One of the great things of this last year has been the opportunity to take journeys of exploration down avenues that, for various reasons, I hadn’t yet fully travelled. Much of my ‘theology’ and even ‘ideology’ has been evolving significantly over the last 3 years, some of the things are only now coming to clarity…or at least to some recognisablly clearer landing points before further exploration!
One of those areas is the area of political involvement. As an officer in The Salvation Army, I had always taken the view of remaining politically neural in public a) because the Salvation Army is politically neutral and b) I was a full-time ‘ambassador’ for all things Salvation Army in any locale I was in. Whilst having strongly held political views privately which I expressed in concrete terms through membership of a political party, I was happy for them to be private (apart from the odd Scottish Nationalist ‘Alba gu brath!’ now and again – they do slip out!)
A combination of theological reflection and observation of the political life of the United Kingdom has led me to the place where I am keen to explore a ‘third way’ when it comes to political engagement. I don’t believe that Christians should be silent in the world, I believe we have a strong biblical mandate for engagement, particularly when it comes to advocacy for the poor and marignalised. Also, I believe we have much to contribute on many issues. So, for me just getting involved by voting and lobbying and the opposite of non-engagement are not satisfactory. Before suggesting what a ‘third way’ might look like, here are the reasons I which are discouraging me from taking part in the electoral system:
Why I am chosing not to vote or continue party membership:
1) we have a nation that seems to have an interventionist foreign policy. We jump into almost every conflict in alleged ‘just war’ situations or even when the legal grounds are decidedly dodgy. I believe for many reasons that the theology of just war is problematic (even Augustine who proposed it had to uncomfortably dice around problematic New Testament texts). Our government is explicitly charged with the duty of maintaining the military and preserving national interests through the use of violence if necessary or expedient. If I, as a follower of Jesus, could not conscientiously serve in that role, then how can I in good conscience cast my support for someone else to do that in my place? I could never order a war or kill a man and I don’t want anyone doing it for me.
2) I have come to believe very definitely in the separation of church and state and welcome wholeheartedly the demise of ‘Christendom’ as a political, economical, geographical and spiritual idea. I believe that the vision of the Kingdom of God is by and large always contrary to the vision of nation states, no matter how supposedly ‘Christian’ or how many Lord Bishops you have in the House of Lords. In our day and age, I cannot imagine that we will have a government that will be consistantly concerned with the vision and concerns of Jesus for our world. Even when a party has one good ‘Kingdom’ commitment, there are several other commitments which seem contrary. I cannot in good conscience be party to decisions through the medium of voting.
3) Voting itself seems to me to be the least effective political action as a Christian. It happens rarely and very few of the manifesto agendas, if appealing at all, ever see light of day. Not voting, of course, doesn’t mean that you naturally wipe your hands clean of the decisions of those who are in power, but it does mean you aren’t party to them. Rather, it accentuates my reponsibility as a Christian to speak out as a distinct, prophetic voice either in my locale or in conjunction with other non-partisan initiatvies (such as Stop the Traffik).
4) our position in this world is as citizens of another Kingdom…sojourners, journeyers, pilgrims…turasaiches. This is difficult for me, but I want my citizenship to be more about that Kingdom than any other place. I want to be able to freely make my responses in the light of that instead of living out of my ‘Labour’ agenda or my ‘Scottish Nationalist’ agenda. I am coming to see those things as contrary to the Kingdom of God, even when some of the ideals of those parties are close to Kingdom values.
Now, no doubt there are questions that can be asked of all that….and I have my own questions about those statements that I’m still working through. So, if I rule out conventional voting and party political engagement and if I rule out the idea of total disengagement, what is the ‘third way’? There are probably other people who have thought this out well and more thoroughly, but here are my ideas.
What might a ‘third way’ look like?
1) I imagine it will continue to include advocacy for the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised both through practical support of them and in speaking with them to those who exercise power over them and help keep them marginalised.
2) I imagine it will include active participation in non-violent protestation, letter writing and lobbying on Kingdom concerns (such as religious freedom for all, non-violent intervention, pro-peacemaking, nuclear disarmament, and a list of other things).
I can understand that many will not agree with my conclusions. I don’t necessarily need you too…we live in a democracy after all! But for now, I’m trying to figure out the best way to be ‘in the world but not of it’ and to act within the limits of my conscience for the sake of justice, peace, righteousness and the other values of the Kingdom.
Would be interested to hear your thoughts…any points made would help me explore nuances of my current thinking.