Growing up in the oil-rich, conservative north of Alberta, I distinctly remember the 2006 federal elections and my mother explaining to my 14-year-old self that we “vote for the Conservative party, because that is the Christian party and we support them.” So in 2011, I was 18 and dutifully handed in a ballot that contributed to the historical moment that the Conservatives won the first majority federal government since 1988, and made Steven Harper the Canadian Prime Minister. Harper is a member of the Alliance Church of Canada, the tradition I grew up in, who could have been a better choice? And yet, in the four years since that day, I have moved provinces, earned a degree, and watched the government I helped place in power accelerate prison building (C-10 crackdown on crime ), abolish the possibility of publicly funded child care systems, and completely disregard international agreements combatting climate change (remember the Kyoto Protocol?). Needless to say, I have seriously reconsidered my political choices. But what role does my faith have to play in election times? Are there really such things as “Christian” politics?
When it comes to seeking political insight from Biblical texts, Christians tend to try one of two approaches: try to find applicable instructions from the writings or, ignore the Bible completely on the basis that it cannot relate to the modern world. As I’m sure you can imagine, neither of these approaches is particularly practical if one seeks to join political action with a personal faith.
The difficulty of approaching the Bible as if it could provide instructions to modern politics is that the audiences of the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different from their respective contexts and our own. While the Old Testament is addressed to a theocratic state where religion and politics are one, the New Testament speaks to a deeply religious people living under the oppression of a secular power. Neither of these reflect or relate to the largely democratic societies of the modern Western World. For these reasons, selectively choosing texts to promote one idea or one party over another as instructions for political behaviour simply does not work. In the words of Richard Baukham “None of [the Old Testament] applies directly to us as instructions, but all of it is relative to us as instructive.“Selecting Old Testament texts to apply in our politics is impractical and ineffective, but if we can study the text as whole and see the choices of God’s people in their context, historical attitude, and the complexity of government systems which evolve with humanity, maybe a we could find some instructive testimonies to aid in the political decisions of 21st century life.
The first step in this daunting task is to understand the thoroughly human origins of government in the historical context of the Bible. The earliest political being is documented as Nimrod in Genesis 10, a great hunter who protected the people from wild animals, becoming an early form of king. Kingship became the most common form of government in the ancient world and the defence against the others of creation is fulfillment of God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9. Baukham’s essay Reading the Bible Politically uses this example to argue that government must always be a reflection of God’s will for humanity. This model forces Christians to recognize that the Old Testament is filled with stories about societies that have little similarity to our own. Trying to apply commands in place for the people of those societies to members of our own is futile and often results in Christians feeling overwhelmed with their inability to effectively defend political choices with biblical reference. At this point, Baukham makes the statement that he feels this lack of transferability might be the reasoning behind “…the relatively modern tendency for Christians to disengage from political and social reality. ”
For me, this statement sums up my frustrations with the approach to politics the Christians in my developmental life exemplified. Why did my mother feel that voting Conservative was the Christian thing to do? She didn’t tell me, I don’t know if she even knew. But that was and is the belief, that’s what all her friends said, my dad said, my pastor said. And if you had asked me at 18, its undoubtedly what I would have said. Simply voting does not mean that you are engaged in political reality, anyone (over 18) can do that. But to challenge a cultural assumption, especially one that could bring much criticism upon yourself and your faith is not only what’s best for society but is itself a truly Christian act. Even if in the end you choose the popular opinion, you came to the decision critically. Like I discussed previously, Jesus called us to challenge authority, be creative, be thinkers.
Ultimately, whatever political choices a person makes can be respected if they have taken the time to do some critical thinking and are able to defend the decision. Popular opinion is the achilles heel of democracy, curating your own decisions makes you an active member of society and by extension – of God’s creation. Whatever you do, do in faith.