What part should the Church play in political life? How can the message of Jesus be heard, and help shape society’s future in times of political change and uncertainty?
The Church’s relationship with political authority is a thorny issue. It has to be worked out in different ways over time and from place to place. In the UK, with our long-standing Christian heritage, the situation is very different from those places where there is no such tradition. Further complications arise because of the multifaceted nature of church organizations – a church body established by law is in a very different situation from that of other denominations. The existence of non-Christian religious groups muddies the murky waters even further.
For those who look to the Bible for help, guidance is not easy to find. The history of ancient Israel provides some helpful insights on the relationship between faith and political power, but as far as the Christian Gospel is concerned, there are few parallels between first century Judaea and a twenty-first century democratic state.
The most obvious encounter between Jesus and political power occurs in his conversation with the Roman Governor Pilate immediately before his death. John’s Gospel gives us the most interesting and extensive account of this. Jesus is taken by others to Pilate – it is not a meeting that he sought or chose. On the other hand, it was the likely, if not the inevitable outcome of the things he had been saying and doing. It is clear that the issue for the Governor was not Jesus’ guilt or innocence but the likely response of the group of priests, representing in his eyes, the Jewish community, to any decision he might make. But the conversation with Jesus is shown as important for him personally, especially by the inscription he later insisted on being fastened to the cross, in spite of opposition, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
Jesus’ answers to the Governor’s questions are provocative and enigmatic. He refers to the kind of Kingdom he came to establish, to the truth and to the nature of power and guilt – all topics which are directly relevant to the exercise of political power. Above all, the conversation revolves around the theme of kingship. Jesus acknowledges that he is a king, but not the kind of king Pilate has in mind. In the other Gospels, Jesus’ enigmatic response to Pilate’s “Are you the King of the Jews?” suggests something similar – he does not deny he is a king, but neither does he accept the Governor’s implied understanding of kingship.
In the end, Pilate, driven by fear and the political realities he faced, handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Given the circumstances in which this took place, and in which the Gospel was written, is this encounter relevant for Church-State relations today? It was clearly important for the early Church and its relation with those in power – only here does Jesus come face to face with genuine political authority. For us, in contrast, there are plenty of opportunities for political engagement, and to some degree it is inevitable, even if it goes no further than abstaining from voting in an election.
One implication is that authentic Christian living, with its emphasis on serving others and standing alongside the poor and excluded, will draw the Church into the political arena, whether or not this is sought. Another is that the distinction between political power and Christ’s kingdom is crucial. The two overlap, but the way change is brought about in the two spheres is very different. In Christ’s kingdom, character and truth bring their own authority without resorting to coercive power over others. Individual believers may engage in direct political action, often in partnership with others who do not share their faith, but the Church, representing corporately the Body of Christ, has a special responsibility to demonstrate the way of Jesus and the kingdom he came to establish.
Pilate shows up the limitations of political power – probably greater in our day than his. Those who exercise it find their options, in practice, are restricted by the political realities they confront. The patience and self-control shown by Jesus in the face of the Governor’s inability, or unwillingness, to act justly is remarkable.
For the Church, injustice and ridicule may at times be the consequence of contact with those in power. The manner in which this is endured is also in itself a political act, as indeed was the crucifixion of Jesus.
Peter Shepherd (February 2017)