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14 March 2014

National treasures

National treasures

“I was once the most dangerous man in Britain, and now I’m described as a national treasure.” Tony Benn, whose parliamentary career spanned more than half a century, died this morning age 88.

He was a firebrand of the left, a threat to the nation for the right, a radical in his prime and an eccentric in his old age, touring the country and beguiling many with his stories accompanied with obligatory pipe and flask of tea. He even got the better of Ali G when he was interviewed by him.

After inheriting his father’s title he was ejected from the House of Commons and fought and won a battle to disclaim the title Viscount Stansgate to enable his return. In 1999 he announced he was standing down from parliament to spend more time on politics.

Unlike many writing tributes to Tony Benn today I have not met him. I never heard him speak in person. Someone once bought me Dare to be a Daniel, but I haven’t read it. His death appears to have united many who disagreed on his life.

The first wave of tributes from those who opposed him in life carried the same words, a ‘great man’, ‘a conviction politician’, but supplemented with what seemed the necessity to emphasis they didn’t agree with him. The Telegraph put it more bluntly: “We can afford to be generous because Anthony Wedgwood Benn was wrong, and lost. Paying tribute to the vanquished is one of the great pleasures afforded the victorious. …He led an often vicious struggle to change the country for the worse. Had he succeeded Britain would have been finished, or as good as.”

And yet he is considered a national treasure, the sort they don’t make anymore.

In old age he was not a threat. Those who opposed him had won. His convictions were almost quaint.

The Queen’s approval rating is higher than any politician could ever hope for. Is that too because she does not take decisions which will inevitably divide? The Queen is a national treasure. Cathedrals are national treasures. Tourists love to browse through the aisles and transepts, gaze at the vaulted ceilings and stare in wonder at the architectural achievements of centuries past.

When Christianity is about beautiful buildings it is loved. When the Bible celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Version it was championed as literature everyone should read – even Richard Dawkins got in on the act.

The Bible is not just great literature, and when Christianity challenges, when the gospel offends, and when the cross is a scandal, it loses its national treasure status. When convictions threaten they are not quaint.

The Tony Benn quote at the top continues: “Being a national treasure is also a danger because, if you’re a national treasure, they’re really saying you’re a kindly, harmless old gentleman. Well I am kindly, I am old, I could be a gentleman, but I’m not harmless.”

But the comparison between the gospel and Tony Benn is a poor one. In fact, the life of Jesus follows the opposite trend, those who would support him in life are divided by his death. If Christians only talk of his teaching and parables they’re treading the line toward creating a treasure that hides the truth.

It may not be a national treasure of the tourist attraction variety, but Matthew 13 tells us there is treasure involved: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

I don’t want nods of appreciation for a historical monument to the ideas of men whose time has now passed. I’d much prefer the gospel to be considered the most dangerous idea in the country than a national treasure.

Danny Webster is advocacy programme manager at the Evangelical Alliance