CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICS
The second of our series "Reconstructing the Faith
CHRISTIANITY HAS ALWAYS had a political aspect1: our Lord was crucified partly because the Roman powers feared He would start a revolution, and partly because Judas Iscariot thought He would not. The Anglican Church also lives with tension in the arena of public life. We are there by right of establishment: but we are vulnerable to misrepresentation and marginalisation. We tend to disappoint most people because we either do not pursue their agendas, or because they fear we will pursue an opponent’s.
To one who is neither a member of Reform nor Forward in Faith, New Directions seems to find its raison d’etre in just such a sense of disappointment. In fact, New Directions is a bit like ‘Father Ted’: I always make sure I see it, I always enjoy it, and afterwards I always wonder if it was right to do so. A memorable scene from Father Ted opens with the younger priest, Father Dougal, confessing to Ted that ‘I was involved in one of those cult things once. Everyone had to dress in black and talk in Latin’. Ted responds, 'No Dougal, that’s not a cult: that’s Catholicism’.
For Christians, the world of politics, seen through the distorting glass of newspapers and television, can seem to be a cult-like territory of foreign speech and dubious motives. To people outside the sub-culture of Anglicanism, we seem just as strange.
Politics is essentially about the mediating of power through decisions in groups. When Moses found he could not guide the people of Israel alone, his father-in-law told him “select capable men from all the people - men who fear God, ...and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.” (Exodus 18.21-22). Already, we see principles of differentiation, between group sizes and the relative difficulty of cases. All group decisions have reference to the dominant values of the group - “men who fear God”.
In our day when the standard political question, “What is wrong with the country?” is asked, the immediate tendency is to answer in terms of people, party, or established practices: not principle. Indeed, when politicians talk in terms of principle, it makes us suspicious! A Christian mind seeks to influence the political process at the level of its core values, rather than the system which embodies them. Thus the debate is not on the level of ‘which party should a Christian support’ but ‘to what values should Christians call every part of the political process of making group decisions’.
To think Christianly, we need to consider the issues of power, tactics, and dedication.
1. We want to see power exercised with reference to God’s will.
“You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6.24). Money has become the god; money - not man - is the measure of all. Any political programme is deemed presentable if it can be said it will improve prosperity. Politicians dare not name policies that might cost money or that ‘have not been costed’. “Faith in the City” may not have said nearly enough about faith: but it was an acute and astute challenge to the dominant values of our time. That they were challenged is beyond doubt; that the result was positive is indisputable; but whether the dominant values of the secular society actually shifted one jot is doubtful.
2. We need to have our tactics right so that other forces do not manipulate us into a marginal or irrelevant place in the debate.
The church may have gained temporary respect from “Faith in the City”: but it would seem that the values that define our secular society powerfully marginalise those that defy them. What can change them, then? Well, if “Faith in the City” was aimed by the church hierarchy at the political establishment, we surely have the right and the responsibility to proclaim and teach the gospel, the ancient source of changing and converting power, to the people who elect the politicians! For, if we want to make our national decisions with reference to God’s will, then we must remember Christ’s emphasis: “for me and the gospel”. (Mark 10.29).
This is most effective at the local, individual level. No wonder those who were challenged by “Faith in the City” seem equally threatened by the “Decade of Evangelism” - yet this much more diffuse movement is far harder to attack or marginalise because it operates at a grass roots level. As a tactic, it is an improvement.
3. We don’t want to be dedicated to politics, but to Christ.
If we adopt the tactic of grass-roots evangelism, then clearly dedication to Christ is the vital prerequisite for all we might wish to do. In itself, this is so obvious a point that there is no need to expand upon it. However, it is also the key to avoiding the way the Church so often seems to be marginalised, whether at national or local level: the problem of being pushed away from a proclamation of gospel values into public pronouncements on moral issues2.
The meeting between Jesus and the rich young ruler in Mark 10 portrays the distinction well. We are not saying that moral issues are unimportant: they are well-represented in verse 19, where it is Jesus who repeats the commandments to the young man: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.’” (Mark 10.19). But the previous verse shows where Jesus feels the true matter under debate lies, in the question of what - or who - is properly to be called good: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No-one is good - except God alone.” (Mark 10.18).
Now, it is probable that the young ruler has acknowledged God’s goodness in Jesus, and Jesus is making this recognition explicit for him. It is clear from the sequence of Jesus’ words - goodness (v18), commandments (v19) - that recognition of God’s values is the root of moral probity and action. Jesus’ next command in this sequence goes deeper still, for He challenges the acquisitive values of the money-god: “One thing you lack,” He said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Dedication to Jesus therefore takes us beyond simple moral virtue - a static concept - and calls us to a dynamic discipleship lived by the values of God’s kingdom. It is important to note that Peter earns his rebuke for failing to see this distinction. In verse 28, he says “We have left everything to follow you!”. It is as if he believes doing the morally-right thing is what counts - namely, leaving everything, having no concern for possessions. France comments “Did Peter’s outburst ...betray a sense of superiority, even a claim to leadership...?”3
Jesus frames his reply in terms of relationships rather than monetary resources. Just as we shall not get into heaven because of our wealth, we shall not get in because of our lack of it. True discipleship prioritizes everything for the sake of Christ, and it is this priority of value that secures our place in heaven. At this point, ‘value’ and ‘faith’ move close to being synonymous.
