Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Chrstian guide to political warfare

Like many people my first reaction when Theresa May announced a snap election was a resigned groan.  Not because I hate politics—I actually love politics and find it fascinating—but because I knew what was about to hit my social media feed.  I am pretty sure Paul would use the great word skubalon to sum up what pops up all over our Facebook pages during election campaigns!  We saw it at the last general election, we saw it during the Breferendum, we saw it during the American Presidential  Election, and to no one's surprise we are seeing it again now.  

I am of course  talking about the highly polemical political posts which demonise the opponent, beatifies the person's political idol, make short unsupported declarations about very complex matters, and generally seem more about gaining approval from those of the same beliefs than really engaging in any meaningful debate.  If you were to take these things at face value then every Tory is seemingly possessed by the devil himself, hell bent on destroying the nation for their own profit and greed, and making sure children go into workhouses in a dystopian Dickensian future.  Meanwhile the Labour party are full of infighting spineless cry-babies led by a communist hell-bent on allying the nation with terrorist organisations and sending the nation into such economical decline that our future is basically living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Oh, and every politician is also a fascist (naturally!)  [Just to make clear, I am not talking about intentional satire here which is free from political partisanship but even in these cases we must think carefully about what we post.]

Even posts that seem to try to make a point and engage in reasoned debate are ruined by images of the Prime Minister with a pig snout or Jeremy Corbyn in a clown costume.  It is just childish and immature—the kind of thing you expect in the playground not from grown adults.

I find all of this depressing, pathetic, and absurd.  People you know and respect seem to become playground bullies and football hooligans throwing custard pies across the political divide on Facebook feeds.  Two things in particular strike me as important: 

1) how should Christians engage in political debate? 

2) should church leaders get into the fray?

"I am pretty sure Paul would use the great word 
skubalon to sum up Facebook politics"

Christianity has a varied history with engagement in politics.  There are many Christians who hold that believers should never get involved in politics and shouldn't even vote.  Many other Christians champion the right to vote and believe Christians should engage in government actively whilst keeping church and state separate.  Finally many Christians—though not as many as there used to be—champion an Erastian ideal where the church and the state are not separated at all.  Ultimately, I don't think the Bible ever binds the conscience of the believer on these matters and we must respect each other and our choices when it comes  to voting or not.

What the Bible does do though is bind how we engage in politics if we choose to do so.   What Christians say and how we say it is a matter of huge importance before the White Throne of Judgement.  Let's take Matthew 12.36-37 as a starting point.

I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Every word we speak is important, every word will be held accountable.  Cheap shots at opponents, flippant remarks which demonise others, and insulting simplistic slogans are a serious matter.  As Jesus had just said; evil words spring from an evil heart and good words from a good heart.  If we are partaking in such careless argument we need to stop and check our heart for spiritual cancer.

In Colossians 4.6 Paul exhorts in these words:

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Before you post something online ask yourself—is  this gracious, is it "seasoned with salt", or is it unforgiving, not attempting to understand the other side, is it instead bitter and going rotten?

"What Christians say and how we say it is a matter of huge 
importance before the White Throne of Judgement."

Consider also Ephesians 4.29-32

 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.

Is what you are  going to say good?  Not just in general but specifically is it going to be good for building up someone in need?  Is it going to give grace (freely given love and compassion) to those who hear it?  Is it going to come across as bitter, angry, and wrathful?  Is it really a conversational point or just shouting and argument seasoned with a dose of slander and malice?  Is it kind and compassionate to those you disagree with, forgiving of their mistakes and failures?  That last point is of immense importance.  We all live in very, very, fragile glass houses!  Being unforgiving to those who disagree with you only encourages them to be unforgiving to you and thus  the cycle of bitter shouting and slander spirals out of control.  Instead, can you rise above their shouting and slander and forgive freely, making you point with kindness and graciousness?

Similar messages about what we say (or post online) include:

So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Romans 14.19

But now, put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth.  Colossians 3.8

"These are massive matters which reveal the 
light or darkness dwelling in your heart, 
the health or cancer of your soul."

