At around this time of year, it is common to observe a pattern along the following lines:
- Some senior Churchmen of the Anglican and/or Catholic church produce sermons in which they attempt to apply their interpretation of Biblical messages to current issues
- The newspapers report these sermons, selecting a few key passages, often focusing upon the application without setting out the Biblical or broader theological build-up
- The message is widely interpreted as quite left-wing
- Some right-wing politicians and opinion-formers (often Christian right-wingers) urge that priests should focus more upon teaching the Gospel or addressing broader spiritual concerns, and steer clear of politics
This year has been no exception.
The claim that Christian priests should steer clear of politics is, on the face of it, greatly at variance with the teachings of Christ, which are redolent with political import and were applied to specific issues of the day.
For example, a sore point in the time of Christ was that Romans were entitled to press Jews into service to carry their loads for them – typically a distance we refer to as a "mile". This was a way in which the Roman conquerors emphasized to the Jews their subservient status. The practice was an insult as well as an inconvenience. How should a devout Jew, for whom God was the only true and legitimate ruler of his state, respond? Should he comply, hoping to win the confidence of the Roman so as to make him useful in a future uprising? Should he comply, hoping to lure the Roman into a trap and have him killed or beaten? Should he engage in passive resistance, refusing to recognise the authority of the illegitimate overlord, even if the consequence is severe punishment? Should he fight if pressed, even if that meant the death of a martyr?
Jesus taught: None of these. Instead, the way to declare your autonomy over the oppressor is to do more for him than he asks – to carry his load not just for the mile the Roman is entitled to demand, but an extra mile as well, such that the load-carrying becomes an act of kindness by the Jew to the Roman, not an act of grumbling submission to authority. Deeply political. Highly specific.
Jesus taught that the disabled are not suffering the consequences of their own or their parents' sin. He taught that it was legitimate to heal on the Sabbath. He taught that tax collectors and prostitutes were not people that respectable folk should avoid. He taught that if Jews used Roman coins and thereby benefitted commercially from Roman peace and order, they should be willing to pay Roman coins as tax. Similarly with the Apostles and the Prophets. What could be more political (and have had more political impact, over the centuries) than St Paul's teaching that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free? Or when Paul teaches that we should obey legal authorities as appointed by God, whilst Daniel shows us when we should defy those same authorities (when they step outside the bounds of their divine appointment)?
Jesus and the Apostles and the Prophets before them were not in the least shy of addressing political issues – how could they, given how intrinsically political a religion Christianity is (after all, Jesus is our "King" – how much more political can you get than that)? And Christians have a deep and abiding duty to engage, qua Christians, with political issues today. There are, of course, religions that see it as their duty to steer clear of political issues, focusing upon personal moral teachings and educating participants about grand theological and spiritual issues. The Jehovah's Witnesses are one (noble) example. Certain varianets of religions of the far orient may well be the same. But a Christian must be a "little Christ" and, as he did, engage with the issues of the day.
Unlike Christ, the teachings of Archbishops may not always be divinely inspired. Indeed, they may often be plain wrong. Christians should be willing to disagree with even our most senior Churchmen. After all, the entitlement to do that was much of what the Protestant Reformation was about. And it is indeed, sadly, the case that some Anglican Churchmen do not seek to ground their political discourse within a Biblical framework, instead jumping straight to the conclusions of the fashionable left liberal, whilst other Anglican Churchmen who do attempt to ground their teachings in the Bible do so in ways that are greatly at variance with central Gospel messages.
So, fine – tell the Churchman that has wandered from the Christian path that he should attend to the teachings of the Bible and the truths of the Gospel in producing his political thoughts. But don't tell him that Christianity is not a political religion and that he should stick to spiritual and theological matters. That's some other religion altogether.