16 May Right, Left and the Politics of Time: A Christian Response
How should we as Christians position ourselves in the swirling political currents of the age? Is it Christian to be on the right or on the left? In any case, Christians must engage in the political process, even though it be from a minority position. We should however be careful not to let ourselves be conformed to the ideological frames the world offers. Instead, we need to meet the challenge to cultivate a biblical worldview. An essential key for achieving this is to rightly discern how we stand as human beings in relation to time. A political conservative may look to the past, and a progressive to the future, but a Christian is called to seek first the Kingdom of God in the midst of time. This perspective enables Christians to critique both the right and left of politics, enabling us to transcend political trends.
There are huge shifts and realignments going on in political landscapes all around the world. These changes are affecting everyone, not least Christians. How should Christians react and position themselves in the midst of all these changes?
For a long time in Western nations, many Christians have taken the view that the mainstream of our culture is Christian, or at least biblically based in some sense, and have often spoken from what they have taken to be a majority position. We can no longer do that; at the very least, such a view is highly contested.
Why should Christians get involved in politics? What is a biblical worldview for thinking about politics and being involved in it? How should faith intersect with political office or with expressing political views? What attitude should Christians take to the state or to public policy? Is it Christian to be on the left? Or is it Christian to be on the right?
One key to answering these questions is understanding how Christians respond to being in a position of weakness – a minority position. Another key is considering how we see ourselves in relation to time.
Politics from a Minority Position
How should Christians think biblically about politics as they live out and apply the truth they believe in? How are Christian believers to do politics from a minority position, as their social influence wanes?
A key Bible passage about this is Jeremiah 29:7, in which Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon and tells them to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’.
The Bible instructs believers to take the welfare of their society to heart. It matters not that the society might be thoroughly pagan, as Babylon was. It matters not that rulers might worship other gods, or even that the whole social system is designed to serve these gods. Of course, these things do matter, but my point is that this doesn’t make any difference to the call on us, as Christian believers, to be engaged on behalf of the society in which we live. The call to Christians as believers remains: to actively seek the wellbeing – the flourishing – of the society in which we find ourselves.
‘Seek’, the prophet Jeremiah says. It is a powerful word. To ‘seek’ implies intention, deliberation, thoughtfulness and care. Sometimes Christians emphasise the fact that Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). Some have adopted a social separatism in response to this, a kind of social strike. If our true purpose is to ‘seek first the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 6:33), then what have we to do with politics? Or so the thinking goes.
Certainly, there have been Christian groups like the Anabaptists who, in response to persecution, disconnected politically. Some Christians have gone down the path of avoiding anything to do with politics. But that is not what Jesus taught. He did not tell us not to seek the wellbeing of the city; he just said, ‘Seek first the kingdom’. At other points, Jesus respected and upheld the role of government, for example, by instructing people to render to Caesar what was his (Matthew 22:21).
The apostles also had a positive view of how Christians should view the state, in spite of a sense that they were living in a ‘dark world’ (Ephesians 6:12). Paul tells his readers to ‘be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1), and this out of fear of the Lord, because it is God who establishes political authority for the good of all. Likewise, Peter writes, ‘Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the Emperor’ (1 Peter 2:17). What is so striking about this is that Peter was speaking at a time when Christians were being bitterly persecuted by the Roman imperial authorities. It is significant that Paul and Peter, as Jews, were no doubt steeped in the values of what it meant to live as a people in exile, in step with the instructions given in Jeremiah 29. Peter even calls the Christian communities to which he wrote ‘exiles’ and ‘foreigners’ (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11).
Seek Truth and Justice
Jeremiah’s call to the Jews in exile, living in captivity under alien gods, to seek the wellbeing of Babylon had a context. The context was the prophet’s earlier calls to Israel, before the exile, to seek what was good in their own land. God tells Jeremiah, ‘Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city’ (Jeremiah 5:1).
Jeremiah was told by God to earnestly search high and low for even just one person who cares about the truth. For even one person, God would have forgiven the city. But there was such a famine of the Word of God, of speaking and hearing the truth, in Judah that the whole nation was destroyed and sent into exile.
