“We need more Christians in politics.” As someone whose life has largely revolved around two pillars – politics and the Church, I have heard this phrase endlessly. For a long time I didn’t question its basic sense – Christianity is, after all, not about pious churchiness but building the kingdom of God. As Isaiah prophesied “He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” Establishing justice and God’s law inevitably means dealing with the rulers of the world, and that means dealing in politics.
Yet, in recent years, Palm Sunday has made me ask whether we actually do need more Christians in politics. I’m not, for a second, suggesting that Christians should actively avoid politics – I have met politicians for whom that profession was clearly God’s calling to them. But I can no longer accept the simple equation that more Christians in politics equals a more Christian politics, or that building a more Christlike society will necessarily flow from having more Christians in positions of temporal power. Indeed, the often lamentable and bloody records of states run by Christians should tell us that. Scripture tells us the same thing, in those familiar Holy Week stories.
As we are called to pattern our lives on Christ’s, let us look at how Christ behaved when presented with a golden opportunity to take on political power on that first Palm Sunday.
We tend not to mention how good a showman Jesus must have been, perhaps feeling this cheapens the rather pious and po-faced version of Christ we have constructed for ourselves. Here, Jesus demonstrates the skills of the born politician: with the crowd buzzing with excitement that this Galilean might just be the Messiah, He rides into the capital on a donkey, in fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy of the coming saviour. Talk about making a statement.
It was a statement that the pious burghers of Jerusalem could not have missed, and indeed did not miss. They flung their cloaks into Christ’s path as they would for a monarch, while his disciples sang “Blessed is he who comes as king in the name of the Lord!” The citizens’ statement was as clear as Christ’s. After centuries of second-class status for the Holy City, after sacks and exiles and humiliating satrap status to one great power after another – indeed after even a puppet monarchy had been abolished by the mighty Romans – might this be the new David, sent by God to restore the fortunes of His people?
And Passover week must have seemed just the right time, with a city packed to bursting with pilgrims from across the Jewish world – gathered to celebrate the delivery of the people from bondage at the hands of what had been in Moses’ time the mightiest empire the world had ever known. The symbolism of the event did not end with Christ’s triumphant entrance on an ass.
The Pharisees panicked, as well they might. No slouches themselves when it came to whipping up the Jerusalem mob, they could tell it would just take the right set of words to send the crowd into open revolt. Jesus was neither the first nor the last small town preacher to set the Holy Land ablaze in those difficult years after the end of the Herodian monarchy and the establishment of direct rule.
The Pharisees’ fears of the consequences were entirely reasonable. Their accommodation with the Empire, doubtless offensive to pious Jewish opinion, was simple realpolitik. Everyone in the ancient world was aware that Rome crushed dissent, ruthlessly and without mercy, as it had done from Spain to Armenia. Indeed, the Pharisees’ fears would be proven entirely reasonable a generation later, when the Romans, fed up with yet another religious revolt in small but strategically located Judaea, destroyed the Temple entirely.
And yet the Pharisees, that day, need not have feared, either for an outbreak of death and destruction or for their own positions of power. Christ did not seize the moment for political revolution, although He was well aware that it was ripe. We all know, of course, what would happen next, which confounded everyone’s expectations. Yet we fail to apply the lessons to our own understandings of how faith, politics and power relate. We fail to allow the Holy Week story to confound our own expectations, preferring instead to look down at those silly first century Jews for missing the obvious.
As much as the people of Jerusalem, we want the Messiah to come quickly and establish the political order that we know reflects God’s will. We take it for granted that we already have all the important answers, and want God to put us in a position to put them into practice.
If Christianity were, as Islam is, about establishing a set of political principles as the framework for governing society, this was the moment to do so. No army could be defeated with God incarnate at its head, but no army would be needed – the Son of Man, who could destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, could surely provide enough signs for the Jews and wisdom for the Greeks to show he was the chosen ruler of the world.
This was not the path that Christ chose. Instead, he allowed public opinion, as fickle then as on a radio phone-in show today, to move on, and humbled himself to death on a Cross to set us free. 2,000 years later, we still struggle with the implications of that statement. Building the Kingdom of God is not about seizing control of the kingdom, however good and peaceable one’s intentions might be in doing so. If we seek to follow Christ, then we must remember that the road to resurrection runs through the abandonment of power on Good Friday, not the seizing of power on Palm Sunday.
And yet seizing power is what so much of Christian politics is about – keeping control of our schools, keeping our seats in the House of Lords, keeping references to God in the constitution or laws of the land, making sure Presidents and Prime Ministers make space in their diaries to see our leaders, celebrating when our leaders are observant Christians. Christ’s humility underpins the Holy Week story, but humility is the very last thing we expect to hear when a politician starts a sentence, “As a Christian…”
I have no easy answers – using Christianity as an excuse for withdrawal from the affairs of the world is as selfish as using the Faith as an excuse to take control of it.
Perhaps, though, there is a lesson from Palm Sunday in this: public opinion is inevitably fickle, yet modern democratic politics has become a quest to stay perpetually on the right side of it. Following Christ inevitably means following Him beyond the point where the crowd turns from cheering us to jeering us. In politics, that means following Him to where we lose the election or where the people revolt. And that undercuts any idea that Christian politics is a simple route to building the Kingdom.