There has been much talk in the UK press about what does and does not belong in politics, about who has and has not the right to speak out, and in what context. There were some articles in The Guardian newspaper questioning Her Majesty’s lack of involvement in the political arena and bizarrely, where lawyers challenged the right of judges making a judgment of unlawful behaviour with respect to proroguing parliament:
Government lawyers had told the court, which sits in Westminster directly opposite parliament, that the justices should not enter into such a politically sensitive area, which was legally “forbidden territory” and constitutionally “an ill-defined minefield that the courts are not properly equipped to deal with”.The Guardian, September 24 2019
In The Tablet (14 September 2019) the president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, Dr. Ashley Beck, is quoted as saying:
If we push the language of God out of this or that crisis or moral issue, we’re pushing God out,Article in The Tablet, 14 September 2019, by Margaret Hebblethwaite, p31
and on the same page, in the same issue, Archbishop Eamon Martin is quoted as saying that bringing faith into politics is:
…not an optional extra for a committed Christian.Article in The Tablet, 14 September 2019, p31
I started an argument once on an online group where the comment from the Bishops of the Church of England about how they were praying for the country and how Brexit had caused division and acrimony in Britain, was greeted with derision. Comments such as:
Well, that’ll fix it then.
They should keep their religion out of politics.
to me, showed a lack of very basic understanding of the nature of living in faith. The words from the bishops had come from their prayer together, and from their noticing the division and rise of aggression and violence in our society, the increase in racist attacks, of intolerance. They were speaking out, and calling out the deterioration of moral values and behaviour. Here is the prayer they made:
A Prayer for the UK
In this time of turmoil…
We pray for the Prime Minister and Party Leaders as they negotiate the political future of our nation:
Father, give them your wisdom and vision.
We pray, and calling for all in Parliament as they represent their communities:
Jesus, give them your humility and strength.
We pray for the media as they interpret events for the nation:
Holy Spirit, give them your truth and compassion.
We pray for ourselves, your Church, as we show your love to our neighbours:
Would we speak hope, embody courage and model unity in diversity.
Almighty God, we place our trust in you:Church of England, Prayer for Brexit
For yours is the kingdom the power and the glory, now and forever, Amen
Time and time again, I have heard this point of view, that religious faith should be kept out of politics: it dismisses it to merely a private matter. And there is a hypocrisy to this viewpoint. I object just as vehemently to having atheism thrust down my throat as the atheist does to any crude attempt to convert them, and I also have as much right to live my life, think my thoughts and express my opinion as the atheist does. The issue here is about respect: and the growing lack of respect in Britain is what prompted the Church of England response.
I should also comment that my political opinion on Brexit was the same as those in the online group: I took issue with their derision of the Church speaking out and their ad hominem attacks, rather than noticing the legitimate concern of the Church about the vitriolic discourse now rife in British society. The online group both missed my point and vindicated the point the Church of England was making.
The meaning of the word “political” as given by the Oxford dictionary is:
1. relating to the government or public affairs of a country.
relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
interested in or active in politics.
motivated by a person’s beliefs or actions concerning politics.
2. derogatory done or acting in the interests of status or power within an organization rather than as a matter of principle.
I am thinking that by this point, it is obvious that my opinion is that when we are called to be prophets, when we speak out, we are being political. It is inevitable: and to think it reasonable that a person of faith ought not to express their opinion publicly is to not understand what faith is. Worse than that, it is a double standard, because the atheist also speaks from a position of faith.
Scripture sets a precedent for the people of God being politically active. The Book of Amos has social justice as one of its major themes, where social justice is described as:
… a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges.
Remember that Jesus was crucified for sedition! One does not come in front of the governor of the region for judgement, or cause social unrest without being political. So, we are in good company here.
Why would they want to stop us from speaking out, from expressing our opinions when we are speaking from the ground of our being in God?
St. Ignatius has some things to say about how the enemy, the one opposed to God, goes about his business. The first is that he behaves as a spoiled child, simpering, batting his eyes, stamping his feet, throwing a tantrum and going in the huff when he does not get his way. (Okay, Ignatius actually said like a woman, and given his time, I’m going to let him off the hook on that one, and simply update what he describes to our day and age). The second is as a false lover, who flatters and whispers lies in secret and solicits something unwholesome, telling us it is just between us, our little secret and that we should not tell anyone else about it. The third is as a general, circling the castle to find the weak spot from where to launch an attack; stabbing at our soft underbelly and filling us full of doubt and self recrimination. When we are speaking out, standing up for our principles as guided by our faith, how many of these strategies do we notice in the people who stand in opposition to us?
Ignatius also makes suggestions as to how we deal with each of these scenarios. In the first, he suggests a show of strength, to be unwavering. Of course, any parent who has gone through the toddler years, knows that you have to stand your ground and weather the storm, even as your furious child is attracting all the disapproving, and sympathetic stares of others in the supermarket, or whatever public place they have decided to show you up in. Maximum power, minimum reason. In terms of weakness, one of mine is that I try to be reasonable and base my opinions and arguments on evidence. I know, you would think that this is a strength and in the academic world it is, but in the world of populist politics and online discourse, which fuels the lynch mob mentality, the voice of reason cannot always be heard above the noise, and sometimes may give the space for those who act from an unreasonable standpoint, who show no such scruples, to step in and abuse. Ignatius suggest shoring up the weak walls in our castle, and that may mean continuing in faith, in the course that we know to be right, to stand strong, as in the first case of dealing with the spoiled child. In the second scenario, the secret whispering, Ignatius encourages us to tell, to disclose what is going on in us with someone well versed in discernment of spirits: a spiritual director, or a close friend with such skills. When the turmoil of the dark recesses of our mind are put on the table and God’s light shone on them, they lose their power to potentially uproot us. Our doubts and fears expressed, cannot withstand the process of discernment when examined in the light with the help of another. And through this process we find the courage to face them. Notice that the company of those also engaged in this process of living reflectively in God is important in strengthening and encouraging us. Ignatius suggests discernment, prayer and penance to help strengthen us when we find ourselves beset with that which would pull us away from God. As for the latter, I have a lot to say about penance, but I will save it for another day, at the appropriate time.
At the end of the day, Ignatius describes three steps for those standing with Christ:
…the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead men to other virtues.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
and in The Contemplatio, he makes the first point:
…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
If we were to accept popular direction to keep our religious beliefs out of politics, are we not simply acting like Pilate, and washing our hands of what happens in our society? In unapologetic defense of my own position, I am a Psalm 40 person:
See, I will not hold my tongue,
As well you know.Psalm 40: 9b. The New Jerusalem Bible, Readers Version.