It is quite clear that Christians ought to be engaged in politics. However, it can be difficult to take the abstract idea that we are to be engaged, and apply that to the politics of today. Below I outline what I think are five core features of our political climate and the reasons why Christians should see these as an opportunity to engage and speak of a better politics.
Politics is binary
The culture and society around us have adopted a mentality of you are either with us or against us. There is little common ground and this flows through our political discourse and campaigns. People are quick to discount those in opposite groups and our social media is largely an echo chamber where people follow those who reinforce their own views. We don’t treat those on the opposite side of the argument with the same grace and understanding we show our own.
This leads to bitter tribal conflicts, oppressive and abusive treatment of those we disagree with, and a pandering to extremes. Healthy debates about important topics such as ‘what it means to be human’ are restricted for fear of offending. Politics is binary – you are with us and against us. The art of disagreeing but respecting is increasingly rare.
Politics is angry
In part a consequence of the binary politics above, politics is deeply angry. Failure to discuss and respectfully disagree makes politics a place of judgement. This can be seen in the anger expressed against figures such as Trump. This is coupled with a series of scandals in British politics from the expenses crisis in 2011 to the historic bullying and harassment scandals of Parliament. Add to the mixer topics as large and as significant as Brexit, climate change, and a global pandemic and there are many reasons people are finding to be angry.
Many of us feel disappointed and saddened by this culture but if we are honest we are just as culpable of stirring up trouble, slandering opponents, and reacting with fury.
Politics is fearful
One of the reasons for this binary and angry politics is that people are scared and fearful. There is much to be afraid of – from climate change to the threat of COVID-19, from the lack of social care for the elderly in our society to the rise of China. The world seems deeply unstable and scary.
Therefore, we have created a politics of fear. The use of the word emergency is rife and we genuinely feel we need to address all these issues. At the same time, we fear those that disagree. We fear they are oppressive, ignorant, bigoted. Resultantly, our love for free speech is limited and muted as we seek to respond to the challenge of fear by ignoring views that we dislike.
Politics is righteous
The political culture that exists presently is one that cares deeply about morality and justice. Take for example the climate agenda and the emphasis on personal responsibility to reduce consumption and reorientate lifestyles to a more sustainable model.
Although a largely positive quality, this can reaffirm the binary and angry culture by creating a distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. It also encourages an unforgiving culture by which no one can maintain the standards required for righteousness.
Politics is hopeful
This might sound unlikely given the above points and the general atmosphere in Britain. However, people still see politics as a force for good and that is part of the reason for the despair – people feel politicians are not acting in the interest of the common good but this does not diminish the general perception of what politics is for (or at least should be for).
People still view politics as a means to correct injustices and advocate prosperity and equality. There are new political movements making a real impact on British politics with the ongoing impact of Extinction Rebellion and the formerly significant Brexit Party some key examples. Brexit has also raised a plethora of issues to be addressed which if done well can restructure the British political system, increase engagement, and rebalance the franchise towards the vulnerable and voiceless in society.
There are reasons for hope, whilst we might struggle to see them at the moment, across the political spectrum there are radical changes underway presenting chances for positive change.
What then are the opportunities and reasons to engage with the politics of today? Well, I think there are two reasons; the first being we have a profound opportunity to demonstrate the gospel to a world that has lost sight of it and its liberating qualities. Secondly, the positive message of the gospel has a unique opportunity to be part of the transformative changes that are either underway or required to bring politics back to a ‘good’ place.
In a world that is binary we, as representatives of the Church, can be pointing to a God who is united in nature and who unites his people. We should be living out the reconciliation of enemies depicted in Ephesians 2 and living as a people united in a world which rejects at face value. We can point to a creator God who gives every person intrinsic worth and calls us to treat one another with dignity as a result.
We are not called to be an angry people but gentle (Matthew 5) and for this reason alone we have an opportunity to be distinctive and live out the gospel. Being gentle whilst others are angry and aggressive, being calm and patient when others get riled will inevitably enable us to point to Christ and model a kinder, gentler politics.
When fear is overwhelming and dominates our culture Christians need not comply. We can be fearless knowing that we have a God who is in control and who is working for our good (Romans 8:28). Too often we can be afraid when the gospel calls us to be bold. When others are afraid, a politics with a realistic yet profound confidence and purpose is attractive.
It strikes me that many features produced by the righteous culture mirrors a works-based salvation model, just without God. In many ways, culture is modeling a reflection of the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Repeatedly the gospels show Christ rejecting the hypocrisy of self-righteousness and welcoming the undeserving (Mark 2:15-17). What a fantastic way to link the gospel to our politics!
There is hope in our political discourse yet it seems far from reality. Those that present hope fail to achieve it – look at the disappointment many felt with the Obama presidency. Christian hope is, on the other hand, very much certain. It is not distant and it will not let us down. Jesus frees us to live in light of the New Creation. That hope is what changes us and enables us to live out a better politics defined by Christ (Colossians 3:12-17).