Archive for the 'Christians and Politics' Category

Christians and Politics

Monday, November 6th, 2006

 

The current discussion amongst the political establishment concerning the benefits of the separation of church and state raises some interesting unexplored areas concerning Christians and politics. While it is generally acknowledged by the secular West that politics and religion do not mix there has been no serious discussion as to whether or not Christianity precludes political involvement for its members. In the current political climate we hear Peter Costello say that “Jesus Christ rejected any opportunity to seize political power”, and while Peter was saying this as an argument for keeping the church out of politics he was also, inadvertently, opening the floodgates on the deeper question, as to whether or not this fact posed a dilemma for all the Christians who sport political colours or who aspire to higher office. While there was discomfort in some circles regarding the appointment of the former Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollinsworth, to the office of Governor General, there has been no disquiet at card carrying Christians being members of Parliament. This is quite strange in the light of the Protestant belief that there is no real distinction between the laity and the clergy.

Part of our problem with looking at this question is due to the fact that historically the Queen has been the head of the Church of England and the Bishops have had a seat in the House of Lords. Culturally we have not had a problem with the idea of a close link between the Church and State but this does not mean that it should be so. Whilst in Australia there has been no obvious link between the Church and State, as has been the case in England, we nevertheless have retained the Queen as our head of State and have been so inculcated with our notional belief in our Christian heritage that we have not examined all of the deeper questions that this subject poses. For example what role ought the Church play in the Armed Forces with the appointment of chaplaincies; or why should the Church be involved in State Funerals; or should the Churches be allowed to receive funding for Government sponsored social welfare initiatives? These questions are just the tip of the ice-berg especially when you throw in the further ones concerning Government funding for private Christian schools and tax relief for religious organizations. At the very least this poses conflict of interest concerns when Christians are holding ministerial responsibility in areas where their Church memberships become liabilities in their decision making and possibly should be treated in much the same way as their ownership of shares in a company would be. Perhaps Christians need to lay aside their Church membership for the duration of their holding public office!

 

My intention for writing is not, however, to pursue these questions, although I can see that a Pandora's box of complications lie just beneath the surface, rather I am interested in the Scriptural injunctions that Christians are bound by if their belief is genuine and to be taken seriously. For a start Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world1 and this can only mean that His followers are not to be engaged in the affairs of this world2. A brief investigation of the New Testament will reveal unambiguously that Christians have no place in the political life of this or any other nation. Jesus was tempted at the very start of his ministry with control of the kingdoms of this world3 and declined the offer. Towards the end of his ministry Jesus took his disciples aside and warned them against setting themselves up as leaders in the likeness of the leaders of this world who lord it over their subjects.4 He said, “whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. It is difficult to see how Christians can reconcile the command to walk in the image of Christ with their worldly desire to be the rulers of men.

1John 18:36

22 Tim 2:4.

3Matthew 3:8-10

4Mark 10:42-44

There are other obstacles to Christians participating in public life. One of the obvious ones concerns taking an oath of office. Christians are forbidden to make oaths Jesus said, “I say to you, make no oath at all”1 “but let your statement be,'Yes, yes' or 'No, no' anything beyond these is of evil.”2 Knowing this it is difficult to comprehend how the practice ever developed for people to swear on the Bible! It also begs belief as to how a Christian can swear allegiance either to Queen or country, for their vow of allegiance is certainly to Christ. This is borne out in the book of Acts when the Jewish Council forbade Peter and John from proclaiming what God had done. They said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you or to God, you be the judge.”3 How can men whose first priority is to God ever truthfully pledge themselves to go against their conscience? Surely as soon as they do they are in deceit.

1Matthew 5:33-37

2Matthew 5:33-37

3Acts 4:18-21

 

Another equally challenging obstacle to Christians serving the state is the fact that it is always wrong for a Christian to go to war. Paul writes, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.”1 Just as Jesus said on the night of his betrayal “all those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword.”2 These instructions together with another statement from Paul “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the evil spiritual (powers) in the heavenlies.”3, make it impossible to see how Christians, who are sincere, can possibly either be in a government which sends people to fight in wars or be in the armed forces, or for that matter act as a chaplain to servicemen and women.

