Robert's Letter for April
Politics is in the air, we're gearing up for the next General Election and the campaign is well on its way. We have known about the date for the election for a long time. For the first time in our history, the date was fixed at the beginning of the current Parliament. Sometimes it feels as though we've been electioneering since then.
It is often said that you should not mix religion and politics. Well clearly the Bishops of the Church of England weren't listening to that one, as they recently published a 52 page letter aimed at helping us ask the right questions of our prospective MP's. At the same time we are using material from the Diocese that encourages us to reflect on the “Common Good”. Like the Bishop's letter it is intended to help us think about the way we vote, as well as to fit in with the Kingdom Vision outlined by the Diocese a year or so ago.
So is it right that religion and politics don't mix? The contention that they don't is one that is deeply rooted, but is a relatively recent opinion. It arises in part out of the religious wars of the Reformation era. The Reformation was a time of turbulence when the old order of the Roman Catholic Church, as being the most prominent organisation of Western Europe, was overthrown and the modern world gradually emerged. Although seen as a primarily church issue, it had many political ramifications and aspects and there were a lot of wars at that time.
Some of the emerging churches believed that Church and State should be separate entities. They felt that they were unduly restricted in their desire to worship God in the way they believed was right. They studied the Bible carefully and wanted to base their styles of worship on the New Testament rather than church tradition. As a result we had one of the first big waves of European colonisation across the World. Dutch Christians went to South Africa and believed God had given them a new promised land. Dutch, French and British people went to the “New World” in North America, perhaps most famous for us was The Pilgrim Fathers, who crossed the Atlantic to escape political control on their activities.
In reality though, the basis of their action was to find a better way of organising how politics and religion should work together. Looking back before then, what was now being separated was thoroughly mixed up together. In the Middle Ages the politicians were all clergy, because they were the educated elite. Of course the Kings with their Barons ruled, but only with the assistance of the Bishops and Cardinals who were indispensable to their hold on power. Even the Pope was much more of a political figure, ruling over significant territory in Italy, the Papal States and claiming and exercising political authority over much of Europe.
Looking back into the Old Testament the concept of separating politics and religion was unheard of. The whole of public life was conducted in a religious atmosphere. The whole life of the people of Israel was as a religious entity, where the will of God was sought in order to know how they were to live under the hand and will of Almighty God. Kings were judged to be good or bad in accordance to how they measured up in the way they served the purposes of the Almighty. Then when the line of Kings failed and no one of the house of David sat on the throne, political power passed to the priest and the High Priest effectively became the power in the land.
In this context comes Jesus the Messiah. Messiah is a political title; it means the “Anointed One” and had been used to describe political figures in the past including Cyrus King of Persia. The Messiah as now understood in the time of Jesus, was an idealised political figure who was expected to lead his people, the Jews, to a new Kingdom of David and to rule the world as God's appointed agent. Jesus accepted that he was this promised King though he told Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world.
If you take a look at the Jesus in the Gospels, you will see that he is a political entity. We know that he is fully aware of the political scene of his day and was sceptical about the political leaders such as Herod. He also shows that in acts like the “cleansing of the temple” he was not afraid of confronting those who held the political reins. The procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a political act and the people cry political slogans like “Hosanna to the Son of David”. Jesus also teaches us that religion and politics need to be held together. When asked if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus replied “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Matthew 22 v 21).
It was a political piece of chicanery that brought Jesus to the Cross. Desperate to get rid of Jesus, the political leaders of the day brought trumped up charges against Him. Tried first in their own court, the Jews condemn Him but preferred to let the Romans deal with Him. Making false allegations about Him seeking to overthrow Caesar they connive to have Pontius Pilate condemn him to death. When the Chief Priests say “we have no King but Caesar” (John 19 v15) we have a piece of rhetoric of stomach churning hypocrisy, as Pilate was pushed finally into condemning Jesus to death.
The death of Jesus on the Cross remains a political act that has political consequences for every age and culture. The Cross is now the measure by which every political thought and action, big and small has to be measured. Bill Shankley, one time manager of Liverpool Football Club was asked once, whether football was a matter of life and death. He replied by saying “it was more serious than that”. The Cross is much more than life and death, it is ultimate reality that even football is tested by. The Cross stands supreme because the Crucified One rose from death and reveals Himself to be the Lord of Life. Death defeated, heaven opened wide and Jesus resurrected from the dead calls all to relate to Him. He announced throughout his ministry that “the Kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1 v 14) and now by His death and resurrection it is begun.
God's Kingly rule, with the promise of our own resurrection, is given freely to us all, save only we give ourselves fully to the God revealed in these mighty acts. This means, all our religious and political actions need to conform to the values of this Kingdom. Those who bow in adoration will blessed by receiving the Holy Spirit and know something of the fullness of God's love. For the rest there is a warning that one day, whether people desire it or not, that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess Him King of glory now.”
Alleluia Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. Alleluia.
May the Lord richly bless you.