The General Election and the Resurrection of Jesus

So, we have a General Election.  We are all to embark on this exercise in democracy that lies at the heart of our national political life.  Cynicism and weariness will soon, no doubt, sap the energy of many.

Coincidentally, electioneering will take place during the Church’s celebration of Easter.  Parliamentary candidates will battle for the votes that give them the positions they crave, calling for a decision to trust them with political power.  At the same time, the risen Jesus also stands before us with his claims to our allegiance, asking for our commitment.

The contrasting worlds of politics and Christian faith may seem to have little to do with each other.  One has to do with limited political power, exercised for a while and frequently hemmed in by compromise.  The other is about personal trust in someone who claims to have absolute authority.  As Jesus said to Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world.

And yet it is impossible to separate the public and the personal, the political and the spiritual.  We all live out our lives in both spheres, and to pretend we can keep them in entirely different categories is not to do justice to either.  For the follower of Jesus, his resurrection has political significance.

For a start, although the resurrection is a profoundly mysterious event, if it means anything at all, it must mean that Jesus is Lord of all.  The one who claims supremacy over evil, injustice and death is no longer limited to a particular time, place or circumstance.  He appeals to all people everywhere, in every aspect of their lives.  No-one can confess Jesus as Lord with integrity and exclude politics from that confession.

The resurrection also points us towards something greater than political affairs.  Politics is fundamentally concerned with such things as material well-being, freedom and protecting the needy, or at least it should be.  The risen Jesus, on the other hand, reminds us that there are other even more profound matters in life.  Even in the face of poverty, oppression and suffering, such as experienced by his immediate followers and by many others over the course of history, he offers the security and peace of his loving acceptance.  This does not mean that achieving a fairer and more just society is unimportant – quite the contrary, as the kingdom of Jesus is about those things too – but it does mean that we need not despair in the face of the frustrations and disappointments of political engagement, nor do we take the satisfaction and success it delivers too seriously.  The resurrection helps us keep politics in healthy perspective.

Jesus gives us the assurance too that even in the darkest times there is always hope.  This hope is not based on intellectual reasoning or optimism about the future, but on the assurance that Jesus, who overcame the desolation of the cross, is with us.  Hope is essential in every area of life, including politics, and it is infectious.

Brexit, inequality, terrorism, global warming, growing debt, population increase, etc. naturally create anxiety.  The media make us aware of problems as never before, with the result that we feel vulnerable and sometimes afraid.  It is increasingly apparent that our political structures and processes cannot cope.  This failure is a serious issue, leading to feelings of powerlessness and cynicism, and a desire to find someone to blame for the problems we are not able to solve.

It is unlikely that the General Election will make any significant difference, but the resurrection of Jesus means those of us who claim to follow him must engage positively with the political process it represents.  To withdraw or despair is to deny the Lordship of Jesus.  We know that whatever the future holds he will remain at our side, and the hope he brings is not only a source of strength for us, but also a resource we can offer to others, regardless of whether the resurrection has any meaning for them.

Peter Shepherd (April 2017)

A deadly Good Friday powergame

The Gospels’ account of the trial of Jesus is a commentary on power and responsibility. Jesus, alone and vulnerable, is at the mercy of the political and religious leaders of his day.  But things are not as simple as they appear. A game is being played by these holders of power as they each try to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. In that game, neither of them are as much in control as they would like.

For the religious leaders, a delicate balance of power exists. They have considerable authority, but are also dependent on the support and goodwill of the people. Knowing how popular he is, they arrest Jesus at night to avoid protest. Their haste in bringing the case before Pilate shows their anxiety to get the business done quickly before opposition can be mounted.

They could have arranged for Jesus to be quietly assassinated in the back-streets of Jerusalem, but it suits their political purposes to have him executed and publicly shamed as a rebel against Rome. To achieve this, they are obliged to make the embarrassing and insincere announcement that they have “no king but Caesar”. They also claim that their law demands the death penalty for what he has said, which is probably not true, and is not really why they want him dead. He is a serious challenge to their authority, but as well as getting rid of him, they are anxious to protect their position and reputation.

Pilate is also in a difficult position. In theory he has the weight of Rome behind him, but, as Jesus says, he only has this power because he has been given it from above. Ultimately he may be accountable to God, but his more immediate and practical concern is his accountability to the Emperor. Whether Jesus deserves crucifixion is not the point – his main responsibility is to avoid trouble in Judaea. He knows that violent uprising is never far away in this contentious province, and, caught between the demands of justice and political expediency, he decides on the latter.  He is not really free to act justly, even if he wants to.

As the drama of the trial unfolds, no-one wants to take responsibility for condemning Jesus to death. Possibly there are troubled consciences on both sides. Pilate wants to avoid imposing the death penalty and tries to make the religious leaders responsible for it, going so far as to give them permission to crucify Jesus themselves – a highly irregular act under Roman law. The King of the Jews title he gives Jesus may be sarcastic, but is also a genuine acknowledgement of his character – in effect an admission that he had been forced to act wrongly.

Jesus is caught in the middle of these political manoeuverings, with their deadly consequences.  He refuses, both by his silence, which the Synoptic Gospels emphasize, and by the conversation with Pilate which John describes, to join the game.  He speaks respectfully to both the priestly court and to the Governor.  He, at least, acts with integrity, and is in control of himself. The irony is that he is the one who is exercising true power, even in his victimhood.

Since then, people have often sought to manipulate Jesus to further their own interests, using his name to try to justify activities that bear no relation to anything he might have said or done.  He continues to be the victim of schemes designed to further personal or political goals.  But his character and dignity remain untarnished, and he still has the power to change hearts and lives in ways that no political machinations can match.

Peter Shepherd (Holy Week, 2017).