How does the Easter faith affect our approach to politics?
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, The Rt Rev. the Lord Harries of Pentregarth DD, reflects on how the Easter faith affects our approach to politics.
Lord Harries was Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006 and now sits as an independent Cross Bench Peer in the House of Lords.
As you look around the world today it is easy to despair, so many countries riven by conflict, so much injustice, such horrendous suffering. Or, if one avoids despair, it is easy to slip into a sad resignation that this is simply how things are and how they always will be. What does the Easter faith bring to this tragic state of affairs? How does it affect our approach to politics?
The Christian faith impacts on politics in two main ways. First, the injunction that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves means that we are obligated to try to lessen the great burden of human suffering whenever we can. For most of human history it was possible to do this through individual acts of kindness or by founding an institution. So it was that Christians were led to found the great hospitals and educational establishment of Europe and, more recently, to be pioneers in the hospice movement. But now the state dominates so much of our lives. Areas where once the church was the main provider have been taken over by government. This means that it is simply not possible to love our neighbour today without taking into account the political policies of government, which have such a decisive effect on people for good or ill.
The second way the Christian faith impacts on the political realm is by giving us a vision of the kind of community that we should all like to live in: in short a community in which we feel we have a place, in which we are a valued member, and which is characterised by a sense of mutual interdependence. Most of us know this in our families; if we are lucky we will experience it in our church or local neighbourhood. But this is also what should in some way be reflected in the wider society to which we belong, the nation and indeed the world as a whole. Such a society exists in its fullness only in the Kingdom of God’s love, that community of perfect mutual giving and receiving that we call the Communion of Saints. But we are called to reflect this, in however an opaque way, in our human communities.
The idea that human society was inevitably progressing towards that vision was shattered by World War I and few today would hold it. The fact is that every advance brings with it the possibility of some new catastrophe. At the same time Christian talk about “Building the Kingdom of God on earth” does not seem to do justice to the New Testament insight that this new realm is not about what we do but what God gives.
However, we can look for “Signs of the kingdom”. When, we see a sensitive carer looking after someone who is disabled, that is a sign of the Divine community of love. When a Government makes a serious commitment to overseas aid, or provision for asylum seekers, it is a sign of that Kingdom. When, after a country has been devastated, the population works with other people of good will to rebuild it, as in Rwanda, again it is a sign of what God is working to bring about.
Christians believe that in the crucifixion Christ entered into the most extreme form of human dereliction, even to the extent of feeling abandoned by his Father. They also believe that his Resurrection reveals that nothing, no evil, not even death itself, had separated him from the Father. In him there is an eternal union of God and humanity that nothing can destroy and this is shared with each one of us in a way that similarly binds our lives to God for ever if we will have it.
This means that however depressing the situation is in the world or however often our hopes are dashed; any effort we make to alleviate human suffering or create true human communities will not be lost. Funeral services very often have a passage from the 15th chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which reads in the King James Version:
‘Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord’.
Whatever the setbacks, we are to persevere knowing that what we do is not in vain, will not be wasted, and will have its fulfilment in God’s ultimate kingdom.
Albert Camus said: “Let us think clearly and not hope any more”. A Christian tries to think clearly, but does so in the light of what God has disclosed in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and thinking in this way gives us a deep rooted, persevering hope. For we know that in the end God’s purpose of love for the world will prevail, and our reflections of that love, whether in the personal or political sphere, will have a place there.
The Italian Marxist Gramsci urged a “pessimism of the intellect but an optimism of the will”. A Christian, aware of the dark side of life, might very well share that pessimism of the intellect, and cannot share the idea that the world will inevitably get better and better. But they will have not so much optimism of the will, as an optimism of the spirit, one deeply rooted in an ultimate hope for the world, and one which brings with it a perseverance of the will. So, we might say, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit, and determination of the will. It is this which Easter gives us, as the world continues to wrestle with apparently intractable problems.
Published: Tuesday 15 April 2014
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone