Politicians have a hard job, and often make rotten work of it. We, the people, see the mess, comment, judge from a distance. We elect one lot with enthusiasm, and when we’ve seen them in action for a few years, discard them as useless, even dangerous. We have little sympathy for their plight, partly because we won’t admit that we, people, are overall no better or wiser than the politicians. We resist the truth that politics is doomed to repeated failures because it works with, for, through people, and they are what they are.
The consequent near impossibility of politics discourages engagement. But disengagement brings no peace. To live without politics, without any enabling social ordering, we would have to be (as Aristotle said) either a beast or a god. So we hanker after politics, as the people did when they asked for a king, and got Saul (I Samuel 8) and his failing successors. Politics is promise and disappointment. The truth of it is hard to bear: the ‘bed is too short to stretch oneself on it’, and it is ‘sheer terror to understand the message’ (Isaiah 28 esp. v20).
Christians and Church should never advocate abstention from politics, for we are called to be fully human, and being political is built into God’s good creation (Genesis 1.28).
No preacher should ever criticize politicians and their work, without at the same time calling us all to look to ourselves. Whatever our pretended innocence, we are human, called to responsibility for the earth along with politicians, easily lost with them in the same ‘morass of lies and explanations’. Often Christians are tempted to follow the Pharisee at prayer, who thanked God he was ‘not as other men are’, certainly not like ‘this politician’ (Luke 18.9-14).
Church should choose good and shun the bad without claiming to be simply right. We should not endorse any politician or party as a saviour or anointed leader – no Trump as ‘God’s chosen one’. We should not think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12.3): no idolisation. We are sinners, falling short of the glory of God, always we have sins to confess and turn from. Church, like all citizens, must always be ready to repent, like the wicked king David (II Samuel 12), and be open to being helped painfully by a canny Nathan.
Even out of the depths of sin, Church should constantly share the Good news of God’s political forgiving – and ours – as light on our path. We should pray ‘our – not my – Father – your will be done on earth…’ responding to its implicit whole-world call to politics and to any other duty we would prefer to shirk or leave to the devil of laziness, fear, and indifference. Follow Jesus and don’t escape into evasive piety (Psalm 131) from the cross of human responsibility (Hebrews 2.5-18).
While it is yet day
Haddon Willmer leads a discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter of 21 July 1944, at Moortown Baptist Church, on 21 July 2023, at 7.15