We can develop this in terms of the Christian and politics by looking at two areas where understanding our political role is of contemporary importance, and seems subject to some confusion. The areas are resistance and ecclesiastical power.
Resistance is not disobedience: it is less extreme. In terms of obedience, classically, we balance the texts in Romans 13.1-6 and Acts 5.29. Our disobedience is limited thereby to cases where God’s rules are disobeyed, or his imperative, of proclaiming the gospel, hindered.
At the deeper level of values, however, we should resist the dominant values of our culture where they conflict with those of God. The same body of literature that has discussed the consequences of post-modernism for Christians has identified where secularism has put its faith: in money, mediated through economics, in knowledge, expressed through science or scientism, and in power, channelled by technology. Christians are called to resist this secular faith, not because these things are morally wrong (although they are), but because they deny God’s purposes and values. Economists alone cannot guide the country for the betterment of all, since their calculations cannot take into account the spiritual and God-related facets of humanity; scientists look at the black holes but cannot see beyond them, they study the ‘big bang’ but do not hear the whisper of the creator; technology so often produces power that is uncontrolled or poorly directed, whether it be the explosive power of the atom or the corrupting power of pornography on the Internet.
The state tends to act in furtherance of this dominant faith in an uncritical way: yet it cannot be said to be absolutely nor deliberately disobedient to God in so doing. Rebellion would be wrong, but we must resist; and so there is a reason for working within the structures that exist to endorse, infiltrate, and uphold the values of God’s kingdom. Irrespective of which political party is in power, there is a political role for the Christian in steering the decisions groups make in the direction of those values.
2. Ecclesiastical Power
The Church is a highly political organisation. Its core values tend in practice to be too much to do with power rather than love. The writer favours the ordination of women: but he notes comments that the Church struggles, having passed legislation that directs power forcefully toward this end, to remain pastorally open to those who are opposed. Because we are so tempted to work according to power, we sacrifice principle too often: it is as if, having made rules which are enforced, we lose sight of values. So, the House of Bishops having made one rule for lay homosexuals and another for clergy we are entitled to ask if there is a conflict of principle.
At the local level, we have inherited a system of mediating power through Vicar, Wardens, PCCs and Deanery Synods that contains a myriad of checks and balances. Indeed, it is further mediated by a parallel clerical system of Vicars, Rural Deans, Archdeacons and Suffragans. It can be made to work well: but only if it is used, not for the exercise of power, but for its restraint in favour of love. It can only work if the upholding of values rather than regulations is consciously emphasised by participants. So often we see this system abused by power-hungry Vicars or others who feel themselves deprived of power. The result is always that the body of Christ is enfeebled, and the Church’s witness compromised. Whose values are served then?
We need to be prepared to admit we may be as dominated by secular values and have become as much a part of the problem as anyone else. We serve the Lord who said: “l am not seeking glory for myself’” (John 8.50). If we see the dominant values of the politicians, both inside and outside the Church, as ultimately self-serving, we need to take a consciously different stance. That consciousness will develop our minds Christianly.
It would be much easier for us if we could address the problems of our day by simple political change. But then, if it was so easy, someone would have done it by now! The Christian’s role is more subtle and more realistic: and ultimately more radical. If we want to reconstruct our own minds Christianly and see the dominant values of secularism challenged, we need to prioritize the converting message of the gospel; if we want to be in a position to work that priority out, we need to understand the way power ought to operate within our own local churches, and ensure that it is the gospel that is taught there. The Church may seem disappointing to people with other agendas: but let that be because we are pursuing Christ’s agenda in a clear-minded and consistent way at every level of our ecclesiastical life.
1 “no system in the world allows us to reduce Christianity to its political or economic aspects”, ELLUL, J., Money and Power, Marshall Pickering, 1986 p24. 2 See the discussion in BAUCKHAM, R., The Bible in Politics, SPCK, 1989, ppl0-13 for a discussion on the issues of norms as against cultural factor, and of particularity. in Biblical interpretation in political matters. 3 FRANCE, RT., Divine Government, SPCK 1990, p56 4 e.g. see WALSH, B.J, and MIDDLETON, J.R. The Transforming Vision IVP 1984, ppl31-146.
Simon Foulkes is priest-in-Charge of St. Denys, Southampton in the diocese of Winchester.
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