Christianity and politics: the Blogger’s sermon
You may have noticed there hasn’t been much politics of late in this blog, and this is partly because the current situation is too depressing and infuriating to write about; partly because I don’t understand any of the economics or the gossip; and partly because everything possible is already being said. (Except that any new referendum should have a higher bar than 50% to change the result of 2016 – that’s my twopennorth.)
However, back in 2016, for the first and probably last time, I was asked to preach from a pulpit. The programme-planning committee had decided to have a sermon about Christianity and Politics, and I had drawn the short straw to preach it. Apologies to those who were there, and have heard what follows before.
The text says there were readings from Ecclesiastes and St Luke. I know I found it very difficult to find anything relevant (!), and I now can’t remember exactly what they were. Internal evidence suggests the Luke may have been chapter 21:1-4 (the widow’s mite), and Ecclesiastes was a shortened version of chapter 9:13- 10:20.
So, my sermon.
We are Christians, and therefore we are called to worship God. To love one another. To love our neighbours – those we see around us in need. To work conscientiously, whatever our work is. And to bear witness to the Lord Jesus in word and deed.
Christians have been called to do these things throughout the centuries. But in 2016, we have the chance to affect society, not just by praying for it, as we’ve always been able to do, but by our words, actions and votes.
There are many ways in which people can do this. I’ve listed some on the handout which is available afterwards – everything from signing an online petition, to fostering children or standing for the Council. If you know anyone who does any of these things, celebrate that fact. They are serving Christ out there, and this is mission.
In a way our Bible readings, from Ecclesiastes and St Luke, can’t tell us how to live in a democracy. These authors hadn’t that experience.
However. Many of you may have read a book called “The Lord of the Rings”. In this book, the character Eomer is very surprised to meet an elf and a dwarf, creatures that as far as he’s concerned ought to be legendary. His world is changing, and he asks in confusion, “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” And Aragorn replies, “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear.” As we might say, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”
So in a liberal democracy, just as in a dictatorship, we should behave with kindness, honesty, courtesy, responsibility, courage and trust in God, for these values do not change. We’ll come back to a few of them.
I’m probably not going to say anything new or that you haven’t already thought of. But I have a few points, perhaps discussion starters, and I’ve put them under four headings – all beginning with C. Celebration – Corruption – Criticism – Charity.
Recently, I received a small rectangular piece of card in the post. It invites me to walk down the road, on 5th May, to a Temporary Polling Station, ie a portacabin, on Kenilworth Avenue, and put a cross in pencil on a piece of paper, to say who I want to be Police Commissioner. I’ve had more exciting invitations, but I think I’ll go. As far as I’m concerned, voting is a privilege, it’s a duty, and it’s a pleasure.
The concept of voting was known in the ancient world, but as far as I’m aware none of the people of the Old and New Testaments elected their rulers, and they were not usually consulted in the making of laws. So let’s pause for a moment and think what a privilege we have. We can criticise the government, we can campaign for them to change their policies, and we can reject them.
Of course individual votes make little difference. If you want to make a big difference, you either become a dictator, or you join an organisation and campaign alongside other people. That’s the way it works.
By voting I recognise that I am part of society, that I make decisions for society along with millions of others, and that I take my share of responsibility for those decisions.
And the downside of voting is responsibility. We collectively choose our government, and elected governments sometimes do terrible things. I don’t believe that we can duck our share our country’s sins by refusing to vote.
To have a vote is to have a tiny tiny bit of power. Jesus commended the widow for the way she used her tiny tiny bit of money. We’ve been given this bit of power, just as we’ve been given some time, talents and money; and maybe God will one day ask us what we did with it. Did we put it in a hole in the ground? Did we use it only thinking of our own benefit, which party’s victory will give me a better economic future? Or did we think wider, and look at the interests of other families than our own, other professions than our own, or even other countries and other generations than our own?
So how do we live in a democracy? We celebrate and give thanks for the rights we have, and the people who serve our community in many ways. And we vote according to the unchanging values of kindness and responsibility: that is, we consider the interests of other people and other nations as well as our own.
However, in this democracy, there is also
There have been through history, and still are, some Christians who think you shouldn’t even vote, let alone join a political party. They think that the political world is so corrupt, so full of sin, that any association with it is dangerous and tainted.
They’ve got a point. It’s one the Biblical writers were well aware of. We live in a fallen world.
