Religion, politics and polite society.

When I were a lad there two things that you weren’t supposed to discuss in polite society: religion and politics!

Now that I am a Parish Priest it is hard to avoid, with any integrity, discussing religion and, as for politics, well it refuses to be silenced!

A few days ago the question that I had been waiting for was finally asked  by a parishioner: ‘Andrew, how are you going to vote in the referendum?’ 

As a ‘good’ C of E of priest I avoided giving a straight answer!

But, I did suggest that, as a person of faith, my starting place needs to be, wait for it………my faith!

In other words my decision needs, above all else,to be informed and critiqued through the riches of the Christian tradition, using its motifs, concepts and, Scriptures.

So here are just a few of the thoughts that I have been chewing other, or pondering, since the question was popped:

First, of all it would seem really clear to me that ‘narrow’ self interest cannot, with theological integrity, be the starting point. ‘What’s in Britain’s best interests’ is an interesting politico-economic question but, not a distinctively Christian question.

In fact as Christians we are sometimes asked to make decisions which, in the short-term, might appear to be antagonistic to our own ‘narrow’ self-interest. St. Paul famously reminded the Christian community in Philippi that ‘everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others,’ (Philippians 2, 3-4). So, as we Christians make up our minds I do think it is important that we listen to the views of others, they are our neighbours after all.

Good neighbourliness must, if we are to take Jesus’ summation of the law seriously, be a guiding concept and being a good neighbour means weighing up the needs of others; by definition!

Being Christian, I would want to suggest, means fully accepting that others can rightfully make claims on us, being Christian also means the willingness to bear such claims, to the extent to which they support and uphold the common good.

So as we approach the referendum I think it is really important to ask ‘how can we best be a good neighbour to the people of Europe and around the world?’  The subsidiary question is, of course, ‘what structures and institutions best support the Christian ideal of good neighbourliness?’ 

Good neighbourliness brings into question the contentious issues of migration and border control. We need to think these issues through for Jesus ‘election manifesto’ made it clear that He came to break the yoke that binds the refugee, migrant and, outcast. For the Christian the question can never be if, only how, this might be achieved.

What combination of hospitality and charity should we offer, both of which I take to be manifestations of that distinctive self-sacrificial love called agape?

Mutuality might be a concept the faith community should regard as antecedent to prosperity. Jeremiah 29, gives some interesting insights into the relationship between the two. It is a great read!

In addressing questions raised by mutuality and prosperity we are, of course, entering into territory where theology and economics come into dialogue with each other. The European referendum has a definite ‘Theonomic’ dimension to it. Theology and economics cannot, however uncomfortable it might makes us feel, be kept in separate compartments, just think how frequently ‘money’ is mentioned in the gospels (and elsewhere in the canon.)

Justice and peace (where peace means not just the absence of violence but also the reality of right and righteous relationships) are important motifs, for as the monks of Taize like to chant: ‘the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ 

If we are serious about the Lord’s Prayer, and in particular our plea that God’s will be done ‘in earth as in heaven,’  we need to think very hard about whether we can best serve the interest of peace and justice from either inside or outside the European Union.

Finally, I would want to reflect through the lens of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’ Subsidiarity must, however, not be regarded as a straightforward rule that always insists that ‘local is best.’ Rather it suggests that ‘local can be best.’ But, subsidiarity does, rightfully, invite a level of healthy skepticism of large and powerful structures and institutions.

If subsidiarity (which derives from Catholic social teaching) is to be used as an epistemological lens with integrity ‘careful attention to the areas of life where we function best as a nation and other areas where people function best as members of something smaller and more local’ need to be carefully weighed up. (This quote is taken from the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Letter – ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The word ‘nation’ in the original refers to Britain, in my usage here ‘nation’ is used to donate Europe and ‘local’ Britain.)

So there you have it, the theological motifs and concepts that I will be using to inform my decision: giving some preference to the claims of others, good neighbourliness, the common good, mutuality and prosperity, justice, peace and, subsidiarity.

Two final thoughts: First, I really do hope that Christians raise theological questions both of themselves and of those campaigning one way or t’other, otherwise all we will be left with are spurious economic arguments and secondly, I am still not saying how I will be voting!

There really are some things that a vicar shouldn’t talk about in polite society!






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