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Two MPs, one Conservative and one Labour, were arguing about which party cared most a bout religion. The Conservative said, “You Labour people know nothing about religion.”

“That’s not true,” said the Labour MP, “we know a lot about religion.”

So the Conservative issued a challenge: “I bet you £20 you can’t even recite the Lord’s Prayer.”

“That’s easy,” said the Labour MP: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

“Dash it!” said he Conservative. “I didn’t think you could do it.”

It feels a bit like stepping into a boxing ring today as I stand here to talk about politics, and I will make just five further references to party politics, though political categories of left and right, Conservative and Labour, UKIP and Communist, don’t neatly fit with religion, and it’s a big mistake to try to fit religion into them, or to suggest that one political party is more Christian than another. So this isn’t a sermon on how to vote on Thursday, or in the June referendum – I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to cast your vote. What I am going to try and do is give you some principles which the Bible sets out for us and which may help to inform our political decisions.

Let’s be clear first of all what we mean when we talk about politics. The word itself comes from the Greek πολις meaning city, and πολιτης meaning citizen. Politics is about living together in community as fellow-citizens, and we have a responsibility for one another, the principle of which extends right back to the earliest days of mankind. When Cain said to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer, had it been recorded, would have been, “Yes, you do have a responsibility to look out for one another.”

So to some Biblical principles:

     Submitting to authority except where it goes clearly against God’s will

Paul is very clear about our responsibilities as fellow-citizens, just as Jesus was when he told us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, but it is clearly not an absolute ruling. In Acts 5:29, when the disciples had been told not to teach in the name of Jesus, Peter rejected this, on the grounds that there are times when God’s authority is greater than that of the state. We are not obliged to obey anything which instructs us to behave in a way which is directly contrary to God’s teaching. What this illustrates as well for me is the importance of reading scripture as a whole, and balancing verses from one place with verses from another. We must never take single verses in isolation, as there is a real danger of distorting the big picture which God gives us when we read the Bible more widely. Another rather more controversial point also emerges here. As Christians, we sometimes have to live with legislation which we don’t agree with as long as it doesn’t force us to act contrary to God’s word. We live in a secular society, and that will have a growing influence on legislation whether we like it or not. Let me give you an example of what I think will happen one day: parliament will, in my view, vote to approve voluntary euthanasia. That is not imposing anything on the way I choose to behave, so we will have to follow Romans 13 here.

     Showing a bias to the poor

The scriptures are shot through with references to meeting the needs of the poor, from Leviticus 19:10, where people had to leave some standing grain around the edges of their fields, and to leave some grapes still on the vines for the poor to collect; through Ezekiel 16:49, where the people are judged because they had everything they needs yet still refused to help the poor and needy; through to Jesus in Luke 14:13, where he encourages the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner to invite the poor in future because they won’t be able to repay your kindness, but God will bless you. In Matthew 25, judgment falls on those who failed to meet the needs of the poorest.

     Upholding justice

The word in the NT for justice is the root word from where we get the rather more religious word righteousness. Justice is about acting in a way which reflects right behaviour according to God’s standards. There are well over 200 references in half the books of the Bible to just

or justice, so I reckon that makes it a pretty importance subject in God’s eyes. And it’s not difficult to see injustice at work all over the world today: is it just that, when all of us here will enjoy plenty of food and drink today, hundreds of millions will have either no food or a quantity which is below subsistence level? Thank goodness, despite considerable opposition from some factions in the party, the government has refused to reduce its commitment to the overseas aid budget. (That’s the first of my party political comments!)

     Meeting the needs of immigrants/asylum seekers

There are many references in the Bible to aliens, and the word always means a stranger in a foreign land. Leviticus 19:34 sums up what is echoed many times throughout the Bible: “Don’t ill-treat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead treat them as well as you treat your citizens and love them as much as you love yourself.” There’s obviously a tension here for some people as there are two kinds of foreigner in our country: there are those who are here to work because we are in the European Union and people have the right to free movement for employment. We may question whether to allow such freedom of movement is appropriate when we have our own levels of unemployment. However, there are many genuine asylum seekers who have left the most dreadful persecution and violence in their home countries, and I think we should be proud that we’re a country that people want to come to because they believe they’ll be free from persecution. So here’s my second party political comment: I was ashamed of our government last Monday when they voted against allowing into the country up to 3000 children from the mainland of Europe who are there without their families. Already it’s estimated that 10,000 children have disappeared in Europe since the migrant crisis began, many of whom have probably now been trafficked for sex or forced labour. How can we stand by and allow such horrors to continue?