12 Corinthians 10:3

2Matthew 26:52

3Ephesians 6:12

 

The whole point of Christianity is that it is at heart the denial of all human efforts to create a better world by governance or force or coercion but rather that in partnership with Christ we are able to arrive at peace with God and in His power gain the ability to walk free from those things which lead to war. One noted Christian who understood these things was George Fox who was active during the days of the Commonwealth in Cromwell's England. He said “All that pretend to fight for Christ are deceived. For His kingdom is not of this world, therefore His servants do not fight. Fighters are not of Christ's kingdom, but are without Christ's kingdom. His kingdom stands in peace and righteousness, but fighters are in the lust. And all that would destroy men's lives are not of Christ's mind, who came to save men's lives.”1

1The Journal of George Fox – Chapter XV page 357 Cambridge University Press (1952)

 

I am not saying that Christians should have no feelings as to the things they see happening in the world, or that they should not care or desire changes in the face of the injustices we all too readily see around us, but rather I am suggesting that the Christian response to these things is not to seek to hold the reigns of power. Christ did not come to claim political power but rather he came revealing a power that was not already reigning in the lives of men. He came offering men a reason for a change in their hearts towards God and towards each other. Jesus had no illusions about the direction in which the world was headed. He did not look forward, in some Utopian hope, to a fair and just and equitable society where all followed his example but rather he said “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth”1 and on another occasion he said “The poor you have with you always”.2 Jesus did not turn a blind eye to the need of the poor but he did not look for a political solution to rectify the ills of the world and neither should Christians.

1Luke 18:8

2John 12:8

 

If legislation was the answer to the world’s problems then there was no need for Christ to come. The Law had already been given to the sons of Abraham but their history reveals that they were unable to keep that Law. In fact all law is given in an attempt to regulate the behaviour of people who do not naturally do what is right. Those who call themselves Christian are supposedly those who have laid aside this unreliable human nature and now live by the Spirit of Christ. Paul writes “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: against such things there is no law”.1 In other words Jesus and his followers are not offering the world a better style of government but the opportunity to live a transformed life, which is no longer the subject of rules and regulations. Such a life cannot be attained by legislation or coercion but only by a fundamental change of heart.

1Galatians 5:22-26

 

It is interesting to look at what occurred in the early Church when the first congregation gathered shortly after Pentecost. “No one was saying that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.”1 “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles feet and they would be distributed to each as they had need.”2 In other words you could say that there was happening in their midst, unbidden, those things which make for a just and equitable society. This was not due to legislation but was rather an outpouring of love, which flowed from a changed attitude to God and to other people. If the Churches today revealed a similar attitude towards each other then those outside the Church would look with different eyes at Christians. If Christians want to change the world they have an opportunity to be a spiritual witness to the transforming power of God's love by living in a similar spirit to that of the early Church.

1Acts 5:32

2Acts 5:34&35

 

Unfortunately today the word Christian has become an ambiguous word. The Church is no longer the place of spiritual revolution where the impossible is made possible, where people dare to live to a higher standard of community than was ever thought possible. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law.”1 If the Church was fulfilling this commandment of love within its own community then they would have something greater than the platitudes of doctrine, and the remembrance of things past, to offer this spiritually starved world.

1Romans 13:8

 

In his recent article in 'The Monthly' Kevin Rudd makes a shameless political appeal to Christians to join with him in his partisan fight for social justice. Leaning on the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he launches his assault to gain territorially the high ground in the moral wars between the two stoushing political combatants. Rather than using his understanding of the faith of Bonhoeffer to lure gullible Christians to side with him in his political spiritual wilderness, Kevin would have served us better by looking to the life of Jesus as an example of how to behave in a hostile political environment. After all Bonhoeffer was only seeking to do just that as he struggled in his own faith to respond to the events he confronted in his life.

 

I doubt if there was ever a time in history when there was a greater opportunity for a popular political movement than in the time of Christ. The Israel of that day was occupied by the Romans, there were deep political divides between the two main Jewish factions, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and the local ruler, Herod, was an Idumean, a descendant of Esau. In short the land was full of indignation and the people were looking for a leader behind whom they could rally. Indeed there had been many popular uprisings from the times of the Maccabean revolts right up until the time of Christ when a group known as the Zealots, under the leadership of Judas the Galilean, revolted against the Romans in 6 AD. These Zealots believed that it was immoral to pay tribute to Caesar for they believed this to be an offense against God. One of Jesus disciples was known as Simon the Zealot presumably due to his past links with this group. What was Jesus response to all of these political currents in the life of the nation? Absolutely nothing!

 

Jesus confined himself completely to the spiritual concerns of his people. He healed the sick, cast out demons and spoke with a power and authority which gave the ordinary man and woman a glimpse into the nature of God that favoured neither side, the Pharisee or the Sadducee, but showed them up for what they were, intemperate men who sought power for no just or good reason. He did not seek the accolades of high office or the power to legislate the lives of men. Lets face it, the law is pretty basic, best summarised as love your neighbour as yourself; it doesn't take great genius to know right from wrong, its written in our hearts. He came to reveal that it was possible to live a life that was beyond law, a life of love and of service for which there was no law. Jesus was a threat to the political process because it held no power over him. Whatever is the use of lawmakers and lawyers, policemen and judges, governors and soldiers in a land where everyone always seeks what is right and just and good? It is a horrifying thought, what would ever happen to civilization?!

