A Kairos moment in politics – for the Church?
Perhaps it’s time for the Church to be at the forefront of reshaping the political system?
It was 1994 and we were sitting in my office at Christian Aid in Liverpool. Jim Wallis, the American evangelical pastor, was addressing us on the subject of the serious point in history we had reached, and how we now had an opportunity as Christians to embrace the challenge to do politics differently. He was in the UK to promote his book The Soul of Politics.
We were indeed at a momentous time: the Cold War was ending, at least in the West, even though it would continue to play out in some of the world’s poorest countries for some years to come – the unholy legacy of the USSR and the USA fighting its war by proxy. The momentous image of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was still fresh in our minds, and a symbol of the ability of people to overcome division and inspire hope. Although the challenges that faced the newly united Germany showed that providing real, practical opportunities to those in the East was harder than it sounded. Many saw flaws in the capitalist system and became disillusioned that the provision they had hoped for didn’t actually live up to the one they’d been used to under the communist authorities – whose strengths lie in taking control of public provision, though their weaknesses included actual inequality and terrible oppression.
The falling of the failed Utopia of the Soviet Bloc didn’t result in a glorious capitalist Utopia either. As Wallis articulated so clearly, we stood on the doorstep of opportunity; we had witnessed the failure of both of these two systems: ‘Ultimately, our great macro-systems have both failed, especially morally and spiritually. They have failed the poor, the earth and the human heart.’
An opportune moment in time?
Back in the 90s there was a hope that another way could be found; Wallis and others saw this as a Kairos moment: a time pregnant with possibilities, including the possibility of ending the moral poverty that comes from only having two options on the table when it comes to how we govern our countries and our world. His was a call to Christians to gird up their loins, get involved in redefining the agenda of communities, countries, the World.
Twenty-four years later, I find myself pondering what went wrong. The only thing that seemed to actually come out of this time was the resurgence of ‘The Third Way’: an attempt to pick the best from left and right and create a politics that wasn’t really new at all. And one that couldn’t last, because it allowed people with firm allegiances to both sides to feel unsatisfied, while not being different enough to win over those who had already lost hope in the status quo.
So we stand at a crossroads, the brink, a cliff edge or whatever metaphor best suits your frame of mind as the UK faces the debacle of its Government’s handling of its relationship with the European Union, the USA observes the unravelling of its political integrity, Putin appears to laugh in the face of every other nation, Saudi Arabia & Turkey embark on a feud over human rights and state murder (some might make reference to pots and kettles, but I couldn’t possibly comment) and fascism is in the ascendant in a more widespread manner than in the 1930s.
In the USA Christians on both sides of the political divide are claiming Jesus or the hand of God in their favour. Perhaps the most coherent version of this is the claim that God has put President Trump in office just as he put King Cyrus in power to do his work all those centuries ago. The most alarming is a rejoicing that he is bringing about the ‘end times’ of Mark 13 and Revelation. It is interesting to see how a secular state is actually highly shaped by religion in the USA, whereas in the UK our politics are far more secular, even with a state church and bishops in the House of Lords.
On the national scale, we live in a country that seems to be obsessed with individualism and the pursuit of wealth, and that has abandoned its commitment to the very people Jesus outlined as being at the centre of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 25: the poor, the sick, the stranger, the hungry, the prisoner. Some argue that it is being forgotten that has led those most vulnerable in our society reaching out to the far-right political groups, the legal and illegal ones, and indeed the far-left has grown in numbers too, apparently for the same reasons. Yet not everyone who fits that profile is following that path, so there must be more to it than this.
The Church of England used to be called ‘The Conservative Party at prayer’ when I was growing up. It was assumed that belonging to the established Church made us establishment people. The values of the church were seen to be in line with those of the conservative party at the time; hard work was rewarded, individuals took responsibility for themselves, and altruism was key to making the wheels go round. It was all fine so long as the rich looked after the poor.
The alternative, more socialist, message from some of the Free Churches was that justice was key, that charity was a stopgap until equality had been achieved, and that Jesus had a bias to the poor and marginalised. Both of these views were backed up by specific interpretations of the Bible, and the teaching of Jesus in particular. It’s what psychologists call confirmation bias: we see what we expect to see when we read the Bible. We find Jesus expounding our views and, because we are social animals, we seek out like-minded groups of people to join, follow or recruit, and unless we engage with those who think differently from us we will continue to hold our viewpoint unchallenged.
