A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 1

Introduction

Welcome to this mini series of posts which more or less mirror a talk I gave at the Salvation Army’s training college this week. There’ll be four posts in all but even spread across this many words and posts it is a fairly fast tour through the biblical themes. Hopefully, it will help provide a better understanding political authority, and what this should look like when worked out in the institutions of government. Alternatively you can download the whole series as a PDF.

Each of the posts offer a further layer to help us understand what the Bible has to teach us, so today we stay on quite a conceptual level, but hopefully by the end a picture full of texture and colour will have been built up. I also hope it will be clear why I consider politics as something essential for Christians to engage with. As this comes from a talk I apologise that the quotes aren’t properly referenced, most of them come from God and Government edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin, but others I’ve dug out from a variety of other sources. However, I’d suggest you don’t read that book because then you’d realise just how significantly it has influenced the development of these posts. (that was a joke. it’s a fantastic book which I’d very strongly recommend, and I’ll freely admit most of this comes from it)

In this first post I’ll look at political authority in general and pull out three aspects of that authority which we can draw from the Bible.

In subsequent posts I’ll consider how we should view the idea of government more specifically, and then a reasonable amount of time will be given to assessing the Lordship of Christ and what this can teach us about the exercise of political authority.

In the final post I’ll touch on a few of the main purposes of government and how these are affected by our understanding of the bible.

Nature of political authority:

powers as created

So to start, let’s take a look at the nature of political authority.

In the beginning God created the world. We understand creation as the divine work of calling all things into being.

And in Genesis while we see that the earth is created by God we also see humans given a role of authority – they are co-creators.

It’s not just a one off command, a one time only opportunity; Adam and Eve were asked to name all the animals. They were told to go forth and multiply and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth.

This command is not just about biological reproduction, it is also about the work of governing, directing and developing culture. Nigel Wright states that “The building of societies, nations and cultures is thus understood as part of human responsibilities before God, part of what we are called to do”.

Government as an institution, or even the organisation of basic communities, would not exist outside of the human beings that comprise them. There is no franchise model that we buy into, government is not a pre-ordained, off the shelf, divine institution that we partake in. It is what we create.

The outworking of governance, and the form that it takes, is a product of our ingenuity and our God given creativity. It is what we do in our role as co-creators with God.

The political authority we recognise as government is what enables us to achieve goals that would be out of reach on our own. It is the way that we come together to build a social structure that works for the good of all.

So my first point is this: political authority is a divine creation in its origin but human in its prescription and its outworking.

powers as fallen

If we stopped there we’d have a rather one sided view of political authority. Because it all sounds rather rosy, but it bears very little resemblance to the exercise of political authority we see around us.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour through the outworking of political authority in the Bible because it doesn’t always paint a picture of political authority as good. Representative democracy was not on the scene but there is still a good spread of different regimes.

We have Pharaoh and the Egyptians and their oppressive regime, we have the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires and the brutality that went with their conquest.

In the New Testament we see the Roman Empire in all its glory, bringing order to the known world but at the cost of human dignity.

In both Daniel and Revelation the empires of this world are described as a ravaging beast (Dan 2.31-45, 7.1-8; Rev 13).

If the institutions of political authority grow out of our human nature, then not only will they reflect the good that is in us, placed there at creation, but also the fallen and sinful nature to which we turned.

We should not be surprised that the exercise of political authority will be as corrupt as our own nature is.

Too often governments are simply an expression of domination, as Walter Wink says, wielding power through violent means over the majority for the sake of the elite.

It’s taken a long time for political authority to move from serving those elites to acting in a way that is in the interests of the whole country. And we’re not there yet.

Power isn’t given up easily, even in our present democratic state we have to ask whether the exercise of political authority is done in a way that reflects our created state or our fallen nature.

We see that political authority is an ambiguous power. It is God given and it is honourable, it is an outworking of the cultural mandate we have been given.

But it is also used for the pursuit of self, and for the oppression of others. And we have seen this far too frequently throughout history.

powers as ‘to be’ redeemed

This is not the end of the story, Nigel Wright comments, “Fallenness is not the last word about anything or anybody”.

If the institutions of political authority reflect ourselves as created in the image of God, and marred by our fallen nature, then they too can be redeemed.

Where once they worked to serve our ambitions and schemes, they can be turned to serve others and honour God. They can shift to fulfil the life enhancing role that God had in mind at their creation.

But the redemption is only ever partial in the here and now.