Then again, in the same chapter of Jeremiah, God condemns the rich and powerful for not seeking justice: ‘Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor’ (Jeremiah 5:27–28).
Seek truth! Seek justice! This surely was the crucial context for the Jews in Babylon to understand what it meant when they were told to ‘seek the wellbeing of the city’. To seek the city’s wellbeing, they were not to abandon truth or justice, but to develop them, promote them, apply them and seek all of this in their new city.
A great example of someone who lived out these principles was Daniel. He faithfully served pagan rulers who followed pagan cults, but was also faithful to God’s truth in his worship and devotion. He could see where to draw the line, and as he worshipped God he did not abandon the city in which he lived. He was able to loyally serve the Babylonian and Persian states while remaining true to the holy God of Israel. Others questioned his loyalty, but their accusations against him failed.
Don’t Let Yourself Be Squeezed
One of the great challenges facing Christians in the West today is the degree to which they can be diverted and taken over by the culture around them. Thus Paul’s call in Romans 13 for Christians to ‘be subject to the governing authorities’ follows hard on his invitation in Romans 12:1–2 for them to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, and thereby not be conformed to the pattern of this world – or, as the JB Phillips translation famously put it, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’.
The fact is, we do get squeezed. One way we get squeezed is by being shamed.
‘How could you believe that!’
‘How dare you say that!’
‘You keep your beliefs to yourself!’
‘Shut up, you dinosaur. Crawl back into your cave!’
One of the great challenges facing Christian families and communities today is to cultivate a biblical worldview, a truth-based take on the world. This is surely a core challenge for our young people, who are exposed to the latest trends in education with its secular worldview. It is a challenge for older people. It is a challenge for Christian parents to raise children who are so formed by the truth that they have the boldness and moral clarity to defend it, unashamed. It is a challenge for every individual Christian to be that kind of person.
Sometimes the squeezing can come from unexpected directions. It pays to be alert, as a very bad kind of squeeze is the one you don’t expect and cannot see.
A few years back, during the marriage equality campaign, I was speaking up for marriage as the union of a man and a woman. For me it was, and is, a truth issue: the Bible is thoroughly heteronormative. However, there was a risk during the debates at that time that Christians could sound like they were just upholding the past and positioning themselves merely as conservatives. Some said they were defending ‘traditional marriage’, and I believe they meant well. Their idea was that our society should not let go of what is good from the past. But is that the best way to put the Christian position?
Surely Christians should not be defending traditional marriage but biblical marriage. What is the difference? There are a number of differences that will be important to many. Not all aspects of marriage in the past have been good. The idea that a woman couldn’t take out a mortgage or own property in her own name was one negative feature of ‘traditional marriage’. It was only in 1870 that the English Parliament passed an Act allowing married women to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property in their own name. Furthermore, there has been a ‘traditional’ toleration and even acceptance of domestic violence within marriage in our culture.
Such characteristics are not those of a ‘traditional marriage’ that Christians should be defending. That is why is it important to distinguish a biblical view of marriage from what might be called ‘traditional marriage’.
The tendency for Christians to try to defend ‘traditional marriage’ is an example of being ‘squeezed’. When we should be defending one thing – a biblical truth-based understanding of marriage – we can end up defending something very different, becoming little more than cultural conservatives. Cultural values can be good, and what is good from the past is worth defending, and much of it in the West has been shaped by the Bible; but Christians cannot assume that the conventional values of the surrounding culture offer a firm foundation for their politics.
Of course, there is pressure. There is pressure upon us not to be truth-based. We are told we should keep our ‘values’ to ourselves and not impose them on others. That is also part of the ‘big squeeze’. It is not our values that are at issue. The challenge facing Christians is not to fight and win a values war, which pits one’s person’s values against another’s. The challenge is about being willing and able to speak up for the truth, for justice.
Years ago when I was appointed to my first parish, I was told by someone, rather disparagingly, that the congregation had a reputation for being the ‘Liberal Party at prayer’ – a curious description indeed for a church. The church should not be positioning itself as the Labor party at prayer or the Liberal Party at prayer. This is important because one of the worst kinds of squeezing can take place in our political consciousness, trying to force us into a particular position on the ever-widening left–right political divide.
