In my last post I mentioned the Serious Debate over whether Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams should trim his eyebrows… since his remarks on the UK government in this week’s New Statesman some are now thinking he should trim his tongue instead. Well, when I say ‘some’, I really mean conservative politicians and media, who – would you have believed it? – seem largely to have misunderstood and misreported his actual remarks, which were characteristically balanced, thoughtful and intelligent. But perhaps that was the problem.
Of course, Rowan Williams – joined by former bishop of Durham Tom Wright – also caused a bit of a stir recently by speaking out about the killing of Osama bin Laden. But let’s not go there again… 😉
So should the Church get involved in politics, or should it stay the heck out – letting the government get on with running the country while itself getting on with pastoring the faithful flock?
Firstly, as always it depends on your terms – what you mean by ‘church’, ‘involved’, and ‘politics’. ‘Church’ meaning the Christian community in general, or (in the UK) the established Anglican church with the Queen as its head? ‘Involved’ in the sense of lobbying and trying to influence policy-making, or ‘involved’ by commenting on the moral implications of policies? ‘Politics’ as in Party Politics or as in general issues affecting the world, the country and its people? The answer to the question clearly depends very much on how you define those terms.
All life is political
To be honest, I don’t see how the church can realistically avoid getting involved in politics. At the most basic level, all adult church members have the vote; we are all personally affected by government policy decisions, and we’re all also concerned for others who are affected – for example political refugees. Furthermore, many Christians are active members of government organisations, political parties and even of the government itself, and there is no reason why this should not be so.
Christianity is about the whole of life, not just some private spiritual segment. Christians, whether politicians or not, do not leave their faith at home or hang it up at the office door with their coat. Christians simply can’t stay out of politics without staying out of life itself. One dimension of life is political, or if you prefer, all of life has a political aspect.
And of course politics covers many, many issues that Christians can and should care passionately about – justice, poverty, peace, the planet, and a whole range of moral issues from treatment of prisoners and asylum seekers through to assisted dying.
Furthermore, I’d argue that the Bible and Christian ethics tacitly underpins the whole enterprise of modern western democracy and law-making. Though that does not of course mean that Christians now can expect prejudicial favours when it comes to the formulating of new laws and policies.
The World and the Kingdom
But don’t Christians belong to the Kingdom not the World?
When Jesus said to Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), he didn’t mean that it had nothing to do with this world – that Christians should steer clear of involvement in the business and government of this world. Rather he meant that the source and power of his Kingdom was divine not earthly, from above not below. He also meant that its ways and means were not those of human politics with all the sorry business of power-plays, factions, in-fighting, corruption and broken promises. Though sadly of course the church has fallen prey to those as much as any other human organisation.
Going back to Tom Wright and Surprised by Hope, the Kingdom of God is very much about what happens in the world and to its people here and now. It’s about justice and goodness here and now, not just in the world to come.
Likewise, when Paul wrote that we should ‘be subject to the authorities’ (Romans 13), he didn’t mean that Christians should stick to the spiritual business and let the authorities get on with the secular – Paul would never have acknowledged such a dualistic sacred/secular division. Neither did he mean we should kow-tow to the authorities – Paul got into trouble with the powers-that-be far more than his fair share of times, receiving beatings, imprisonment and ultimately execution at their hands. And nor did he mean that we shouldn’t protest or be involved in peaceful civil disobedience where our conscience dictates. He simply meant that we shouldn’t get involved in wrongdoing, in rioting and violent rebellion; and that if we do oppose the authorities, we must expect (like him) to pay the consequences.
Good and bad involvement
Of course, there are more and less helpful ways of engaging with politics and public debate. In the UK, the organisation Christian Voice is a prime example of a less good way; its voice is sadly a strident, ill-judged and ill-informed one, and the issues it chooses to get upset about are almost invariably way off the mark (usually alleged blasphemy).
In the US, the whole ‘religious right’ seems to me about as bad an example of ‘Christian’ political involvement as you can get, wielding far too much earthly power and lobbying with frighteningly partisan bias in areas like foreign policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. All this seems to me very dangerous and shaky ground. I confess that I know little of US church or US politics, but it strikes me as a little strange that in a country where the separation of church and state is embedded in the constitution, extreme elements of the church can wield so much political power. By contrast, in the UK we have an established church and broadly Christian acts of worship in schools, but the church has far less influence on government policy.
When Christians engage with politics and political issues, they need to do so in a thoughtful, informed and above all a Christian – a Christlike – way. In other words, they need to do so in love and compassion, in kindness and humility; listening more than speaking; getting their hands dirty rather than sniping from the sidelines. They – we – need to engage not out of self-interest but for the good of the world and its people, particularly the poor and oppressed and marginalised, the outcasts and outsiders.
Church and state
But should the leaders of the established Church ever get involved in matters of state? There are tricky issues at stake, and from the Emperor Constantine onwards the Church has not done particularly well in its involvement in politics at this level. (Some might ask, should we have an established state-tied church at all? Disestablishment is really another discussion for another day; I’m broadly in favour but there are some good arguments on both sides.)
Some things we can say straight off. The Church should never use its influence to gain favours or special treatment. It should not seek to form political alliances; it should not seek earthly power and influence. It should not collude with earthly powers-that-be in evil such as the arms trade, slavery and state-sponsored oppression. Finally, it should not try to impose its own specific morality on the secular world through state legislation.
But the Church, its leaders and its members should – no, must – be involved in working to make the world and our own part of it a better place, working for justice, peace, truth and goodness. We must speak out and protest against unfair trade, against policies that hurt the poor and weak, against unjust or unjustified wars and laws. We must also speak out, campaign and work for what we believe to be good and true and right, while never seeking to use power and law to impose our moral or religious views and practices on others. I believe that it’s this kind of positive engagement and speaking out on important issues that the Archbishop is currently modelling.
Rowan Williams is a deeply intelligent, wise and compassionate man of God and I for one welcome his thoughtful engagement with politics. I hope that he and Tom Wright both feel able to continue speaking out – and indeed acting – whenever they deem it necessary. We don’t of course always have to agree with them.
- And did those feet? ‘Jerusalem’, patriotism and the Kingdom of God
- Killing in the name of – Christianity and the death penalty
- Christian responses to Osama bin Laden’s killing
- Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright