August 21, 2022

Mixing Politics and Church Well

Congregational Choice Sermon Topic preached by Mr Jazz Wilson

1 Samuel 8:4-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3; John 19:1-11 

A Sermon Preached by Jazz Wilson

Sunday 21st August

Mixing Politics & Church Well

1 Samuel 8:4-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3; John 19:1-11 

Before I begin, I must confess to you all that I voted for Count Binface in the London Mayoral Election last year. Formerly known as Lord Buckethead, Count Binface is a satirical politician who wears a cape and has a bin on his head. Some of his policies include:

  • Bringing back Ceefax
  • Nationalising model railways
  • Proroguing Jacob Rees-Mogg
  • Finishing Crossrail;
  • Banning loud snacks from theatres (he’s a man of the people); and
  • Moving the hand dryer in the men’s toilet at Uxbridge’s Crown and Treaty pub to ‘a more sensible position’

I share my confession with you because it is important to disabuse yourself from the notion that I will be able to tell you much about how you might mix Politics and Church. I am a very middle of the road person when it comes to politics. I am not a Tory basher, but neither will you find me hanging out in left-wing bookshops all that much. I have friends who are very strong socialists, communists even, and friends who voted to leave the European Union and have quite strong views about immigration and policing and that sort of thing. I’m a little bit in the middle. Which makes me very Anglican I feel there’s something about being Anglican, via media, about being middle-of-the-road, which means that you become skilled in the art of adopting whichever views are the least likely to court controversy. I make sure my opinions are ambiguous enough to include most any viewpoint, and are popular enough for me to be accepted by my peers.

But where does that leave me with trying to give you any kind of information about what Christianity or the Bible says about how Church and Politics mix? Well I’ve chosen the readings this morning for good or ill. And let me just walk through them and illustrate to you why it was I thought these readings could give us a little bit of an idea where we might begin. So let’s start with the book of Samuel. What we have in this situation is the Israelites coming up to Samuel and saying they want a king; they would like a monarchy to rule over them. Up until that point they had judges who were appointed by God. The elders have approached Samuel and basically said ‘you’re getting on, Samuel. You’re quote old and we’re going to need somebody to lead us soon and we really don’t rate your sons. They don’t follow God in the way that you do.’ The people were unhappy with the choices they had before them. But what becomes apparent is that the real reason why they want a king is because they were feeling insecure about the fact that every nation around them has a king, a monarchy, and they do not. They are worried that these other nations around them might invade their territory. And that would be a problem. There were two reactions to this: you have those who are saying ‘look, we are all forgetting about the fact that God is meant to be providing us with leadership. We do not need a king!’ And others saying that, for political reasons, they ought to have a king; it will provide security and peace.

When Samuel then expresses his disappointment to God, he tells Samuel ‘It is not you they reject; they are rejecting me as their king’ (1 Samuel 8:7), a response which we might take at first glance to be God siding with the anti-royalists.  But then, critically, God says this to Samuel. He says to ‘obey the voice of the people’.

So we have a real ambiguity here. We have one statement saying: ‘they have rejected me – and I think that is a clearly negative thing from God’s point of view. But he’s also saying to Samuel to obey the voice of the people: ‘if they want a king, let them have a king’.

Later, we come to Jesus’s ministry. Jesus is challenged with an interesting question. He is asked whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. A denarius is held up to Jesus and they challenge him: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?  And Jesus says this: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:15-22). Now that is a perplexing reply, but what could it mean?

A popular interpretation might be that Jesus is effectively dividing up the world of the spiritual and the world of government or the political realm. But in order to look at it that way, we would have a real problem. Because the political consequence would be that we should simply obey the government when it comes to politics, and obey God when it comes to religion. But if those two things ever come into conflict, we will have trouble. It is unlikely Jesus would have meant this. In Psalm 24, for example, we are told that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God is not on a par with Caesar; rather, God is above Caesar. And that is clarified later when Jesus replies to Pilate by saying that ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ (John 19:11).

So that is quite interesting that he is there with Pilate saying ‘yes, I understand that you have authority. Yes, your authority is legitimate. Your governance is legitimate. However, that power was given to you by God.’ There is a limit to the power that Pilate has.

Now, the earliest sign we have of a confession in the Early Church was this: ‘Jesus is Lord’. It was saying that Jesus is sovereign; Jesus as a representation of the invisible God is Lord. But that simple phrase in the time of the Roman Empire would have had political consequences. Because by saying ‘Jesus is Lord’, what you are saying is that you do not worship Caesar. Instead, Caesar is a mere servant of God. So even a mere confession that Jesus is Lord itself has political ramifications. Politics and Religion cannot so easily be disentangled.

So, what does this all say about what kind of politics we should have? In terms of political system: very little. Although we are given authority, or power, to create political systems, the authority is not our own: it comes from God. So there is a limit, but it is legitimate. And just as we have free will to make mistakes or cause harm, so too our political structures are capable of error, harm, and injustice.

But just because the Bible does not directly praise any political system over another, as such, that does not mean it has nothing to say that entails political consequences.

