POLITICS AND CHURCH
Mr. P. Abraham
Different countries have adopted different approaches towards religion. Religion and politics make a toxic mixture. In some parts of the world, religion has become a dirty word. Europe is suffering from Christophobia and there is hostility against churches. Virulent atheism has spread there widely.
It was Thomas Jefferson who said in 1802 that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God. He felt that legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohihibiting the free exercise thereof. Thus he built a wall of separation between Church and State.
A few examples of some countries are given below:
1. India is nominally a secular, democratic republic and there are no special provisions favouring any religion in its Constitution. However, many of the State governments have promulgated laws to regulate the freedom of religion. Politicians are often accused of playing communal politics. After the 2002 Gujarat violence, there were allegations of political parties indulging in vote bank politics on the basis of religion. Violent incidents are reportedly occurrring regularly against the Christian community in UttarPreadesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. This is a matter of serious concern. Government should have zero tolerance for communal violence.
2. The monarchs of Great Britain have retained ecclesiastical authority in the Church of England. The British Queen is the Supreme Governor of this Church. The bishops of the Church are members of the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords.
3. The Australian Parliament opens with a Christian prayer and the preamble of their Constitution refers to a humble reliance on the blessing of Almighty God.
According to the Bible, the will of God permeates and supersedes every aspect of life. God's will takes precedence over everything and everyone (Matt.6:33). The plan and purposes of God are fixed and His will is inviolable (Dan.4:34-35). It is God who sets up kings and deposes them (Dan.2:21). The most high is sovereign over the kingdoms of man and gives them to anyone He wishes (Dan.4:17). Politics is merely a method God uses to accomplish His purpose. Evil men will use political power for evil; but God means it for good, working all things together for good to those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Rom.8:28). At times, God uses evil men to punish the sin of His people: He used the Assyrians to punish the kingdom of Israel and the Babylonians to punish the kingdom of Judah.
Governments cannot save us; only God can. No government can change the heart of man; only God can transform our lives. Bible does not direct us toward political activism (2 Cor. 10:3-4). We have also not been called to moralise our society. Jesus did not seek to bring reforms in the political arena. Neither did He join with the Zealots to bring better government for the Jews. Jesus and His disciples did not spend time to reform the pagan world of its idolatrous, immoral and corrupt practices using the government of the day. The apostles never called the believers to organise civil disobedience movements to protest against the unjust laws of the Roman empire. Instead, Jesus called sinners to repentance to make them citizens of heaven. The first century Christians were asked to proclaim the Gospel and live giving clear evidence to the transforming power of the Gospel. As followers of Christ, we represent Christ 24x7. Therefore, our participation in the political process reflects on Christ, who is the head of the Church (Eph.5:22).
As Christians, our responsibility is to obey the laws of the land and be good citizens (Rom.13:1-2). It is the responsibility of the government to rule in authority over us –to collect taxes and to keep peace, maintaining law and order. We should exercise our opportunity to vote and elect leaders whose views closely parallel our own. Voting is a private way to help the society and does not distract us from our calling as believers in Christ. However, we should always be reminded that the voting process cannot bring any real change to the people of our nation; change only comes from the heart. We are also mistaken if we think that it is the job of politicians to defend, advance or guard biblical truths and Christian values. Our mission is to change hearts through the word of God, not through political reform. By becoming all things to all men (1 Cor.11:1), we might by all means save some (1Cor. 9:19-23).
We must stand our ground when it comes to disobedience to the law of God. We should not buckle by compromising our convictions. In the Roman empire, the citizens enjoyed some privileges. Apostle Paul was able more than once to surprise and alarm the civic authorities who were torturing him, by reminding them of his Roman citizenship. He even demanded an apology from them for throwing him into prison. In the early days of Christianity, a scoffer once enquired: “What is your Carpenter doing now?” The answer of the unperturbed Christian was bold: “Making a coffin for your Emperor.”
John Calvin (1509-1564) read the newly published writings of Martin Luther and “God subdued and brought his heart to docility.” Calvin's abilities led the city of Geneva to invite him to promote reforms there. Under the motto,”To God alone be the glory”, he set about transforming Geneva into a model Christian city. Church attendance was compulsory. Theatre-going, shooting, gambling, dancing, drinking and extravagant clothing were forbidden. In spite of opposition, this strict regime ensured peace and prosperity for some years. Calvin's writings provided a clear handbook of Protestant thinking for succeeding generations. Hearing of the reforms Calvin had brought about in Geneva, hundreds of refugees flocked to the city. When they returned to their home country, they carried with them Calvin's teachings and ideas.
Christians have always lived, even flourished, under repressive governments. They, not their governments, were the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Their hope was in the protection provided by God, not the politicians. Lay people who participate in political activity on an individual basis do it without identifying their political activity with the stand of the Church. Such people should always remember that “politics make strange bedfellows.” An argument often heard in this connection is that, if the Christians do not involve themselves in the political process, the government will be left in the hands of the non-Christians. Church history teaches that government in the hands of the Church is always bad for the Church. Christians will always be few, not many(Matt.7:13-14).
