An occasional commenter on this blog is one Theo the Dog, a highly intelligent and theologically-minded hound who looks after a family in the English Midlands. I was talking to Theo’s human amanuensis back at Christmas, and he asked what I thought of Prime Minister David Cameron’s stance on the European Union and whether I’d seen anything theological in it. I had to confess I hadn’t, but I was intrigued. (For those who aren’t sure, DC had/has been showing strong signs of withdrawing from aspects of EU involvement, and of putting UK interests above wider EU ones.)
Theo (who is quite a left-wing dog) thought that DC’s attitude was more in line with the Old Testament than the New Testament; putting the interests of the tribe or single nation above those of the wider community and world. The PM was, in his view, seeing England like the OT Israel – a sovereign nation-state that must be preserved in the face of hostile foreign surrounding powers – rather than the NT community which transcends borders and all the attendant politics of self-interest and self-preservation. Or something like that. (Theo will I hope correct me if I’m grossly misrepresenting his views.)
There was also for Theo the sense that Cameron still viewed England as a kind of saviour-nation; a messianic Land of Hope and Glory and Mother of the Free that should still by rights Rule the Waves and bestow its blessings and favour on all mankind – the old Empire myth – rather than being part of a larger community of equals. I think he might have a point.
Now Theo was certainly not arguing for homogeneity or a loss of individual cultures – quite the opposite. Theo’s scribe is Cornish through and through and neither have any wish to become merely ‘European’ in some bland lowest-common-denominator way. But it’s perfectly possible to retain one’s cultural identity while belonging to something larger, composed of other cultures all retaining their own identities. Unity does not have to mean lack of diversity; it can mean a vibrant harmony – or even creative clash – of differences. (This incidentally is a lesson which parts of the church might do well to learn, for example in terms of differences of theology or worship style.)
Nor was Theo arguing for loss of local decision-making. Though (risking the ire of my US friends!) America could perhaps also at times be charged with messianic world-saving aspirations, Theo felt that at least the US had properly understood federalism, and was able to devolve power successfully to its component states. This is a model that both Britain and the EU could perhaps learn from. (And perhaps if the EU had already learnt it, the British government might be less keen to leave it.)
I’m not sure that this was what Theo was suggesting, but it seems to me (perhaps mistakenly) that the logical end of this ideal would be a one-world global community. However, it also seems to me that this would most likely involve some kind of central global authority, albeit with devolved powers to all member states. This I can see pressing all the wrong buttons for right-wing theologians and politicians. Tim LaHaye and Jeremy Jenkins’ entertaining but ultra-right-wing eschatalogical fantasy series Left Behind posits just such a one-world government, arising indeed from the European Union. But for them this government is the seat of the Beast, the Antichrist. I don’t share their fears about the EU, but I’ll admit I’m not entirely comfortable with the notion of one-world government.
Now, Christians do believe that one day the Kingdom will come and there will be one-world rule under Christ (at what point this comes is of course the basis of the old pre-milliennialist/post-millennialist controversy). The question is though, can and should we be working to hasten this day and to build Christ’s kingdom here on earth now? Should we, in the words of Blake’s poem, ‘not cease from mental strife, nor let our sword sleep in our hands, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’ (and the rest of the world too)?
My answer would be yes and no. Yes, in a way, we should absolutely be working towards that; working for justice and healing and truth, for communities and societies and governments which reflect Christ’s way. (I’ve said all this more fully elsewhere – see ‘And did those feet?’) But, as I argued in the previous article, we can’t impose this from above any more than we can impose Christian morality (whatever that is exactly) on a secular world. Theocracy certainly isn’t the way forward. And I don’t think any other form of human government or political system can bear the weight of such global messianic aspirations either. (Which I think was actually part of Theo’s original point about the British government.)
The problem with any kind of human government is, put simply, human nature. Any kind of parliament or leadership – global or local, religious or secular – runs the risk of human hubris, of the corrupting influence of power and wealth. It also inevitably carries the innate flaws and limitations common to all humans, even the most well-intentioned and benevolent.
As I said last time, the kind of kingdom rule that Jesus promises (and demands) is one of the first becoming last, a kind of bottom-up system where the least are the leaders, and those in positions of authority are the servants of all. It’s a little hard to imagine this working in any system of earthly human government involving humans as we are at the moment. The London boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich do have as their motto ‘We govern by serving’, but from my experience of their operation that statement is more aspirational than actual.
Preparing for the future reign of love
So does that mean that we should just give up hope and wait for the kingdom to come? No indeed. There is plenty we can do here and now to prepare ourselves and the world for the servant reign of the Kingdom of heaven, the rule of love and mercy and mutual care. We can work and campaign for justice and peace, for mutual understanding and respect; we can stand with the poor and marginalised and downtrodden. We can build ties with groups of people who are different to us rather than building barriers.
But to what extent can all this be done at government level? How much should human governments be seeking to mirror the future politics and economics, the social and governmental structures of the coming Kingdom of heaven? How far can we here and now start to create the kind of local, national and international structures and systems that will not be out of place in the redeemed and resurrected Earth where Christ is all in all, reigning in love with his saints beside him?
Sadly I just don’t believe that human governments or societies can here and now fully reflect the kingdom of God, or that national and international politics can be conducted according to that framework. That can only happen when the hearts and minds of all their members and citizens have been changed, redeemed, made new. We can make steps towards it, but it will remain a distant aspiration. We can’t build the kingdom of heaven by human politics.
Incidentally, when Jesus controversially said ‘the poor you will always have with you’, I wonder if he also meant ‘self-interested politics you will always have with you’ – until the Kingdom comes. In this present age and present world system there will always be inequality, injustice and poverty because humanity, and human governments, will always operate first on self-interest. But one day the meek will inherit the earth and all this will be turned upside-down.
So unfortunately, and for the time being at least, I would probably say that questions like Britain’s membership of the EU may still have to be decided on more pragmatic and less ideological or theological grounds. But in the meantime, Christians (and others) can work their socks off to build a better world from the roots up, following the call of God to personal and communal transformation, preparing ourselves and the wider world for the day when love and mercy reign and Christ is all in all. The church has a huge role to play in all this, leading a quiet revolution to transform society from the ground up.
I may be completely wrong though – in one sense I hope I am. Maybe the church can and should work to influence political decisions – not in a self-interested or agenda-driven way, but by calling politicians back to their better natures, to look beyond self-interest or merely local interest to the good of the wider world and especially of the poor and marginalised.
Sorry Theo – we wouldn’t have any of these problems if dogs were in charge.
- And did those feet? Patriotism and the kingdom of God
- Should Christians stay out of politics?
- Consigning Christendom to history