The government will be on his sholders
If your are a British citizen and you haven’t been living under a rock, or if you are a well informed citizen of a country in the world beyond, you may have noticed in the news recently the fact that there is a general election going on in the UK at present. The three major parties and several other minor ones are all vying as best they can to present themselves as the party that will ultimately solve the current problems as best they can and bring the recovery and other solutions to full fruition. Amongst all this then, there is the unabidingly cogent question of how a Christian should vote.
Voting is an important activity and rightly the question of how to do it concerns a great many faithful people. However, it is also a question that should not be wrapped up too closely with concerns of religious dogma or the idea that those in power should be using that power to enforce any kind of man-made religious agenda. Not only can we see the reasons for why this should be so very clearly from human experience, but the Bible itself gives several very serious reasons for why we should not be looking to place the Christian faith in a position of political power. Enclosed are three reasons for this, and finally, the consequence of my argument.
- Historically, our own experience tells us that when the Church gains signifcient political power, the result is most often negative, for both the Church itself and the wider community. The most commonly cited example of this from the non-Christian world is that of the Crusades, however this argument is misguided. The Crusades were not a religious struggle as much as they were a political one. The Western Roman church at the time saw the fact that the Eastern church was under attack as an opportunity to reunite them both as a single political entity. There is nothing fundamentally Biblical about the need to own the city of Jerusalem, or any of the Israeli lands. Jesus himself was born into it when it was occupied by a foreign power. A better example would be England when ruled by the puritanical iron fist of Oliver Cromwell. Destruction of peoples liberties which you would think, being fought on a campaign of Parliamentary Republicanism, would not be expected, was in fact both widespread and devastating. Also, as for damage to the Church, when Constantine declared himself the sovereign of all Christians, fusing the Roman Church to the Roman state, this is the time marked by many Church historians as the time when the gifts of the spirit, broadly speaking left the church, only to return in the beginning of the twentieth century, by the hand of William Seymour, an uneducated American preacher who continued his work in God despite his earlier scarring by smallpox, and went on to see phenomenal growth in his creation of the first Pentecostal Church. It is the fact in the eyes of many that if the Church gains power and becomes part of the establishment, it looses its revolutionary zeal with which it pursues its goals for this world. Rather, it instead seeks to increase its own power and wealth over the desire to see Gods will filled out. Thus for the concern of both the spiritual health of the church and the liberties of those around us, the Church and state should remain distinct.
- Biblical speaking, one of the most important reasons perhaps to not pursue an agenda of faith in politics is that it is not what Jesus himself did, nor did he extol us to do. Jesus was a revolutionary to the religious establishment, as the Church should always be. He did not set about to impose his agenda upon people, rather he sought to invite people to him with its obvious goodness, which he demonstrated. Jesus was not a ruler. He did not pass laws and order people to obey. He asked that people follow him, rather than told people that they should submit to him. This is why we must be careful of religious agendas in politics because we may be moving away from that which Jesus asked of us.
- Perhaps though the most important reason why Christians should not wish to take direct control of the government in God’s name is that to do so is to lack faith in God to perform his will. To think that in order for people to do God’s will they must have it legislatively enforced upon them when that is not what Jesus commands is to lack faith. God brings people to himself through our obedience to his ways, through our witness and many other means. A wonderful biblical example of people having faith in leadership is to be found in book of Ezra. The people of Israel were attempting to rebuild the Temple in Israel, but came under scrutiny from Tattenai, the local Persian governor, to check if everything is legal. When Tattenai sent his report back to the Persian King Darius, a decree is found from as far back as King Cyrus (three hundred years earlier) that declared Persian support for what the Israelites were doing. Thus not only did King Darius not stop it, he commanded a massive wealth of Persian resources be poured into the project. God had not instructed the Israelites to overthrow the Persians to make them allow them to build the temple. He was perfectly capable of setting events into motion as and how he wanted. Thus, we see that God is in complete control of all things.
So how should we, as Christians, get involved with politics? We are called to engage with our local culture, in our place and time. So how do we engage here with our democracies. It is a tortuous question, one that I, in a single blog post, will not be able to cover in entirity. All I would say is that the only area where Christians should definitely get involved in politics in is where laws are passed that make it more difficult or impossible to live their lives in the manner that God instructed them. Not nessecarly easier for others to break God’s commands, but more difficult for us. When the state starts shutting down Churches for preaching the Gospel, then we may have a problem. When the state takes away peoples right to witness, we have a problem. But we should not be so ready to leap in to pass laws that impose Christian values on other people. It is not what has worked in the past, it is not what Jesus commanded us to do and it shows a profound lack of faith in God.
