Friday, 22 January 2010

Faith is political - Parish Magazine article for February 2010

Even before we finished the mince pies and sang Auld Lang Syne the press began to speak of this as Election Year. Unlike the United States and many other democracies, the governing party chooses a date for a General Election, subject to an absolute limit of five years. So whatever else this year brings, we can be sure that on or before the third of June, the great British electorate will be invited to cast its votes.

I know that for some readers, the prospect of months of driving past billboards, on which party leaders beam their white-teethed smiles, is deeply depressing. Many people do not look forward to daily media reports of debate about policy and personality. Sadly, for many people "Politics" has become a rather grubby word. And it's getting worse. Thanks in part to last year's furore over MPs expenses, politicians often receive as much appreciation as car park clampers. A record number have already announced that they have enough, and won't be seeking our votes for their re-election.

True, the quality of the argument is sometimes likely to be depressing. We shall probably weary of the distortion of opponents' policies, groan at the crass sloganeering, and roll our eyes at the weak jokes. But could it just be that we get the politics we deserve?

This is, of course, a chicken-and-egg kind of a situation. Which comes first? Misbehaviour by a minority of politicians, or a disengaged electorate? If the stakes were small, say limited to the careers of a few hundred ambitious individuals, it probably wouldn't matter so much. But politics, whatever we feel about it, is serious stuff.

Politics is the decision-making process in which choices are made that affect us all. It involves the negotiation of ideas. It gives legitimate powers and holds authority to account. It listens to grievances, creates and restrains freedoms, sets priorities and makes investments for the welfare of individuals and communities. It's hardly unimportant.

There's a particular tendency among the English to treat politics a bit like religion, as though both are somehow essentially private matters, inappropriate for conversation unless one is sure one is among like-minded friends. Perhaps our bloody history makes our national psyche more nervous than other nations in talking openly about our political views and our personal faith. There are families in which neither are spoken about. Some husbands and wives don't talk about how they vote or how they pray.

The challenge at the start of an election year for Christians, is not a simple matter of asking which way Jesus would vote. For one thing, we can be sure no single party perfectly embodies the values of the Kingdom of God, and no party official, MP or Prime Minister will be perfect. But neither should we give up on the political process.

Let's be thankful that there still are plenty of men and women who are motivated to seek office for the sake of public service. Let's appreciate that while cynicism and manipulation play their part in every democratic system, our MPs generally seek to change things for the better.

To follow Jesus seriously means being concerned about the way that our society is ordered. His first followers did not bow to earthly powers and declare "Caesar is Lord!" But they did understand that matters of justice, poverty, inclusion, freedom and equality were vital faith issues. In our day a loving Christian response to these issues is not withdrawal from the political sphere. It's to engage, listen, discuss and to participate. The minimum we should do is cast our votes.

Finally, let me go one stage further and dare to suggest how you should vote in 2010: prayerfully and selflessly.