In my latest podcast, I mentioned that I had recently come under some criticism for the way that Sacred Musings is getting political. In particular, some friends who had been supporting me for the last year or so stopped their support because they believed me to be moving towards a divisive political ideology.
I suspect they would not be the only ones to think that Sacred Musings is divisive. I mean, politics is kind of divisive by definition, isn’t it? So why get involved in it, when it might put people off hearing about Jesus? I have previously argued that Christians are not politically left or right, and also that Christians should be very careful about getting involved. So, why have I now decided to get involved?
My aim in this post is to spell out why I think Sacred Musings is important and why I believe it is right to be ‘political’ in the way that I do.
Jesus is political
The first thing to say is that you can’t say “Jesus is Lord” without making a political statement. We’ve lost some of the force of this in the 21st century, but in the early days of the church this was a dangerous thing to say: in the days of the Roman empire, they used to say “Caesar is Lord”. Saying “Jesus is Lord” means that Caesar is not Lord – and not every worldly authority takes kindly to that kind of thing. (Try saying it in North Korea, for example).
Saying “Jesus is Lord” means that everything in the world needs to be submitted to Christ’s Lordship. Abraham Kuyper famously said: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus does not cry out, ‘This is mine!’” (Interestingly, Kuyper was Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905, as well as being a theologian.)
What this means is that Christ has something to say about everything in our lives, not just the spiritual stuff: he cares about government policies as well as personal morality. This is not to say we can manufacture utopia by right government policy, but that Christians can and indeed should have something to say about government policies.
A few months ago I wrote about what John Stott said about these things, and I think his words are completely true:
It should be plain from these quotations that the One we preach is not Christ-in-a-vacuum, nor a mystical Christ unrelated to the real world, nor even only the Jesus of ancient history, but rather the contemporary Christ who once lived and died, and now lives to meet human need in all its variety today. To encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence.John Stott
So, Jesus is relevant to everything. That’s the theological reason to be ‘political’. But there is another more practical reason why it’s important to get involved in politics.
Everything is political
The second reason to be political is that it’s impossible to avoid at the moment: everything has become politicised now. Even football – footballers have been ‘taking the knee’ before games, and England football managers have been preaching about racism!
Politics is no longer about the best way to run a country. It has become as much about values as anything, and the use of power to effect positive change. In fact, it’s become very religious in nature: it wants to save us from our ‘sins’ – be that racism, or carbon emissions, or any number of other issues. Politics has become preachy. And I believe it is my duty, and that of every Christian, to ensure that the messages being preached are right – we need to judge it by what the Bible says. (As I hope people do with my preaching).
Politics is no longer about whether you believe in big government or small government, or the welfare state, or free healthcare, or anything like that. It’s nothing like traditional Conservative vs traditional Labour arguments of old. The new, modern politics is there in every sphere of life, preaching its values to us. Whether we like it or not, Christians need to analyse what is being said to see whether it is in accord with the Scriptures and Christian teaching.
To say nothing is to say something
Let me quote once again from John Stott:
What is certain is that the pulpit has political influence, even if nothing remotely connected with politics is ever uttered from it. For then the preacher’s silence endorses the contemporary socio-political conditions, and instead of helping to change society and make it more pleasing to God, the pulpit becomes a mirror which reflects contemporary society, and the Church conforms to the world. The neutrality of the pulpit is impossible.
That last sentence is a killer: “the neutrality of the pulpit is impossible”. As we started out with, saying “Jesus is Lord” is a political statement. You can’t say “Jesus is Lord” without saying anything about the problems in society. If you don’t ever relate the Bible to what’s happening in society, you are doing people a disservice!
Politics has become very contentious today. But if Christians and especially Christian preachers do not speak on contentious issues, people will think those issues are either neutral (i.e. the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about them), or – worse – think that the Bible is on their side. Because politics is all about values today, so many people believe they are on the side of goodness – it’s those bad people over there who are the immoral ones. If Christian ministers do not speak into that situation, we will not challenge people in the areas they need to be challenged.
When the church looks like the world…
In my latest podcast, I summarised Mike Ovey’s address from GAFCON II, which I think is a hugely insightful deconstruction of the root problem of the Western world. He talked about how the church doesn’t talk any more about repentance, except for certain sins:
Now I want to be careful as I say that, because Western churches do repent of some sins, the legacy of racism, the history of colonialism, sins of social injustice within their cultures. But what fascinates me is that these are sins that the world recognises as sins in Western culture. It’s very safe in Western culture to say that racism is a sin. Very safe to repent of it. It even wins a certain admiration from the world.
