In light of today’s General Election and the anxiety and passion it seems to have brought, I’m taking a break from working through my series on holiness to repost some reflections on how to be Christian in a time of political conflict. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2.
The Immediate Problem
I know it is possible to romanticise the past – Disraeli and Gladstone tore strips off each other, Churchill was incredibly rude, St Nicholas allegedly punched Arius at the Council of Nicea (OK, that one’s probably justified), there was intense social conflict during Thatcher’s Britain, and so on.
Even so, it seems to me that after many years of (relative) consensus (Iraq notwithstanding) we live in an age when an increasingly strident and polarised politics has spread through a wider body of the public. In Britain this has become particularly acute during the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and reached its zenith when ‘Leave’ unexpectedly won, 52:48, a victory margin of 1.3m votes.
Some people are afraid. They are afraid of the future, of a thousand decisions and consequences outside our control, of the ‘other’ (whether foreign or domestic).
Some people are angry. They are angry at the powerful talking down to and threatening the powerless, at having been ignored for many years, at decisions being taken with which they do not agree, at perceived attacks on their ‘tribe’.
These trends are made more pronounced, and unrelenting, as tools such as Facebook or Twitter build to generate a sense of guilt or shame, resulting in moral pressure to conform to the mood of our extended network of ‘friends’.
I don’t think this type of behaviour is limited to one group or the other – there is wisdom in Paul’s citation of the Psalms:
‘None is righteous, no, not one.’
In the midst of all of this I want to ask how we can respond as Christians.
- What are our duties to the society in which we live?
- What are our duties to God?
- How should we behave towards our neighbours and opponents?
Incidentally, I’m not going to address the politics of the referendum itself. I know Christians and people of good will who voted on both sides and I can see good and reasonable arguments, consistent with Christian faith, for having voted Out or Remain (and I’m not going to say how I voted). Rather, I am concerned here with how we should live in the light of what has happened. In doing so we are going to examine our citizenship, our service, and our security (I know – awesome alliteration…)
First, how should we understand our citizenship – what is our role in the society in which we live?
Christians have often disagreed about how we should relate to the world around us, particularly in the (historically very unusual) situation where ordinary people play a part in choosing their government and directing its policy. There is a spectrum of views from withdrawing from it to engaging in it at least as deeply if not more so than others with a view to transforming it. It is worth digging into the theology of this more if you have time.
For most purposes, and for most people, however, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
We can gain some instruction from St Peter’s instructions to the earliest Christians. These are people living in the midst of a pan-national empire whose rulers were brutal and remote.
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.
Peter addresses them as if they are foreigners, guests within the society that they live. They were not really foreigners and exiles, of course; nevertheless, they should regard themselves as such. Peter explains that they should be interested in the good of that society and should submit to its rulers where it does not conflict with their worship of God. Moreover they should actively try to do good for the country in which they live.
However, they should never forget that it is not their true home. They are guests, temporarily staying there. As such, the political state in which they live did not command their highest loyalty and did not have the primary claim on their attention or their energy.
Applying this to our lives, we should be good guests in the UK (or wherever you are), but guests nonetheless, not forgetting our true allegiance and first concern is the kingdom of God. We should focus on loving and serving God and loving others irrespective of who they are or what they think.
- some Christians may well be specifically called to a life engaging with high politics – they should do what they believe God is calling them to;
- the rest of us should be informed, should pray and should vote according to our consciences; but
- we should not become overly-immersed or caught up in the success of a particular political idea or movement.
We should remember that the kingdom of God, and God’s work in this world, does not depend upon politicians (whether of the left or right) or the success of a political movement (however large or apparently significant) but on the Spirit of God and on the faithful and loving actions of Christians within their own spheres of influence.
We are not, ultimately, citizens of this country but of heaven; our loyalty is not, ultimately, to any particular person, party, institution or cause, but to God in heaven.
Tomorrow we consider how we should behave in the face of conflict.
 Rom. 3:10.
 1 Pet. 2:11-17