Tuesday, August 09, 2005


One of the scenes in last night’s Channel 4 documentary (Why Bomb London?) featured radical young Islamist activists leafleting a mosque. The narrator declared that the worshippers were being “encouraged to mix religion and politics”, as if this was some kind of inexplicable innovation.

Once again the assumptions of secular commentary struggle to comprehend the central components of religion. Fixed on the notion that faith is “a private matter”, they fail to notice that for most religious adherents across most of human history, such a concept has made little recognisable sense.

As far as Islam is concerned, for example, it is extremely difficult to separate out ‘the religious’ from ‘the secular’ – since Muslim belief, like all living belief systems, is about a way of life not just a set of abstract convictions.

The critical question, as always, is “which beliefs?” and “what kind of politics?”

The same question faces Christianity, too. In the USA, with some notable exceptions, the dominant political agenda is now significantly construed in terms of ‘the religious right’. Separation of state and religion may be a good idea, but even that is not enough to stop people’s influences being religiously shaped. Nothing is.

For both good and bad, religion in the political arena has to be faced and dealt with. To seek to ignore or suppress it isn’t a viable option. It is an act of denial – and one which can only benefit the forces of reaction, at the end of the day.

I have argued elsewhere about the responsibility of Christians and others to distinguish between a positive and a destructive political construal of religion. This is not a side issue; it is a matter of life and death. (I don't agree with Jim Wallis - see left - on everything; but he recognises this.)

Central to all ‘good faith’ (whether religious or secular in its origins) is the disavowal of domination. Plurality may not be a sufficient ground for the moral health of a political culture, but it is an essential component. The hegemony of any one force, party or interest group is the breeding ground of totalitarianism.

A key question for Christians, Muslims, Jews, humanists, liberals, conservatives (and others) is therefore: “what is it in my tradition and convictions that can support a genuinely plural political culture even while advocating for or against particular values, visions and approaches to life?”

I cannot answer that for others, but I can say that within the Christian faith, the case for plurality (and against ‘Christendom’, or other forms of religiously established political power) is the theological notion of a peoplehood founded on grace rather than privilege.

As Bishop Peter Selby pointed out in his book BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church, St Paul used the language of ‘adoption’ to signify the basis of the Christian community precisely in this way.

That is, he suggested that the ekklesia is there to witness to the idea that what creates a genuine community is not privilege based on ethnicity, gender, class, money, ‘purity’ (or any other human construct of exclusion), but the fact of God’s all-embracing, non-manipulative love.

So the conviction that “in Christ there is no longer Jew or gentile, male or female” is the root of a radical egalitarianism to which the politics of domination is anathema, both within and without.

In many of its earliest forms Christianity was seen as a threat to empire, precisely because its community life unravelled the conceits of imperial order. But this was a politics of compelling example, not of state compulsion.

To seek to follow the way, life and truth of Jesus Christ today is clearly to be political (in the sense of construing power as shared rather than hoarded) and subversive (in the sense of developing practices inimical to exploitation). But it is that which militates against, rather than for, a religiously restrictive politics in the public arena.

There may be a lot more to be said about the relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’, but to start somewhere else – in the way that Christian rightists, Zionists, Muslim radicals and even Blairites do – is a path to damnation.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

No comments: