Church and politics

Over the last year I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between church and state. I have come at it from both a practical and a philosophical angle. At a practical level I have had more to do with government in the last two years than in the last ten. Tearfund’s IMPACT team and The Cinnamon Network which I chair, encourage, equip and resource churches to serve the needs of their communities. We have received over a million pounds of government money for this work. What we think about government and how we work with government matters.

But to address the practical concerns leads to some deeper questions such as whether churches stepping up their social care and provision is simply sticking a plaster over the gaping wound of an unjust system and the cruelty of austerity and cuts to welfare. Are we letting the government off the hook by providing a patchy safety net when the state should be providing universal support to the poorest and most vulnerable?

When I talk to some christians involved in political action, expression, campaigns and advocacy I get the impression that it is all about the state. That it is only government that has the resources, power even legitimacy, to effect lasting change. It is only government that can set the rules of the game, ensure justice and deliver protection and services on a universal bases without bias or prejudice. Civil society and church social action is at best an inadequate drop in the ocean or a provocation to government to provide the real solutions. Under this view christian political action is based on a strong belief that it is government that really matters and government that is uniquely placed to deliver public good or harm. The role of the church is to encourage and challenge the state to behave properly. Fundamentally it is the state that acts.

Hannah Swithinbank has referenced some of the debate going on in Tearfund and begun some really useful reflections here.

Reading Hannah’s  article reminded me of Bonhoeffer and his approach to church, state and political action. I think there may be something for us in how he worked out his faith, discipleship and political action even in a very different setting from our own. There’s a couple of things from Bonhoeffer’s thought that I want to bring out:

First: Radical Indifference

Bonhoeffer taught that we shouldn’t believe or accept the significance that the state gives to itself. Christian political service is always and fundamentally public witness to the gracious and saving dominion of God in Christ. There is a new Kingdom and we are citizens of that realm. Our existence in the current earthly realm is a prophetic sign (or witness) to the new Kingdom and testimony to the contradictions between the kingdom of the world and the coming Kingdom of God. The earthly government is part of the Kingdom that is passing and from which Christians have passed. Indeed the political sphere is in the ‘realm of death’ and the mission of the church is to proclaim life, salvation and resurrection. Christians are radically indifferent to the state as a foreign land, under foreign authority and exercising foreign justice. Our hopes are not set on solutions from within the sphere of death but to the hope of resurrection life and the new order of God’s breaking in Kingdom.

In other words the challenge is: are we investing the state with too much significance, power and authority? Are we too preoccupied with making the current political state work better rather than proclaiming by word and deed that this present age is passing away and that ‘the Lord is near’? Bonhoeffer was of course working out his political theory in the context of a vicious totalitarianism which was immune to influence and campaigning. But I think he still holds a challenge for us. Have we become too concerned with politics and politicians such that we are giving them the power of salvation in crucial elements of the public square? Have we created an idol out of secular government power for delivering salvation?

Second: Bearing witness to the work of Christ

So how do we bear witness?

1. Parrhesia. Bonhoeffer was very concerned with the idea of parrhesia-  A greek concept that in the new testament was linked with bold speech, particularly to the rulers and authorities. Michael Foucault dealt with the concept at some length and summarised:

parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.

For Bonhoeffer the fundamental witness was to the passing of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Have we lost this element in our current whirlwind of campaigning and action? Do we have too much at stake in the current system to be able to speak boldly and frankly from a foundation of moral duty and commitment to truth? Do we so need to be ‘taken seriously’, ‘find common ground’, ‘become a partner with government to find solutions’, or receive government funds that we cannot risk being misunderstood, considered foolish or risk death? Has our bold witness to the Kingdom of God been compromised by a belief in, and reliance upon, the power, resources and legitimacy of the state?

2. Parable. For Bonhoeffer this describes the political activity of the church. We are a parable of the passing of the old and the coming of the new. An embodied witness in the present age to the coming reign of Christ. It reminds me of the imagery of ‘a city on a hill’. The church is to act out God’s new society such that it is a sign of the future and a contradiction (or challenge or condemnation) of the present. Our focus should not so much be on making the present regime work better but on being a sign of the new regime- the Kingdom of God. We may challenge the state when it is in contradiction with the kingdom of God. We may provide relief and service to those oppressed and disadvantaged by the current socio-economic order. We may even resist an evil state through civil disobedience and other forms of resistance . But all such political activity is only Christian to the degree that it is witness to the resurrection life of Christ and the reconciliation of all things through Christ. Christian political action is fundamentally eschatological and any particular political act flows from that fundamental witness to the resurrection and the new age of the Kingdom of God.

The challenge here is that our political action needs to be at least as concerned with churches embodying God’s new kingdom as it is on getting the old kingdoms to work better. It is in the places of worship and prayer and discipleship that God’s politics is embodied and where God’s new society takes shape and form. Should our political proclamation be more about example than campaigning? Should we demonstrate before we remonstrate?

Bonhoeffer wrote and lived in difficult and extreme times. But I can’t help thinking that there are some challenges here for our political action. Are we too enamoured by the state? Too dependent on its resources? Do we spend too much time trying to make what is passing away work better rather than welcoming the new kingdom of God? Even if we think that the divide between church and state is too absolute, too strong in Bonhoeffer, he still challenges to think carefully about that boundary. Maybe this is simply setting out the differences between a radical Anabaptist vision of mission and society and a ‘state church’ approach. However Bonhoeffer also challenges me to think about where my treasure and my heart really are. Am I seeking political acceptance, legitimacy and success more than I am seeking the Kingdom of God? I am not sure what I think about all these things but I am sure that I need to think about them