Let’s think about, for example, the concept of having equal human worth. We are told in the creation narrative that we all descend from one family. We are all somehow interconnected. The Christian story also talks about the fact that we all sin. All have fallen short of the glory of God, and also that all of us require redemption. We also see that Jesus’s ministry was very inclusive. It did not matter if you were rich or poor, it didn’t matter what gender you were, it didn’t matter if you were a fellow citizen or a foreigner, and it included not only the respectable in society, but quite frequently, it’s concentrated on those who are socially excluded.

The same conception of equality pertains to political power. The Bible does not give us any kind of argument for have a representative democracy. And even the idea that ‘the people are sovereign’ should be challenged because only God is sovereign. But what we frequently see in the Bible is a rich history of egalitarianism. Take the book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a covenant that has been voluntarily entered into by people who are grateful to God, and a gracious God who wants to love his creation. And the heart of God’s love is threaded through the laws in Deuteronomy. It’s a love for the disadvantaged. Consider the jubilees, where every certain number of years you would see the cancellation of debts and everyone was brought back to some kind of equity, a sort of material equality as such.

It is interesting to view that through the lens we have now. We are good at saying how equality sits at the heart of our social or legal agenda, but at the same time it seems like we do very little to adjust the inequality when it comes to poverty and material deprivation. If we are called to reflect in our politics the type of ministry that Jesus offered, then it seems like we have to do a great deal for those who are disadvantaged, both socially and materially. However, what that entails is the idea that our government has to be large enough to meet the demands of this kind of political programme. But that’s hard to compare with the Old Testament examples in Deuteronomy as you had a small government combined with material equality. So we have a question about how it is we can pursue any kind of agenda that might be informed by Christian beliefs of equality without building a state that is unlimited in its scope.

It is also hard because Christian history itself does not tell a consistent story of righteous people of faith standing up to injustice. Christians are just as susceptible to sleepwalking into supporting unjust political structures as anyone else.

Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who led Church opposition to the Nazis during the rise of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer was critical of other Christians who voluntarily promoted the racist policies of National Socialism. Yet as early as 1934, it is estimated that only 20% of church pastors supported Bonhoeffer’s, and the Confessing Church’s, stance against making the Führer the head of the Church. Bonhoeffer’s refusal to compromise carried a great cost: imprisoned for 18 months, then taken to a concentration camp, and finally hanged just three weeks before Berlin was liberated by Allied forces.

Like Bonhoeffer, the late Desmond Tutu was another Christian whose views went against the prevailing opinion of his time and place. When he spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, he was subjected to considerable abuse, much of which came from Christians. For Tutu, having a Christian faith meant there were political consequences for his beliefs: ‘the question is not whether religion and politics should mix’, he said, ‘but what sort of religion and what kind of politics’.

What sort of religion? What kind of politics? These are the two questions I cannot answer for you. I cannot tell you what your Christian life means for you in the political realm. I cannot tell you which party to vote for. But I might be able to gesture in the right direction by talking about the kind of life Jesus leg and the types of trajectories of political values we might want to look at.

As I was preparing for this talk, I read an old sermon by Martin Luther King Jr entitled ‘The Transformed Nonconformist’. He was living in an age of frustration because in the southern states of America they still had policies that separated blacks from whites. Part of his concern in this sermon was that wanted to inspire people into action. He wanted white, middle class Christians in particular to feel uncomfortable with their lack of action. He felt that their lack of action against racism, their conformity, meant that they were not prepared to suffer abuse from their peers in the name of the Christian faith in which they allegedly believed. For King, he could not believe that Christianity could defend this idea of the inequality of race.

But it is hard to go against the tide. When people around us support a particular idea, we tend to take on their views as the path of least resistance. And as I joked earlier, even as an Anglican I find it easy to accommodate rather than to challenge.

Here is a quote that has kept me up at night. It is from the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, and he said this in 1953. This is a man who lived under two oppressive regimes, firstly under Nazi occupation and later in the Soviet bloc under Stalin. ‘Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone.’ He was trying to work out how it could be that the people around him who he considered to be good and learned people could just blindly obey the political structures of oppression they were living under.

Although some of us may think that since we are followers of Christ, we should keep our religious beliefs separate from our politics, we will become strangers to Christ if we pretend not to see the oppression and suffering of the common people. There are countless people who hide the light of their wisdom underneath a bushel for fear of being judged, alienated, or – in our increasingly unsophisticated age of political debate – misunderstood.

When St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, the context was under a Roman Empire that was incomparable in scope and which seemed as though it would continue for all eternity. It is in this context that he writes, ‘While people are saying “There is peace and security”, then sudden destruction will come upon them’ (1 Thessalonians 5:3). Our own political structures and institutions, which for so long have given many people prosperity, freedom, and peace, cannot be taken for granted. They may not last. Sudden destruction could just as easily come upon us. If we want to keep them, if we want to improve them, then we might want to consider what sort of religion, and what sort of politics, we think is worth fighting for. Amen.

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