Our political system is under severe pressure. Several recent developments are challenging the pattern of political life we have got used to: Scottish nationalism, Brexit, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, etc.. It’s unclear what it will all lead to, but it seems the way we think about ourselves and the way we govern ourselves is changing.
Our immediate political challenges are a reflection of deeper changes in attitude and behaviour, many of them global in scope. Technological innovation is altering the way we relate to each other and the way we understand the world, along with every aspect of our economic activity. The social and economic ground beneath us is shifting in unpredictable ways. The end of the Cold War, the increased prominence of China in world affairs, the creation of the European Union and the growing economic power of developing nations are making the familiar post-war pattern of international relations increasingly irrelevant. For us in the UK, we are still coming to terms with the decline of our role in the world after the end of Empire.
In the light of all this, it is not surprising that the way power is exercised at a national and global level is struggling to keep up. Elected politicians are losing people’s confidence and are widely distrusted. In the search for stability and security, voices from the extremes, with their promise of a return to earlier certainties, are becoming more popular. The danger of deepening fears and division, with the consequences they bring, is obvious.
How should we who seek to follow the way of Jesus respond? Sincere Christian people will be found on different sides on most issues. Some will feel strongly enough to engage in direct political activity or campaigning, but for many – perhaps for most – argument and debate will be avoided, whether through ignorance, lack of self-confidence, confusion, fear of giving offence or simply boredom.
We all have a responsibility to think and pray about the current political climate, and the specific issues facing us, and to ask ourselves what we should be doing. How can peace and justice best be promoted and preserved? How can the natural resources of the world God has given us be used well and protected from irreparable damage? How can they be shared fairly? These questions confront us all, even if answers are difficult to find.
There is a political dimension to them all. Collective decisions need to be arrived at one way or another. With so many of the crucial issues facing us being global in nature, international co-operation is essential, and we need to support those organizations, like the United Nations and international non-government agencies, that foster it. Awareness and understanding, especially among the young, is also essential. Schools, colleges, the press and mainstream media, parents, churches – in fact, all of us – have a duty to encourage a spirit of curiosity and enquiry about the world and how we live well together.
But there is something even more important. While we seek answers to difficult questions, and pursue greater co-operation and understanding, we also know that any result is bound to be imperfect. Politics, important though it is, will never provide a final answer to anything, and the best we are likely to achieve is muddling along in approximately the right direction. In the meantime, followers of Jesus have a higher duty, to live by the standards he has set before us, whatever our political engagement, or lack of it. If we are to “abide in” him, the qualities he demonstrates, such as respect for others, kindness, generosity, humility, courage and integrity, are essential, whatever we do. In the end, political answers will not satisfy, and may be deeply disappointing, but nothing can overcome the way of life Jesus offers.
Peter Shepherd (November 2018)