Written by Pastor Graham Cooke
The Christian and the Ballot Box
Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State during the Bill Clinton Presidency, apparently used to encourage all her staff to actively train their bladders so that they didn’t feel the need to slip out of very long meetings. Why? Because decisions are made by those in the room!
But when it comes to being involved in politics, some Christians don’t seem to think we should be in the room at all, for fear of compromising our faith. “Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, to God that which is God’s”, we were told, as I grew up.
With the General Election rapidly approaching, it is good to ask ourselves whether as Christians we should get involved, and if so, what does a biblical approach to politics look like?
Let’s start with that oft-quoted passage in Luke.
Luke 20:20-25: Render unto Caesar…
Jesus’ opponents were hoping to catch him out. If Jesus says, ‘Pay the tax’ the more zealous nationalistic elements of Judaism will turn against him, and he’ll lose popular support. But if he says, “Don’t pay it” then he’ll get in trouble with the Romans, who might then do them a favour and get rid of him. What a clever question! But nowhere near as clever as Jesus’ response.
Firstly, Jesus says ‘Show me a denarius!”- a Roman coin, with the inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of divine Augustus’. Jesus has already begun to turn the tables- if these men had Roman money on them, then they were in no position to criticise Jesus for collusion with the Romans. Then, when they produce the coin, he says “Whose portrait is that?” Caesar’s of course. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” There’s a recognition of Roman authority there. But that word ‘portrait’ is the Greek word eikon, image. Remember Genesis 1:26. God says, “Let us make man in our own image.” The coin had Caesar’s image on it- give it to Caesar. But what about human beings? Whose image do they bear? Well, God’s! Therefore, give to God what is God’s! So Jesus’ point, subtly made, is that, yes, God has allowed Caesar some authority, which they must respect, but his authority takes its place beneath God’s ultimate authority.
That gives us the framework with which we approach any involvement with politics and government. If the whole sphere of human existence rightly belongs to God, it is not unspiritual to engage with politics.
Let’s look briefly at three other passages:
Romans 13:1-7: Submit to the Governing authorities…
As we get involved, firstly we have a duty before God to recognise the authority he has allowed to be put into place. Government exists to restrain disorder, part of God’s provision to hold back evil. Astonishing words from someone living under Emperor Nero, given all he did to act against God’s people. But Paul would say; firstly, that any government is far from perfect because of the sin principle. Secondly, even ungodly government is better than anarchy. That doesn’t mean we don’t stand up and speak truth to power when it is wrong. However, it is part of God’s common grace to establish authority in this way for the sake of order.
1 Peter 2:13-17: Fear God, Honour the King!
We see here the dual role of government; to restrain evil and to encourage and protect those who add to the common good. We live as free people, but freedom is not an end in itself- we use our freedom to serve God.
In v17, we honour the rulers, but we fear God. So when we cannot obey both, obedience to God comes first.
Earlier Peter has said that believers are aliens and strangers in this world. When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon the Lord told them, through the prophet Jeremiah, “Seek the welfare of the city. (Babylon!)” (Jeremiah 29:7). So it isn’t godly to opt out of society and the political process-we too should seek the welfare of our land, acknowledging God’s ultimate authority. The best way of seeking the welfare of the land is to try and bring God’s kingdom values to bear in our land.
So, bringing all this together, when we engage with how to use our vote, when we enter into discourse with those who stand for public office, or when we ourselves stand, by doing that in a godly way we are bringing God’s lordship, God’s kingdom, to bear. We are playing our part in shaping who will be not only our servants in government but God’s servants. In order to be part of that shaping, we have to be in the room.
How then, should we vote?
- Vote with an eye on the Bible.
In order to bring the lordship of Christ to bear as we vote, we have to listen to what God says.
- Vote in line with God’s values.
That may seem obvious, but perhaps not as straightforward as it sounds.
It means, for a start, not voting simply in line with what most affects me personally. Which party will make me personally better off?
The second thing to avoid is having too narrow a view of what things God is concerned about. There is a tendency for Christians only to get exercised on such hot button issues as abortion, gay marriage, or assisted dying. Now those are very important issues, but don’t we think God is also interested in other things? For instance, what does he think of the way big business tends to misuse its huge power? What about all that the Old Testament prophets have to say about taking care of the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable and weak? For instance, the Bible has something to say about the swathing cuts that have been made to legal aid funding, as the prophet Amos points the finger at those who ‘deprive the poor of justice in the courts.’ We should at least let our elected (and would-be elected) representatives know that this matters to us.
Of course, we’re not going to find a party or a candidate who effectively supports or stand up for all biblical values at the same time. Even if there’s a committed Christian standing, we all have blind spots. Indeed, you’ll find Christians in all the main parties. So, there is a value judgement here. Traditionally the right-of-centre parties have supported so-called traditional family values, whereas the left-of-centre parties have traditionally had greater concern for the poor and the marginalised. Both groups would have had Christians involved driving those forward. It’s complicated! So we have to take a value judgement – not narrowly looking at one issue, but being aware of a broad range.
- Vote with an air of realism.
