“The Church & Politics”, a sermon preached at Sandleheath on Sunday 14th May 2017 by Mark Ward
There is a view that faith and politics don’t mix but I find that an argument which really doesn’t hang together in a country which has a national church, where the Head of State and the Head of the Church are the same person, and where the bishops from that national church sit as “Lords Spiritual” in one of the two law making chambers of our government.
Of course using the pulpit as a platform to canvass for one particular brand of politics would be completely wrong. I was taking a service in one of our churches when the Labour Party was looking for a new leader to replace Ed Miliband and I prayed that they might find a new leader, the same as I might have prayed for peace in Syria. At the end of the service I was roundly attacked by one person who shouted at me “how dare you pray for the Labour Party, this is the trouble with the clergy in this church, you are all raving lefties”, with which they marched out of church. The rest of the congregation rallied round and assured me that I hadn’t prayed for the Labour Party, but simply that they might find a leader of the opposition. Well someone must have given the person a talking to because a couple of weeks later I got an unreserved apology!
So let me stress that what follows is NOT a party political broadcast in any form. But should the church be interested in politics and as WE are the church does that mean we should be politically active or not? Did you vote last week? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t – but here’s the first hurdle. The week before the last general election I admitted to the same evensong congregation that I hadn’t voted for quite some time in a national election because I didn’t feel that anyone out there represented my position and that if I did vote for anyone else than the sitting candidate it was most unlikely my vote would count. For me everyone’s vote should count in some way which with our current system isn’t the case. I argued that there should be a place on the ballot paper where I could vote but in a box which says “none of the above” because the only option I have as a protest is to spoil my paper. The response was quite strong, “our parents” they said; (which actually included mine) “didn’t fight a world war to give you the option to not vote”. I could see their point but I don’t think they appreciated mine that I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for someone who would do some things I was happy with, but might equally do some things I was very unhappy with, or that if my vote was to have no possibility of counting then what was the point.
As it happened I did vote in that election so the congregation forgave me, but it doesn’t mean I will always do so.
And then there is this issue of – do you vote for the lesser evil? How many positives outweigh a negative? Or do I vote for the party which I think will stand up to tyrannical behaviour in the world because another won’t?
And what if the party I vote for then does something terrible in my name, or changes its position for political reasons?
So the question is – what would Jesus do? My answer is “I don’t know” but I’ve tried to think it through.
Number one – would Jesus vote at all? Of course he didn’t have the option as his earthly life was spent under the rule of a foreign dictatorship but when asked if people should pay their taxes he told them that they should, so he clearly felt that community was important. Our local elections are usually about community – those who seek election often appeal to us about very local matters and in some way making a choice is easier. I think Jesus would have said – well vote for the person who appears to be an upright citizen with some kind of track record if they are saying they want to benefit the local people and that benefit really is a good idea.
But would he have voted on June 8th? That’s a harder one to answer. Jesus was clear that the world was much bigger than the land of Israel and that his care was for the whole world so he would have been very much interested in the wider picture. Well that’s about as far as I can get with an answer to this one.
So maybe we should bring it down to issues – where would Jesus have stood on race, or poverty or inequality of wealth? These issues are perhaps much clearer – we know that his mission was to feed the hungry, to cure the lame and to ask those who may have been looking after number one above everyone else to reconsider – just think of his visit to Zacchaeus.
But of course he also might have weighed up the personalities involved – do we vote for parties or people? Well some of us do one and some of us the other. I can remember being very impressed by certain individuals who may have been from a party I wouldn’t support, and I have been very impressed by the conviction of some people who I have admired for that conviction even if their position on the cause was opposite to my own.
I was in my teens, living in Grantham, in Lincolnshire when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Tory party and at the time I remember thinking she was probably a good leader, but as time went by and she and Mr Tebbit restyled the country to persuade us all to get on our bikes and look after ourselves first, I have to say my opinion changed and I gradually grew to dislike what she stood for more and more.
Equally I thought Mr Blair was a breath of fresh air, but in the end I wasn’t so sure.
Of course we can only judge the matter at hand, we can’t guess what will happen in the future can we? Things change – just look at what happened to Jesus a week before Easter and then a few days later, hailed as a mighty king and a few days later murdered on a cross – we change.
If I’m sure of anything though – Jesus would have challenged those standing for election to tell the truth – how many times did he respond to a question put to him with “I tell you the truth” – I haven’t counted – but plenty of times – and why was he saying that before answering – because others were not telling the truth.
If he was to come back now and David Dimbleby invited him onto Question Time I suspect Jesus would spend much of his time asking people to stop spinning the issue to suit themselves, to stop simply slamming the person with an opposite view and to be as truthful as possible.
Clearly at the moment our government doesn’t have enough money to do all the things it needs to do. When I started work in 1980 the rate of income tax was 30% – half as much again as it is now. I don’t recall my parents being outraged that they were paying 30% and from memory we had a reasonable standard of living even though my mum was a teacher and my dad a postman. So I think Jesus might say – well if it is going to cost this much to do it, and it’s morally right, then tell the people that’s what you will do and let them choose, and oddly I think many of us would choose that option because we care about people.
I watched a small part of a TV debate when I got home after I had been here last time, because one of my colleagues was on the programme to talk about Universal Credit. A professor said that we need to pay more tax and a straw poll of the audience showed that at least half of the audience were willing to pay more if it meant that families didn’t go hungry and the health service and social care would work.
Jesus set out his viewpoint very clearly – follow me and I will give you eternal life, follow me and I will give you “my peace” which is the Holy Spirit, which will sustain you through the hard times. It won’t be easy. In fact it might be downright hard at times but it will be life affirming and it will be for the good of all.
The trouble is of course he isn’t here to vote for so we have to do what we think is right and make up our own minds, but maybe we should pray about it over the next few weeks before we go next door to cast that vote, or maybe like me before we even decide if we are going to make the trip at all.