Ways of Thinking about Time
The idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’ goes back to the French Revolution. Members of the National Assembly spontaneously divided into two sides: supporters of the king on the right – where the representatives of the church were also located – and supporters of the revolution on the left. Today, the language of left and right has colonised everything. It seems no social movement of any kind can escape being labelled left or right. Everything and everyone has to be located somewhere on the spectrum. We get squeezed into some particular point or other.
The left–right framing of the political space is surely one of the most troubling and frustrating features of contemporary politics. Why should just about any human desire or passion, from anti-racism to care for the environment, has to be allotted a point on this single-dimensional spectrum between left and right? This feels like an ideological straitjacket, but why is it so pervasive?
The left has sometimes been called the ‘party of movement’ and the right the ‘party of order’, and therein lies a key to the durability of the distinction. The right–left binarism reflects, in essence, different ways of thinking about time. On the ‘left’ are those who look to a better and more enlightened future, freed from the shackles of the past. On the ‘right’ are those who look to the past for stability and guidance as we approach a future in which the threatening potential for chaos is ever-present.
‘The Right Side of History’
The left-wing mindset sometimes manifests in a desire to be ‘on the right side of history’. This is the hope that future generations – about whom it is apparently compulsory to assume that they will be more enlightened than us – will pass a favourable judgement on us and our endeavours. Both the American President Barak Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that they hoped to be found to be on ‘right side of history’. You could tell that former President Obama did not think well of President Donald Trump when he said, ‘The future does not belong to strongmen’. Just the past, apparently.
Some Christians have embraced this mindset. One left-leaning retired pastor expressed his hope, in relation to the debate about same-sex marriage, that future generations would not judge him to have been on ‘the wrong side of history’. He was hoping some enlightened, clever people in the future would think well of him because he supported same-sex marriage. He thought that the moral sensibilities of future generations must be our guide.
This view, that some yet-to-be-identified judges in the future will be wiser and more correct in their moral judgements than people alive today, is surely perverse. Human beings are not evolving morally. The horrors of the twentieth century should have taught us that, if they’ve taught us anything at all.
The idea that people are evolving morally – so that future people should be the judge of what is right today – is not a biblical understanding. It is at war with the evidence of history. It is not truth-based. Indeed, it is a lie. And for this reason it will not and cannot produce a better society.
Progressive or Conservative?
The label ‘progressive’ is worn with pride by many on the left. Progressivism affirms belief in progress, the hope that the future will be better. A progressive considers advancement to be normal and natural. On the other hand, right-wingers tend to look to the past, not the future, for their validation. The conservative remembers the train wrecks of the past and anticipates the possibility of greater wrecks to come.
Progressivism did take some hits during the past century, as adherents to political movements that appealed to the idea of progress, such as Nazism and Communism, conducted barbarous slaughter on an industrial scale. The resulting trauma of World War II led some to give up hope in human progress altogether, and a resulting sense of meaninglessness and despair was channelled into the philosophy of existentialism. Yet, over time, without God, progressivism has cheerily reasserted itself in the Western mind, buoyed up by the analogy with rapidly evolving technology, which is ever before our eyes – if technology is evolving, then surely its human creators must be too. This reassertion has been aided by our all-too-human tendency to forget what we find unpleasant to remember.
A biblical critique of progressivism could object that it has a flawed, overly optimistic take on human nature. The fact is that the reality of sin means that human moral progress is anything but inevitable. Because of sin, progressive political movements can and must become deeply corrupted, and they do, again and again. Promised utopias keep turning out to be dystopias as the blood that is shed to bring them about reveals them to be horrid, wicked lies. One can think, for example, of the holocaust and the gulags. We can be sure that the Taliban, for all their utopian promises, will not be able to usher in a better world for the people of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, conservatism comes up against the very same biblical insight about human nature. Cultures, as collective creations of the human soul, are deeply distorted by sin. Their momentum can wreak evil, even while acting as a source of stability and order. A stable evil is still an evil.
