“Why would any Christian want to go into politics now?”
It’s a fair question my friend asked me following Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats this week. When a politician decides they cannot reconcile their faith in Christ with leading their party, it doesn’t bode well for encouraging Christians to pursue a political life.
Over recent years Christian campaigns have told us to show up, to vote and stand in elections, to pray for our leaders, to participate in the democratic process to do what we can to work for the common good of the nation.
But now this do-good optimism seems to have crashed against the rocks of a secular consensus which would seem to exclude Christians (or at least those with particular theological and moral positions) from public office.
I grew up on a diet of books and talks about the urgent importance of Christians entering politics and public life. So when I left university, I got an internship in parliament which turned into a job, which turned into seven years working in and around parliament and government. Since leaving that world last summer to train to be a vicar, I’ve begun to wonder if my starting point for entering politics was wrong in the first place.
Often our political engagement assumes that Christians enter from a position of strength, of dominance even, as we refer back to a supposed golden age of our ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’. Entering politics we are – so the assumption goes – taking up our God-given and historically assured right to participate in governing this (Christian) nation (under God).
It’s true that Britain has long been shaped by Christian-inspired cultural values, and remains institutionally entangled with the Church of England: we have an established church with the Queen as its supreme governor (as well as her role as televangelist at Christmas), bishops in the House of Lords, and prayers each day in parliament. Christian organisations remain significant providers of public services, woven into the fabric of our welfare state. But all of this doesn’t mean Britain has been a ‘Christian nation’, nor a place where it’s been easy to be a practising Christian in public life. For a start, non-Anglicans were legally barred from public office for 150 years.
Like other groups which don’t conform to prevailing norms, Christians of different stripes have in reality faced and will face opposition. Some of this will be fair, a lot unfair. But it should be expected: Christ saw it coming (Matthew 5:11-12); the early Church experienced it (Acts 12:1-5). So why is it such a surprise when Christians in public life face hostility?
After all, it is inevitable that our faith in Christ will mark us out as different. We are citizens of another place, Paul reminded the Philippian Church (Philippians 3:20), not here. Tim Farron’s resignation is a reminder of what it feels like to be a minority, to be exiles in our own land. His decision to resign came from the boiling over of the tension we are all in between competing identities and loyalties.
I wonder if this should make us rethink how our generation of Christians engage with where we are while knowing our citizenship is elsewhere. That we enter politics not from a position of dominance but as servants. That we don’t grasp our rights, but willingly be formed into the cross-shaped image of Christ – a king who was crucified – knowing that his victory is final and assured even as we feel marginalised, mocked, reviled.
Despite all my political instincts willing it otherwise, I know that following Christ doesn’t mean winning, it means dying – at least for now, in this life, before Christ’s final victory. Dying to my own ambition and self-fulfilling sense of purpose. Dying to the need to grab the levers of power.
We are called not to strength, but to weakness. We are to have the same mind as Christ who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). But what would a cross-shaped politics look like, as we become like Christ “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”? Does our self-emptying mean we empty ourselves from politics?
Many would say that if we leave politics to others, we’re allowing our nation to miss out on the wisdom of God we’re able to share, through a faith which – for all its occasional missteps and faults – has done much to shape our democracy and sustain ideals of human rights, freedom, equality, and justice.
Politics isn’t going away (sorry!). I still believe passionately that we need to show up, vote, participate in the democratic process and do what we can to work for the common good and the good of the nation. We do need to pray for our leaders and encourage Christians to stand for office, and to shoulder the burdens of leadership, and to fight for values and policies which represent justice, freedom, and mercy.
But we start not from a position of historical privilege, but from the foot of the cross. This demands a proper humility about our ability to exercise power well or wisely. I am surely not the only one who too easily in my willingness to lead forgets my own weakness and tendency to mess things up.
And as we step into the political arena we need to recognise it for the blood sport it’s become. We need to recognise that we’ll experience all the discomfort and pain of being exiles who don’t really belong, who look and sound increasingly and embarrassingly weird to our friends and colleagues, who might hold views out of sync with the dominant consensus. This is just going to be how it is; it’s how it’ll always be, I suspect, if we’re being faithful to Christ.
If we’re going to survive that and continue to encourage people to enter that world, we need to take hold of a vision that’s bigger than getting Christians into power. It needs to be a vision that can inspire a generation of Christians to live lives in which Christ is their king in whatever sphere they can best use their God-given talents, interests and passion to serve Him and their neighbours. It needs to be a vision which calls us to step way beyond where we feel safe, or privileged, or powerful – and out to a place where we are vulnerable, willing to lay down our own ambition, our own desire to be in control, perhaps even our lives but certainly our careers.
A vision of Christ, then, who led the early Church to be willing to do just that. A vision that when push comes to shove, we can have the same view of Christ as Tim Farron, who in his resignation speech said this:
I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party. Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour. In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.