 

This disquiet is something of the reason why the authorities had Jesus put to death. He was a troublemaker because he revealed their nakedness and the people were beginning to take too much notice of him. The opposing factions of the day did not like being made to look like fools nor did they cherish the thought of losing control of the people. But the common people did not really comprehend what Jesus was offering either. They thought that his triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem heralded the establishment of a new glorious chapter in the Kingdom of Israel. They hailed him as the Son of David and they thought that he had come to take up his throne. The disappointment that went through them when they saw Jesus arrested by the Roman authorities had them cry out for his death; for they saw him then as a false prophet, a man without honour and a deceiver.

 

All of these things reveal that Jesus kingdom was not of this world. If he had shown any political hostility towards the authorities of this world his death would in some sense have been justifiable, for he would have rightly been seen as just one more Zealot whom they needed to dispatch. However the fact that he had no designs on political power, whatsoever, meant that he was entirely innocent of all charges laid against him. Their fear of Jesus was not because he sought their job but because they knew his power. If Christians wish to have the power to change the world they need to walk in the same power in which Jesus walked.

 

Any talk today that there is not only a spiritual gospel but also a social gospel is nonsensical. Jesus did not proclaim two Gospels, he proclaimed but one. The truth is that if a man is spiritually transformed he will live a just and righteous life. There is not a 'Christian' perspective on contemporary issues, to say so imputes that Christians somehow have some knowledge of right and wrong that differs from all other people. If this were so then it would be wrong to judge any man for his bad conduct. It is not Christianity that has moulded our cultural identity but rather an innate sense of justice and a social awareness that without some appeal to this notion of justice anarchy lurks beneath the surface. Injustice exists in the world because men go against their better judgment. Men are willing to sacrifice their higher principles for what they see as personal advantage. There is no magical legal or political remedy to this fundamental human failing. For Christians to become involved in politics is for them to try and achieve through the law that which can only be accomplished through a work of the Spirit.

The whole question of Church and State, or Christian involvement in politics, really turns on what is meant by the term Christian. Unfortunately this term has become so muddied over the decades as to become virtually unintelligible. People who call themselves Christian differ so spectacularly from group to group that it is in fact possible to believe almost anything, from pomp-filled Catholic and High Church Anglican all the way through to ecstatic, 'slay them in the aisles', Pentecostalists, and still label yourself Christian. This obviously has to be nonsense. Jesus was under no illusion as to what it meant to be himself and Christians are called to be like him. Simplicity itself you would think!

 

On the subject of Christianity George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The first common mistake to get rid of is that mankind consists of a great mass of religious people and a few eccentric atheists. It consists of a huge mass of worldly people, and a small percentage of persons deeply interested in religion and concerned about there own souls and other people's; the passionately religious are a people apart; and if they were not hopelessly out numbered by the worldly, they would turn the world upside down, as St Paul was reproached, quite rightly, for wanting to do. … Unless a religious turn in ourselves has led us to seek out the little Societies to which these rare birds belong, we pass our lives among people who, whatever creeds they may repeat, and in whatever temples they may avouch their respectability and wear their Sunday clothes, have robust consciences, and hunger and thirst, not for righteousness, but for rich feeding and comfort and social position and attractive mates and ease and pleasure and respect and consideration: in short, for love and money. To these people one morality is as good as another provided they are used to it and can put up with its restrictions without unhappiness; and in the maintenance of this morality they will fight and punish and coerce without scruple. They may not be the salt of the earth, these Philistines; but they are the substance of civilization…”1

1George Bernard Shaw. Prefaces by Bernard Shaw, 1934. Preface to Androcles and the Lion, p529

 

If these are the group of Christians, this worldly majority, to which these politicians belong then by all means let them sing their siren's song, but let the Church beware. When political leaders start to woo the Church you never know where it may lead. I will leave you with two quotes for your consideration. Firstly, “…the National Government sees the two Christian confessions as the most important factors safeguarding our national heritage… in Christianity (I see) the unshakeable foundations of our people's ethical and moral life” – Adolph Hitler, 19331; and secondly, “Governments should recognise that our society has been founded on basic principles of Judeo – Christian values and that these have given our society a lot of benefit” – Peter Costello, 20062.

1G. van Norden. Kirche in der Krise,1933,1963,p. 45

2Mercury Newspaper, Friday October 6th, 2006.