The Bishop of Worcester is one of many Church of England bishops...
More and more Americans say they 'hate' those in a different political party. This problem is getting worse, and it's particularly evident following the mid-term elections. But we Brits aren't faring much better either, says Heather Tomlinson
What should Christians be famous for? Our valiant defending of the value of life? Or our striving for social justice, the liberation of the poor and oppressed?
Neither, according to Jesus.
“May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me,” Jesus says in his heartfelt prayer in John 17 (NLT).
It comes not long after his clear instruction: “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35)
His priority is not our ‘campaigning’ about [x] political issue. He wants love, and unity.
Yet, what do we see? This week it was the US mid-terms and social media had plenty of the same predictable, if depressing, narratives that we’ve got used to from many well-known Christian leaders.
“ONLY vote Democrat. The others are evil Nazis.”
“ONLY vote Republican. The others are evil baby killers.”
Or, words to that effect.
The problem with Brexit
Here in the UK the culture war is just as acrimonious. Brexit, ‘austerity’, feminism and many other issues divide the country, and much of the church is taking sides. Prestigious Christian figures such as Professor Tom Wright and Archbishop Justin Welby feel confident to criticise Brexit and take other one-sided political stances, though to be fair their delivery is gentle.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. I express my political opinions with confidence. But what is this really about? Striving for justice and righteousness? Or self-justification and self-righteousness? Is it really ‘righteous’ anger on behalf of the ‘defenceless’, and compassion? Or is it about having an outlet for rich man’s guilt, our anger and pride, or other flaws that really need to be brought to the cross? I invite anyone who engages in political battles to search within. Given that Jesus’ priority is love and unity, any kind of partisanship needs thorough examination.
From a secular point of view, making one-sided moral-political pronouncements rarely persuades anyone. It only solidifies the beliefs of our own side, against the other. Should we instead be trying to understand other points of view, and dialogue, to come to the best conclusions?
For Christians, it’s debatable to what extent we should get involved in politics, as I’ve previously explored for this magazine.
An easier question to answer is: Does Jesus want us to hate? Hatred is what half of Americans now feel towards the opposing political party, compared to less than 20% back in 2000. Both ‘sides’ are doing the hating.
if you're wondering why American democracy seems to have decayed so quickly, the graph below gives a big part of the story. When groups hate each other, they more easily believe that the ends justify the means. (From new Hetherington & Weiler book: https://t.co/GNK59hx6l5 ) pic.twitter.com/qPq156avtz— Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) October 6, 2018
As Christians should we be taking part in bi-partisanship when it is this toxic?
Ah, you might say, but what about Hitler? The German church shamefully stayed silent in the face of such horror! People on both political ‘sides’ use this argument. Some think – no, they’re absolutely certain – that the other side is the modern equivalent of the Nazis.
There may be, in both political tribes, the potential for dark times ahead. But if we really think this must be challenged, then perhaps we need to wait until we’re sure that we really love for the other.
A thought experiment
I’m trying to think more about how would I feel if I was on the other ‘side’ when I interact with someone. For example, if I’m on the right, and I am claiming that (say) voting for the left is equivalent to murder – what do I think and feel when the left use similar rhetoric about the right? Is it fair? Does what I’m saying really reflect what the other side is like? Am I getting lots of praise for my comments from my own ‘side’, but seeing no progress in dialogue with the other?
Most of us politically-minded Christians are far too sure of how right our opinions are. The left loudly support one political side because it allegedly supports the ‘poor and needy’, the right because it supports ‘the value of life’, along with numerous other issues. We behave as if those with different opinions don’t care about such things. But most do care, they just believe in different solutions, or they have different priorities, or they genuinely don’t know about and understand the other point of view. And even if what they’re doing is absolutely immoral, surely we need to recognise that if we’re right, they’re horribly blinded, and worthy of compassion.
Most of us politically-minded Christians are far too sure of how right our opinions are
I happen to think that the policies of some of the UK’s senior politicians have extremely sinister implications for the future if they were implemented. Would they do this because they want to deliberately impose an evil tyranny on the British public? No, as much as I disagree with them, they believe that they’re doing the right thing.
It starts with us
Because our society is so divided, we urgently need to start building bridges, particularly within the Church.
Instead of airing our opinions, however good we think our motives are, perhaps we need to go over and talk to our ‘opponents’. To try to understand them. To try and show why we believe what we believe. And perhaps if the strategy of dialogue isn’t working, we need to start to let go of how correct and righteous we think our opinions are, look at the log in our own eye, and prioritise love towards those we disagree with? Can we at least agree that this is the best goal, and what Jesus is longing for?
Years ago, long before I came to Christ, I had the vague idea that Christians could be quite good at the reconciliation game. Since then British Christendom has been emboldened into new kinds of political activism, but it’s not reconciling anyone. Meanwhile in the US what was once a one-sided fight in the church has become a vicious two-sided bar-room brawl.
Christians, let’s stop seeing ourselves as political prophets, and work on dialogue and public reconciliation across the culture wars. Rather than joining in the fight, we need to work for peace. Jesus’ way isn’t to take part in the violence and strife. It’s love, and unity.
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