In today's society, the Church has generally refused to express publicly her stand on socially significant issues and to present it to governmental bodies. Even when it does, often it becomes a cry in the wilderness.
Our newspapers abound with stories about the misdeeds and scams of politicians. A number of them have been sentenced to several years of imprisonment in cases involving disproportionate assets. A minister who claimed a salary of only Re.1/- per month for 5 years had unaccounted wealth worth several crores and was recently sentenced to imprisonment. A minister in the central cabinet is now embroiled in a controversy inolving forgery of his graduation and postgraduation mark sheets. It seems this is in addition to 23 other cases pending against him. There are also many members of parliament with criminal antecedents.
Course of Action
We live before a watching world. We do not know how many non-Christians are watching us daily, determining the truths of the message of Christianity strictly on the basis of how we live, how we work, how we respond to life's tests, or how we conduct ourselves in daily life. Peter urges us to abstain from fleshly lusts. By doing right before God, we will muzzle the mouths of rumourmongers. When Christians fail to meet biblical principles, it is heart-breaking. Think of what it says to unbelievers who read it in the newspapers. Living a clean life is the least we can do to demonstrate our gratitude for God's deliverance. When Plato was told that a certain man was making slanderous charges against him, he responded: “I will live in such a way that no one will believe what he says.”
Christians should base their lives on the biblical principles of morality, unity, justice, mercy (Psa. 85:10), concern for the spiritual and material welfare of the people, love for the land and the desire to transform the world according to the words of Christ. Most political decisions and actions tend to benefit only a part of the society, while restricting or infringing on the interests of others. Many such decisions are stained with sin. Christians ought to be very sensitive morally and spiritually. Christians should be careful to see that their public activities do not turn from service to opportunities to nourish pride, greed and other vices.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Early Christianity was not an opting out of politics, but a living out of another kind of political identity and vision. You learn the deepest kind of civic responsibilty and civic virtue in this community. In the ancient world, this identity of being a Christian and the political expectation of the Roman empire came to a deadly collision, resulting in the martyrdom of many Christians. Church argues about what is good for the human race, in the light of what God has shown concerning the calling and dignity of the entire humanity.”
About 100 years ago, John Neville Figgis, an Anglican theologian, wrote about how the Church should be seeking to shape public opinion. “The Church ought to be a place where people were educating one another about civic questions, human dignity, liberty, responsibility and the creation of a sustainable environment.” He stated: “The first business of the Church is to live differently, to be the kind of community where civic dignity is all the time being developed and explored. That civic dignity becomes the organ by which people are instructed to go out into the wider society and talk about what is good for the wider community. The better we get at that argument within the Church, the better we shall get at arguing about the values and visions that we derive from what God has done. Church thus beomes a place where image, ideals and policies are generated and thought through in a way that allows them to move into wider discussions.” In other words, the Christians should shake themselves out of the salt-shaker.
Over the years, I have come to know of several Christian leaders belonging to different denominations (Anglican, Methodist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Independent, etc) who play politics within the Church. For selfish reasons, they create division within the congregations and indulge in corrupt practices while dealing with finances and church properties. (As I write, a news clipping about the demeaning activities of a Pentecostal Pastor is on my desk.) More often than not, the quarrels and conflicts have expressed themselves in personal power plays, political maneuverings, strong-minded and selfish members determined to get their way, stubborn Pastors who intimidate and bully the members, unbending and tight-fisted committee members who refuse to listen to reason, and those who seem to delight in stirring up others through rumours and gossip. Often the nasty infighting among us is embarrassingly petty and dirtier than the tricks played by regular politicians. We may be adults in age and height, but we can be awfully childish in attitude. The world has a field day watching us quarrel for the silliest of reasons (James 4:2). Litigation has led to severe indictment of several of these persons by the judges. A number of such leaders have also been punished by the Church. However, the number of such politicians in the Church is steadily growing. The saying goes:“Wherever there is light, there are bugs”; and the bugs are on the increase! We never learn to make the transactions transparent and the leaders accountable. We seem to think that our job is limited to “pay and pray.” It also appears that we are resigned to think that Christians living in close harmony is next to impossible.
It is for the Church to show to the world what makes a good citizen, a good city and a good society. As citizens of heaven, Christians should live differently to form intelligent, prayerful public opinion within the Church's own membership and then move into the wider society. Think, act and speak for the common good set before us in that transforming vision of the Body of Christ, in which no one lives for himself alone. In this context, I recall an Office Order issued by Dr.HomiBhabha, the founder of the atomic energy programme in our country. He emphasised that what is done in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) should not only be right and safe, but also be such that the rest of the country can be asked to emulate. Can we implement a similar requirement for the members of the Church and thus be an example for the world to emulate? So help us God.