No Simple Answers for Christians in Politics

I’ve enjoyed the series of posts hosted by Gillan on God and Politics UK, where guest bloggers associated with the three main GB political parties, as well as the Greens and UKIP, say they support their particular party from a Christian perspective. Two final articles are from someone saying he finds it hard to vote, and someone who says voting is a Christian duty.

I was a member of both the Liberal Democrats for many years and was heavily involved in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland for a long time. I’m not a member of any political party at the moment. Given the events of the past 16 months in Northern Ireland, I doubt I could vote for anyone other than Alliance just now, but I’m living in Wiltshire and I don’t know who to vote for in Great Britain. Not voting at all is certainly an option, although one I’d take only with great reluctance. I might return to how all that fits with being a Christian in a later blog post, but just for now I thought I’d ask a few questions of the philosophy behind the series.

It seems to have been taken as a given by all the posters except Frank Cranmer, who isn’t voting, that it is a good thing that Christians are involved in politics; and that the world would be a better place if more of them were. Indeed, Daniel Stafford argues very directly that Christians should get involved both in the party which most closely reflects their beliefs, and that party’s internal Christian grouping. This view is a common assumption in British Christianity, indeed an unusual case of an assumption that cuts right across Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism and Liberal Christianity. How valid is it?

Let’s look at two readings of Scripture to help us tease out some of what the Bible might say on the subject of Christians in politics. I say “some” of what it has to say, for as is so often the case, the voice of Scripture’s writers is complex and at times contradictory.

Unusually, on both the First and Last Sundays in Lent the Church of England’s lectionary has us reading the same Gospel story at the main service in all three years of the cycle – albeit from a different Gospel in each year.

The First Sunday in Lent finds Christ being tempted in the wilderness. Both Matthew and Luke present Satan tempting Christ with the offer of temporal power over all the kingdoms of the world. Total power can be Christ’s – if only he will do homage to The Devil. Christ rejects the offer citing the Torah: we are commanded to worship God alone. Interestingly, in Luke’s account Satan claims that the granting of earthly power and the glory that goes with it “has been put into my hands and I can give it to anyone I choose” (St. Luke 4:6)

Now, even on the most literal reading, this isn’t a prohibition on Christians taking on roles of political authority. There is and can logically be no such thing as a ruler with absolute power. The most feared dictator is separated from a putsch by no greater distance than the length of a gun-barrel (remember the fate of Nicolae Ceaucescu). But those rulers whose power comes closest to being absolute tend to have a devilish quality about them. When power and glory are pursued as sole objects, there is no limit to the methods that must be used to secure them – few human beings like to be in thrall to another, and those who seek control over others must be prepared to become objects of genuine fear.

If Lord Acton’s famous dictum begins “power corrupts”, then perhaps Scripture is warning us that power always involves a little bit of a pact with The Devil; the quest for absolute power involves abandoning God entirely and bowing down at Satan’s feet.

Let’s catapult to the Sixth and final Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday, and the Gospels of the Preaching of the Palms. As Jesus Christ’s public ministry begins with the explicit rejection of temporal power, His public ministry’s dénouement recapitulates the theme.

Jesus enters Jerusalem to a welcome that was partly fit for a prophet, and partly reminiscent of a rock concert. The people of Jerusalem were starting to believe this might actually be the Messiah, sent by God to rule them with justice – and restore their communal freedom and national sovereignty. As I blogged last year:

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.

Instead, Christ allows public opinion to move on, and over the space of five days it moves to the extent that the High Priest can have Him put to death. A week was a long time in politics long before Harold Wilson came on the scene.

This is where it becomes difficult to sustain a simple notion that politics would be better, and society better for it, if only more Christians got involved. Following Christ to the cross always, at some point, means flying in the face of public opinion. Yet a politician, if he or she hopes to be re-elected, must always pay attention to public opinion. That’s where the difficult calculations about what is achievable and what must be abandoned come into play, and the reality that being involved in a political party involves accepting party discipline and therefore occasionally swallowing conscience. At some point, one always becomes party to a decision that it is expedient that one man should die for the sake of the people. And that’s before we talk about self-interest, or how obtaining public office or a place in government too easily becomes the object of the exercise rather than a means to fulfil worthwhile objects. I’ve seen no evidence that professedly Christian politicians are any more immune to those temptations than anybody else – witness the ceaseless power struggles and backstabbing in the ultra-Evangelical DUP.

The thrill of the chase can make people act in grotesque ways too – and politics can be a real thrill, not just when one is winning, but sometimes more when one’s back is against the wall. Been there, done that.

All the same, I’ve met politicians for whom that clearly was a god-given Christian vocation, Naomi Long being the example that comes most easily to my mind. Christianity isn’t about a pietistic retreat from the world, but rejoicing in the glorious world that God makes and loves, and going out into it to build the Kingdom of God. We are called to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and to care for the sick and the prisoner: what we do to all of these people we do for Christ. When we fail to engage in political activity, we leave the hungry to starve and, as Desmond Tutu would point out, it isn’t enough to keep fishing people out of the river and never ask why they keep falling in.

There is no simple answer. I think is vital for Christians in politics to remember that all human-created institutions and ideologies are fundamentally imperfect, for we live in the shadow of The Fall. This is underlined by experience of the West over the past 70 years, where despite unparallelled leves of wealth and education and few wars or outbreaks of serious disorder, we remain a long way from building societies where all of God’s children are truly of worth.

It is all too easy for Christians to assume that if only we were in charge then the world would be a better place. That’s when we start turning the Church into a power structure – as often as not wielded against other Christians. This starts taking us a long way from a God who humbled Himself to a brutal public execution and the preaching of St Paul who reminded us that the power of the Cross usually lies in our weakness.

That’s why one thing I am sure of is that it’s unhealthy for Christians to always be on the same side of major political debates, still less to organise the Church as a political power structure. I have no objection to the sort of Christian ginger groups that exist in the main British political parties, but I never joined the Lib Dem Christian Forum and I’d be unlikely to join it or its parallels if I did get involved in party politics again. I think it’s healthy that there are professing Christians outside those bodies as well as inside them. I also think it’s a healthy thing that Christians not only vote all over the place in Britain, but also tend to have a full spectrum of opinions on what are often argued to be core issues of Christian morality like abortion, euthanasia and marriage equality.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, God creates many languages as he fears that nothing will be impossible for humanity if perfect communication is possible. Perhaps we should be thankful that He has made a babble of our political language as well, leaving us no obviously demarcated path from Christian principle to political action. Even when we set out to do good we find ourselves, like St Paul, doing the very things we hate. Yet that is no reason not to try to do good, whether in party politics or apart from them.

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2 Responses to No Simple Answers for Christians in Politics

  1. Greg says:

    Why not ? Give all the power to the people?

  2. Gerry Lynch says:

    All sorts of reasons. You won’t be giving power to the people, you’ll be giving power to whichever group of people are best able to organise, or whichever outside interest group can pay most to organise and influence them. Have a look at California to see how direct democracy often doesn’t work.

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