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Christianity and Contemporary Politics

Paul Bickley

Luke Bretherton



Ask the average evangelical to name a Christian who has managed to make a difference in public life. You'll hear the name Wilberforce, maybe Shaftesbury, maybe Martin Luther King.

That is deeply depressing, since it can only mean one of two things. Either Christians rarely achieve anything constructive, or our theo-political imagination is narrow - we must reach back to find those who fit the mould: the great Parliamentarians, inspirational campaigners of high moral principle, the great reformers, great men (almost always) who took history by the scruff of the neck and sorted it out.

If that is how our imagination works, it's no surprise that Christian political action can be anachronistic. Too often a baptism of the prevailing ideology and practice of the day, Christians of the left and right adopt the same approach, which in essence is to use the democratic process to lay hold of power and then legislate to this or that end. Or else, in a more pessimistic tone, we campaign against the gradual de-Christianisation of the nation through whatever means available. At best we are simply ineffective; at worst we make ourselves victims, stuck on the wrong side of history: skirmish - retreat, skirmish - retreat, skirmish - retreat.

All in all, we give the impression that we don't know what we are doing. There have been many learned and useful tomes on the proper relationship between the church and state in liberal democracies. There's a glut of material that offers a Christian or 'biblical' approach to a variety of issues. There's a cottage industry devoted to convincing Christians that they should 'do politics'. But until Luke Bretherton's book, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, there has been little which addressed the question of what, in our given social, political and economic context, is a genuinely Christian account of politics.

The argument is both subtle and extensive, and can't be summarised fully here. The aim is to re-theorise the relationship between Christianity and the political, but Bretherton does not do this in the abstract. Instead, he looks at concrete examples of how churches are working towards 'the just and generous ordering of a common life': one local (community organising), one national (the Sanctuary Movement), and one global (Fair Trade). Bretherton 'reads' each of these case studies deeply and theologically, exploring what makes them authentic Christian responses, as opposed to methods or positions derived from elsewhere with a Bible verse bolted on.

The best example of this, and one which lays much of the groundwork for the rest of the book, is Bretherton's discussion of the parallels between the practice of community organising - familiar in organisations like London Citizens, in which churches are heavily involved - and an Augustinian view of the relationship between church and society. In the period between Christ's ascension and Christ's return, we occupy an ambivalent time, neither simply bad nor simply good. The City of God - the community of those who love God - and the earthly city coexist in this saeculum. While true peace belongs to the City of God, even the earthy city seeks a 'cooperation of men's wills for the sake of attaining the things which belong to this mortal life'.

The task for those who belong to the City of God is to form and work for 'common objects of love'. In other words, the church must seek the welfare of the city in which they live as exiles. Community organising is a concrete way in which churches can engage in the search for common objects of love in the here and now. For both Augustine and community organisers, there is an eschatological reality that calls us forward, a 'heaven' we should work towards (community organisers often speak of 'the world as it should be') but it will never be realised in the now/the saeculum/'the world as it is', with all its need for negotiation and compromise. Bretherton asks his readers to maintain the tension between idealism and pragmatism.

From his discussion of the Sanctuary Movement and Fair Trade, Bretherton draws attention to the need for a 'Christian cosmopolitanism', which recognises a moral responsibility to humanity as a whole, but calls for it to be worked out in particular places (that Christian political witness is grounded locally is vitally important for Bretherton). In just the same way as the Church is brought into being by the hospitality of God, we will be defined by the Christian practice of hospitality towards strangers. The substance of Christian politics will emerge through a dual listening to the Word of God and to strangers, enabling the church to call political authorities to exercise right judgements.

This book was recently awarded the 2013 Michael Ramsay Prize for contemporary theological writing. The award is deserved. This should not be said lightly, but if it were read and understood broadly it could have a transformative effect on Christians' imagination of not just what it is to engage in politics, but what it is to be the church at all - refocused locally, discerning what it is to love our neighbours. This is theologically stable ground, reminding us why we can't simply collapse the distinctions between the earthly city and the City of God. It insists that the church continues to exercise a distinctive and generous vocation in the world, rather than demand recognition, freedom and control.