It’s always difficult to be sure about people’s motives, but when western churches repent of the history of colonialism and the murder of indigenous peoples, are we doing it because it is offensive to God or because it is – rightly – offensive to the world? I think the acid test of whether our repentance is really towards God is when God and the world disagree. If the benchmark of what counts as sin and requires repentance is really God’s will, then we will repent ourselves and call for repentance when God has said something is sinful, and will do so even when the world says otherwise. I very much fear that we fail this acid test, because I’m afraid that where we do repent, we repent of the things that the world finds offensive. As we all know too painfully, things that the Western world doesn’t find offensive, like sexual sins, the Western churches are increasingly disinclined to condemn. Repentance like that: is it really turning to God, or acknowledging the world?
Mike observed that, when the church publicly repents, it repents of things which are offensive to the world. In fact, he even says that repenting of certain sins wins you a certain admiration from the world. It makes me think of Jesus’ words from Luke 6:26: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” When the world is congratulating you for the sins you are repenting of, one has to wonder what is going on. Especially when one is not saying anything about issues which the world does not think of as sins.
This brings me to the bishops of the Church of England.
Bishops and politics
Recently, the entire house of bishops wrote an open letter to the government condemning the plan to process asylum seekers in Rwanda. They said: “this policy should shame us as a nation… This immoral policy shames Britain”. Rarely have the bishops spoken with one voice for an ethical matter like this! They didn’t speak like that against same-sex marriage, which is much more simple and straightforward in the Bible. They don’t speak like that against abortion, or about victims of grooming gangs. Only the Rwanda plan caused them to come together to talk about morality.
So why should the bishops think it appropriate to speak on this issue, but not the others?
What’s interesting is that the friends I mentioned who contacted me were proud of the bishops for speaking out about the Rwanda plan. I wonder by what measure the bishops were to be commended for speaking out, whereas I was to be condemned for speaking out on other issues in Sacred Musings. Why was this issue acceptable, whereas the issues I speak about unacceptable?
CofE bishops certainly don’t shrink back from being political: over the last few years they’ve talked about Brexit, climate change, arms dealing, raising taxes to help the poor, institutional racism, and so on. All of which are political issues, and even divisive to some extent. In the case of the Rwanda plan, according to polls I believe it was about 50-50 support / oppose. We know that Brexit has been hugely divisive, but Justin Welby didn’t mind nailing his colours to the mast: he once said the EU was “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire”.
It seems to me the root problem here is that the issues I speak out about go against the grain: they are not the kind of issues which will get you a pat on the back from the media, or make front page news. In particular, I often speak against ‘experts’, which makes me appear like a loony to a culture where ‘experts’ are idolised. The issues the bishops speak out on are never the kind of issues which you’re not allowed to speak about.
I think many Christians today think that whatever the Guardian thinks, or whatever the general left-liberal viewpoint, is basic Christian common sense. This is why bishops speak out about issues which might be approved by the Guardian, but not on traditional Christian issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. The church has simply baptised the secular morality of the age without question.
Bringing it into the open
What I’m trying to do with Sacred Musings is not put myself six feet above contradiction. In fact, I saw on Twitter earlier that someone who had different political views to me had been engaging with the podcast – something I welcome.
The point is, by exposing your ideas to scrutiny, you can debate them and refine them. By making them open, and in particular trying to base them on the Bible, we can come to the truth together. This does require bravery, because it means talking about things we don’t always want to talk about. At the same time, it will be good for all of us because I believe when we discuss and debate these things openly, our ideas improve.
In fact, this is exactly what it says in the book of Proverbs:
As iron sharpens iron,Proverbs 27:17
so one person sharpens another.
I found it telling that in the original message, my friends did not actually deal in any of the arguments that I made. They did not show where I was wrong from the Bible, or even where I had made logical / factual errors. (I’m sure I have made some). If they had, we could have talked about it.
And this is the problem: when you don’t submit your own opinions to the Bible, you end up thinking your opinions are basic, common-sense, ‘correct’ opinions, whereas other people are being divisive. “We are simply following common-sense Christian views… your opinions are the divisive ones.”
This is why I feel compelled to continue with Sacred Musings. I feel that we have lost our way as a society, we have largely lost our Christian instincts, and even Christians have succumbed to secular thinking. As Harry Blamires lamented way back in the 1960s:
‘The Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history … As a thinking being the modern Christian has succumbed to secularization.’
I want to help us rebuild a Christian mind. And if that means coming to conclusions which some people think are ideologically offensive, then so be it. I only ask that, if you disagree, you make a better argument rather than simply calling me wrong.