In recent years, a social psychologist called Jonathan Haidt has explored this phenomenon in depth. He has carried out many experiments and surveys to ascertain what inclines us towards the political views we hold. His studies are centred upon personality types and how they draw us to particular political and theological allegiances. His findings show that people who are inclined towards conservative values adhere strongly towards different moral rules from those who are inclined to more liberal or progressive values. Progressives tend to focus mostly on justice and compassion, whereas conservatives focus on fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity/decency. Having read these lists of values, you might already have located yourself in one of the two groups; you might even have identified that most of the people in the churches you have attended would share your values, or that you left them because they didn’t.
But this is only half the story. I remember Canon David Porter, when he was the Archbishops’ Advisor for Reconciliation and grappling with divisive issues such as women bishops and equal marriage, wistfully referring to the challenge as ‘a battle between the righteous and the just’. Here was a man who had been involved in the Northern Ireland Peace Process with his incisive brain and wit, hitting the spot that divided us with absolute precision. The challenge he took up was not, however, to facilitate a battle in which one side claimed victory, but a dialogue that enabled each side to hear the other, and to bring to the table the strengths inherent in being either conservative or progressive in theological terms. In the case of women bishops this process was a shining success that has not been repeated with the discussions on sexuality and equal marriage. By ‘success’ I am not referring to the fact that we now have women bishops, but to the breathtaking ability to listen and reach out to each other that I witnessed first-hand in the process.
When we place ourselves one side of the line or the other, we fail to see the whole picture or acknowledge the incompleteness of our own world view: as St Paul says, ‘We see through a glass darkly’. We have forgotten that our job is not to be right all the time, and so we cast others as wrong in order to avoid our own weaknesses and failures. Looking at the motes in the eyes of others to avoid the beams in our own, as Jesus said. The extremes of right and left are what happens when we fail to listen to others, when belonging to the tribe is more important than the values of humanity: when the centre ground loses its way, the extremes find space and fuel.
Strengths on both sides
Haidt tells us that there are important strengths in both conservative and progressive mindsets: conservatives are good at detail, organisation, maintenance of structures and boundary setting. While progressives are good at the bigger themes, creative ideas, problem solving and developing initiatives. We all need each other. We need each other for both the good of the Church and the good of the world. The country, and the world, may not think we are needed for its good but there is a vacuum in our politics that has sucked out its life force and driven people apart. We may choose to blame the EU referendum for tearing us apart, but had the cracks not already been present, I doubt that the effect would have been so extreme. The politicians may have started the process, but they are showing no signs of having the answer to the healing of our nation. Meanwhile, homelessness and poverty are on the rise, our NHS and education system are at breaking point, sick and disabled people are taking their own lives because they can’t see a way out of their desperate circumstances, and the far right is whipping up hatred of refugees and migrants.
The Church is still at the forefront of provision for those on the edge of society, however irrelevant some try to say we are. Perhaps it’s time for us to be at the forefront of reshaping the political system, too? This draws me back to Jim Wallis and his book The Soul of Politics when in 1994, he wrote: ‘We long for something more truthful, more insightful, more compassionate, more wise, more humble, more human.’
He could have been forgiven, had he despaired at the lack of response to his call to seize the opportunity to create a new way of doing politics at a crucial moment. He didn’t. He founded Sojourners, and along with many other Christians, is still working towards a new way of being Church, of doing politics and being human, along with many others in the USA. Among them is Stephen Mattson, who wrote this for their website in February 2017:
Perhaps we Christians in the UK could follow the lead of Sojourners and seek to discern new ways of doing politics and government, a way that puts compassion and humanity back at the centre of our structures and our relationships. However we might label ourselves – conservative, liberal, progressive, or none of the above, we can only do this together. We can only do this if God is as the heart of our choices, plans and decisions.
God has provided a Kairos moment – perhaps continually does so. The question we must ask ourselves is: will we accept the challenge?
Jim Wallis is the President and Founder of Sojourners, whose mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, to inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.
Jonathan Haidt is also author of The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Haidt is a social psychologist whose research on morality across cultures led to his 2008 TED Talk on the psychological roots of the American culture war, and his 2013 TED Talk on how ‘common threats can make common ground.’ In both of those talks he asks, ‘Can’t we all disagree more constructively?’