We live in a space where the Kingdom of God has begun to break in. But we see only a glimpse of its true glory. In the same way political authority will only be fully redeemed in the fullness of time.

This means we cannot hold too great a hope for the redemption of political authorities.

Yet it is a hope. It is a hope that the power of the state can be used to enhance life, promote justices and secure peace and prosperity for all.

When the exercise of political authority moves towards the work of justice it is both a reflection of the good in its original creation and itself a witness to the activity of redemption that is at work.

Therefore: government is an ambiguous concept

I’ve very briefly outlined three aspects of political authority, but they don’t operate separately, or consecutively. It is not that any particular political authority is good, fallen, or only on its way to redemption.

Instead the three aspects are threads that intertwine and exist simultaneously in all political authority.

Overall, this view of political authority as created, fallen and on its way towards redemption shows us that government is an ambiguous concept.

It’s not to say that all examples of political authority are equal, at different times and in different places the redemptive possibilities may be nearly invisible as humans in their fallen state exercise authority with all the selfishness they can muster.

Likewise, we should not focus too much on any one of the three perspectives, if we consider only the original good that we are created with we can be naïve as to the potential dangers.

And too much focus on the fallen dismisses the potential for good and we can become paranoid about the exercise of authority.

If we forget about that redemption is only partial we can be overly optimistic about what will come next.

The three threads need to be held in tension.

And this ambiguous picture of political authority is reflected in the biblical ambivalence towards its outworking.

We’ll look at the nature of government in the New Testament in a future post but it is worth noting Jesus’ words to Pilate at this point. In John’s gospel when facing trial before Pilate Jesus says: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19.11)

There are limitations on earthly political authority, there are things it can do, but it cannot act alone, and it cannot act without recourse to a greater source of authority.

Julian Rivers assesses government as “a natural product of human society made much harder by sin; a good gift, like marriage, and like marriage, easily distorted and subverted”.

And I think this is a picture we would recognise. The modern state has achieved huge strides in promoting human welfare but it has not been without abuse.

In tomorrow’s post we’ll probe a little deeper into the nature and role of government as the outworking of political authority to understand this tension further.

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Light, darkness and the ballot box

Today is polling day. I voted at a few minutes after 7 and I wasn’t the first: a couple of people trudged through the room in the local Methodist church ahead of me. Outside in the rain stood a Lib Dem teller with her clipboard, she didn’t ask for my poll card number as I lifted my hood as a shield to the elements. I hadn’t been canvassed by the Lib Dems so I’m not sure what good my information would have done on the telling tallies.

I voted because I think voting matters. I voted because I care about who runs my city as I care who runs the country. I voted because as a Christian I believe that we should take responsibility for the world around us and that means making difficult choices about what needs to be done. Last night I wrote in haste about the place of Christian political parties. If you read that it will not surprise you that as my pencil lingered for a moment above the paper awaiting my crosses it was not drawn towards the Christian People’s Alliance.

But my vote was not an automatic one. For I had not been impressed with any of the campaigns in London. Added to this, the dynamic of a supplementary vote system was new to me, voting for one of the top two candidates with your first vote renders your second pointless, so I was tempted to give my first choice to a candidates that wouldn’t normally attract my support. Peter Ould has written this morning that social conservatives should withhold their vote from the Conservative Party to send a message that they won’t be taken for granted.

What I picked up from his post was that we’re too easily taken for a ride. We hear the politicians fawning over every target group, offering special targeted messages and focus group tested policies. We hear the Bible verses quoted and the laudable things said about how integral Christians are to society. And then we are surprised when the politicians turn the other way once in office.

If our political engagement is only about extracting a promise from candidates and political parties at election time then we are asking to be used and abused. It is almost as though we want politicians to promise us the earth. If politicians only make promises as a factor in electoral calculations they will be willing to ditch them if the algebra changes.

So the answer is to vote for the party that mostly closely reflects your values, and then see how you can get involved to influence those values and the policies that arise from them. My fear for politics is that too often the value that overrules the others is the desire to get elected and whim and whimsy too often come to the fore. But like all areas of life where problems exist, they will not be solved by staying on the sidelines and becoming experts at what’s wrong.

I think for some people who usually vote Conservative, now might be a good time to send a signal that you won’t be taken for granted. But don’t just do that through the ballot box, don’t abstain because that is abdicating responsibility, and don’t vote for a party you like even less because that’s just spiteful.

