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A Christian Perspective on Politics

John Breadon's picture

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A very political religion!
England is one of the few countries with a national established church: and perhaps unique in claiming that it is still part of the Catholic Church. What precisely this means in practice, in a multi-faith, multi-cultured society is the cause of much debate. But there are visible consequences; for one example, the Queen as Head of the Church opens Parliament and makes a political speech written for her by the Prime Minister of the day. Another consequence is that the Archbishop makes speeches recommending how the Government may respond to political, or moral issues, such as climate change. And there are of course other groups within the Church who refuse to pay taxes that might support weapons of mass destruction.

Politics in Jesus’ time
Jesus would have recognised the complexity of all this, having grown up under the authority of King Herod, who put to death his cousin John (the Baptist). Jesus himself was eventually put to death by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, at the insistence of the religious authorities (the high priests had held their own trial of Jesus beforehand). Jesus had explicitly rejected the role of a messianic political leader, although he recognised that much of what he said had implications for politics.

Modern religion and politics
And in our own times, though September 11 2007 is often described as having catapulted religion back into politics, in reality it has always been there. It might Christian extremists throwing bombs at abortion clinics, or Communist regimes banning religion and killing Russian Orthodox priests.

The trouble is that both religion and politics lay claim to the same territory: the laws, rules or practices which govern people’s lives and their relations with each other. When religion was in decline in the West, such as in the second half of the twentieth century, governments attempted to push religion into the private arena as a matter entirely for individual choice. But in times of religious revival, such as now in the twenty-first century, both Tony Blair and George Bush, in their different ways, sought to restore faith and religion to the centre of public life. In 2009 the British government proclaimed an Inter-Faith week (and funded initiatives like AFAN ) and tried to ensure, at least in part, that the peace is not threatened by religious divisions.

If government can be two-faced in its stance towards religion, the Church too can face both ways on a number of different political issues. Many in the Churches, not least in the Catholic Church, look back with nostalgia to the days before Renaissance and Reformation when Church and State were one. Even in medieval times the relationship was never easy, as the images of Archbishop Thomas A Becket murdered on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral, or of King Henry IV of France kneeling in the snow at Canossa before the Pope, demonstrate. For the population of medieval Catholic Europe, there was no distinction between the authority of Church and State. The political authorities, the king, or the Holy Roman Emperor, received their authority from God via the Church. Each claimed to speak the Truth (in theory at least) and there was no arguing with either.

In the modern, post-Enlightenment Western World, in which science and rational enquiry lay their own claims to unique access to knowledge and trust, all is contested. All political groups, from extreme right-wing conservative to left-wing subversive, lay claim to Christian support from the Bible and/or the doctrines of the Churches. And within the churches, there is as great a diversity of political opinion as outside them, no matter how much the Pope, or other high priests and ministers of the day, may try to impose their authority and stamp out dissent.

The example of Jesus’ politics
Maybe it is at this point that a return to the way followed by Jesus can illuminate a picture which looks ever more dark and confused. Jesus’ life and mission was in one sense as political as it is possible to be, from start to finish. He abandoned the life of a rabbi, or scribe, for that of an itinerant teacher. He engaged directly with individuals and crowds rather than through the medium of a church or institution. This raised questions about the authority of the religious and political power-structures of his day, the role of the rich, powerful and respectable in society, and the laws and predominant values of the state which regulated people’s lives. He promoted an alternative set of values based on love and peace, honesty and openness, the renunciation of violence, the placing of poverty above possessions and of personal freedom above a legalism. The political impact of this would be revolutionary whenever it was implemented!

However, Jesus rejected the role of a political revolutionary and urged his followers to work within the framework of the existing laws and institutions of his (ie Roman/Jewish) society. It is no surprise that every political party tries to lay claim to his heritage. Perhaps it is precisely in accepting the paradoxes and complexities of the moral/political world we inhabit, alongside the simplicity of ethical values he sets out, that Christians have an uneasy, yet practical, starting point for political action