Just when you thought it was safe to visit your local community centre, somebody puts up the polling booths again! With a General Election in 2015, and then the enormously divisive EU Referendum in 2016, the past couple of years have been anything but quiet on the political front, and it may have seemed reasonable to expect a bit of a more settled period on the hustings, especially as we now have fixed-term Parliaments of five years. Right?
Part of the fall-out of the UK’s decision to quit the EU is another General Election in June, plus this month on Star Wars Day (May 4th) we have a vote to choose a Mayor for the Liverpool City Region (St Helens, Sefton, Knowsley, Halton, Wirral and Liverpool). Elected Mayors are a pretty new thing for the UK, and potentially an exciting development for our area, but I suspect this election is being rather drowned out by the other one! Like all elections, both these polls will have far-reaching consequences for many people, so do make sure you get out there and vote.
How, though, should a person of faith vote? Indeed, should the faith we profess have any bearing on where we put our cross – or crosses, in the case of the Mayoral Election! There is a growing perception in this country that faith is a private matter and should be kept out of the public arena, but is this a reasonable position? Especially when two of the main party leaders, Theresa May and Tim Farron, claim to be practising Christians. Indeed, given the twists of ‘terminological inexactitude’ and the tendency to be ‘economical with the truth’ which are the staple of the politician, can a faithful Jesus follower hope to see their principles survive in such a public arena? Or perhaps there is an argument for simply sitting back and leaving it to the world, confident that God’s will ultimately prevails no matter what happens in the affairs of humanity.
The answer, I suspect, is not so black and white.
We are always tempted to use the phrase ‘what would Jesus do?’, and that is a good question. Of course, when we get into specifics, it is quite difficult to know for certain what Jesus would think of efficiency savings in hospitals or policies on local authority control of education, however much we may feel passionately about them. Before we get into policy detail, however, there is the issue of whether or not Christians should vote at all, or if they should remain aloof from such matters. As with all religious groupings, opinions vary, but most Christian denominations accept the need for involvement in the political process, and there are good reasons.
The Bible encourages us to subject ourselves to the ruling authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and to pray for those in charge (1 Timothy 2:1-2), both of which suggest an active involvement in the mechanics of the state, rather than a passive stance and a refusal to engage. Rulers in St Paul’s day, of course, were far more autocratic, and the people had far less opportunity to express a view than they do today, and so it follows that if we are to take an active role, that will include voting if we have the opportunity. After all, a failure to vote against something we oppose is, in effect, a vote in its favour; not voting is a form of voting, and we are called to take responsibility for our actions. The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) reminds us that our actions, of whatever form, will be judged, and it is hard to see how electoral decisions can be seen as different as they have a large effect on the society in which we live and the wider world.
It is, I think, that last point which makes the case for engagement in elections most strongly, and which also leads us to the most difficult consideration – how should we vote? Jesus himself said very little about the subject, other than reminding us to pay our taxes (Luke 20:20-26) (actually, this story is not about paying taxes at all, but that’s another matter..). Jesus concentrates not on the action but on the motive. Just as the story of paying taxes is actually about choosing loyalties, so the teachings of Jesus are about why we do the things we do rather than how. Our motives are under the spotlight, time and again when Jesus opens his mouth. From the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), whom Jesus refused to condemn because the motives of those stoning her were suspect, to the call to love our neighbours as ourselves and to do to others as we would have them do to us, Jesus puts the emphasis on the reasons why we act. He neatly sidesteps the need to take a stance on the detailed issues of the day – his or ours – instead calling on us to examine our motives and then to act in accordance with God’s priorities.
Over the years, of course, many different and often opposing political viewpoints have claimed to support the will of God. In the UK in 2017, it is rare to find a politician who claims to be doing the work of the Almighty – political pragmatism suggests such a stance to be unlikely to benefit the party electorally. Nonetheless, it is I think very important that we all take time and effort to consider carefully – and prayerfully – which (if any!) political stance falls most in line with God’s priorities. This may not be the one with whom we would instinctively align ourselves, such is the radical and challenging nature of Jesus’ message.
Whichever way we vote, failure to engage is surely the worst option. As was observed by Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, ‘All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing’. Or good women.
So, go to the polls, use the opportunity to make a difference – just like grains of salt, the more we use, the saltier the food!