A society based on the values of Jesus Christ
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, reflects on the message of Easter and its relevance to politics today. In his article he writes that Easter is a celebration of God’s power to liberate in human beings a hope, a strength, and a courage to transform society through a turning away from selfishness and egotism towards a more sacrificial and generous conviction about what it takes for us all to find new life. The voices of those who can share that conviction are as much needed today as ever.
The Rt Revd Tim Stevens is the Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual.
Rarely in history can the climax of the season of Lent have coincided with so much public attention on organised religion. The coincidence of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby both inaugurating their public ministries during Passiontide has focused the minds of commentators and church people on questions around the future of the Christian Church especially in Europe.
In our own country debates about faith and society focus on the current arguments about equal marriage; the relation between Parliament and the Church of England following the women bishops decision by General Synod and the responsibility of the State for the poor in terms of welfare reform.
Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin have signalled a change of mood in the Church, eschewing the trappings and impedimenta of status and beginning to focus on Catholic social teaching and questions around the Common Good.
In his inaugural address in Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “For more than a thousand years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the Son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community. Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse.” Not everyone accepts that. In December 2011 the Economist lead article had this to say about the Church:
“Time and again, Bishops sound like Shop Stewards for the Welfare State, taking to the airwaves to demand the preservation of specific benefits without mentioning the Church, the role of faith or Christianity. But the economy may be about to fall off a cliff. That poses a huge test for the Church of England and its claims to be a source of national strength. If the Church cannot offer a message more spikey and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail that test.”
So what might a “more spikey and distinctive” contribution to current debate look like? It seems to me there are three imperatives for a society based on the values of Jesus Christ which could lead us to a much more coherent approach to some contemporary questions.
First we need a vision of a just society – not just for the sake of the poor but of the rich. It is overwhelmingly clear that the widening inequalities in our society lead to unhappiness and discontent measured in poor mental health, marital breakdown and divided communities. The Eucharist is not just a vision of a Christian club gathered for an esoteric religious ritual in a church, but a vision for the whole of human society. Each Eucharist is an acting out of a fundamental truth about all human beings – that we are ultimately dependent on one another and on God and that we cannot flourish in isolation from each other. If citizens of our capital city are building multi-million pound swimming pools in basements in Kensington, while others are rendered homeless because they have an extra bedroom we are living out a fantastic insanity. The Gospels are a reminder that the rich find their true wealth in supporting the poor and we urgently need structures which give expression to that fundamental Christian value.
Second, if we are to build a vision of a coherent society, we need basic social institutions which serve that vision. Marriage, of course, has changed and developed over the years. As has been repeatedly said, it is not the property of Church nor of the Government. But it has been a vision of a partnership which has the potential to serve the needs of society beyond the lifetime of the couple. A redefinition of marriage which leaves it as simply a lifestyle choice between two individuals calls into question a Christian vision of a society in which our most important human choices are based on something beyond ourselves and our own personal satisfactions.
Thirdly, the Christian tradition offers us a vision of a global society in which human identity is founded in something deeper than Nation or State. Only such a vision will help us through the current challenges which we face in the degradation of our environment and the potential rendering the planet uninhabitable. The present short-term national interests which determine so much of the political agenda are quite incapable of rising to these challenges. The Christian Church has to release and unlock other voices and do so urgently.
Easter is a celebration of God’s power to liberate in human beings a hope, a strength, and a courage to transform society through a turning away from selfishness and egotism towards a more sacrificial and generous conviction about what it takes for us all to find new life. The voices of those who can share that conviction are as much needed today as ever.
Published: Thursday 28 March 2013
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