Saturday, January 28, 2012

A long time in politics

Early this week, the bishops were telling the government not to cap child benefit (src).

"Right on," said the left, "It's great to have bishops who stand up for what they believe in and are willing to speak up against public opinion."

"Shut up," said the right, "It's not your place and the public are against you."

"Can't you lot quit meddling in policy and talk about Jesus?" I wondered.

Today, the Archbishop of York tells the government not to legalise gay marriage (src).

"Right on," say the right, "It's great to have bishops who stand up for what they believe in and are willing to speak up against public opinion."

"Shut up," say the left, "It's not your place and the public are against you."

"Can't you lot quit meddling in policy and talk about Jesus?" I wonder.


bilbaoboy said...

Nice one Phil
Nice one son
Nice one Phil
Let's have another one!

Anthony Smith said...

"Did Jesus meddle with policy?" I wonder.

Phil Walker said...

I'm trying to remember the time Jesus delivered a political manifesto, challenged Herod's policy on benefits, or accused the Romans of overstepping their boundaries.

He had a bit to say to people at the sharp end of policy delivery, like tax collectors. No quibbles there. And of course, he lived in an age when politics and religion were more intertwined than they are today, so that often a religious critique carried a good deal of political freight with it.

But when it comes to this idea that Jesus went round routinely challenging the secular authorities, I really don't see it at all. Heck, even John the Baptist's denunciation of Herod concerned his rather sordid family life, and Paul, when granted an audience with the powers of his day, took the opportunity not to berate them for failing to be sufficiently progressive in taxation but to preach the gospel.

Anthony Smith said...

It's not an easy comparison, and I'm not sure about the answer to my own question. Perhaps more pertinent would be "Would Jesus meddle with policy?" (or WJMWP for short).

I don't think that in Jesus' time the authorities were generally claiming to be democratically elected and eager to hear what ordinary people thought about, say, taxation. Today our authorities do make that claim, so it is perhaps not "meddling" for us to give a Christian perspective on these policies (and surely Christianity has something to say to these issues, even if what is has to say is not always obvious).

Jesus did have a few things to say about the importance of justice, and against the scribes who would "load people with burdens hard to bear" and who "devour[ed] widows' houses". Perhaps if asked to elaborate on that Jesus would have had some specific suggestions of changes to policy.

But perhaps key to the WJMWP question is to note that it was the policial authorities that were most irked by what Jesus was saying and doing, and that their accusation was that Jesus had been "saying that he himself is Christ, a king", which could be thought of as meddling with the politics of his age.

Phil Walker said...

Well, it wasn't really the political officials who were most irked, was it? Pilate couldn't care less at first, and still wasn't inclined to convict even after the Jewish leaders told him that Jesus claimed to be a king. He didn't think Jesus' claim was particularly shocking himself: he was more worried about (a) Caesar's reaction if he ever heard about it; and (b) the prospect of an immediate revolt in Judea. It was those latter, religious leaders who were agitating for Jesus' removal. And though their accusation was political, it wasn't about policy.

You suggest that Jesus might have had some suggestions on policy changes for the scribes and the Pharisees, but he seemed quite happy for people to work those things out 'for themselves' (that is, under God's sovereignty and common grace, rather than by special revelation).

Here's a worked example. Did Jesus have a chat with the Roman centurion about the way he managed his troops? If he did, the evangelists didn't think it important enough to tell us: though it was important that Jesus commended the man's faith. And that, surely, should be a lesson in itself.

Anthony Smith said...

I suppose that, if the scribes et al. were implementing policies - on taxation, land, labour, justice, etc. - that conflicted with the Mosaic law, then Jesus might well have had specific policy suggestions to make. This comes from special revelation.

And, assuming the Old Testament Law was the expression of God's character into that context, I think we can reasonably infer that God's character revealed therein can help us to reflect on our own context, and see certain policies as better than others. This would be a mixture of special revelation and general revelation.

So, if Christian faith does indeed speak into politics and policies, then could you spell out your objection to the Archbish?

I presume it's not that he's speaking about politics, and that Christian faith is about "spiritual" things, not "earthly" or "worldly" or "secular" things such as taxation and legislation. I.e., I presume you are not saying that talking about Jesus and talking about policy are completely separate activities.

So is it that he doesn't really know what he's talking about, and should stick to preaching the gospel? Or that these particular issues are complex, and it's unhelpful to have a senior cleric giving the impression that Christians must share his view on the matter? Or that the calling of a minister of the word is to, well, minister the word, and leave it to other believers to speak into the political arena?

UK Fred said...

The problem with politics is that everyone involved tries to give the impression that they and their party have a monopoly on good and everyone else has a monopoly on evil.

I think it was Mark Driscoll who said "If life was an old-fashioned western, we would all be riding around on black horses wearing black hats."

I think that the bishops do have a right to speak on policy, but they need to watch what they say and how often the utilise that right, else they will be seen to be no better than professional politicians. However, they do need to think through what they are going to say, and consider the implications, otherwise known as starting brain before engaging mouth. Who wil be affected most by a cap on housing benefit? In the longer term, such a cap will make housing more affordable for all because landlords will not be able to demand such high rents, and not being able to afford to leave proerties empty for long periods, will have to either reduce rents or sell the properties to recover their capital, and when supply increases with no change in demand, even a beginner at economics will tell you what happens. It might alsohelp if the bishops were fully aware of what the Bible teaches, in particular about those who will not (as opposed to cannot) work.

Phil Walker said...

Anthony: Mostly, I think it's all three. Economics is tricky for anyone to understand, and bishops are in no way well-prepared to wade into things of what they wot not. Even if they were, it's not their remit as ministers of the church. And even if it were, they should avoid setting out their position in such a way as to suggest that the only possible Christian response is the one they advocate.

On that last point, it seems ludicrous that a group of men who can barely agree on the basics of the faith they all profess should think themselves capable of speaking with one voice on politics. If they can all agree on politics but not religion, they're not a church: they're a political party.

Anyway, this is all kind of missing the main point, which was to observe that the political right and left were only happy with the bishops playing politics when they were playing on 'their' side. Whereas I'd prefer them to play on Jesus' side: which is certainly not what some of them are up to.

Anthony Smith said...

Think I'd agree with that. Thanks :)

Mark Olson said...

A fascinating post on the regular intersection of faith and politics.