There are great dangers in hitching one’s faith star to a particular ideological trend. At its worst, progressive Christianity can reduce the gospel to a social welfare program, grounded in human activism. Who needs a transcendent God or a personal Saviour when we have progress and human activism? Perhaps for this reason the advance of progressive Christianity often goes hand-in-hand with loss of faith. It should not surprise us that progressivism in churches is everywhere correlated with denominational decline.
The same observation can sometimes be made about Christian conservatism. When Christianity aligns itself with conservatism, this can end up being bad news indeed for faith. A case in point was the alliance between Franco’s conservative military dictatorship and the Spanish Catholic Church, which for a time enjoyed unprecedented power under Franco’s rule. Franco favoured the Church, for example, by giving it control of public schooling.
The cost to Christianity of this temporary marriage of power turned out to be huge, as Spain eventually became one of the most secular countries in Europe. Today, only 3 per cent of Spaniards consider religion to be one of their three most important values, much lower than the European average. By 2018, the average age of Spanish Catholic priests was 66. Franco’s government identified Spanish language and culture with Catholicism, and it did so at the expense of other languages and cultures such as Catalan. The result was that Catalan-speaking Barcelona is today one of the most secular, de-Christianised cities in Europe. Being squeezed into the world’s mould brings spiritual death, whether we get squeezed to the right or to the left.
One can think of other examples of how Christians have sold out to the political climate. Under the Nazis, the churches of Germany almost universally embraced an awful evil, to the extent that it is doubtful whether they could still be called Christian in any meaningful sense. Yes, there were dissenters and martyrs, and we celebrate their memory, but they were a small minority. By and large, German churches simply accepted it when Hitler nationalised every church youth group in Germany, turning them into Hitler Youth brigades and raising up human fodder for the Nazi war machine. The churches also, by and large, accepted the anti-Semitic cultural milieu; indeed many welcomed it and eagerly embraced it.
Another example was the captivity of the Orthodox Church under the Soviets. We can hardly judge the Orthodox Church given the horrendous suffering to which Russian believers were subjected, but what we cannot and must not forget was the shameful manipulation of the World Council of Churches by the Soviet regime. This global association of Christians, which had started out so well, let itself become a Cold War pawn of the Soviets, even while Soviets were persecuting Christians brutally.
Jesus’ Radical Message
We cannot get away from the fact that Jesus’ message was and is profoundly radical, overturning accepted frameworks and challenging people’s assumptions. A Christian conscience can expect to find itself swimming against the tide of both right and left.
Note that I am not arguing that Christians shouldn’t get involved in one side or another of politics. They should, on both the left and the right. There will be times in the history of nations when the best thing a Christian can do is to vote for ‘the left’. And there will be times when the best thing a Christian can do is vote for ‘the right’. The correct decision will change from season to season. We can see this clearly as we look back over the history of the twentieth century.
The enduring challenge for politically aware, engaged Christians is to find new and fresh ways to speak truth into the world, unashamed, seeking the wellbeing of the nation around us. For this, we need to cultivate a biblical sense of time, and must resist the temptation to hitch our theologies to the spirit of the age or to either side of politics. We must not replace faith in a God who saves human beings from sin, calls us to holiness and works through history to judge the nations according to their righteousness, with either a naive belief in progress or a dependence upon deeply flawed social and cultural traditions of the past. We must allow our political vision to be constantly tested, reformed and renewed by the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The challenge we face is a deep one. We can see in our society today that there is a rise in manifest, unrestrained hostility from one person to another. There is a degradation of our ability to speak civilly to each other. This is already very apparent on social media. When MP Nicolle Flint appeared on the ABC’s Q&A in 2019, journalist Mike Carlton tweeted ‘Never have I admired Jimmy Barnes so much as tonight. How does he not leap from his seat and strangle the Liberal shill on his right?’ As a nation we are indeed ‘progressing’ – in our ability to abuse others.
