How politically involved can Christians be?
I remember arguing about this topic for hours last winter as part of my terrific (and turbulent) bible study group. The computer science grad and evangelist/future RCMP officer (both aspiring politicians) would sit across the room from the journalist/aspiring military historian (myself), the physicist, and the entrepreneur, and the space between would become a battlefield. We’d throw arguments back and forth, then drink beer and pray for each other. It was the best bible study I’ve ever been a part of.
The question which we debated at the time was one of loyalty. I argued that it was impossible to be loyal both to the people that elected you to a political position and the God you served. ‘One cannot serve two masters,’ I said, “especially when you have promised to faithfully serve in a secular institution with secular ethics.
The evangelist didn’t see a problem with the situation, claiming that his commitment to God would supercede all others. He argued that if he made his religious commitments clear from the beginning of his campaign, his constituents would be perfectly clear on his platform and ethics.
Of course I argued he would never get elected to begin with; a rather cynical position, but one that is becoming more and more plausible in our increasingly secularized age.
The discussion moved on to questions of theocracy and spiritual conflict resolution, yet the question remaining in my mind was simple. How could someone like our local Member of Parliament, a committed Christian, serve conscientiously in government? How could he sign off on bills that ran contrary to his beliefs? Yet how could he stay true to his beliefs and deny the wishes of his district?
A few days ago I was able to ask that question to a couple theological leaders in my denomination. Both are members of the committee responsible for arbitrating theological issues in their respective conferences (the rather Orwellian-sounding Board of Faith and Life), and both are PhDs teaching at respected religious institutions. My questions were ostensibly based on recent events in Japan.
To explain, some members of Japanese Mennonite churches recently signed a letter protesting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed changes to the Japanese constitution. Now some might say the constitution is due for a little change since it hasn’t been amended since its introduction in ’47 (and it was mostly written by American occupying forces), yet Mennonites still have a bone to pick with Abe. One of the main articles that the big Prime wants to change is Article 9, which reads as follows:
“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
Despite the fact that this article was written as a reactionary measure following the collapse of militant, imperial Japan, it is entirely unique internationally. No other country has such a position written into its constitution, and many Japanese are (justifiably) proud of their nation’s commitment to peace. Mennonites, as pacifists, also believe this article to be incredibly important, which is why Abe is getting them a little riled.
Of course, Japan’s position is incredibly hypocritical in that the country actually does have armed forces (land, sea, and air) ‘hidden’ as a subsidiary of their police force. In fact, Japan is one of the top 10 military spenders in the world (a position which has required a generous reinterpretation of Article 9). So what we’re arguing about here is the idea of the matter, rather than the facts on the ground.
But sometimes it’s the ideas that are the most interesting.
Anyway, I used the Japan situation as a starting point into a more abstract discussion with my two theologians. I asked them some of the same questions I had asked my friends at the earlier bible study, and the answers were not entirely the ones I was expecting.
Neither (of course) thought that a variant of the Japanese Article 9 would be plausible in the Canadian or U.S. context, but both would intellectually support such a proposal. Neither believe in the classic Mennonite political stance of non-participation, but both emphasize the toll of politics on the Christian ideal.
One of the better quotes of both interviews was in explanation of the idea that Jesus was political, and therefore as Christians we are called to be political as well. Still, as one of my two white, male, Mennonite experts said “while being a Christian is political it is not partisan, so while Christians may be involved through a political party … they need to realize that no political party represents the kingdom of God.”
Amen to that, brother. I don’t think it’s difficult to tell what group that little caveat was aimed at.
Of course, my personal worry about the ethical compromises of political involvement were also addressed. “Political work is inherently built on compromise,” I was told, “and that doesn’t grasp the fullness of the mandate of the kingdom of God. The compromise that is necessary at the political level is incompatible with the Gospel at its most basic level. There are tradeoffs that need to be made, and Christians ought not assume that they can make those tradeoffs without changing the nature of what they’re doing if they think they’re doing kingdom work.”
At its best Christian political involvement can help keep the government open and honest, thereby acting as a ‘buffer zone’ between the secular political realm and private Christian social and mission work. This kind of work has been deeply important when dealing with current issues such as Trinity Western University’s bid for a law program, or the Crossroads funding debacle earlier this year. The ugly truth is that government affects everything we do from church to mission work, and without the presence of Christians involved in politics, we’d have little defense against changes in the political wind.
At its worst Christian political involvement can be a modern reminder of why some consider Constantine to be the death knell of the early church. Christianity is not meant to be forced involuntarily upon those who want no part of it, whether through fire and sword or bill and policy. Additionally, Christians have an entirely different mandate than politicians, and it is naïve to expect the two to seamlessly merge. One can only look to the ethical struggles endured by Jake Epp during the Mulroney era (over the abortion issue) to understand the tensions (and compromise) necessary.
At the heart of the issue is the extremity of kingdom (Christian) thinking compared with a secular perspective. As one of my theologians said, “I think there is a fundamental continuity between kingdom ethics and civil ethics, but civil ethics operate at a lower level. Which practically means that there is a lower level of moral expectation even though there is a continuity between the two …. There is a level of coercion that is necessary at the civil level that is not necessary in kingdom ethics. We ought not have the need for corporal punishment and other coercive methods within the kingdom and within churches. There is a level of coercion that is necessary at a civil level because we’re dealing with unregenerate people, and the best that political mechanisms can hope to accomplish is to attempt to minimize the levels of coercion, minimize the level of violence that is going to exist … but there always will be a level of violence that exists.”
Christianity is meant to be uncompromising. It is not meant to ‘minimize’ violence and sin, but to defeat it entirely. I believe Christians should be involved in politics, and I am proud of those Japanese Mennonites who stood up for their pacifist beliefs to a government which seems intent on resurrecting the Japanese military as a political tool. I just don’t see how a political role for Christians is possible without serious ethical compromises. Is Christianity primarily a system of theology or sociology? Do we exist to serve God or simply to promote interpersonal justice?
I admit I don’t have answers, which means it’s time to drink beer and do some praying.