Politics and Christianity have never been easy been easy to reconcile but I believe it is not just possible, but necessary to do so. When I told a friend that I was working for the Christian Socialist Movement and explained the work it was doing, his response was;
“Oh, there are still Christians in politics then?”
I think this says a lot about the state of politics in this country, but I’m going to try and convince you that far from being a deterrent this should be an invitation for more Christians to engage with their faith in the public sphere.
One cannot deny that the Bible is not absolutely specific about how, and indeed, if politics should be pursued by Christians. It often warns us to steer clear of the trappings of this world such as power, money and fame; things which today’s politics can often be associated with.
The political realm is held in such contempt these days that it is seen as no place for Christians who are serious about their faith. After all, is it not better to store up treasures in Heaven than on Earth.
Jesus himself warns against trusting in Governments. They are the construction of fallen men and are simply bound to reproduce the fallen and sinful nature to which humanity has turned. Our hope and trust should be placed in God alone.
In what must be one of the most well-known passages on the subject, Jesus is asked whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Looking at the face of Caesar upon a denarius, he replies;
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
A popular interpretation of this would have Jesus dividing the world up into Spiritual and political realms, with our earthly duties being owed to secular rulers and Governments and our heavenly duties being owed to God.
If this is so then Christians should concentrate on other forms of Government; Government of the self, of the family and of the church. These are all important forms of government and doubtlessly come much more naturally to the temperaments and priorities of most Christians.
But this interpretation of Caesar’s words cannot have been what Jesus meant. The Earth is the Lords and everything in it. In his enigmatic reply to the question, Jesus poses a second one; namely, what does belong to God? The point being made is that everything belongs to God and therefore rulers and governments like everything else in creation are accountable to him.
Governments might reflect the fallen nature of humanity but they also have the capacity to reflect our extraordinary capacities as those who are made in the likeness of God. Through striving to limit the fallen aspects of life and build upon our divine qualities, the Bible recognises the potential that governments have to improve the lives of people.
Politics is the way in which whole communities can act to achieve their goals; to do together what it would otherwise be impossible to achieve alone. Fellowship and community are important themes throughout the Bible and participating in communal activities, from sharing a meal, to praying together were hugely symbolic.
In Tom Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, he talks about humanity being in partnership with God in our own redemption. For Wright, Redemption is not an abstract concept but a reality that has formation in this world and a shared task that God invites us to participate in.
Governments can be a real force for good; tackling poverty and those things in life that restrain our freedoms, and in so doing, striving to create a world that is better than it was before. Just like individuals, there is good to be found in Governments and they too are redeemable. The vocation to politics is therefore a noble and constructive one if it seeks to shape government to fulfil its potential.
It is worth at this point considering the changing perceptions of government and their role in our lives. The political philosophy of the Social Contract and the rise of Social Democracy have meant that Governments today are profoundly different to the authorities of Jesus’ day in their size and influence. Most European Governments now provide universal healthcare, engage in positive liberty through redistributing wealth and provide us with universal rights that are upheld by the state, things that would have been unthinkable over 2,000 years ago.
If we are really committed to making “thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven” in the 21st Century then we cannot avoid working with governments, indeed it is essential if we want to make real changes.
It is true that we cannot place our trust in the institutions of government or the endeavours of politicians as they will only achieve so much. Even the greatest of rulers and governments of our day and throughout history will dwarf into insignificance when the time comes for the Kingdom of this World to become the Kingdom of our God and his Messiah.
As Christians in politics we must carry out our work with realism; in recognition of the imperfect nature of our world, and humility; knowing that it is only God who can fully redeem.
This reinforces our idea that our work is a work of service. We look to the example of Christ himself who in all his majesty, knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. This is the way that our lives in politics should be led. It is through serving others that we serve our Lord, as Jesus said;
“Whatsoever you did for the least of brothers, that you did unto me.”
Politics might be a murky business and a career that few Christians who are serious about their faith consider, but this is no reason to turn our back on it. We must engage with it, challenge it and ultimately change it.
It was often said during the financial crisis that the banks were too big to fail. They had so much power and so much influence other the lives of people around the world that governments simply could not sit back and watch them collapse. I propose that in a similar fashion, our Government is too big to fail. Christians cannot ignore the enormous impact it has on the lives of people today. It is too big to ignore, too big to become a moral vacuum and too influential to turn into a place where the Christian voice is unheard.
If we do nothing, I guarantee you that nothing will happen. If we try, who knows what God will achieve through our efforts.
James Somerville- Meikle 2010.