     Loving your neighbour

Jesus is very clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan what it means to care for your neighbour. It’s not just the nice folk who live next door, but it’s the people we may even despise, or who despise us (like the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’s day). We need to be a society which thinks beyond the “me-first” philosophy, which was spelled out in a report a few years ago which said that our children today are growing up with poor role models of unselfishness and politeness. The kind of comments which we’ve seen from televised parliament and from the opposing sides in the referendum debate serve to exemplify this well.

     Caring for widows and orphans

James 1:27 tells us that true religion is meeting the needs of the widows and orphans, as well as keeping yourself unspotted from the world. In Jesus’s day, when a husband died, or when parents died, widows and orphans were completely helpless. Our equivalent today might be any of those people who are obliged to draw state benefits for their very survival, some of whom end up being vilified in television reality programmes like Benefit Street.

     Caring for God’s world

To quote Tear Fund a while ago:

                  “To claim to love the creator but to abuse the world in which we live

                  is like claiming to be fans of Shakespeare whilst burning his plays.

                  In Genesis 2, there is no one to till the ground, so God forms man

(adam) from the ground (adamah) and asks him to till and keep it.

This Hebrew wordplay (adam/adamah) expresses our solidarity

with the earth; we are connected to it and utterly dependent on it for life;

For this reason, Psalm 139:13 – 15 can parallel “the womb

of the earth” with “a mother’s womb”. Humans are both physical

and spiritual and the two ought not to be separated. To care for creation,

then, is to care a system that we are a part of: in caring for the earth

we care for ourselves.”

That’s why I believe in our responsibility to do all we can to deal with climate change, and why I’m deeply opposed to fracking. (That’s political comment number three!)

     Upholding the sanctity and dignity of all human life

Every day there are over 125,000 abortions across the world; in 60 countries, abortion is available simply on request, though countries vary as to how late the abortion may be carried out. At the other end of life, four countries in Europe plus Colombia have legalised assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. Now neither of these issues is absolutely black and white: should a victim of rape or incest be forced to carry a child? Should someone with locked-in syndrome be forced to remain alive against his will? These are complex ethical issues, and there has to be a fine line between the sanctity of life and dignity in life. I think the law as it stands probably has this balance right, but there is a powerful lobby who might one day persuade a future government to change the law.

     Supporting the family

You might be surprised to hear that I don’t think the Bible is very helpful in defining what a family is! The only people who are told that they should have only one wife are church leaders; polygamy was widespread in Jesus’s day and is never condemned. Lack of mobility meant that most people would have their extended family living close by, or even in the same house. What’s the nature of family in 2016?

  • Traditional mum and dad, 2 or 3 children, living near other family relations.
  • Nuclear family with other relations spread across the country…or even the world!
  • Couples without children either through inability or choice.
  • Couples living together in a long-term stable relationship: the number of these now exceeds the number of married couples in this country.
  • Single parents, possibly with several children.
  • Second marriages with stepchildren relationships: this applies to 1/3 of all contemporary marriages
  • Gay and lesbian couples in civil partnerships or married, some with adopted children.

      

This is today’s reality, whether we like it or not. Some of these family structures will be preferable to others but family cohesion is crucial to the maintenance of our society. That’s why I was so disturbed to read this week of the family who, because of the government’s benefit cap, have been evicted from their home and split into two groups, mother living with two children and father with the others, in two separate flats, because that’s cheaper in housing benefit than the rent for the one house. A law which breaks up a family cannot be good. (That’s my fourth political comment!)

     Working for peace

Ecclesiastes 9:18 says that wisdom is better than weapons of war; Psalm 68 calls on God to scatter the nations that enjoy making war; Psalm 34 exhorts us to seek peace and pursue it; and Matthew 5 reminds us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” That’s why I’m passionately opposed to nuclear weapons and to the renewal of the Trident system at a cost of over £30 billion. (So end my political comments!)

Well, there you have ten principles, all of which have implications for making political decisions. They are all important, but, as far as I can see, no one political party has a monopoly on delivering what God asks, so, in the end, we all have to make choices about where our personal priorities lie: as we sang earlier, “politics is compromise.” My conclusion is simply this: when there’s an election, whether local or national, get hold of party manifestoes, ask candidates their views on some of the issues we’ve been considering this morning, then vote prayerfully and considerately.

  • Psalm 119:160

    “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”

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