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29 June 2017

Is there a relationship between politics and biblical love?

Is there a relationship between politics and biblical love?

by Flavio Guaratto, Speak Up coordinator at the Evangelical Alliance.

Do biblical love and politics ever come together? Have they anything in common? Do they complement or contradict each other? And more importantly, should Christians get involved in politics?

In order to address these questions, I'm drawing from Martin Luther King Jr., who is known to have talked and written a lot about biblical love. He famously followed a version of the classical distinctions between different kinds of love. Eros, which he understood as romantic love, philia, the love of friendship, and agape love, which for him was as follows: "…nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes or ways appeal to us, but because God loves them."  Followers of Christ are called to love God, love one another and love their neighbour (Matthew 28:19-20). When asked the exemplification of the "neighbour", Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), indicating that irrespective of race, background, social status or occupation, whether we like or dislike our neighbour, we ought to love them and not expect anything in return. This is a tough call.

Love, in this 'agapic' sense, suggests that the political sphere could be a space for the manifestation of biblical love through the redemption of the common good, a type of love that can play a crucial part in politics if we look at society as the community of many different individuals, within a given territory, all made in God's image and loved by Him in Jesus. In this 'agapic' sense we must love intentionally, look for people's needs and do our best to meet these needs, some of which can better achieved through political engagement. This is confirmed by the apostle Paul when he says: "Look out for other's interests not your own." Philippians 2:4. Love can be an exercise of looking for the neighbour's interests, without prejudice and more importantly not expecting anything in return – not even votes. This 'agapic' love does not expect unbelievers to act as if they were one, or to understand the Christian worldview. Love is offered because God loved us first.

A frequently raised objection against Christian engagement with politics is that anything besides explicit preaching, teaching of the Bible and community engagement at grassroots level is a distraction from the mission of the Church. This, in my view, is a limited understanding of the purpose of God for His beloved people. A worldview informed by the Bible and transformed by God's Spirit through new birth, should provide a comprehensive understanding of our mission in all areas of life, including the political.

Politics, on the other hand, (from Greek: Politiká: "affairs of the cities") is the process of making decisions that apply to all members of a community. Politics can also be seen as a means to achieve and exercise positions of governance, exercise of power or organised control over a human community.

There are numerous examples of Christians reasserting their influence and redeeming government to promote good and restrain evil, exerting biblical love through the means of politics. These would include outlawing infanticide, child abuse and abandonment, ending the practice of human sacrifice and trafficking, banning paedophilia and polygamy, and prohibiting the burning of widows in India. William Wilberforce was the force behind the successful effort to abolish the slave trade in England and in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the civil rights movement against racial segregation and discrimination in the US – and the list goes on and on.

On the other hand, Christians need to admit with humility that our involvement with politics has also been problematic, to say the least. History has sad examples of Christians allied with coercive power in order to justify conquest, wars, inequality and oppression. Contemporary Christianity has become in many ways associated with division, cover-ups, hypocrisy and "anti-ism". People who share our faith continually seek privileges before the law.

But, this should not be a justification for withdrawal from the public sphere, which can open a moral vacuum susceptible to forces that pressure governments to adopt policies and make provisions that could lead to all sorts of unhealthy excesses. When Christians withdraw, they choose to agree with the assumptions of the postmodern project that the Church serves only an ancillary position, or an obsolete moral and social compass. Retreat from the market place of ideas, and others will occupy this space, creating all sorts of subtle strongholds against the gospel, the Church and of the furtherance of the kingdom of God.

God has given the ultimate example. Rather than withdrawing from His people, He instead sent His son, Jesus, as a man, the ultimate expression of His love and commitment to humankind.

Christians should not attribute more to politics than it deserves though. We should be involved with it, but we must not be defined by it. Politicians and political entities are human constructs often fueled by very unhealthy ambitions and dirty interests. They are not the saviours of the world, despite their messianic promises of being source of hope, provision, and salvation. Believing that is a foolish endeavor. 

And most importantly the world's most persistent problems will not be completely solved through political means. These will only be resolved when Jesus returns and establishes the new and eternal community, where there will be no more tears, no more death, pain, or separation, whose government is on his shoulder.

Christians have a different hope and belong to another community that transcends time and space; our loyalties are ultimately with Him, not with the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Green or Independent, any of the national parties or for or against Brexit.

Now the election is over we have a choice to reject the polarisation, division, lies, greed and revenge which will no doubt abound. This opens great opportunities for Christians to exercise 'agapic' love, offering healing and modelling forgiveness, unity and reconciliation.

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