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Finish This Sentence

“The church should stay out of politics unless . . . it wants to be faithful. Not to mention relevant.”

By Patricia Clarke

Every morning our newspaper reminds us of the mess our world is in, most of it made by us. Pollution of the land, sea and air; overconsumption by the few and undernourishment for the many; climate change; political instability that has left millions homeless. Church people who say they are called to seek justice and resist evil should have something to say about these things. To insist our faith can have nothing to do with them is to condemn it to irrelevance.

Of course, we can pray about the problems: “We’re too greedy or lazy or short-sighted to clean up our own mess, God. You do it for us.” Or we can give God a hand by campaigning for more generous immigration policies or stronger safeguards for the environment. That’s politics — which doesn’t mean supporting any one political party, but rather taking a part in framing the policies that govern us, policies that carry out what we say we believe about good news for the poor.

In the culture in which I grew up, nearly everyone was assumed to be Christian, that being defined by what you did not do: no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, and for girls, no fooling around with boys. This personal-morality definition has a long, at times shameful, history. When slavery was an issue in the United States, the future president James Garfield said that serious Christians (such as himself) should concentrate on self-betterment rather than meddling in the lives of others. The same limited definition is still around, in the complaints that the United Church should mind its own business, stick to the Gospels, work on saving souls and let someone else save society.

Going beyond personal morality is charity. When the Good Samaritan found a man beaten and robbed on the Jericho road, he took him to an inn. Today he would take him to a food bank and Out of the Cold. But should he stop there? Or should he also, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once suggested, campaign for police patrols on the Jericho road? Should he ask why so many people need food banks and shelters? And there we go from charity to politics.

It’s sometimes said that saving souls is all church people know about, and they should shut up about anything else. (Apparently being elected to Parliament confers on a lawyer, say, or auto dealer or barkeeper the instant expertise on public policy that churchgoers lack.) I don’t have to understand how my computer works to know when it’s broken. I pay someone to fix it. I don’t have to understand credit default swaps to know that our economy is broken, or understand the physics of climate change to know that Arctic sea ice is melting. We pay our elected representatives to fix these issues. If they can’t or won’t, then we elect another set. That’s politics.

As for sticking to the Gospels, the Gospel message goes far beyond personal morality. The Bible is political. It promises good news to the poor and bad news to the idle rich. That’s why black slaves were punished for reading it. Jesus was political. He said he came to bring freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, justice to the destitute. When he preached regime change, the Kingdom of God on earth, he upset the system. The rulers didn’t like it then; they don’t like it today. Dick Benner, editor of the Canadian Mennonite magazine, has been warned it could lose its charity status if he keeps speaking out on justice issues. As he wrote, “I take seriously my duty to represent our core beliefs in a prophetic and redemptive manner that sometimes challenges the ‘powers’ on injustices that affect the poor, the ‘stranger’ (immigrant), indigenous peoples.” And so should we.

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