If politics is a place too shrouded in darkness then we have to be the ones who will bring the light.

Why I don’t think Christian political parties are the best option

This week the God and Politics blog ran an interview with Malcolm Martin, the lead candidate for the London Assembly elections for the Christian People’s Alliance. At the time I was inclined to respond but decided against it as I didn’t want to get drawn into a political debate, and I didn’t want to be seen as casting judgement on another Christian engaging in politics – something I am passionate to see more of. Then this evening came a bit of a discussion (not really a spat as I originally wrote) on twitter about the relative validity of the Christian People’s Alliance and whether Christians should vote for them.

So being unable to express in 140 characters some nuanced thoughts, here comes a quick fire summary of why I don’t think that Christian parties are the best way for Christians to engage in politics.

Firstly, a caveat, I think people should vote for who they support and would like to see in government. That means that for some people the candidates running under a Christian ticket may well be the best candidate for them. Gillan Scott, who’s set up and quickly established the God and Politics blog as a go to destination, has taken a bit of flack for running the interview, which is perhaps a little unfair, I think like everyone the Christian People’s Alliance have a voice that deserves to be heard. Occasionally I speak to churches about political engagement, almost invariably I will be asked a question about whether Christians should vote for Christian political parties, this is more or less what I say.

Summary

I do not believe that there should be any suggestion that for Christians the best party to support is the party with Christian in the name.

And this is why:

  1. Pragmatic.

The two Christian parties that operate in the UK, the Christians People’s Alliance and the Christian Party are both very small in terms of the votes they garner and the seats in which they stand. This means that it is highly unlikely that they will be in a position to win seats, and even were they to, to influence political decisions.

  1. Political

This should not, in and of itself, be a reason not to vote for a party, often key voices come from the margin, and people not in the centre of decision making are able to take a view counter to the political mainstream. However, politics is about programmes and about delivering on these programmes. Therefore there needs to be an ability to do more than protests about problems with the current system. Fringe political parties, and by their electoral results the CPA and CP can both fairly be defined as such, are little more than pressure groups, and when I cast a vote I am voting for someone to govern not for someone to issue press releases.

  1. Philosophical

There are two Christian political parties. This should be enough to demonstrate that Christians don’t agree on political issues, the CPA are more centrist and the CP are more right wing. All of the political parties contain things in their platform that I disagree with. If I wanted a party where I agreed with everything it would have a membership of one: me. If we are to engage in the political process then we have to accept that disagreeing with things that a political party says is not a barrier to engagement. And if we want to see political parties stand for things that are closer to what we believe, then it is more vital than ever that we engage in them and advocate for those policies we wish to see.

  1. Theological

I wanted to find another ‘p’ to say this but my brain was struggling. This is the reason why in the end I don’t think that Christian political parties are the best choice for Christians, that’s over and above the other reasons outlined above, which in the right circumstances could all be ameliorated.

The idea and operation of Christian parties promotes an approach that verges on theocracy. It suggests that as Christians we will rule the country in a Christian way, and in a way that only Christians can. I am aware that those involved in the parties mentioned would dispute this.

But we live in a country where many people are not Christian, and to govern through parties that are identified as Christian with an explicitly Christian programme would suggest that we are seeking to introduce a political programme that is actually the enforcement of religious belief.

I don’t think that Christians have all the answers. I think that in the end, God’s Kingdom will come, and in the meantime God works through us to bring that Kingdom into our world a little bit at a time. But there are good ideas and aspects of that greater good that comes from sources outside the church. It is important that we recognise this. Politics is about making things work, for Christians it is about accepting that while overall authority lies with God he gives us a mandate to act on that authority.

The gospel is also about freedom, it is the thing that brings true freedom and it sustains freedom. The gospel is about the choice to follow God, and any attempt to legislate for religious belief, or even to try and enforce morality through the legal system will not only engender hostility towards Christianity, it is simply not the way that the gospel works.

Conclusion

In summary, Christians, like all people should vote how they wish, and in the Mayoral elections that may mean voting for the Christian People’s Alliance, but as someone passionately committed to seeing more Christians engaging in politics, and making a difference in the political sphere, it is not the route that I would advocate. I would suggest joining one of the mainstream parties, which ever one comes closest to you views. I would suggest getting involved, putting in the hard work, and seeing how, we can not only speak what we believe, but live it and see others changed by how we live and what we support. For more information I’d recommend the Christians in Politics website.

