Monday, April 7, 2014

The politics of Jesus (7 April 2014)

'As proved by the budget, the basic idea is simple enough: they divide society into those who think they can cope with globalisation and those who cannot, and then shower the former with praise and modest enticements – while clobbering the latter in the service of political popularity. Better to be a striver than a benefit claimant. Better, too, to play your part in what David Cameron calls the global race – manifested in George Osborne's beloved infrastructure projects – than to admit its impossibility. For all its awfulness, I understand that version of what lies ahead; indeed, I can almost feel it.'

John Harris, writing in, of all media, The Guardian, argues that the Tories own the future (of the United Kingdom) and the social democrats, let alone the socialists of the Labour Party are trapped in the past. The Tories make up 'they' in the above quote. This is no propaganda piece for the Tory right. But witheringly he asks of their counterparts on the left,

'What Marx and Engels would call the mode of production has long since changed. But have enough people on the left actually noticed?'

A challenge for Christians thinking through the politics of Jesus in 2014 is to work out these politics according to the situation of today. That puts a lot of weight on 'the situation of today'! Harris makes an excellent point that 'today' is not the burgeoning industrialised world of Mark and Engels in the mid nineteenth century. Arguably the only virtue of communism in Soviet Russia and in Mao's China (the two most notable communist experiments of the 20th century) was that they caught up two largely agrarian societies with the mid nineteenth century. If that is a virtue given the ongoing effects of industrialization on our world such as pollution and waste.

Some reference to 'the Left' and to communism is called for when working out the politics of Jesus for today because the core vision of Jesus' politics is remarkably in tune with communism's vision for sharing control of the material things of life and for the outcome of class warfare in which there is only one class of equal people.

Our guide here is Luke, theologian of the poor, when he sets out the life of the earliest days of the church in Acts 2:44-45:

'All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.'

Prior to this Luke has told the story of Jesus preaching the good news of the kingdom of God (i.e. the Gospel according to Luke). That story in Luke's hands has introduced us to a Samaritan caring for a Jew, to Zacchaeus returning his stolen money to the community he has defrauded, to women treated as equals of men, and to the impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom of God. How does that work out in practice, Luke? Like this, Luke says: 'All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.'

Whether or not we go on to say 'but' or 'except' in respect of people earning a living (e.g. Paul making tents during his missionary travels) or continuing to own large houses in the service of churches meeting in them (e.g. Romans 16) or the lack of action in abolishing slavery through direct change (see Philemon for, arguably, changing slavery by indirect action), we should not as Christians engaged in politics, seeking to be faithful to the politics of Jesus himself, let go of the communist core of these politics.

Every time we gather as church, inviting all baptised believers to gather together around the table of the Lord as one body of Christ, we honour the vision of a classless kingdom of the baptised.

What we may not be so good at doing these days is working out the implications of sharing communion together for community life between 11 am Sunday morning and 10 am the following Sunday morning!

POSTSCRIPT: It might be going too far to say that Jesus was a homeless bum at the bottom of society through no choice of his own, as a recent doctoral thesis presented here argues. In this news report of it, I am very pleased to find that the new Dean of Tikanga Pakeha students at St John's College is a person of sensible, orthodox theological views!


Mark said...

Hi Peter.
It's obviously not a busy morning for me with this being my second post on your blog for the day!!

I've always said that, in theory at least, the core ideal of communism works - the equality of all. And in theory it seems to align with Christian principles and ideals as you've already pointed to in your blog. It's unfortunate that it doesn't work in practice and there are obvious examples of that throughout history. Consumerism, materialism and ultimately capitalism conspire against it working. People, including the vast majority of us within the church, are obsessed with themselves and their things and I believe that is the single biggest problem in society and the church.

As a generalisation, society does not stand for social justice - we stand for ourselves - and because of that I'm convinced the politics in our society are all screwy. As I think about it I don't know if any Christian can vote for any current political party with the "politics of Jesus" in mind with a completely clear conscience. Maybe it's a "best of the worst lot" situation.

As you point out Peter, if Christians desire to see society as classless (we are all the same before God whether Greek or Jew, slave or free, man or woman) then it needs to start within the church itself. The hour between 10and 11am on a Sunday each week is a start but its the other 167 hours in between that we as churches and as individuals need to take responsibility for. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

There's my random ramblings for the day complete. As always I'm happy for my comments to be corrected, challenged and/or chastised.

Anonymous said...

I find it impossible as a Christian doing my best to live by the politics of Jesus to commit myself as a member of any political party because they all have some policies that seem to me to fit well with the teaching of Jesus and others that don't. At the end of the day I have to hold my nose and vote (and I think it's important to vote), but I do so in the belief that it's the principalities and powers I'm dealing with here, not the kingdom of God.

Tim C.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Mark and Tim
My series is designed, Tim, were you a Kiwi voter, to assist you with holding your nose properly.

Caleb said...

The fact that capitalism is so dominant and the Marxist and social-democratic alternatives are pretty much dead (and in any case had their own problems) leads me to think that the most important thing for Christians engaging with secular politics at the moment is not choosing between socialist/liberal and capitalist/conservative policies (or, more accurately: socially liberal neo-liberal capitalism with a welfare state or less-socially-liberal, more-neo-liberal capitalism with a weaker welfare state). It's deciding how to respond to the dominant system, capitalism.

The way I see it, we should respond to this empire the way the people of God have always been called to respond to the dominant empires surrounding them ... Don't be polluted by it, prophetically challenge its idolatrous presumptions and live creative alternatives to it while waiting for its fall.

Father Ron Smith said...

All this talk of politics in the Church? Everyone who's read the Gospels would have discerned that Jesus himself was a liberal.

Peter Carrell said...

Perhaps, Ron, but what kind of liberal? On economics as well as on social development?

Caleb said...

"Liberal" makes little sense in describing economics; Gustavo Gutierrez' "liberation" is the opposite of our "liberal" economics.

"Economically liberal" the way we use it is arguably pro-capitalist propaganda, because it's so much more concerned with the liberty of individuals and corporations [proportional to how much money they have] and liberty to exploit than liberty of collectives, liberty from exploitation, liberty to unionise, liberty of countries to go against IMF-sanctioned economics, liberty of countries in Latin America to democratically elect socialist regimes, liberty of significant power/voice in your society and world instead of having your power/voice dwarfed by that of the mega-rich, etc.

(That said, I do use "neo-liberal" myself, in lieu of a better term).

Father Ron Smith said...

I guess Peter, in the context of the liberality of Jesus that I'm talking about, He would certainly want the sort of freedom for ALL that common justice demands in all societies.

Luke, chapter 4, verse 18, is a pretty good description of what the Gospel promises to believers.