Politics and religion

Somehow, it seems like we live in a volatile, politicised age. Most of the people on my Twitter feed are academics, yet alongside nerdiness there is a lot of social commentary. My Facebook feed, with a more diverse cast, is similar. The rise to stardom of Jordan Peterson is tied up with hot-button political and social issues. Some days it feels like you can’t breathe without hearing about the follies of Donald Trump or the woes of Brexit or whatever new idea Doug Ford has come up with.

And everyone is digging their heels in. Everything is a zero-sum game. There is no higher ground, only winning. And if the ‘other side’ ever ‘wins’, that’s the end of the world or civilisation or whatever as we know it.

What is a Christian to do in the age of hyperbole?

First, political and social issues can’t take the place of true religion in our hearts. Yes, politics is a way to solve certain problems, but Donald Trump is neither saviour nor Satan.

Christianity has had a varying relationship with the powers of this world. Jesus was crucified by Romans after being handed over to death by the leaders of his own nation. Variously for the next two hundred or so years, Christians were sometimes persecuted and usually ignored. They were legally protected in the latter half of the third century to have that later stripped away in the final and Great Persecution in the early 300s under Diocletian.

And then, with Constantine throwing his lot in with the Christian god in 312, things started changing yet again. Not that the relationship Christian emperors was always rosy — consider the torture of Pope Liberius at the hands of Constantius, the multiple exiles of Athanasius, the judicial execution of Priscillian for heresy. Julian had a relatively mild repression of Christians, and then under Theodosius I Christianity started to really become the state religion. Meanwhile, because of its association with Roman Emperors, followers of Christianity in Persia were at times persecuted.

Becoming a state religion was not necessarily good for Christianity. David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox philosopher, thinks it was a bad thing. The story goes on, a story of Christian kings and governments, of collusion with secular powers, of being manipulated by them, of using them to repress religious opponents, of being repressed by them. Wherever there are Christians, they have some sort of relationship with government, whether persecuted under Communism and certain Islamic regimes or wielding great power under certain western regimes — but usually somewhere in between.

And we should not fear working within government, acknowledging that it is a means of working out certain aspects of discipleship — caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan (which is what true religion is about). Working with government can make for a more just society.

But that will never, ever, be perfect this side of eternity.

This means that we should keep calm and carry on, rather than freak out and throw our entire lot in with any of the demagogues or political parties and demonise our opponents.

We should love our political opponents. We should love them lavishly. And when our preferred parties fail to promote justice, or even promote injustice, we should pray for them, we should maybe even engage in normal political practices, like writing letters to MPs. But we shouldn’t get all apocalyptic or throw our hands up in despair.

It will never be perfect, because only God is perfect.

Politics isn’t religion. We shouldn’t treat it that way. Trump is (probably) not the Antichrist. Neither is Brexit the Apocalypse.

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