What’s going on with Brexit? Does our prime minister have a clue? Why all the fuss over 48 letters? We live in tumultuous times. It often seems that confusion reigns over our politics. More generally, it can often seem that the political world has little to offer us besides pressure, confrontation and stress. Yet despite all this, the truth is that politics matters. In this post, I want to think about what politics is, why we should consider it, and whether we can draw broader lessons about building relationships from it. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, I want to help us think about whether our faith can make any sense of politics, and what it might mean to pursue the biblical call to justice through politics.
Let’s start off by going back to basics. Christianity, as the name suggests, is centred on Jesus Christ. So if we want to know how to live, the words of Jesus are the place to go. The Bible says that, when asked which rules we should live by, Jesus replied:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-39 NIV)
In other words, if you think religion is all about your relationship with God, you’re not wrong – Jesus first says we should love God – but you haven’t got the whole picture! Jesus deliberately adds the second commandment, to love other people. The claim that the whole Jewish theological tradition hangs on these two commands underscores the importance of taking them together. Loving other people isn’t an add-on to the main religious business of loving God, but indispensable and complementary. They go together. But notice that we’re not just told to love our neighbour, but to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we are to love others in the same way that we love ourselves, then the key to working out how we should treat others is to work out how we should treat ourselves. Self-esteem is something that I, like many, have struggled with, so it’s important to tread carefully when discussing how to “love yourself”. But I want to suggest that one way we should love ourselves is through practical care.
I eat enough food to keep myself fit. I make sure my bins are collected regularly. I go to the doctor when I’m ill. If I didn’t do those things, I don’t think I would be loving myself in the way that I should be. (If you’re wondering whether all that incidental is to the main business of tending to my spirit, I would argue that we have deliberately been created as embodied physical beings and put in a context where we have certain practical needs. Making sure these are met is an essential part of what it means to “love myself”.) It follows directly from what Jesus tells us that they are an essential part of what it means to “love my neighbour”. If we’re really loving our neighbours, it’s imperative that we pay attention to the practical needs of the people around us. To live as Jesus told me is to want Shamim from next door to have enough food to keep herself fit. It’s to want her bins to be collected regularly. It’s to want her to be cared for when she’s ill. And, crucially, I believe it’s to be prepared to act to make those things a reality in her life. This isn’t just being nice; it’s about a radical and self-sacrificial love that Jesus modelled.
Something I love about being part of the Christian community is the chance to see people serving their communities in really practical ways. All over the country, churches provide thousands of foodbanks, homeless shelters, parent-toddler groups and more (see here for the latest statistics from the Church of England – and remember that’s only one denomination!). Here in Oxford, many of us who are involved in Just Love are genuinely showing the love of Jesus in some of these same ways. (Another note: very many people who aren’t Christian are also doing many of these same things – I believe that anyone can contribute to implementing Godly values, and it should be a profound challenge to any kind of superior attitude we might want to have as Christians to realise that some of the people who are doing that best are those outside our own community). It’s an amazing and beautiful thing to be part of, but I often feel like it’s only part of the solution.
As someone much cleverer than me once said, it’s a wonderful thing to be the good Samaritan on life’s roadside. We can and should look after people’s needs in all sorts of practical ways. But as much as that is good, surely there would be something wrong if all we did was dress the wounds of the injured man. Bringing lasting transformation means going back up the road to stop the next passerby getting mugged. The reality is that people don’t just become needy, but in many cases are made needy by injustice arising from the way the world is structured. This means that as well as treating the symptoms of a sick system, we need to strike at the causes of what is making it so sick. But – perhaps you’ve guessed where this is going – the way the world is structured is inherently political. There are people (in most cases, people just like you and me) making decisions about how benefits are given out, about when our bins are collected, and about when we can see the doctor. I believe strongly that pursuing the call to love our neighbour as ourselves can mean getting involved in these political decisions. As a Christian community it is vital that we engage in politics. This means different things for different people. For you, it could mean praying more for political decisions. It could mean going to a JCR or Oxford SU meeting for the first time. It could mean getting out and
campaigning on something you feel strongly about. It could mean joining a political party. Or it could mean standing to be a councillor or MP. Christians in Politics has some great resources to help you, whatever level you’re at.
