Bishop Richard Wood: Politics and Theology

25/2/77 A minister giving political speeches instead of sermons. A politician making statements of Christian principle instead of a clear political programme. Both become something of a public spectacle. But the Church and its Christian members live in the world and are expected to have their ‘religion’ and political responsibility.

Corporate personal faith and political interest…. Can they be combined? Should they?

A Christian is in the world but, like Jesus, not of the world. We have to live as if we were both.

Must we then occupy ourselves only with devotional exercises? Ditch our technological society?

Or would this make religion so unacceptable that we must drop it completely?

Either would be an attempt to escape from what life is.

It is prayer and it is action. Personal and social. Religious and it is political.

The Christian in the world lives in this tension. The relation of the Church to the State has always been one of tension, clearly so since the crucifixion of Jesus.

The early Christians in the Roman Empire were called atheists because they rejected the divinity of the Emperor and so became potentially subversive elements of society. We are experiencing this today in Southern Africa. Whilst always denying this, over the years a more formal apologia was formulated associating Christ’s, Kingdom of Peace with the Pax Romana. Eventually under Constantine, Church and State were formally associated. We also have the Queen as the Governor Head of the Church of England, established by the law of the land.

National decisions, especially at times of crisis, like declaring war and so on, are expected to have expression and support through the church leaders and the nation is called to prayer so that it may courageously fight against another Christian nation perhaps. We have a “civil religion”.

This does tend to give the Church of England an ‘establishment’ stance. The Peace of God and His Kingdom are assured by the Hope in Christ, the crucified one who lives forever, and not by an alliance with Caesar which can, at the best, be an uneasy treaty. The State, monarchical or ideological, is always supported by emotive mysterious semi religious symbols. Flags, uniforms, the whole mystique of nationality often personified in a leader who is presented or treated as almost more than human. Protected in extraordinary ways. Both the May Day procession in Moscow’s Red Square and the Coronation or the ecumenical Remembrance Sunday in their different ways have something of the mystery of religion. (It is odd that we should believe that a biological genetic succession should also have a sacramental indelible character. But then it must also be admitted that God’s ways are often odd. Not that that proves anything!).

It is true though, that the secular optimism of America, a most ‘religious’ country can be compared with the euphoric confidence in the British Empire undergirded by a civil religion. They are not the bases on which Christian hope can stand. Is civil religion an ideal to be aimed for? Does it have the stature to express what is needed? Is the Christian Hope one of evolution into a world society through the impact of civil religion, the conjunction of Church and State, or is the Christian Hope opposed to this?

In South Africa and Namibia to be faithful to the Hope in the poor crucified Christ, we must be breaking down the claims of civil religion and siding with those who are oppressed and excluded by it. Is this not true in the U.K? The facts may not be so starkly apparent. Are they any less real?

Our national safety is guaranteed by armaments and chaplains. We have clearly defined economic attitudes in our use of third world resources. We have great respect for material status. We have great optimism in the power of technology to transform the world. We were once a ‘great’ power, now apparently we are now. But what was our greatness? Incredible aberrations!

One is not just knocking one nation, or one religion or political or economic system. Suggesting that all forms of institutionalised civil religion, whether theistic or ideological, which have their own mystique symbol and ritual are in question. It may be all a type of idolatry. The trappings of the State which we have created become our idols. We feel threatened when they are attacked and safer when we can find ways of giving them a permanence which they cannot afford. “My country right or wrong” is chauvinistic and sub-Christian, but it strikes a deep emotional chord that sends us out to beat the drum and follow the flag. It also leads to racial prejudice; ”Those foreigners “ black or white.

A ‘true democracy’ might escape this… but what form would it take and from where would its cohesion come from? Democracy is always balanced on the knife edge between authority and anarchy. No institutional structures are subtle enough to retain a balance. The Canons of the church do not define or protect the church. To put it another way, we are always in the tension of the Cross. There is our hope. This Hope presupposes a faith commitment and a love expression.

It puts the Christian in a state of tension along with his church. It can seem preferable to opt out of impossible decisions in order to escape from action that must inevitably cause us to slip off the knife edge. An intolerable dilemma to add to an impossible decision. It almost seems as if, faced by intolerable decisions, we have to learn to be humble enough to sin bravely.

There again, we are back at the Cross, for it is only there, unless we become cynics, that our faulty endeavours can be reconciled in the glorious company of forgiven sinners. Responsible political action in love is selfless to the point of sacrifice of personal innocence, to the point of incurring guilt, quoted in a book by Moltmann. Perhaps unless we accept this we shall never make a courageous and sensitive decision to act. We are condemned to live in a state of holy rebellion.

The Christian patriot owes loyalty neither to the State nor the Church. Yet can only the Hope of the Cross liberate us from this impasse then do without either?

Jesus is the one who has shared our humanity, who is our humanity. He died between the Church and the State. Both Caesar and the Pope get their authority from God. Our loyalty is to neither. Wherever the poor crucified Christ is to be found gives us this hope. To find Him amongst those who are excluded by the system, or deprived in some way or other, but who of course, are by no means people of self-pity, but a lively community, because for a time at least they are at the right place in the Tension, where to minister to them we must join them.

Our pity must go to those who exclude them. It is all a great mystery. Irrational because it is a venture of faith. Satisfying because it reveals a Sure Hope.

Tested always by our loving.


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