Friday, September 30, 2005


... not to mention the Church of England. Hmmn ... well, that's a bit too much to swallow in one stanza, I'll grant you. But they're among the topics strung together, or implied, by David Aaronovitch's panoramic BBC2 documentary about religion and politics on Wednesday night. He was essentially asking whether the 'faith agenda' isn't in danger of toppling democracy into demagoguery, and "turning voters into acolytes rather than citizens" -- the latter being one of the show's more effective sound bites. What the faith leaders said, especially about religiously-based education was rather revealing, and I expect I will return to this topic.

I've done a fairly detailed comment and response to the Aaronovitch programme for Ekklesia (God and the politicians - where next?), where we are also trying to refocus some of the important issues that this (admittedly rather scatter-gun) docu-commentary raised in relation to post-Christendom, ecclesial participation and power, and the distinction/convergence between civil society and the state as arenas of engagement. The constraints of the general media lean one towards a bit too much of a capital-letter approach, I find. But hopefully we've at least averted some alternate thinking.

Also relevant to 'God and politics' is the tenor and approach of the election briefing Ekklesia did in May 2005, Subverting the manifestos. All this took me back to an article I wrote two years ago called, not uncontroversially, 'Keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics'. I'm still reasonably happy with my summation there, which ends up as follows:

"My kingdom is not from this world", says Jesus. By which he does not mean that it makes no effective claim against worldly domination systems (it does), but that its authority and ethos come from God. As a Hebrew poet puts it: "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord."

The main political impact of the Gospel, therefore, is to call into being a company of odd and unlikely people who, wherever possible, refuse to play by the standard political rules (defend, divide, demand) because they owe allegiance to the 'Lamb who was slain' and not to the slayers of lambs.

Nowadays the church is a complex organisation as compromised as any other. But its origins are as ekklesia, a body called out to witness against 'the powers that be'. If Christian institutions have any useful future it is surely as harbingers of values, practices and structures that owe their shape and conviction to Jesus, rather than to other 'lords'?

This implies that the place for Christian politics is primarily in civil society, not ruling over people. It suggests that Christians should be the first to deny religious sanction to policies that fall radically short of the love of God, even when they are inextricably caught up in them. It militates against state religion and 'establishment'. It implies a particular interest in those who are excluded and damaged by the polis. It involves concern for others, not just for our own security.

So while Christians cannot sort out the problems of other religious communities in the public arena, they can certainly deal with their own. By showing how religion might be redeemed from wrongdoing they can also make a vital contribution to the wider political process.

That does not mean quietism, separatism or lack of realism. But it does rule out interventions in existing political systems of the kind that depend primarily on religious power and privilege, which support the manipulativeness of much political culture, which deny the efficacy of God's love to change us, which remain closed to the alternative vision of Jesus, and (perhaps above all) which leave the biblical texts that gave rise to the Gospel counter-story unredeemed by Jesus' categorical refusal of domination.

'Christian politics', if it exists as a particular category, is about Christians opening up a 'space for people to be people' (Jose Miguez Bonino) alongside others. This will be a space for creative resistance, re-valuation and construction: one which refuses to be accountable primarily to the distortions of power. Only a faith that is properly political in this sense can help keep the wrong kind of religion out of politics.

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