the Balkans, Rwanda, Darfur. And it drew the attention of Senator Barack Obama, who called her into government when he became President, latterly as US Ambassador to the UN.


Power achieved many things in role, using America’s soft and hard power to deal with Ebola, global LGBT+ rights, the suffering of dissidents, among other goals. She also came into office at the time of Syria, the biggest problem from hell of our generation. The US administration’s inability to deal with Bashir Assad’s extermination of those who opposed him will be the foreign policy legacy that Obama’s people carry with them. Allowing Syria to cross the red line use of chemical weapons time and again may be judged in even bigger terms as the harbinger of a lesser US, not just unwilling, but unable to act in defence of human rights and, one might argue, US interests.


For such an activist, this impotence was painful. Power ‘was often flattened with horror’ and ‘often closed my office door and prayed for those begging for rescue’. She remained publicly loyal to Obama, but privately was directly critical of him. This strained their relationship, though it is clear there remains great mutual affection.


It is easy to be critical of Samantha Power herself, as some have, for being willing to remain in an administration she was at odds with on key issues, but in serving the US, she knew she had a few short years to make lasting change with the power at her disposal. There is courage in this approach, which those on the outside might be ashamed of scoffing at. How much easier to criticise US policy on Syria when you don’t have to make it.


To the list of those who interpret the world rather than change it might be added church leaders who find it easier to critique what’s wrong. Step up, Simon Burton-Jones. Faith history is an unfinished encounter of the prophet with the politician. The one who calls for justice and righteousness and leaves it to the other to figure it out on a spreadsheet. The prophet and the politician need each other, however awkward they find the company. Theirs is a querulous, creative relationship. Frequently, each one calls for the other either to step down or shut up. Neither likes to budge. It is the uneasy dance of conscience and power. And each claims both of these properties, to make it harder.


One who defects to the other role can expect a hard time, but we need more of them. Governing calls for conscience, however uncomfortable this might be when things get murky. And every company of prophets could do with an ex-politician, who gets governing. Right now, globally, it feels like the gap between the two is larger than ever. We need more Samantha Powers to step up, despite the moral cost.



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