"When it comes to human politics, Christians don't deal in the ideal. The kingdom belongs to Jesus."
What happens when Christians have different politics
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 politic 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 it seriously, and rightly so. Christians tend to hold their political convictions for reasons that emerge from their faith at some level.
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!
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. 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. 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.
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 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 right wing 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 is.
- Second, could we sound a bit less tribal? Our political vision is not to safeguard our place 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?
- 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? This is a sin against the truth, a bearing of false witness.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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? 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.
We live in an especially tense and fractious age. 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?
Heaven forbid, and God have mercy.