The Election

From our Parish News, June 2017 issue:

Election fever is running high as this magazine heads off to press—despite it being our second General Election in as many years.  And as with the last and previous elections, all the parties are getting signed up to various promises in order to canvass our support.

Have you decided how you will vote?
If you have, will you vote for the same person or party as last time?
Are the personalities different this time?
Should personalities matter?
Are the issues the same as last time?

All of these questions have been confronted and addressed in one form or another in all democracies around the world for quite some time.  But perhaps not all of them are actually relevant to the central question, one that has perplexed humankind throughout history, which is ’How should we live?’ And this is an increasingly vexing question as in election after election we are presented with seemingly endless variations of what often looks like the same thing!

Disagreement is therefore an essential part of our democratic process yet how many of us stop to consider whether this is a good or a bad thing.  Political commentators are often quick to point out that participation in the democratic process is crucial, not least because the more people who vote, then the greater the agreement regarding the democratic process itself.  We must therefore conclude that the democratic process, for all of its flaws,  is also about agreement: participating in the process by voting is a statement of agreement with the system.  Winston Churchill perhaps best sums it up when he quoted an unknown predecessor in 1947, saying:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Participation is an indicator of ‘voter apathy’ and we should remind ourselves that since the 1950’s political participation in general elections has been steadily declining—84% turnout in 1950, to 59% in 2001, though that rose to 66% in 2015. And the most quoted reason for not voting is some variant of ‘political parties are all the same’, i.e., there is insufficient choice.  Yet paradoxically, many potential voters also say they are put off voting because of the level of disagreement over facts and figures.  It seems therefore that we both desire and reject disagreement in the political realm.  This is the contradiction at the heart of our system.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that as long ago as 1682, the Quaker, William Penn wrote

‘True godliness does not turn men [sic] out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it’. 

It may seem odd to cite a Quaker in the context of exercising the vote, since in theory Quakers don’t.  They make the point that voting creates division, winners and losers; the losers inevitably feel aggrieved and social division is therefore increased.  Given the Brexit referendum and the Trump victory in the USA presidential elections, it is difficult to deny this point

Similarly, in business, the Quaker method in a Meeting is to aim for a proposal that avoids division but  encourages full assent by all as to what is God’s will, even if it is not their own. If no such proposal can be found, no decision is made and the matter is left on the table.

To believe such a principle could operate in public life in 21st century Britain appears to require a massive leap of faith; and in respect of the forthcoming general election would require a rather large assumption that God’s will could emerge from the contradictory political visions on offer.  Nonetheless, perhaps only for starters, there remains some significant agreement on one point: it is important that we all participate and cast our vote!

A Christian Perspective – Christianity is an incarnational faith – Jesus Christ lived as one of us, shared the joys and hardships of ordinary life and died a violent and shameful death. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that the sufferings of the world are not the last word and that God’s transforming power can turn the material world – not just the spiritual – to work for good. Christians believe they are called to share in this responsibility for bringing to birth a new creation.

Followers of Jesus believe that every human being is created in the image of God. Because of this, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the starting point for all of the church’s engagement with society, politics and national life.

Christians throughout the ages have prayed, as part of The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven”. That is why politics and the life of the Christian disciple cannot be separated. That is why the church calls its members to play a full part in the political life of the nation and to support politicians and the government with their prayers.

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10). A Christian approach to politics must be driven by this vision: enabling all people to live good lives, with the chance to realise their potential, as individuals and together as a people.

Christians take sin seriously; the truth at the heart of the gospel is about repentance and salvation. Repentance starts with the acknowledgement that all is not well, that what is good and right has been neglected and that change is inescapable. Salvation follows from the atoning work of Christ – literally making things “at one” with each other and with God.

Christians should be wary of accumulations of power wherever they take place. They should be as reluctant to live under an overweening corporate sector as under an overweening state. Where the state or the market, or any other powers, claim too much and stifle human flourishing, people are divided from one another and God’s sovereignty is mocked.

Jesus is harsh towards leaders (including religious leaders) who seek power and privilege and neglect justice and mercy for others (Matthew 23). The Biblical tradition is not only “biased to the poor”, as often noted, but warns constantly against too much power falling into too few hands. When it does, human sympathies are strained to breaking point.

These theological insights are as relevant to political and public life as they are to people’s personal lives. Our nation faces deep divisions and the gulfs between people and communities seem to be widening. At-one-ment is as necessary a goal for public life as it is for the personal dimension.

Looked at through the prism of Christian theology, the state of the world today reflects the fact that we live “between the times” – in a world where the Holy Spirit is alive and active, yet a world still characterised by the persistence of sin. Because grace and sin are in tension in everyone, claims to have grasped ultimate truth for all time, whether in theology, politics, economics or anything else, are bound to be wrong.

Christians share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation. Christians believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief.

Adapted from: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ 2015 Church of England article supplied by Rev Canon J Sean Robertshaw
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