Two biblical truths that we should remember. The first is the reality of sin. Any government is made up of fallen sinful people who will inevitably have a tendency, once in power, to hold on to it at all costs. Let’s listen to what politicians promise with more than a pinch of salt. Let’s not expect too much from them. Of course, let’s hold them to account for dishonesty and corruption, but let’s not expect them to do what governments can never do. The trouble is of course, politicians themselves encourage this lack of realism by promising things they simply cannot deliver- which leads to disillusionment and cynicism. But governments are like lawn-mowers, they can help keep things orderly, they can keep weeds from growing too high. But if you want to start growing wheat in your back garden, your lawn-mower can’t help you. You need life-bearing seed, and water from above! Laws cannot change hearts. So, let’s not get disillusioned by sinfulness in our leaders; let’s be real about what we expect them to do. Let’s recognise the limitations of government.
But remember another biblical truth- that of common grace. Although we are all sinful, we are not all as bad as we possibly could be. We are all made in the image of God, and, although that image has become twisted by sin, it is still there. Believers and unbelievers alike have active consciences, and recognise the importance of certain values: truth, justice and so on, and can have a passion for things for which God has a passion too. There can be good leaders, used by God, even among those who refuse to accept God’s existence. However, even the best leaders will only be curate’s eggs- good in parts!
- Vote with an eye on the world around.
Keep yourself informed not just about our own country but about the world. It is God’s world and we should be concerned for it. Of course, we can go too far and become news junkies. That’s not so good. Hearing about every disaster the moment it happens
probably only increases our stress levels, and gives us compassion fatigue. But it’s good to be informed, aware of the issues of the day, good to try and understand the arguments.
In David’s day we read about the men of Issachar, ‘who understood the times, and knew what Israel should do.’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). Let’s have that same awareness.
This means being more interested in substance than style. Before we’re swayed by who looks most comfortable or commanding. the questions we need to be asking is: what are their core values? What are they committed to? What were they committed to before the campaign started, when they were more likely to speak from the heart?
- Vote with an eye on your own heart.
As we said, don’t just vote for what benefits you. Also, let’s be wary of tribalism: ‘My old Dad would turn in his grave if I ever voted for that lot!” Because of the nature of sinful humanity, no one party is going to get everything right, and no party is always going to be the appropriate option. That’s why I think we must beware thinking that all Christians should vote a certain way. That way our blind spots go unchecked.
- Do more than vote.
We can get involved in other ways in the political process. Writing letters to MPs and other people in powerful places is an obvious way- don’t under-estimate the influence of a letter. However, I think there is a danger, if you get into the habit of writing, that you end up as a Christian Mr Angry firing off letters just to vent your frustration. There are MPs who say that the most vitriolic letters they receive are from evangelical Christians. That is not very helpful.
There are other ways to get involved. We mentioned the limitations of government. There are things government cannot do, but that people working at a grass-roots level can do. If we really are fired up about the things God values, let’s get involved with situations in our local area. In Reading there are all kinds of ways of doing that-ways of helping the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the alien- and local Christians are leading the way (through organisations such as Christian Community Action, N:Qu?re, The Rahab Project, Faith/Readifood.) Or maybe there’s a need right on our doorstep that you can start to do something about.
In a sense this is where Christian influence has always been more effective- away from the seat of power, making a difference from the ground up. That’s what the New Testament seems to envisage, rather than a ‘Christendom’ model, whereby Church and state are rather too closely interwoven. Better for Christians to go on quietly subverting the world order, valuing people the state and the powerful don’t value, standing up for what we believe, even when it means getting into hot water, rather than just merely protecting our rights and privileges. Dare I say, the church is at its most effective, not when it is close to the seat of power and in a position to write laws, not even when it is safely protected by those laws, but when it is on the edge, when it is under pressure, when it is in a position of weakness, even when it is being persecuted. If we really want to see kingdom growth in this country, maybe that is what we’ve got to expect.
- Vote and Pray
Whatever else we do, we must pray. These issues seem too big, out of our control- they are not out of God’s control. He has clearly instructed us to pray, not only about who to vote for, but to pray for our leaders, whoever gets in! (1 Timothy 2:1). It is often rightly said that if you don’t vote, then you shouldn’t moan about your leaders afterwards. Perhaps as Christians we should tell ourselves that we have no right to moan about them if we don’t pray for them regularly.
Our government runs on the basis of democracy and the rule of law, which is much better than the alternative- but it does tend to produce leaders who follow popular opinion rather than lead- and let’s face it, there are times when the majority is just plain wrong. The rule of law is worth celebrating, but no-one can legislate to change hearts. Only the Spirit of God can change hearts, and that is what he does, as God’s people pray, as God’s people live holy and godly lives, as God’s people clearly proclaim the good news of Jesus, and as God’s people get involved in works of the kingdom. One day that kingdom will come fully, but if we believe God is active in this world through his Spirit here and now, then we won’t just sit back and wait. We’ll work towards that kingdom now. The church demonstrating ahead of time, why, whoever else we vote for, first and foremost, we vote for Jesus, the King of kings, who can be trusted to keep his promises, having both the power to do so, and the honesty, integrity and sheer goodness to be trusted with that power.
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