Michael Jensen writes: Christians disagree about politics. Sometimes vehemently. Even when there is substantial agreement between them about orthodoxy in Christianity, there is disagreement about politics.
This disagreement has been greatly exacerbated in recent years – partly because politics itself has become more and more divided. But also, this has come about because certain political movements have more or less successfully co-opted Christians to their cause.
Now, this is not the same as saying ‘Christians disagree about curtains’ or ‘Christians disagree about music’ – because the political involves some vision of the good—of justice enacted in a social setting, of the best way for human beings to live a prosperous and peaceful life together. So, when we disagree about these things, we cannot always easily say that this disagreement can be simply set aside. We take politics seriously, and rightly so.
Christians tend to hold their political convictions for reasons that emerge from their faith at some level—or at least, they feel that they do.
But there’s a vital theological principle which I believe we must rediscover here, on both the left and the right. At this is what my former teacher Professor Oliver O’Donovan used to call ‘the imperfectability of human judgement’.
What this means is that, when it comes to human politics, Christians don’t deal in the ideal. We are not utopians. The kingdom belongs to Jesus. Salvation is found in no-one else. The business of human politics in the midst of history is about holding back as best we can the sweeping tide of human evil. Government is a practical, even pragmatic, art—often the art of deciding between the lesser of many evils, with incomplete or inaccurate knowledge. Human rulers are as sinful as those they govern. Often, we will reel in horror as we realise the damage we do to one another in the business of governing, even with the best of intentions.
But there’s no alternative, this side of heaven, to government. Government can be evil, but anarchy is worse—especially for the most vulnerable. We have to have government, and for that we need politics. And for that, we need politicians. As voters, we need to weigh up the choices before us and choose which one will do less damage, we think, given our certain ignorance of all the facts. Ultimately, our hope in all of this is the judgement of God in Christ—that he will bring his perfect justice, and that he will be merciful to us for our mistaken and sinful judgements.
Now, I don’t mean that there’s no vision of justice and peace given to us, or that we must retreat into a kind of quietist huddle, all the while washing our hands of the blood of our neighbours. We are not to walk on by on the other side! We cannot, as some churches have done, hide behind some reading of Romans 13 which absolves us of all responsibility. On the contrary, and heaven forbid! The hope that salvation belongs to Jesus gives us every motivation to anticipate, where we can and as we are able, his perfect peace upon the earth.
This was the insight of those who signed the Barmen Declaration in the 1930s in Nazi Germany. Only Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. And this means that no other human being is. There is no other judge, only those who are subject to judgement. There is no other perspective that is unblemished; no other eye that sees without the cataracts of self-interest. Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way, just after the Second World War:
Actually no nation or individual, even the most righteous, is good enough to fulfil God’s purposes in history. Jesus’ own conception of history was that all men and nations were involved in rebellion against God and that therefore the Messiah would have to be, not so much a strong and good ruler who would help the righteous to be victorious over the unrighteous, but a “suffering servant” who would symbolize and reveal the mercy of God; for only the divine forgiveness could finally overcome the contradictions of history and the enmity between man and God.
We must decide. We must judge. We must not avoid the call of our brother’s and sister’s blood from the ground. But as we do so, we should never be unaware of our own embeddedness within the brokenness of human history. We must have enough wisdom to realise that we are prone to moral blindness and continue to pray for the Spirit’s help.
So here’s some things I would like to see from Christians as we navigate politics, especially in this divided age.
First, I would like to see much less entanglement in different forms of politics. This is, my brothers and sisters, a terrible trap! We are being played for fools by the right and the left. It is a massive distraction from the proclamation of, and living out of, Jesus as Lord, which is our real politics!
The Christian church is not a means for delivering a conservative or a progressive political agenda.
A sign that you are entangled is when you never disagree with a particular vision of politics. This is a form of idolatry, in which Jesus is not in fact Lord but rather some idea of politics, or some beloved leader, is.
Second, could we sound a bit less tribal and defensive? Our political vision is not to safeguard our place in the world—or in the West—out of fear, but to seek justice and flourishing for all because of our hope. Why does so much of our political talk sound so self-serving? Christians of all people ought to have the confidence—the hope—to speak to matters that aren’t about our self-preservation.
Third, since the business of political judgement is complicated and depends on necessarily incomplete knowledge, could we not be so gullible? Could we please not get our ‘information’ from such shonky sources—the deeply biased website, or the rantings of this or that pundit? This is a sin against the truth, a bearing of false witness.
We live in an age not simply of lies, but (to use a euphemism) of verbal manure. We’ve gone way beyond simple lies! A liar at least acknowledges the category of the truth, but in the 21stcentury I am not sure that we believe that there is such a thing as the truth that we can lie about anymore. We trade in conspiracy theories. We complain about the bias in the media when it is against us, but trust completely unreliable sources that have no regard for facts. We want entertainment rather than news.
As a Christian: I am pleading with you to pause before you next share a link in support of your views. The virus of untruth is perhaps even more devastating than COVID19. Or, we might say: COVID19 has succeeded partly because we are so prone to share misinformation and to believe it. Christians must be better than this.
Fourth, could we be the ones who seek to find common ground with those who apparently oppose us? Can we not say that justice for the weak and for the poor and the vulnerable is a given of a Christian political vision—even as we may disagree about how to get there? I am nostalgic for the days when this used to happen in the political world more often.
A particularly nasty dynamic of the current political scene is the way in which special ideological interests co-opt good causes to their own purposes, as if they can have a proprietorial right over, say, family values, or racial equality, or anti-poverty, or the environment. Does this mean that we are to be silenced when we see rampant injustice, or—heaven forbid—be thought to be its advocates? This is the satanic consequence of division: when Christians are silent about (for example) racial inequality because they fear being in league with some ratbag element that supports the same cause.
Fifth, could we remember that political discussion is about what is best for here and for now? We make decisions in the midst of history. And we, the church, stand in different places at different times. Sometimes we’ve had to accept political power and administer it. Sometimes we’ve been denied it. Things may look different in a liberal democracy than in theocratic Saudi Arabia than in medieval Spain. Christian politics takes discernment of the ‘signs of the times’.
Sixth, and so: could we all be a little less dogmatic and more curious about politics? Why not be curious about why the other person disagrees so profoundly? Why not patiently respond to the person who inquires into your views? Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is an eye-opening account of how and why people of good will disagree—perhaps the disagreement lies more in personality differences than anything? And maybe, just maybe, your political preferences are more about your personality than about your faith after all.
Revd Dr Michael Jensen was an English teacher, then studied theology in Oxford before teaching at Moore College, Sydney. Since 2013 he has been Rector at St Mark’s, Darling Point in Sydney, Australia. He has written a number of books including ‘Between Tick and Tock’, ‘Is Forgiveness Really Free?’ and ‘My God, My God – Is it possible to believe anymore?’ He is married to Catherine and they have four children, a cocker spaniel and a domestic medium hair cat.
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