Here in Tasmania, we are on the eve of an election which has been focussing my mind on what it means for Christians to be productively engaging with the political process.
Some of my friends are very clear about what they consider the “right” party to be voting for.. I am less certain.
I have friends on both sides of the two-party political divide (as it is in Australia) and I, like many people, find myself both drawn and repelled by both aspects of the policy platform of each party.
So how do I make the decision?
After some reflection I think there are a few principles that anyone seeking to be a follower of Christ should have in mind when they walk into a ballot box.
1. We are called to engage in civic life under the leadership of people who we don’t agree with.
The early church mostly found themselves living under corrupt, totalitarian rulers who had scant regard for many of the freedoms we take for granted.
It was into this setting that Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Rome, the political centre of the world at the time and wrote something that must have been absolutely bewildering to those who understood their allegiance was to a different Lord.
Paul makes it clear that our faith is not to be separate from our engagement with politics, but should lead us to be actively and honourably involved in civic life.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13:1)
Paul goes on to say that followers of Christ should not rebel against the authority structures that “God has instituted” and they should actively “do what is right.”
More than simply doing what is right, he challenged them to pay their taxes and give the honour and respect that is due to the authorities:
Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:7)
Some people hang a lot on the phrase “what you owe to them”, believing that one side or other of politics is not owed respect or honour. This is a dangerous misreading of scripture. The text makes it clear that it is the responsibility they carry, not your judgement of them, that makes them worthy of respect and honour.
Paul’s injunction challenges Australians to take our civic responsibility seriously.
Because voting is compulsory here, elections seem to be less intense and almost casual. It is easy to turn up at a ballot box simply to avoid a fine and unthinkingly tick boxes.
Respecting our leaders and giving them the honour they are due requires us to take this responsibility very seriously and never simply go through the motion.
2. Aligning your identity with a political party is simply wrong.
On the other side of the spectrum, one of the biggest challenges facing politics in North America is that some people are finding their source of identity and hope in Political parties and politicians. Any system that results in people saying “I am a Progressive” or “I am a Conservative” is incredibly dangerous. These are statements of identity.
The democratic system is based on the notion that people have a moral compass that informs which name they put the tick next to in the ballot box.
Identity poltitics is a cancer for democracy, and the antithesis of Christianity, which asserts that our identity is in Christ and not in a political ideology.
3. God cares about Justice, Mercy and Compassion in every area of life and its time we got past the false dichotomy of left and right.
Sadly “Conservative” Christians have tended to focus on one suite of political issues (which are largely about personal morality and freedom from government interference in economic issues) and “Progressive” Christians tend to focus on a different range of issues (which are largely about social and economic morality and freedom from governmental interference in personal issues). I have written elsewhere about this dichotomy and the way CNN and FOX News represents different sides of this split.
The thing is followers of Jesus don’t have the luxury of deciding which issues it is ok to ignore. We are called to love our neighbours and also to avoid sexual immorality. We are called to care for the poor and protect the sanctity of life.
It is this false dichotomy that faces voters at most elections in the western world. It is a dichotomy that has been shaped by two opposing ideologies that are continually at war in the public square. The left wing of politics have been shaped by socialist ideaology and the right wing of politics have been shaped by capitalist ideology.
In the current Tasmanian election this divided loyalty has been seen clearly as the Liberal party has offered protection against Euthanasia and Abortion and the Labor party promised to abolish the scurge of poker machines from pubs and clubs and invest heavily in healthcare. The choice between these options is not easy, and no Christian should pretend it is.
It is a choice though that we are forced to make, and each of us need to take that choice very seriously.
4. We need to be praying for a new kind of Christian statesperson
Both in North America and here in Australia we are desperate for a new kind of Christian statesperson. We need people who can see beyond the socialist ideology of the left and the capitalist ideology of the right. Jesus was not a socialist or a capitalist. He claimed to represent a radical third option, a Kingdom of Love built on a Foundation genuine Justice, Mercy and Compassion.
Throughout history there have been statespeople who have risen above the entrenched ideological suppositions of their day with a vision shaped by Jesus Christ. Basil of Cappadocia, Saint Patrick, Francis of Assisi, Flynn of the Inland, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa all stepped out of what was expected and changed the world.
It is right to honour and respect our current leaders and actively engage with the complexity of the politicial process as it is. It is also right to pray for more states people who will be shaped less by the political system as it is and more by a vision of the Kingdom that changes everything.
As Winston Churchill pointed out, democracy is a flawed system but its the best system we have. Unlike the early Christians it is possible for any one of us who live in a democracy to move into local, state or national leadership.
As I prayerfully tick boxes at the ballot boxes in the morning I will also be praying for more and more followers of Jesus who are ready to step above the politically “normal” and truly be the change they want to see in the world.