Carey, culture wars and the quest for civility

Christians are vilified in the UK, they are subject to hounding and persecution. They are targeted by aggressive campaigners. At least this is how former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey sees things.

There’s just a small problem with this, in fact, three. Firstly it’s simply not true, Christians in the UK are not persecuted. They do not risk their lives to worship, they are not imprisoned for converting and they are not banning from preaching. And to suggest as much leads to the second problem: it minimises and trivialises the very real suffering that Christians in places such as Iran, Nigeria and North Korea experience.

Those two should be reason enough to ward Christians off from using such intemperate language. But there is a bigger and harder to define problem, talking and writing in this way ostracises Christians from the world around them. It erects barriers and it defines the relationship between church and society as one based on conflict rather than reconciliation. It fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than attempting to build one more akin to the ‘I-thou’ spoke of by Martin Buber.

It is planting the seeds and nurturing the saplings of a culture war. And it’s not like we don’t know where this leads. It leads to law suits and protests, and ad campaigns and vitriolic journalistic exposes. Maybe we’re a lot closer to this than we thought.

The adverts planned and then banned from Christian organisations mimicking and opposing those plastered on buses across London by gay rights group Stonewall are the latest volley in this escalating environment. I doubt it was planned this way, but if they expected them to be vetoed then the whole thing is straight out of the culture war play book: do something, it gets banned, then sue for the right to do it.

I think the actions of some Christians do the credibility of Christian public witness a great deal of harm. Sometimes the retort is that Christians should be expected to be ridiculed and marginalised, and that we are called to not be ashamed of the gospel. And we will and we are. I’m just not sure that it’s always the gospel that is being paraded so publicly and unashamedly, and for which we are being ridiculed.

There will always be an element of friction between the Church and its surrounding culture. I believe that there are aspects of the world around us about which Church is to have a role in standing for truth and righteousness: a signal to how things should be and how they one day will be. And sometimes this means that the church will have controversial things to say. Sometimes these things will be completely contrary to the dominant view in society.

I don’t think it’s easy to speculate as to what Jesus might have plastered on the side of a fishing boat as it crossed the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think he’d have ran the ads proposed this week, but nor do I think he’d have run ads calling on people to feed the hungry. The thing about Jesus was that he was a man of action, he fed the hungry, he healed the sick; people followed him because his words and actions came together. He engaged them in conversation and eschewed megaphone politics.

There are two outcomes to the bus ad farce, for many people it has perpetuated the idea that Christians don’t like gay people (which should not be true). And for some Christians it has reinforced their notion that they are being discriminated against (which in the UK is rarely true). Stuff like this just doesn’t work, it exacerbates the problem.

The words and actions of Christians complaining of persecution are not representative of the church in the UK, but they are powerful. They feed into a mindset that recognises martyrdom as an affirmation of authentic belief, so when Christians are being oppressed it is a sign that we are doing something right. This means that for those purporting to stand up for Christians there is a groove already set of what this looks like in practise. And unfortunately dog whistle campaigning works.

Because while I feel better placed to critique the actions of Christians they are far from the only ones culpable of inculcating this culture war. For Christians who hold to a orthodox Christian understanding of sexuality, where sexual relationships should only take place within the context of marriage between a man and a woman, it is easy to view much of the world around them as hostile to their beliefs. While I do not consider such sexual ethics as central to the gospel, it is a part of my belief system. And I chose to live, or at least I try to live, in a way that honours God and this means that I and other Christians act in a way that is sometimes at odds with the world around them. It is becoming increasingly difficult to publicly defend and promote such views without being branded as intolerant and homophobic. So while Christians are not persecuted, there is a pressure placed on them to conform to views other than those rooted in their faith.

I do not seek to, in many cases I cannot, justify the way in which Christians have sometimes promoted and defended their views on sexuality. But I think it is vital in order to develop a society that is civil and tolerant of difference that Christians are able to say things that are unpopular.

Now whether they should do so, and certainly how they do so, is a different matter, I don’t think the kingdom of god is advanced by the proposed bus adverts. I think God sent his son to earth to bring reconciliation, the crowds wanted him at the head of a revolution, but he let himself be taken and killed for the rebellion of the rest of us. He died so the curtain could be torn, we shouldn’t be trying to brick up the hole sheered by his death.

The church needs to lead the way in finding a better way to cope with our differences. I believe there is a way and I believe in Jesus we have both the way to reconciliation and the model for that reconciliation.