What we say and how we say it are important when making an argument and presenting a cause, they are matters of first importance.  But how we think of those we disagree with is also worth considering.  I'm not talking about the politicians here (at least not primarily) but those fellow citizens who hold different ideas to you.  So many posts during the Breferendum seemed to revolve around those who vote for Brexit being essentially stupid and foolish, ignorant and air-headed.   Likewise many posts claimed the same for the Remainers.  Today posts are flying about how those who vote Tory are clearly idiots because  they want to destroy the NHS and pursue a "hard Brexit" whilst others claim those who vote against the Tory's are so dense  and ignorant of economics that they will plunge the nation into a financial black hole so deep the sun doesn't even shine.  

Jesus addressed this clearly in Matthew 5.22

And whoever says to his brother or sister, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the court. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

The first word for "fool" Jesus uses is the Aramaic word raca which was something of a quasi-swear word meaning "air headed fool."  The second word translated "moron" is literally the Greek word moros from which we get the word moronic.  Simply calling people who disagree with you, who come at something with different presuppositions, with different ideological foundations an air-headed idiot, a moronic fool is a matter of hellfire and damnation.  Thankfully, we have the sacrifice of Jesus to give us forgiveness through faith in Him but here Jesus is clearly emphasising the seriousness of declaring such things. 

It does need to be mentioned, however, that things are not entirely so clear cut.  Jesus Himself calls the Pharisees morons (same Greek word) twice in the Gospels directly and once indirectly. Obviously the unspoken caveat in Matthew 5.22 and indeed in much of what we discussed above is that we should not do these  things without very good and rock solid justification.  We also shouldn't be saying them about matters which are debatable and not clear cut.  

As much a both sides of the political argument might like to think things are clear cut we need to have the humility to recognise they are not given that God hasn't directly spoken into them.  The Bible does not clearly promote modern 21st century Socialism or the presupposition that the State is to be  the primary source of care for citizens.  Nor does the Bible clearly promote capitalism.  In fact, it doesn't even really promote modern democracy as an urgent cause or need.   Though clearly thinking slavery is wrong it doesn't tell slaves  to rebel against their masters and it doesn't tell citizens to overthrow despotic dictators and implement democracy either.  

People can have just as much a heart for the poor and needy whether they believe that the State should care for them or they believe that personal charity among fellow humans should do this.   Let's not throw around moron and fool just because you disagree with people equally intelligent as you when God has not given a clear mandate to judge which of you is right.

So, a plea for everyone, especially Christians, to be careful in what they say and post. These are massive matters which reveal the light or darkness dwelling in your heart, the health or cancer of your soul.  Always pause and pray before you post!

"Thankfully, we have the sacrifice of Jesus 
to give us forgiveness through faith in Him 
but here Jesus is clearly emphasising 
the seriousness of declaring such things." 

Finally, I want to address my fellow ministers.  Like everyone else we have political opinions and we have a right to vote.  Unlike others, we are more constrained and held to a higher standard.  I've seen firsthand how toxic a minister getting involved in politics gets.  During the Breferendum I saw parishioners be so offended by the stance of their minister that they could no longer truly respect them, receive ministry from them, or listen to their views during sermons which had nothing to do with Brexit. I personally have found my view of some great men of God poisoned by their shallow politicking online and though I hold no malice to them I find that my ability to receive from them is still currently impaired.  Politics today is ever so toxic that getting involved in it publicly will poison your ability to minister to the souls under your care. 

The Ordinal speaks of this sort of thing in the exhortation to Priests about to be ordained in words which should always be before our eyes:

"Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue."

If you get involved in politics in the pulpit or online then you are going to cause hurt and hindrance through neglecting the wise words of Scripture I outlined above.  It is our duty to model godly, wholesome, behaviour before our congregations and this is often a heavy burden—but it is one we should gladly bear.  We must exhort our parishioners to care for the poor and sick, to consider what God would want, to seek after what is good in their voting.  We must not get dragged into dictating what this means on matters where it is not clear in Scripture.  In Britain at the moment the great and clear cut moral issues that Scripture would give us cause to dictate voting on are not on the radar because none the parties argue against them or really articulate their desire to enforce such moral laws on our land.  

So, let us all be careful and avoid the cesspit of shallow, demonising, ungracious politicking in person and online—and I would plead with all ministers to completely recuse  themselves from any hint of partisanship before those we minister to.

"Always pause and pray before you post!"

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