Do Faith and Politics mix?

Network Norwich columnist James Knight asks how far should Christians delve into the world of politics and what effects their influence might have.

Faith and PoliticsWE are now in the period of time that occurs once every few years in which the build up to a General Election yields various degrees of party politics and other forms of personal electioneering, with each party and each MP candidate looking to secure as many votes as possible in the hope of procuring a majority in Parliament.

Likewise in this period of time much of the general public (the electorate) focus greater attention on weighing up options, analysing performance-assessment and building up a case for a voting decision.

My central focus in this message is not about the above issues, it is about faith and politics and whether they are ideally mixed. There was a poll in my area a while back on the subject of whether Christians should get involved in the political arena. The results showed that in their opinion 59% thought Christians should keep out of politics, whereas 38% supported the view that Christians should be involved (with 3% saying Christians should sometimes get involved).

Does the pure make the impure clean;

or is the effect the reverse?

Given that when the Church/Christianity has been heavily involved in politics/governance the results have so often been a leavened or corrupt Church/Christianity, I wonder whether our deepest instinct is that the message of the cross is at its best when kept out of the political arena, where it is safer from corruptible influences and hegemonic thrall. It seems it’s not so much the case that politics can’t benefit from Christian influences, rather that Christianity is so often worse off once political influences are infused and soak into its material. One could argue the case that in many cases the Christian message has been served better when Christianity remained on the fringes of politics. Moreover, it is perhaps true that Jesus’ teaching regarding His Kingdom being 'not of this world' axiomatically confers onto the message a marked boundary line that is likely to be burred when Christianity and State become excessively commingled.

When one observes how Christ described His Kingdom and the narrow gate through which only a few enter, it does make you wonder whether the Kingdom and politics are a bit like water and electricity. Christians are hardly described in the New Testament as a force that predominates over the ruling authorities – after all, Christ used quite furtive descriptions of what we would be in the world; seeds among the bushes, salt of the earth, yeast in bread, sheep amongst wolves – His own metaphors describe not an overwhelming force but a stealthy influence on the world.

Even though we seem to be at our best when we are in the minority, we see from Christ’s own reaction to the authorities of the day that whenever possible battles against them should always be abounded with a message of love, grace and forgiveness. Some of the best believers in the history of time have found amazing strength and wisdom from having the rulers and authorities against them. And paradoxically, whenever the church has coalesced with the state the history has left a few black marks.

Salt and Light and Focus

Of course democracy allows us Christians to have our voice - and just because our Kingdom is not of this world, it does not mean that we ought to sit out of the political sphere, or not be an influence in the world of politics. But I think it is always important to remember the significance of Christ words - ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36) - and precisely why He said them; the revelation of God can only come to us when we realise that a relationship with Him depends upon our realisation that we will not find Him by looking directly into earthly things; we will find Him when we are ready to surrender ourselves to Him.
Some of the most intelligent people I know are in politics, and many are atheists or agnostics – their political motives stretch so far that they can barely see the simplicity of Christ’s message of salvation. But there is certainly no ‘direct’ interrelation between intelligence and stretching one’s aspirations and knowing God - the archetypal example of which is the thief on the cross who realised in one brief but significant moment what one needs to realise in order to have salvation; that Jesus Christ is the living God who suffered and died for us because of His love for us.

Sometimes it must seem that even with all the best will in the world Christians are always banging on about how senseless atheists are - but really it isn’t like that at all; at least I don’t feel that way. It is just that Christians know that non-believers require a step into Christ’s Kingdom before they can fully realise how glorious it is to know Him. When Christians speak in this way, they speak (or should speak) out of love and concern for those who do not know Christ; for those who are missing out on the glorious knowledge of a relationship with our Lord. And given that the Kingdom of God is not to be found in those situations and spheres of influence that deny or overlook the transcendent boundaries of its potential, it seems that as we are destined to be in the minority we will have to percolate our influence in more indirect ways – just as one might expect sheep to act amongst wolves.

Did Jefferson have it right?

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us – and that point seems to be compounded when we look at the whole history of human influence by those who had the Spirit of Christ – it really does seem that the heart when supported by reasoning and dedication is the most powerful weapon against oppressive governments. A good case in point is China in the 1960s and 1970s when, at their most persecuted, the Christians in China began a revival that may well be the biggest of its kind anywhere in the world (estimates are that it was a revival that topped the 50 million mark – praise God!). There may well have been some unhealthy influences in the mix, but much good emerged from the revival and God’s grace and love was evident in so many areas.

Although a significant proportion of the Western political law books and constitutions find their origins in the Bible, the more I read Jesus Christ’s words about His Kingdom the less perturbed I am by the church’s gradual separation from the state and the influences we can have outside of political bodies. And equally, the more I read His thoughts on what the church should be, the more anxious I am when I see it becoming overly mingled with politics. Perhaps the ‘wall of separation’ for which Thomas Jefferson made a template in his first amendment to the constitution of the United States is less of a barrier or roadblock to progression that we once thought. Perhaps the ‘wall’ is really a dam that can protect the church from the floods of the political swamp that is murky and unchristian in so many countries.

The heart of the matter is the heart is the matter

Having said all that, how are we supposed to curb our involvement in the political edifice when we have such an important message to deliver within its walls? The trouble with those outside the Kingdom is that so often men believe that they can change the world by themselves; they believe that given enough time they can create a civilised, orderly environment where peace and prosperity abound. But why are we to presume that such a world would be any better than the world we live in now? Particularly given that many of us feel rather like the Greek beggar Diogenes, who walked through the streets of Athens carrying a lamp in the daytime looking for an honest man. Like Diogenes many of us are tired of spin over substance, and we believe that virtue is better revealed in action and not simply in theory.

Moreover, as I said, even if we could get on the road to create a civilised, orderly environment where peace and prosperity abound – who is to say it would be all that much better? Anthony Burgess argues in his novel A Clockwork Orange that it would be a world where something very precious is missing, and all my experiences tell me that he is right. Perhaps it is here that we have uncovered the true secrets of the Kingdom of God and the influence we can have. If it is in our hearts, it can be placed into the hearts of others.
The political world must, of course, be free to do all the good that it can do. The same is true of us Christians; let us thank God that we live in a country where we have a right to speak and the freedom to be a city on a hill. Whatever we do, it need not be in conflict with political progress – after all, it is not the progress that we are challenging, it is in the hearts of those where the Kingdom is absent that we want to be an influence.

James Knight is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.

The article first appeared in Network Norwich and is published with permission. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Christians Together. They are intended to stimulate constructive debate.

James Knight, 15/02/2010