“Pray, think, vote".
“On May 5th we went to the polls to vote for our local Councillors and the new Police Commissioner. And, in just a few weeks we’ll be going again, this time to vote in the EU Referendum”.
Or will we? The percentage of people voting has generally been decreasing over the last few decades, especially in local elections. I think there are a number of reasons for this: some people no longer have confidence in politicians, thinking that they live in a “bubble” insulated from the real world; or they have lost the sense of being part of a community.
Others say, “It doesn’t matter what I vote, they’re all the same anyway”; or they may live in a “safe” constituency or ward and feel that casting their vote is pointless. “So, while I predict that the turnout in the EU Referendum will be high, I was not surprised that only 1 in 3 of us voted in the local and Police Commissioner elections”.
So what might Christians have to say about the democratic process? Some believe that faith is intensely personal and has nothing to do with the secular world; they regard the realm of politics as so tainted and corrupt that Christians can do nothing but steer away from it. Equally, there are many politicians who make a sharp division between religion and politics: we remember, for instance, Tony Blair’s statement, “We don’t do God” and we in Britain may well be concerned at the way in which religious matters seem to unduly shape politics in the allegedly secular USA.
The Bible says nothing about politics in the modern sense. That’s hardly surprising, because most countries were ruled by kings or clan leaders who exercised absolute power through people they had appointed. Even democracies such as Greece and Rome didn’t have formal political parties as we know them today, although groups of citizens did gather around common causes. In any case less than a fifth of the people in those countries, all of them male, rich and well-connected, had any right to vote or take part in government: slaves, foreigners and women were excluded. So the politics which did exist in the Bible’s world were very different to those we know today.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t forget that the entire Bible is set in a variety of political contexts. For instance, the Hebrews leaving Egypt and settling in Canaan altered the balance of power in the entire region. Kings such as David and Solomon were constantly making alliances and treaties to ensure national security and economic growth: the Queen of Sheba’s famous visit certainly had a political agenda. The prophets’ denunciations of corruption in both trade and government were highly political – indeed, some of them were as outspoken as any present-day activist. And, of course, Jesus lived out his own life in the midst of a swirling political tension, with notions of revolution simmering just beneath
the surface. Jews and Romans alike would have scrutinised his every word, looking for political meanings.
There is perhaps only one Bible passage that deals specifically with politics. It comes in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome – the very centre of the Empire. This was a place where the political establishment must have been highly suspicious of the Church, which seemed to be promoting revolutionary ideas. For Christians worshipped the Jewish God rather than the traditional Roman deities, they called Jesus “Lord” , and placed their citizenship of heaven above their loyalty to the State (which seemed to cock a snook at the Emperor’s authority), they treated slaves and upper-class people alike, and they espoused a morality which implicitly criticised the behaviour of the Roman elite.
Paul’s guidance to the Roman Christians is rather strange, for he tells them to passively accept the civil authorities and even regard them as divinely appointed. This advice has caused great difficulties for Christians living under totalitarian regimes rather than in countries whose governments serve the people. But perhaps the Apostle was worried that the contents of his letter would become known to those in power and so was seeking to tell them, “Look; we have no intention of rocking the political boat”. Paul does sound remarkably uncritical of the Empire’s leaders – but, of course, he was a privileged Roman citizen himself.
So then: should Christians engage in the political process? I think that they must, even though I can’t cite a particular chapter and verse to prove it. For we Christians live amongst people made by God; that gives us a responsibility to play our part in society.
And I would go further: I think that, beyond a doubt, our beliefs should influence our political choices. No, we don’t impose our faith on everyone else, nor do we insist that the “Christian voice” is the only one to be heard. But our values, our attitudes, our hopes for the world we wish to create must be shaped by our beliefs. Our faith must affect the way we vote, although the issues involved are often complex.
“So we come back to the forthcoming referendum. We may find it difficult to evaluate the many issues that are involved, some of them impossible to resolve by one simple vote. Nevertheless we must assess them carefully and then do our civic duty. We can never be sure that we have made the best choice; that will only be confirmed over time. But, at the very least, we can ask God to direct us before we take that pencil and mark our cross in the appropriate box. I believe that he is a God who made the world and loves humanity; I am sure that he cares about the outcome”.
But, at the very least, we can ask God to direct us before we take that pencil and mark our cross in the appropriate box. I believe that he is a God who made the world and loves humanity; I am sure that he cares about the outcome.
A prayer for the forthcoming European Referendum, from the Church of England:
God of truth, give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum with honesty and openness. Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion and discernment to those who vote, that our nation may prosper and that with all the peoples of Europe we may work for peace and the common good; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Andrew Kleissner has been the Minister of Christ Church (United Reformed & Baptist), Tacket Street, Ipswich since 2005. Prior to that he was a missionary in West Africa and then the Minister of two churches in London. He served for some years as the Baptist representative on “Churches Together in England’s” Theology Group and has recently become the Eastern Baptist Association’s Ecumenical Officer for Suffolk. Andrew is married to Moira, a retired teacher who – among other things! – volunteers for Christian Aid, Dance East and “Emmaus”.
(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)