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Sunday Worship 23 June | What Does Christianity Say About...Politics?

Updated: Jun 26

Luke 4:14-21
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is our third week taking a topic and asking what Christianity has to say about it. Over the last couple of weeks we've covered forgiveness and sin, and as always you can catch up with those reflections on this blog. This week we are taking on politics. I admit this wasn't one of the original suggestions, but with the general election only eleven days away, it felt like the most topical issue we could address. I know the common wisdom is to avoid religion and politics in polite company, so talking about religion and politics together may seem a bold move, but I'm trusting that we can be brave and considerate together. 

I want to start by saying quite clearly that this is not going to be me telling you how to vote, because it is not my place to do that. I can't promise that none of my own political opinion or bias will leak through. That will happen quite naturally all the time, and those of you who have been listening to me preach for a little while could probably take a fair guess at where on the political spectrum I land, although I have never been a member of a political party, and I haven't always voted the same way. So I'm not going to be campaigning this morning, instead I'm going to be encouraging us to ask how our faith might influence our politics, so that we can each go away and make our own prayerfully considered decisions before we cast our votes.

I think it is fair to say that there is a complicated relationship between Christianity and politics, not least because there has been a complicated history between the church and state. The church began under the watch of the Roman Empire, and was persecuted by the state. And then in a reversal of fortunes, Christianity was adopted by the emperor and became the religion of the state, affording the church a privileged political position. With the spread of Christianity and then the fall of the Roman Empire, power dynamics shifted and became more localised. Here in Britain, after a brief return to Paganism, Christianity was reasserted as the official religion, and the church continued to wield power as an integral part of the state. The splintering of the church in the wake of the Reformation and the rise in parliamentary democracy saw things change again, and while we still have a state church, its influence is not as strong as it was, and there are now other churches with different relationships to the state. Our Baptist tradition has historically argued for the separation of church and state, with one of the founders of the English Baptist church dying in the Tower of London after writing to the king to tell him to keep his nose out of other people’s religions. And yet a formal separation does not necessarily mean a complete disconnection, and Baptists have participated in political life, not least through their involvement with social justice and civil rights.

If religion informs how we see the world and politics shapes our common life, it seems impossible to suggest that there should be no overlap or relationship between the two. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When people say that religion and politics don't mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.” Scripture may not look political in the way we expect, but I believe that if we read it with the understanding that politics is essentially concerned with how we order society, we see that scripture is in fact deeply political.  In Jeremiah 29, God speaks through the prophet to call those who had been taken to Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city...pray to the Lord for it”. So even in exile, God wanted the people to be prayerfully engaged in the common life of the society they were living in. And in Matthew 22, Jesus told those who tried to trick him with a question about taxes to “give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God’s”. It’s often presented as a bit of a trick answer, but I think there is a sense here as well that we are to play our part in the world as well as in the kingdom.

And I don't think we should see those as two separate endeavours. Everything we do should be with the hope of making the world a little more like the kingdom, and so we need to bring kingdom values to worldly politics. (A quick caveat here, because this is not about enforcing our beliefs on others. I believe it is possible to build a society on kingdom values, while still respecting a diversity of belief and practice. God is inviting not coercive, and we should be likewise.) So what are those kingdom values? The passage we heard from Luke 4 is sometimes known as the Nazareth Manifesto, as it sets out Jesus' purpose and priorities. Celebration, freedom, restoration, favour...all with a particular care for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. I think the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 can also be read as a kind of manifesto. Home for the poor, comfort for the grieving, power for the meek, satisfaction for those who seek justice, mercy for the merciful, revelation for the faithful, honour for the peacemakers, safety for those who are persecuted. These are the principles Jesus Iived and died by, and they are the principles we can choose to live and vote by.

Professor NT Wright puts it like this: “The church must be active at the places where the world is in pain. The church must be in the forefront of work in the world to alleviate hunger and poverty, to remit major and unpayable international debt, to make peace and prevent war. The church must be on the front line in the fight against crime and the fight for proper punishment and rehabilitation of those convicted of crime, as well as for the rights of the victims of crime. Christians must be active not only in advocacy of the moral standards in which all are treated as full human beings, not as toys or as trash, but also to stand alongside and help those who, having been treated like that themselves, treat others the same way because that is the only way they know.  In these and many, many other ways, those who would tell the story of Jesus must first live it, bearing a measure of the world’s pain as they do so.” I would add that the church cannot do those things without engaging with political structures.

Voting really is the least we can do, so how do we apply all of this to the upcoming election? We have often used material from the Joint Public Issues Team, an ecumenical grouping of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches whose purpose is to help the Churches to work together for peace and justice through listening, learning, praying, speaking and acting on public policy issues. You may not be surprised to hear that they were one of the first resources I turned to when it came to reflecting on the impending general election. Their election issues briefing starts like this: "We believe that Christians have an important role to play in elections: to love, to pray, and to vote. As we follow Jesus' commandment to love our neighbours, we must take part, debate with kindness, ask questions, demand honest answers and be offended when truth is not offered. We are called too to listen to those on the margins, seek good news for the poor, and stand up for those who are vulnerable – whether that is families who are struggling today, or future generations who do not have a vote but will be affected by our choices."

The briefing goes on to outline six issues which JPIT believes should be central to our political conversations and decisions, and which align with their six hopes for the world. These issues are the need to address rising poverty, the importance of a compassionate and fair asylum policy, the urgency of action on the environment, the need for an economy which promotes the wellbeing of people and nature, the importance of actively working for peace and reconciliation, and the urgency of restoring trust and kindness in politics. They see these issues as having a mandate in God’s heart for the poor, and the command to welcome the stranger, and our stewardship of the earth, and Christ’s promise of abundance, and the call to be peacemakers, and God’s concern for just government. Perhaps not all of these are your priorities, and perhaps there are other issues near to your heart, but the point is to know what we think is important, and then to vote for the candidate who we believe will treat it as important. And of course before all of that, to let what we believe is important be informed by what we understand God holds to be important.

Another resource I have found helpful is ‘Voting like Jesus’ from Jubilee Plus, an organisation which seeks to equip churches to change the lives of those in poverty. They say that Christians are called to engage in public life for their own good and for the good of their neighbours and for the good of the community as a whole, and that voting like Jesus is about the attitudes we carry in our hearts and minds, principles like acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. They suggest that in approaching the ballot slip, we consider which candidates have integrity of character, show compassion for the vulnerable, are dedicated and capable, will put the needs of people before their own power and party, and act with kindness towards constituents and colleagues. Putting this together with the material from JPIT, we might say that we ought to vote for candidates of good character who share our priorities, as we seek to love our neighbour and act for the good of the world.

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