Heaven help us if churches don’t speak about politics
Writing on The Punch yesterday David Gazard bemoaned the left-winged over-righteousness of some parts of the Christian church, who get all hot under the collar about political stuff rather than sticking to the spiritual. This is, I suppose, a change from the attacks on the right-winged over-righteousness of the other parts of the Christian church.
Of course, problems emerge when God and the Church are captured by just one side of politics. The Church may be vulnerable to such temptations in the wildernesses of power, but any God worth his name surely isn’t. It’s a lesson the followers are still learning.
David’s is a fair call in part, especially the bit about sticking to your area of expertise. After all, we Christians hate it when a Dawkins starts to teach us theology (one critic compared Dawkins on God with listening to someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds).
But it is also true that there is an overlap between theology and politics (not to mention anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature and a whole lot more).
Theologians and other church figures must be allowed to speak on such related issues when (and, I suppose, only when) they have expertise and understanding in these areas.
At least, their contribution should be judged according to their experience and expertise. Mind you, a Ph.D. doesn’t equal the sum of all knowledge on a subject.
I would take seriously the view of many a Christian missionary on the social impact of, say, Hindu understandings of people and animals, over the armchair dissertations of some university anthropology lecturers.
I’m on holiday in Bali as I write. The political impact of Balinese Hinduism is obvious, some of it for good, some not. There’s no pretending here that theology doesn’t affect politics. Likewise, filming a documentary on the Life of Jesus last year in Jerusalem, the importance of the God-priest-city-individual complex cannot be ignored. It’s there everyday, in every quarter, at every checkpoint, in every sight and sound.
Here in Indonesia, talk about theology and politics is all over the place in this week’s papers. After the bombing, clerics are rushing to either blame one religious group, or absolve another. Others want to make the claim for peace across all religions.
Says Salahuddin Wahid, head of the country’s largest Islamic organization (Nahdlatul Ulama), in The Jakarta Post: “The bombings are definitely not compatible with the teachings of Islam or other religions, because every religion respects human life”. One hotel security guard working in Jakarta has a more resigned (and pragmatic) approach: “Having a job is a blessing for me…Whether it’s a secure place or not, that’s all up to God”.
Perhaps it is only in places like Australia, where there is an expectation that religion will be a quiet, backward thing, that we are surprised when religious leaders speak out, left or right. Surely religion should be on public display, since it drives so much of who we are and how we organise ourselves.
David, your call for churches to focus on the spiritual is a good one. For too long, it is been impossible to get airplay for basic Christian teachings.
But the spiritual enters the political for all bar the most gnostic of theologies. Views on the nature of God often drive a person’s views on politics or social issues. You care about boat people for at least two reasons; one, you are a compassionate human being (that’s most of us, I think, or am I wrong?); and two, you have learned from your theology that the world is God’s, that God created all human beings “in his image” so none is more valuable than another. At least, that is the case in the Christian tradition from which I work.
Whether it is bleeding-hearted leftiness or moralistic rightishness, the church should be listened to when it speaks, in proportion with its experience and expertise.
For some, serious theological reflection and life’s experiences may lead them to extreme political positions; let them speak.
For others, the political outcomes of their beliefs and lives are less straight-forward; let their nuanced voices be heard, too.
Actually, it’s the politically disinterested believers with whom I have a bigger problem. Rather a zealot than an apatheist.
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