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I am not a football fan. Actually, I know as little about football as someone who reads the news could. But even I recognised Gary Lineker, as he suddenly made front-page news by challenging the government’s policy on asylum seekers.
In the row that ensued, some argued that he breached impartiality rules by speaking out. Others, that since Lineker is employed to comment on football, he’s free to comment on politics in his own time. Many defended him, in agreement with his vocal criticism, arguing that he used his fame to stand for the vulnerable. Having a voice comes with the ethical responsibility to use it well.
Now that Lineker is back on air, it’s worth asking, what is impartiality?
Impartiality does not feature much in Scripture, other than in the administration of justice: when weighing up rights and wrongs, one should not be swayed by someone’s social position (Leviticus 19:15).
There, impartiality does not mean an absence of criticism. It’s not refusing to judge, staying silent, or giving equal weight to two parties in a dispute, regardless of their merits. It’s the opposite. Impartiality means not being affected by external factors in evaluating right and wrong actions. It means judging rightly and fairly. It means using our voice appropriately.
Lineker highlighted the plight of refugees – strangers and aliens. Challenging the oppression and mistreatment of those who are vulnerable, ‘the poor, the alien, the orphan and the widow’ (eg Deuteronomy 10:18; Zechariah 7:10) is a core principle of Old Testament law, while indifference to the plight of the poor is challenged again and again by the prophets. Jesus himself repeatedly drew attention to those who were marginalised.
Our judgement of one another is rarely perfect; we need self-awareness to recognise our biases, and the humility to know we may get it wrong. But this is no licence for silence. Impartiality requires that we give a fair and gracious hearing to both ‘sides’ – but not to pretend that both have equal ethical value.
Most of us don’t have Lineker’s social media following. But we’re all part of a world in which discrimination, injustice, and abuse happen – in small, everyday ways as well as on a broader canvas. In every situation, when tempted to stand by and not take sides, what is my responsibility? How can I speak and act with grace and firmness, in light of God’s imperative to love the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the alien?
Revd Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley
Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops