Vote for God

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, October 30, 2016

It goes without saying that there is a major contest on at the moment. A contest that has divided a nation. A contest where the norms of civility for so long held have been jettisoned. A contest that is dividing friends, dividing families, dividing a nation. A contest where thinly-veiled institutional greed is at odds with simple, traditional values of the ordinary person on the street. A contest where base insults have replaced kindness as the shared currency. A contest where the celebration of what could be achieved by people working together for a common good has been replaced by narrow self-interest and vicious sniping.

Yes, the Great British Baking Show has certainly been causing some strife over the last few weeks, that’s for sure.

But surely that's the contest you were thinking of?


No? Well, oddly enough, the same set of things could be said about another contest going on right now.

Let me say right now that I realize I am on dangerous ground here. It is ever so easy for a pulpit to become a bully pulpit, and I don’t intend for my remarks this morning to become in any way partisan. The problem with politics is that, by definition, politics is the art of manipulation and persuasion. Rather, I am interested here in political philosophy and human nature.

Yesterday, St. Stephen’s hosted its monthly ‘Joe with Don’. The subject under discussion was this: ‘Politics and Original Sin: Natural Bedfellows?’. If you weren’t there, you missed a great discussion. If you were, bear with me as I go over some of this stuff again.

I was the guest leader at yesterday’s ‘Joe with Don’.

The title of the session was taken from a speech by a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government back in 1980, Nigel Lawson. Incidentally, his daughter is Nigella Lawson, a famous TV chef, so we’ve kind of come full circle with the baking reference I opened with. A happy coincidence.

original sin and politics_Page_1.jpeg

Anyway, Nigel Lawson made the point that, for all that we try to keep them apart, politics and theology were intimately connected. He made the point that because of the doctrine of Original Sin, human beings were intrinsically predisposed to behaving selfishly, and therefore that it made perfect sense for our political systems to acknowledge that fact. Admit, he said, that human beings innately act in their own narrow self-interests, rather than pretending that they are wired intrinsically to act in the interests of others, and society will function much better.

On the polar opposite of Thatcher, Lawson and the other neo-liberals of the time were those who said that human beings were in fact innately predisposed to do good, and that our political systems should reflect that fact. Have a political system, they said, that didn’t cynically play to human selfishness, but on altruism. If we played to human beings' best intentions, and trusted human beings to act in selfless ways, then they would reward that trust placed in them, through government policy.

I am not trying to persuade you one way or the other. Rather, I would want to say this: that from a theological point of view, human beings are a complex mix of selfishness AND altruism. Self-evidently, we are capable of selfless actions. We are also capable of selfish actions. And even though it might appear an obvious point to make, it is important that we acknowledge this is the case, and that we know that, for this reason, religion and politics are more intimately connected than we might want to admit. Because both religion, and politics, are concerned with human behavior at its most basic level.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘When people say that politics and religion don’t mix, I’d like to know what Bible they are reading!’

Given what I said just a minute ago, that’s true. The Bible is, naturally, full of religion, but it is also full of politics – if we take politics to mean the process whereby people seek to influence the course of their everyday lives through those in authority, and by being in authority.

Growing up in 1970s and 1980s Britain, the Church of England and the government always seemed to be at loggerheads. I recall successive Archbishops of Canterbury being told by politicians to stick to religion in their pulpits, prayers and public pronouncements. Stick to religion, the politicians said.

The difficulty with this is that Christianity is not simply ‘a religion’. The way of Christ is far more than simply ‘a religion’, far more than merely observing rituals and ceremonies and having nothing more than a private spirituality. The way of Christ is a way of life, and an attitude of mind, that will influence everything we do – or at least ought to!

An icon of the prophet Habakkuk from the Menologion of Basil II.

An icon of the prophet Habakkuk from the Menologion of Basil II.

Given that politics affects all our lives fundamentally, our Christian faith and our politics ought to be inseparable.

What do we do as Christians when we aim to behave if we truly want to follow Christ? All through the prophet’s writings in the Old Testament and today’s reading from Habakkuk is no exception, the message is rammed home that what matters first and foremost for those who are faithful to the Lord is not religious observance but a thirst for justice and righteousness. So too with Jesus’ teaching. Just look, as we have done for the last few weeks, at the way Jesus regarded the official religious leaders of his day. A thirst for justice and righteousness must be at the heart of our Christian faith and our personal salvation will develop through our love and care for others.

Essentially, that’s what ought to be at the heart of politics – seeking to bring about justice and righteousness for our neighbors and for ourselves. We also know that our professional political classes often fail signally to live up to this ideal, perhaps even using the language of justice and righteousness as a somewhat thin skimpy veil for their own personal ambitions. Fortunately, there are also many professional politicians to whom this perhaps cynical assessment could not be applied.

If the core of the Christian faith and the righteous core of political activism are both after the same goals – a quest for justice and righteousness – then why is there any culture of mutual suspicion between the church and the political classes? Perhaps the answer lies in the ways in which we think it is best to achieve these goals. Party politics, of course, is the offspring of this and there comes a point where we have to decide what our own personal ethics are.

Millions of people sincerely believe that building justice and righteousness in society comes through people succeeding entirely through their own merits and that they put in. Equally many millions sincerely believe that justice and righteousness come through a system of redistribution of wealth to those who, for whatever, reason, have not got the resources or means to survive from day to day.

Who we vote for in this election season is a matter for our own consciences but we need to judge the candidates against the gold standard of our faith’s calling to justice and righteousness. Tested against that, the integrity – or otherwise – of individual politicians can be called to account. If their policies are ones which will enable our society where people can flourish and be dealt with more justly then they’re on the right track. Jesus said that he came that people would have life and have it is all its fullness. If the candidates’ policies at the polling place will help all of God’s people to live in the fullness that He, God, intends for them, then they have policies that are worthy of a vote.

I want to conclude by saying this: I get really depressed when people say that they are not bothering to vote. That we can vote at all is the result of hard-won freedoms. Ancestors who bothered to endow us with justice and righteousness, if you will. Just because we enjoy to all intents and purposes benign democracy in this country at this time doesn’t mean that we always will. We will reap what we sow.

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