The Church's Role in Politics
Dr Jim Harris
Associate Rector at Emmanuel Church, Wynberg, Cape Town.
Let me begin by defining some terms that may be helpful in understanding the thrust of my paper. By "church" I mean both the individual believer and the institutional entity; hence both individuals and the corporate body have a part to play in the political realm. In the following observations and reflections I do not, however, make fine distinctions here. By "politics" I mean all activities relating to governing, guiding or building civil society. I recognise the limitations of these definitions. It needs to be made clear, too, that I write as a theologian even though I am commenting on ethical, political and legal features.
So, what is the role of the church in politics? I think, firstly, the church needs to recognize that it does have a role. I make this point because many Christians struggle with the church's involvement in socio-political-economic issues. Yet Scripture and history clearly support the church's place in these concerns. Daniel becomes a leader in Babylon, Amos and other prophets speak into political and social matters in Israel, Judah and the surrounding nations. Both John the Baptist and Jesus refer to the political concerns of their day. In both the Old and New Testament God's representatives spoke out against abuse of political power and sought just use of power. This surely, is what being "salt and light" means. Hence participation in politics does not detract from spirituality; in fact a spirituality that is unrelated to politics is questionable.
Secondly, I am convinced that the key role the church plays in politics is through its prophetic ministry. "Prophetic" here means speaking into policy, structure, or issues in the name of God and Christ, or on behalf of humanity in general or of a community in particular. Anglican bishops David Russell and Desmond Tutu were classical examples of this, following, I believe, the prophetic pattern in the Old Testament. This is different to the "prophetic word" that is current - different in emphasis, not better or worse. The church has a set of moral norms and it has illustrations in Scripture and in history of how these norms have been used. The prophetic role is seen in the application of relevant moral norms to the current political concerns of the day. Hence the church needs to continue engaging with government on justice, corruption, leadership, economic debt, housing, education, health care, safety and security, policy, and whatever else is morally important. Further, the church needs to be saying "yes" as well as "no" to governmental promises and policies. By "no" I mean to clearly oppose wrongdoing, corruption, or anything else deemed unedifying and not benefiting society. "Yes" supports commitments to fulfilling promises made to making real efforts to curb crime, to making education truly a prime target for development, to making health care accessible and significant - not second-rate. Government (including local government) should look again at how it spends money in areas considered priorities. In one case I know of, a local authority raised rates by a large percentage. In the budget labour costs (salaries etc) took about 70% of income. Senior officials' salaries took a sizeable portion of that. And in the same breath residents were informed that services would be cut due to inadequate funding. Thus the question needs to be asked: Who is really benefiting, the people or the officials? In this type of situation it is difficult for individuals to change much. The body corporate, however, can be effective by powerful representation at the highest levels to bring about just and equitable rate increases together with reasonable service expectations.
It should be reasonably clear that the church's role in politics is an ethical one. I'm not concerned here with party politics which is often partisan, though I concede that individual Christians belonging to parties of their choice will apply ethics within the framework of their party's policies. I consider ethics as an expression of God's compassion for humanity: God's desire for the best for creation. It also reflects the "image of God" in humanity. If all humanity is made in the image of God in some way or other, then humans are surely to seek the best for each other. Public leaders, then, are to work for the betterment of their communities. Such concern in South Africa is rare today (has it ever been really evident?). The reason is due to sin and self-centredness. And now codes of conduct are being produced in various quarters to give guidance for public morality. I'm told, however, that the City of Cape Town does not a have a code for its counsellors. One cannot, to my mind, formulate policy or structure society without having the checks and balances to offset the pervasive and corrupting elements of selfishness. Hence law is necessary; a bill of rights is important (what about a formal bill of responsibilities?); a constitution is critical; codes of conduct become imperative.
However, laws, bills of rights, codes of conduct, constitutions - including the Bible, cannot guarantee transformation or even minimal change. There has to be a will to want to act. And this relates to hope. For people to want change, motivation is needed. Hence those ethicists that emphasise "responsibility" stress the value of integrity now, for this influences the future. So, it may be that some people who were part of the "struggle" to see South Africa become a true democracy are now leaving the country because they sense no hope - or very little, for the future. This hopelessness is rooted in disillusionment in the present. For this despair to change, leaders, including political leaders, have to voluntarily impose upon themselves limits and restrictions, sacrifice more and exercise self-denial as visible examples of their commitment to the future. The future can be good when, among other things, one is secure in job, home and bank balance. The future is dark and dreary if one is poor, homeless, jobless or insecure and frightened.
Principled leaders guide a nation into responsible action. And it is responsible action that honours principle, enabling others to understand and appreciate it. Thus, for example: the principle of economic security generates job creation. But if education and crime prevention are inadequate, economic security is impacted negatively. Hence a vicious circle is created with little or nothing done to produce meaningful life in the land. Recent events in the Western Cape alone prove this. And what is the role of the church? We have to speak and act, we have to engage government on moral terms, not on expediency or seeming interference. Christians in the political arena have to commit themselves to honesty and integrity in all areas of their lives to show by example that following Jesus works. The church, as institution, needs to have competent lobbyists within government structures to inform and be informed about the issues of the day. This must be seen as an investment, not a costly luxury. The Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Churches in the Western Cape have gone this route - to their great benefit I'm sure.
To conclude: the church's role in politics is to be there visibly in the context of political policy formulation. The church has to be prophetic, speaking for God. The church has to herald the ethical values that enrich a nation. The church has to be bold and forthright, constructive and innovative. The church has to be "salt and light" in what is so often a corrupt environment, to bring light and health.
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L. du Plessis, A Christian Assessment of Aspects of the Bill of Rights in South Africa's Final Constitution, JTSA 96, November 1996.
D. Holloway, A Nation Under God, Kingsway: Eastbourne, 1987.
S. Nadasen, The Search for National Values in a Transforming South Africa: A Dialogue Between Law and Theology, JTSA 96, November 1996.
M.J. Oosthuizen, The Deuteronomic Code as a Resource for Christian Ethics, JTSA 96, Novem-ber 1996.
D. Smit, Morality and Individual Responsibility, JTSA 89, December 1994.
C. Villa-Vicencio & J. de Gruchy (eds), Doing Ethics in Context: South African Perspectives, David Philip: Cape Town, 1994.
P. Wogaman, Protestant Faith and Religious Liberty, Abingdon: Nashville, 1969.
The Big Picture Volume 1, Lent 1999 p.12