We have a reading from Ecclesiastes, a book that says many wise and cynical things about power and rulers. As in 9:17: “”The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of the ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good” and verse 10:19: “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.” They knew about bribery and sleaze in Bible times. They also knew about political murder, as when a man called Naboth was killed by the Queen so that her husband could appropriate his land (1 Kings 21).
We used to think our political system was clean in Britain, and doubtless it is compared to some. But our complacency has been shaken over the last few years. We’ve grown used to financial scandal, to evasions and manipulations of truth, to rumours of cover-ups of terrible crimes.
We’ve also grown used to broken election pledges, and to the ugly word “compromise”, when people give up one principle or aim they hold dear, in order to achieve another one, or in order to please people in their party who need to be pleased.
I think, if we’re honest, we see compromise and evasion in all aspects of life, including our own. I compromise all the time. I say “I don’t really approve of shopping on Sunday, but today I need milk.”
But we invest so much hope in politicians – because they encourage us to, because they have to to win our votes – that they’re not supposed to compromise. Or at least not on issues that we care about. And they’re not supposed to evade issues, or conceal mistakes, or lie in interview, even when the pressure on them to do so is huge.
Can anyone keep their hands clean? And the more we see that people in high places don’t always keep their hands clean, the more cynical we become. And the more hypocrisy becomes the norm.
How do we live in a democracy? We maintain the unchanging value of honesty in our own lives. We listen to both sides of any story about compromise or corruption. And we pray for our leaders, recognising the difficulty of their task.
But where necessary, we criticise them.
John the Baptist criticised the actions of Herod, and we all know how that ended for him. The writer of Ecclesiastes warns “do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” This is quite a scary, Big Brother-ish picture for such a long time ago.
In some countries today it is still very dangerous to criticise the government. But on the whole, not here.
I’d like to turn this round. The rulers of today don’t need a bird of the air to bring curses to them. Curses and abuse flock to their doors, to their TV screens, tablets and smartphones. There is a saying “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” If you’re in politics today, what is the “heat” that you’re expected to put up with? Recently in the US, a man called John Kasich got into trouble for a remark about women leaving their kitchens that he made at a rally in 1976. Instead of saying “wow, this man has been in public service for forty years”, the internet abused him for his lack of political correctness. Then he apologised, and was criticised for that too.
Being in politics means that the way you eat a sandwich, the idiotic things you did as a student, your odd-looking hair, your family, everything is up for abuse. Pictures of you will be on twitter with idiotic and cruel captions.
There is a balance here. We need to be able to laugh at those in power. Mock the Week and Private Eye and Twitter perform a useful function. But there’s still space for remembering that David Cameron and George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn are human beings with children. Anything you and I say on the internet about them can be read by their families.
How do we live in a democracy? We act according to the unchanging values of courage and courtesy; we think for a few seconds about what we say, post or laugh at, and we find out the facts first. But if necessary, we speak up.
Finally, we should be Charitable.
Many of you may know which party, if any, I support. But I hope you haven’t learned it from this sermon. I hope no one will ever stand in this pulpit and tell us which way to vote.
In this church there are people who vote Tory, and people who vote Labour, and I’m sure there are people who vote Lib Dem and Green and UKIP. I think this is fantastic. It’s something else to celebrate. Christians vote and campaign for different parties, but the church is the place to gather and maybe learn from each other. The church is where Labour voters learn that not all Tories hate the poor, and Conservative voters learn that not all socialists are planning to nationalise the corner shop. We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss politics and the European referendum, because we know we have a unity in Christ that means we can afford to be charitable and listen. Where else can you find this?
Our democracy is flawed. It almost has to be. I can perhaps imagine a perfect ruler, guided by God. Can you? But can you imagine a perfect electorate? An election where one person got 100% of the vote would not even be desirable, so disagreement is built into the system.
Because no one, and no Christian, I suggest, has a monopoly of political wisdom.
How do we live in a democracy? By God’s help, with love.
I’d like to finish by pointing out the power under God of a single ordinary individual. In our passage from Ecclesiastes we have the tale, perhaps based on fact, perhaps not, of a poor wise man who saved a city. We’re not told how. And then he was forgotten about, but not by God. Maybe someone should write that story.
Living in a democracy means valuing each person, their rights and their contribution, but at the same time recognising that we need to work together. We work together, and we put our trust in the One who holds the future, because that also does not change.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS Of course, when I preached the above, I had already written “The Tenth Province of Jaryar”, which is in part and intentionally the story of the poor wise man, slightly changing its plot from Ecclesiastes. It wasn’t appropriate to advertise this from the pulpit.