One reason for this ‘progress’ is that the values of Jesus Christ do not exert the influence upon our culture that they once did. When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you’ (Luke 6:27), he was laying out a blueprint for how to relate to people with whom one profoundly disagrees. Even though Christians might be vehemently and deeply opposed to someone else’s beliefs, they can still engage with them in a civil discourse if they are truly committed to Jesus’ way of loving people and treating them with honour and respect. If a nation abandons that principle, then any kind of disagreement can be interpreted as a form of personal hostility and offence. Everything becomes personal when we spiral into the bitter recriminations and abuse that are taking over our public conversations. That single value of Jesus – to love your enemy – is so profound; it needs to transform and continually renew the way Christians speak.
A Different Way to Live in the Midst of Time
We have seen that the difference between left and right has to do with a different understanding of time and how people place themselves in the midst of time. The vision of the end of history offered in the Book of Revelation provides valuable keys, reminding us that evil and trauma will not go away in this life.
There is no utopia awaiting us before Christ returns, and there is no glorious past to which Christians should be looking back over their shoulders. Our compass, our longing, our hearts’ desire needs to be for the in-breaking kingdom of God. We live in a flawed world, but a believer’s job is to speak up for the values of the kingdom; to speak up for justice and for truth.
When the prophet Jeremiah is asked to find even a single person who will speak up for truth, his words remind us that we will be held accountable by God, who judges the nations. We will be held accountable to speak up for the dispossessed, for the unborn, for the voiceless and for the poor of the world – not just for the poor who are Australian citizens, but for everyone around the world who suffers injustice and disadvantage.
We are reminded by the Book of Revelation that we sit in the midst of time. As we work out how to engage with the political environment, we are reminded that to live in the world is to be engaged in a spiritual battle. There is a battle going on for the soul of the nation. This is not a time to be quiet, to be retiring, to hope that future generations will esteem us. That is not how the world described in the Book of Revelation works.
Christians need to maintain a central commitment to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. They should be involved politically in every way available that is compatible with a good conscience. The political project of seeking the common good is worth devoting time, energy and choice resources to, but this project cannot replace or be a surrogate for the kingdom of God. Disciples of Christ are called to seek first the kingdom, and it is out of this deeper longing, this deeper seeking for the kingdom, that there comes a commitment to truth, to justice and to the wellbeing of the city.
The Shining Light of Truth
I have had the privilege of working among Iranians who have turned to Christ from Islam. Many young Iranians are hungry for truth, as the Iranian Revolution ushered in a regime that has broken the nation.
One of my Iranian friends described his conversion to Christ. In Iran he had been a drug addict, and his forearms are deeply scarred from self-harming. When he reached Christmas Island and was placed in detention, he asked for a Bible, and happened to turn to a verse that changed his life. This verse led him to Christ. I was intrigued when I heard this: what was this ‘killer verse’ that could turn a life around? I wanted to know it! I had visions of leading thousands to the Lord!
He looked at me and said, ‘It’s the verse which says that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has committed adultery with her’ (Matthew 5:28). He said he had never heard anything like that before.
That was it. That did it for him. He knew, there and then, that Jesus was the truth. He just had to follow Jesus. My friend had never heard anything like this one verse: that a man must be responsible for his thoughts towards women. The light of this insight changes everything. It changes how you see gender relations. It changes family structures. It changes how community is formed. My friend understood this, because he knew what it was like to live in a broken nation that knew nothing about the truth of Jesus or the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. When he read that verse, he knew he had found the ‘pearl of great price’ and he was willing to give everything to attain it. He was willing to give everything to belong to Jesus, follow him, and be transformed by his words.
Jesus shines truth into our hearts, and Christians are called to reflect that truth in the public lives we live. In or out of power, we are called to be fearless, unashamed and grounded in the kingdom of Christ as we engage publicly, speaking truth. We have no need to be embarrassed or to be looking over our shoulders, worrying about what other people think, whether they be people of the past or people of the future. We don’t need to be caught up in the false dichotomy in ways of thinking about time. We reject a false trust in either the past or the future. Whether in a position of political weakness or strength, we know that we will be held accountable by the living God for being a bold witness to the truth in this age in which we live. Our times are in his hands.
This article appeared first in Zadok Papers S238, Autumn 2022.
Mark Durie is the Director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne School of Theology and a Writing Fellow for the Middle East Forum.