There, but for the grace of God

10 March 2009

Whilst I really struggle with the morality of awarding anyone a pension of over £700,000, I also struggle with the morality of how Sir Fred Goodwin, that failed chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is being treated as a ‘scapegoat’ for all the wrongs of our society’s approach to money. Sir Fred is just an example of how we have become obsessed with money and I wonder how many of those who have joined in the criticism of Sir Fred would themselves have passed up the opportunity to have legally obtained such a huge sum of money.

When a chap called John Bradford was imprisoned in the Tower of London some 450 years ago, he watched a prisoner being led out for execution and commented “There, but for the grace of God goes John Bradford”. In just one phrase, Bradford offered us a humble recognition that there is a capacity in each of us to get life wrong, a recognition which we retain in the proverb “there, but for the grace of God go I”.

It is a less attractive side of human nature to enjoy the failures and wrong doings of others and to take pleasure in their disgrace. John Bradford’s own execution had to be delayed because of the size of the crowd which had gathered to watch him burn to death for what was then the scandalous crime of being a protestant! Whilst today we don’t indulge in such barbarism, the desire to punish through public humiliation is still there in the government’s policy of ‘naming and shaming’ – a policy which is described in the Bible as “gloating over other men’s sins” and quite the opposite to any sense of love or justice.

In the face of so much that is wrong in our world and so much wickedness perpetrated by individuals, I do wonder whether we need to start our response by recovering that sense of ‘There, but for the grace of God go I”, for such humility is a sure foundation for goodness. Mercifully few of us are capable of committing any of the crimes which so dominate our headlines, nor do we have the opportunity to grab outrageous pensions, but which of us can claim to have got life absolutely right and to have never got it wrong? I rather suspect that there is a little something of Sir Fred in many of us and we will only really begin to solve the deep problems in our society when we recognise this inconvenient truth.