Risen, regardless of how we feel
Often, people looking into religion from an outside perspective take an opinion that the concept of a ‘religious experience’ is a fundamentally emotional affair. This can be viewed in both a positive and a negative light. A few years ago, a prominent British magazine “House Beautiful” made the suggestion to its readers around Christmas time that to best soak up the Christmas spirit, they should try visiting a Church. Albeit a somewhat misguided understanding of church, it is still a positive that they might come and hear what God has to say to them, even if they are looking for a feeling above the truth. Similarly, many atheists will dismiss the concept of ‘feeling’ anything during worship as being some form of mental delusion or wilful deception. Emphasis there is on the subjective and transient nature of a religious experience. This allows their feeling about the nature of the experience to further blind them to the possibility of discovering the reality of God.
There is truth and danger in both of these points. Christians should indeed be vocal about the wonders of the experience of being in the presence of God during worship at Church, or any other facet of Christian life, and use it (if appropriate) as a means of reaching people. God would not be giving us these experiences if their fruit was not somehow spiritually nourishing. However, there is also the very significant danger that we rely on such feelings. Emotions and feelings can be very transient and substantially shifted by the simplest and subtlest of actions. A lovely evening with a partner can be completely ruined by a few poorly chosen words or facial expressions. An entire business meeting can go down the pan if the jovial story or quick quip a team member makes towards the end is not taken in jest by another. Emotions are fragile and as such we need to keep close to our hearts things that are unshakeable. Never more is this true than with our walk with God.
Unshakable things have evidence, and God was far from negligent in this fact. Many people will say that there is no evidence for God of any kind. When challenged with the example of the Gospels and the things that surround them, they will usually make excuses and denials. It could not be hoped to cover all the reasons why the gospels and in general the historical truth of the resurrection is something unshakable and something to be entirely relied upon in this short blog post. However here enclosed are a few fundamental reasons that should help to give a reason for the hope you have, when asked.
· The first reference to Jesus’ resurrection is NOT found in the gospels. That is actually found in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul discusses Jesus and his risen nature in some depth. The language here thoroughly disproves the notion that the resurrection story was a myth that emerged far after Jesus’ death. Paul uses a Greek word in reference to the resurrection that means the resurrection “tradition”. Paul was writing this at the very most twenty years after Jesus’ death, so from the language he uses we can infer that he was talking about something that was widely understood at the time to be the case, and not something made up many years later. Not only that, but the number of witnesses he claimed to have was in the order of hundreds, so if he was lying, this would have been very easy to check.
· In the accounts of the resurrection, the first people to see Jesus alive were women. This thoroughly disproves the idea that these were fictional accounts. In an ancient near-eastern culture, women were considered far from the most reliable witnesses. In a court, it took two identical female testimonies to be considered of equal value to one account from a man. Therefore if the gospel authors were fictionalising the accounts, they certainly did not make it nearly as convincing as they could have done.
· The Greek word used in the gospel accounts of the resurrection was not the same as the word for hallucination. The word that was used in that account always had a very definite physical understanding. Because words existed for both, and because they understood the difference, the language here being used is abnormal, if this was merely a vision or other spiritual experience.
· The concept of the death of a saviour on a cross would have been considered the ultimate shame in an ancient near-eastern context. The Old Testament talks about the fact that he who dies by “hanging on a tree” is someone who has been cursed and abandoned by God. So if the disciples had faked all this, they really should have chosen a much better and more glorious way for Jesus to have died than something the people of the time would have considered the death of scum.
· The term used by all of the gospel accounts to describe the day of the week that Jesus was raised was “the first day” of the week. This was a Jewish term because according to the Jewish calendar system, Sunday was the first day of the week after the Sabbath, which was the last. By the end of the first century AD, that day was known as “The lord’s day” therefore if people had wrote it much later as is claimed, they would have been using different terminology. It would be akin to examining literature and dating it around the 1920’s/1930’s because of the use of the word “wireless” as opposed to “radio” or other device of a similar kind, or an understanding that an early twenty first teenage diary referring to a “status update” would confirm the existence of Facebook. So again, we know these sources were from close to the time, confirming their historical authenticity.
We will all go through spiritually challenging times and difficult moments in our walks with God. But moments such as those, like all moments, come and go in time. How much time may vary, but time it will still take. It is facts and unshakable truths that stay with us forever. Truths like the fact of Jesus’ rising from the dead, and the hope that it gives us.
