According to the Greek legend, the fifth task given to Hercules was to clean out the stables of Augeas. They'd been untouched for 30 years and inhabited by 1,000 immortal cows ready to 'replenish' anything taken away, so this was no mean feat. It was a task designed to be as degrading as it was impossible. A mountain of filth being constantly added to.
For all the good things in British society there is nevertheless increasingly the feel of Augeas' stable about it. One by one our great institutions, once so revered, have been exposed as having a dark underside. The widespread and covered-up child abuse in Rotherham is just the latest in a depressing catalogue of such revelations. Corruption and abuse of the power have been discovered everywhere – in local authorities, parliament, the police, the NHS, the BBC, care homes, banking, the press, and yes, the Church. The dismal failures and betrayals so widespread, and with so many complicit and tainted by them, that finding the kind of Herculean leadership needed to put things right seems a forlorn hope. Instead we are offered sincere apologies, structural reviews and the reassurance that the problem is merely a few bad apples in an otherwise impeccable barrel.
The Bible however, is much more realistic and much more radical. It knows we are all 'bad apples' at heart – everyone one of us susceptible to temptations and much more easily overcome than we care to admit. We loved the moral superiority of berating MPs about their expenses and the press about their deceit and love of gossip, but quickly pass over our own love of money and readiness to manipulate others for self-gain. We quickly point out scandalous abuses of power, but forget the excesses are simply symptoms of scale and opportunity rather than unusual wickedness. In Rotherham we have been sickened by the exploitation of vulnerable children but as a society we celebrate sexual licence and stand by while children are sexualised at increasingly early ages.
The Bible is clear that the greatest problem in society, British or otherwise, is not structural (although good structures help) but personal. That's why wherever there are people you will find corruption and abuse – even to the point where good enterprises based on good ideals can end up just being vehicles of self-interest for those in them. The answer to the perennial question of 'how could this situation arise?' is always, 'because there were people involved in it!'
The UK is not the first kingdom to wrestle with the slow moral decay of its institutions and society. Two and half thousand years ago the little kingdom of Judah had ridden the seesaw of good and bad governments, reforms and relapses, new dawns and dark nights. Occasionally a king like Hezekiah or Josiah would seek to get a grip and clean out 'the stable', a flurry of reforms would be enacted and for a while things got better – evil, corruption, immorality were put on the back foot. But it never lasted, the next generation came along and the good work was undone, the dark desires for a while suppressed quickly bubbled up again.
The problem was that what really needed to be cleansed was not the 'stable' of the Temple, the Royal Court or the Treasury but the 'cattle' in them. Similarly for us it is not ultimately Westminster, Fleet Street, New Scotland Yard, Broadcasting House or any other institution that needs to be cleansed – but the Augean Stable of the human heart. That personal repository of years of sin which is daily being added to.
Fortunately there is a leader who was willing and is able to take on that degrading and humanly impossible task. Hercules, as you might expect, cleaned the Augean stable with a good trick (diverting two rivers to flow through it), but had he spend eternity with a shovel in its muck it would still have been nothing to what Jesus undertook on the cross – expunging the unspeakable offence of human evil.
Furthermore, unlike every other leader, Jesus is not just good for a generation or a bit of relief in a succession of failures but upholds an everlasting kingdom in the power of an endless life. He alone can clean out the 'stables of society' because He alone can cleanse human hearts – and He alone can keep them clean.
Andy Hunter is the FIEC's Scotland Director.