Thursday, March 17, 2016

Doing God ... Politics

The overarching title of this series, ‘Doing God’ might be taken in some sense to have been building to a talk on politics.  After all, Alastair Campbell when he was Tony Blair’s press secretary once said that ‘We don’t do God’. 

Contrary to Campbell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said that “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they’re reading!”  Tutu is, of course, right – the Bible is full of stories about politics and power.  There is the whole contested nature of the Kingdom of Israel – never really resolved in the Bible.  Jesus speaks primarily about the Kingdom of God, using political language for his teaching.  And, centrally, Jesus is executed by the Roman governor on the very political charge of claiming to be a King.  Politics pervades the Bible.

Alongside this, however, are two injunctions that are often said to stand counter to this.  The first comes from St John’s Gospel.  Jesus, standing before the Roman governor on trial for his life is asked “Are you the King of the Jews?”  His reply is ambiguous: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.33-36).  I’ll come back to this.

The second comes from St Paul who tells Christians in Rome “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed” (Romans 13.1-2). Paul has, of course, been used (perhaps I should say ‘abused’) by tyrannical governments to counter any kind of protest.  The apartheid government in South Africa used this text to put down dissent, but history reminds us that the British Government and its Anglican apologists have not shied away from using Paul in this way.  We should remember, however, that Paul too died at the hands of the Roman authorities.  He resisted authority that prevented him from being a Christian.  Writing to a small group of Christians in the capital of the Empire, Paul tells them to live as part of an ordered society rather than to live according to the law of the jungle.  But, crucially, Paul places governments under the authority of God.  What seems to be a fairly conservative passage is actually very radical.  The Roman Emperor, probably Nero when Paul was writing, claimed to be a god, not to be subject to God.  Paul reminds the Roman Christians, that government, that politics, is a human affair and subject to the authority of God. 

And that is where Jesus’ answer to Pilate, that Pilate was signally unable to understand, fits in.  Jesus kingdom is the Kingdom of God, it is not from this world of human politics.  Far from being a clear cut separation between religion and politics, Jesus’ answer to Pilate is simply a reminder that politics stands under God and under God’s judgment. 

A Christian approach to politics is, then, characterised by two things.  First, Christians see politics as secondary to God’s authority.  Christians will (or at least should) refuse any account of politics that claims to be absolute.  Whether that be the divine right of kings or Nazi and apartheid states that claim to be able to determine what counts as human; these are idolatrous and Christians cannot accept them on their own terms.  That is why the fundamental political act for Christians is worship – just what we are engaged in here and now.  It is the fundamental political act because it reminds us all that God is the ultimate authority, and that human politics is subject to God.  To take but one example, we will pray the Lord’s Prayer in a few minutes and ask our Father that ‘Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’  This is where the earliest Christians had their first encounters with political power.  The earliest Christian creed was simply ‘Jesus is Lord’, and this brought them into conflict with an imperial system which required them to say that ‘Caesar is Lord’.  For the Christian, politics is always subject to God’s authority.  As such worship is our fundamental political act. The earliest Christian worship led to persecution.

The second characteristic of Christian approaches to politics is that there is a humility in engagement with political matters because no human political programme can be said to be complete and utterly identified with the Gospel.  This is a warning, I think, against having a Christian political party.  Where such parties exist, they must have the humility to say that they are partial and that Christians do support other parties and other programmes.  Similarly it is wrong to suggest that any of the political parties in the UK are the ‘Christian option’.  There are Christians in them all and rightly so.  Christian approaches to politics are as human, and therefore as flawed, as any others.  This is not a neutrality, just a recognition that no programme is perfect.

For Christians, ‘doing politics’, is secondary to worshipping the true and living God.  But from that place, Christians will oppose tyranny and absolutist government.  Christians will engage in political action, but do so humbly, as those who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom.  So Christians will not make the mistake of identifying any one political programme with God or God’s kingdom.  Let me end by suggesting two quintessential Christian political acts that we should all be engaged in.  They are a starting point for Christian political engagement.

The first is prayer for those in politics and in positions of power.  The New Testament instructs us that “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2.1-2).  Prayer reminds us, and our rulers, that they are not absolute, but are subject to God.  The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, dismissed from his position at a German university for refusing to begin all his lectures with ‘Heil Hitler!’ was asked how he could pray for rulers when Hitler was that ruler.  ‘That’s exacly when we most need to pray for them’ was his response.  The commission after the baptism of adults asks the newly baptised ‘Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society by prayer for the world and its leaders ?’  Praying for our rulers reminds us and them that they are subject to God.  But it also reflects the fact that they do difficult jobs and make hard decisions and need our care and our prayers.  We should pray for them, and do so regularly. 

So we are to pray for our rulers.  Second, we are to care for the poor.  Those who lack the basic requirements of life, food, shelter, clean water, education.  These are the people that need our care, because they are those who are failed by the politicians in power.  This is not a party political statement.  Governments of all colours have left people in poverty.  Governments of all colours have tried to life people out of poverty.  But Christians have found themselves in conflict with governments of all colours because they have pointed to the failure of government to care for the poor.  We best point to such failings by caring for them ourselves. 

Prayer for our rulers and care for the poor.  These are the two basic Christian political practices that will lead us into other places and more difficult territory.  But if we are not praying for those in authority, and caring for those who have the least, then we will not be doing God in the world of politics.


First given at Derby Cathedral 17.3.16. 

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