Religion and politics: do they mix?

01
Nov

 

Scripture: Matthew 23: 1-12 Nigel Bunce

“Religion and politics don’t mix.” Jesus might well have said (even if he didn’t), “You have heard it said this [i.e., Religion and politics don’t mix], but I say something different.”  Why would I say such a thing? My answer centres on the definition of the word politics. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle defined it as the affairs of the structure, administration and organization of the state. Literally, “the things concerning the city”.  That was before the word became enmeshed with the activities of a political class.

The case for mixing religion and politics

Unless we mix religion and politics, our faith would exist entirely outside the world of the here and now. It would focus only on an afterlife, God’s world. And (and I speak personally, as usual) that would divorce our actions and beliefs from worrying about this world. We would spend our time wondering about what heaven might be like.  Which is unknowable.

That is not what the Bible tells us. Jesus, like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, concerned himself with the world around him. His tradition was that of care for the less fortunate, those the Scripture called the poor, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows.

Self-important leaders

Jesus lived in a theocracy, analogous to modern day Iran. The Temple leaders set the rules that governed secular society, as well as organizing religious activities. Today’s Gospel sees Jesus once again in conflict with the religious leaders of his day. This time, the issue is that they have become self-important. Their position and privileges mean more to them than practising what they preach.

Some weeks ago, the Globe & Mail discussed the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (October 3rd edition). One article recalled a former high official in the East German government. He had sincerely believed in socialist equality. Until, that is, a foreign visitor asked him why everyone in his department did not eat in the same cafeteria.

This apparatchik ate in the fancy dining room, with linen tablecloths and waiter service. Lesser employees ate food served out on plastic trays. He faced the realization that [in the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm], some animals were more equal than others. That one incident caused him to lose his faith in the East German Communist system.

Why religion and politics must mix

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Meaning, on this earth. First century Jews awaited the Messiah to bring God’s rule to this world. Not to take them up to heaven, post haste. That’s why, in our time, meaning the last couple of hundred years, Christians have advocated for ideas like universal medical care and a social safety net.

This is politics in the sense that Aristotle envisaged: the affairs of the structure, administration and organization of the state. Jesus’ carried out his healing miracles to relieve the suffering of people while they were in this life. If religion and politics didn’t mix, he might have said, “Don’t worry. Things will get better once you get to heaven.”

That would be the philosophy of the old verse of the hymn, All things bright and beautiful. I’ve mentioned this before, in connection with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly, and gave them their estate.” It is the antithesis of Jesus’ Gospel message.

But religion should not mix with party politics

But when I say that religion and politics must mix, I do not mean that religion should mix with party politics. Because a Christian’s support for one or more specific issues may not be compatible with a party’s complete platform.

This issue comes into focus today in the US. Evangelical (that is to say, conservative) Christians overwhelmingly support the Republican party as a way to push forward agenda on abortion and gay rights. They keep silence about the behaviour of a President that should raise red flags for them, at the very least.

Jesus said that love of God and neighbour are the summary of the Law of Moses – in brief, of the Ten Commandments. A serial adulterer and habitual liar should be an abomination to a Christian. I say this merely as an observer. I am in no position to influence the result of the forthcoming US presidential election. Over a decade ago, I heard a sermon in France in which an elderly preacher said emphatically that he had no business telling his congregation for whom they should vote.

Autocrats take advantage of the pandemic to take more power. Photo: guardian.com

Liberty, in the sense of freedom to vote and to advocate for what we believe to be right, is a fragile flower. Politicians around the world have taken advantage of the present pandemic to accrete more power and prestige to themselves. Just like the Temple leaders in today’s Gospel. Think Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro, Victor Orban, Boris Johnson. Even in Canada, some political leaders have ruled essentially by decree, side-stepping their legislatures.

To sum up

So to sum up, I say that religion and politics must mix if we are to follow the Gospel message. In our time, some of the issues about the organization – or reorganization – of society are clear. There is much work to be done about inequality and discrimination.

However, the present pandemic has increased the need for charitable support in the short term – for example, for food banks. In the longer term, for reducing poverty and the need for food banks. We will revisit some of the specifics in three weeks, on the Reign of Christ Sunday.

Because, this year, the Gospel for the day is the famous passage in which Jesus challenges us. To the extent that we do or don’t help the less fortunate, it is the same as the way we would treat Jesus himself. That’s politics – the organization of our society.