Anyone who has spoken to me for more than a few minutes will attest that I love ranting about politics. This is often a very annoying habit (being a PPE student gives me almost unlimited opportunities to indulge), but it reflects a genuine passion I have. Prior to starting at university, I spent a year as a volunteer at a wonderful organisation called *partisanship alert* Christians on the Left, which as the name suggests brings together Christians who are involved in politics on the left (we’re affiliated to the Labour Party so many but not all members are part of Labour). [editor’s note: other parties are available] So I’ve spent many hours knocking on people’s doors, writing emails, organising websites and being involved in campaigns. I like to think I’ve made Labour just a slightly better place for it all. This year our main message at the Labour Party Conference was to “Love Your CLP”, with CLP standing for “constituency Labour Party”. Local parties could definitely do with some more love, and we were able to make a bit of a splash with our cheeky 10 commandments with some practical ideas of what that might look like. Being a Labour member is often an extremely frustrating business, but making a difference requires perseverance and sticking at things.
Before finishing, I’d like to draw some lessons for wider life. There are many things I could explore, but I’ll confine myself to one: the importance of relationship-building as an antidote to confrontation. It’s true that politics is often full of confrontation. In no small part this is because adversarial rhetoric provides both a thrill and the security of a tribal identity to those of us who are committed members of our party. But very public displays of confrontation can be one reason why those outside the political world often find the whole show off-putting. But experience has taught me that confrontation is not the way forward. Simply put, confrontation hinders progress. When we’re obsessed with difference and pointing out each other’s flaws, we lose sight of the ways we could work together for the common good. This is borne out by experience: the swathes of constructive policy making work that Westminster gets done is not generated by the clamour of prime minister’s questions, but by politicians from all parties working together on select committees every day. Getting concrete commitments into the Labour manifesto means co-operating with other affiliates on issues we share a commitment to. Last weekend, I had the privilege of going on tour with Christians in Politics. There was plenty to get excited about, but one of the most powerful things was to see Christians from three different political parties share the stage and talk about what unites them rather than what divides them.
As in politics, so it is in many of the contexts we find ourselves in: achievement does not come from alienating people but building relationships. If the nature of God is a relationship (and for all its weirdness, that is surely a clear implication of the doctrine of the Trinity), a life that reflects the image of God would be one that has relationships at its centre. I don’t always manage to put it into practice, but the more things I try to do here in Oxford the more I come to realise how important it is to put effort into building and maintaining strong relationships with other people. This means being willing to empathise with people and see things from their perspective. It means being willing to contemplate that your views might not be perfect. It means making a conscious effort to see the
best in everyone. It means being willing to make yourself vulnerable by trusting people. It’s hard stuff, but it can get you a long way. In fact, whether your goal is to stop people leaving dirty washing up in your kitchen or to change government policy on financial sector taxation, I believe that building relationships, often with difficult people, is the key way of influencing the environment you are in. This is true within families. It’s true within political parties. And it’s true within Oxford colleges.
If you’ve read this far, thank you! I hope it’s got you thinking about getting involved in politics, or about the importance of building strong relationships. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love it if you’d comment below or email or message me. To tie it all together, let me finish with something else Jesus said, an instruction on how we should pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10 NIV).
To be Christian is to long for radical transformation of the way our world works. This won’t happen in full until the new creation dawns, but these words from Jesus suggest that we’re called to play our part in bringing a glimpse of God’s kingdom to earth here and now. If we are people who long to see God’s kingdom come, we should be willing to love others in that radical and self-sacrificial way (which involves so much more than being nice). Good politics has a vital role to play in ensuring Shamim from next door has enough food on her table, is satisfied with her rubbish collection, and stays in good health. So the question is: if I long for those things, why wouldn’t I want to get involved?
Matthew Judson | 2nd year @ LMH