Spiritual, Religious and Faithful
I was inspired to write this by a BBC Radio 4 lent talk that was given by a woman from a monastic order based very close to where I work, in the Kentish town of Aylesford. I felt something of God’s intent to share this with me particularly, seeing the link we both had with this place. Of course there are plenty of people reading this who think this could all be very spurious, but it seemed very fitting at the time.
The talk was discussing the virtue of listening to God, and how it is that action which separates the faithful from the spiritual and the religious. The first two words of these three are heard fairly regularly in public discourse, though the third is somewhat less common. There is, I believe, an interesting reason behind that.
Being spiritual is something that is very trendy at the moment, and to an extent has always been. When, on your profile for Facebook, OKCupid or various other dating or social networking sites, when asked for your religious affiliation you are often presented with a preset option that says something like “Spiritual, but not religious”. What being ‘Spiritual’ means in this sense is that you might have a definite belief in something more than the physical, realist, scientific reductionism of the athiest world view, but they will not subscribe to any particular religious tradition or belief system. Things under this umbrella often belong to the so-called ‘new age’ philosophy, but most things that are part of this are actually very old indeed. Horoscopes, crystal healing, palm readings, homeopathy, fortune telling. The list could go on for some time. What all these things have in common however is an intrinsic selfishness to their nature. You are looking at the horoscopes to discover YOUR future, YOU want to be healed by the crystal, YOU want to know what YOUR palm tells you about YOUR life etc. The best example of this can be seen in a recent new age trend popularised by Noel Edmunds, known as the ‘Cosmic ordering service’ where you somehow demand things of the universe, which it will then supply to you (this is the system to which he attributes his return to fame in the form of “Deal or No Deal”). If you were to browse through the ’Mind, Body and Soul’ section of your local Waterstones bookshop, you wouldn’t need to look far for more of the same. All telling you about how you can harness the power of the universe/crystals/positive energy/hypnosis etc for better success at work/fortune with the opposite sex/longer life/deeper meaning etc. This is not to say that Christians do not pray for themselves and their well being and happiness on a regular basis, but there is something fundamentally different about being a faithful Christian to this self centred spirituality.
Then there is the question of being ‘religious’. Religious is something of a step up and away from spirituality into a more definite and grounded territory. This too is becoming more and more common and impactful. In an age of pluralistic confusion, where postmodernism and relativism abound, rules and traditions that do not change are comforting to many. The GHD hair styling company saw this as a marketing opportunity when they launched the advertising campaign “The Gospel according to GHD”. Compared to spirituality, being religious seems far from the selfish, self important nature of spirituality. Religious people will often give up huge swathes of their time, effort and money. They put their work into causes few could fail to call worthy. In their following of a particular tradition, obeying sets of rules, observing rituals, setting boundaries and sticking to them, religious people seek to both improve the world and find meaning to their lives. There is very little that religious people do that cannot be seen as virtuous, even to the most skeptical and cold hearted atheists. And yet these people are still, deep down, self serving or worse, self righteous. Why? Because religious people see the good that they do as a means unto an end. They are attempting to go about ticking all of the boxes of good deeds so that they can think of themselves as better/closer to God/seeking a deeper meaning or purpose to their lives. Being religious is about following rules, rules that may be seemingly self sacrificial, but doing so because you believe that what you get from it ultimately will be worth more than that which you lost. While what religious people often do is very noble, its motivation leaves much to be desired. While the Bible makes it clear that we do earn treasures in heaven for our works on Earth, it also makes it very clear that salvation is not a business agreement. We do not make a down-payment of good deeds in exchange for an eternal time-share in Heaven. We could not save ourselves by our own strength, which is why Jesus came.
Then there is being faithful. This is the most challenging and most demanding of us. Yet it is the one we are called to. It is the path where we seek God’s interest in the world, ahead and above of our own. We put aside our own interests and seek what God wants in the world. And that means listening to him. This is the fundamental characteristic of a true and meaningful relationship with God. Listening to what he wants and doing it, purely because he wants it. Not because it will give you greater purpose in life, not because it means you will have scored all the points on the holiness tick sheet and thus be a “good” person, not because you think God will like you more, but because you love God and want to see his purposes fulfilled in this world. The quest of the Christian is to seek Gods will in both the general and the specific. We can find this in the Bible, in prayer, in the times when we silence our own heart. We cannot find this in seeking God’s principles for our own purposes, no matter how far removed from them we may seem.
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer."
Pslam 19:14 (ESV)