The Case for Keeping Religion IN Politics
Up until 1992 most Westerners would only have been familiar with Sarajevo, a city in what was then Yugoslavia, because it was home to the 1984 Winter Olympics. The Olympics is significant enough, but this was the first time the event was held in a communist state. The games were a complete success. Even this lad, raised in the summer heat of Perth, Australia, remembers the names of the stars of those winter games: East German speed skater Katrina Witt, and the globally famous British figure skaters Torvill and Dean.
Yet mention Sarajevo now, and it’s not the joy of the too-short Olympic event that springs to mind, but the wretched and bloody too-long siege of the city that took place between 1992 and 1996, during the Bosnian war.
It’s estimated that 13,000 people died. Dreadful war crimes were committed. The siege is the longest of a capital city in modern warfare. Sarajevo became a bloody example for all that was wretched about the break up of the old (also wretched) communist bloc of Eastern Europe.
It seems almost inconceivable that the flash of artillery fire rather than camera bulbs is the lasting legacy of Sarajevo. Yet it is so.
We take our stabilities for granted. Until they disappear. Familial stability, relational stability, economic stability, political stability. Those of us in Australia who will line up outside a school or civic building this weekend to vote in the Federal Election, would never assume that Perth, or Sydney, or Melbourne, will become a byword for horror in the way that Sarajevo did.
Think of your city today, and then project your mind eight short years forward. What do you see? More of the same? Better rail lines? Increased congestion? Urban sprawl or urban infill? Greener zones or concrete heat sinks? Probably not artillery weapons and snipers, sandbags, reinforced steel bars rising skeletally from the shells of concrete buildings.
Political leaders in democracies have a vested interest in painting an opposition win in the worst possible light, but none - other than the most extreme or misguided partisan - consider that a vote for their opponent will turn your city or nation into a byword for horror like Sarajevo.
In many senses we want our politics boring. My birth country of Northern Ireland could never be accused of having boring politics. Until more recently, that is. The religious and political divisions in Northern Ireland were – and to some extent still are – not boring at all.
However there’s a glimmer of hope that “boring” is on the way. While the recent election there saw the usual division between Unionists (who want to maintain the province’s link to the UK), and Nationalists (who want reunification with the Republic of Ireland), the centrist Alliance party took a large chunk of the vote. A large, young chunk of the vote. I’ve seen the future of Northern Irish politics and, praise God, it’s boring.
And I say “praise God” because one of the good gifts that God gives to the world He created, whether that world acknowledges Him or not, is order. Good order. The Bible even says that God is a God of order (in 1 Corinthians 14:43 in the New Testament).
And that’s not just political order. God’s order means that the creation He put into motion operates in an ordered, not random, manner. The conviction that God was a God of order allowed Western science to flourish, because it assumed that the physical world had a certain predictability written into it. Gravity would continue to do what gravity did. Planets would revolve in the same way tomorrow as today. God wasn’t capricious in how He ordered creation.
And a conviction that God is a God of order is why Christians do not require “their politician” to be in the seat of power in order for them to flourish. Early Christianity grew up in the Roman Empire, and even in that seat of absolute, often tyrannical power. St Paul, in writing his letter Romans, tells the Christians in that city: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1).
We need to bear that in mind whenever we are horrified by the prospect of a government being elected that we do not like. St Paul was aware that Rome was brutal, and that indeed the state had sanctioned the execution of Jesus Christ, but he saw that their authority was from God. Not that their authority was god! Christians were to be subject to government, not because it was the final authority, but precisely because it wasn’t.
There are a number of applications to be made, but the significant one going into this weekend’s election is this: A realisation that God is in ultimate authority takes the heat out of the politics. That’s the great irony of religion and politics. Understood and utilised properly, religion takes some of the heat out of the political battles, or perhaps ensures at least that the battles remain political.
We don’t need to get angry or despair that if our candidate or party loses life will be hellish, any more than we assume that their victory will usher in heaven on earth. God is in control of all events, He is a God of order, and He holds ultimate authority.
In a sense it’s right to keep religion in politics, good, ordered religion, that is, or at least keep it above politics in our collective minds. Because when it’s taken out, something else fills the void above, and it’s often politics.
And politics makes for a terrible god. When politics becomes absolute it can use any other system, non-religious or religious, to justify all manner of terrible events, including bloody sieges of Olympic cities.
Of course most non-religious versions of politics don’t go that far, or even wish to, but even the public derision, disparaging, and plain disgust, shown to political opponents, not to mention Twitter, all show how grubby we can become when politics becomes ultimate.
So this Saturday as you line up to vote, and as you grab an election day hot dog, all the time refusing to grab the “how-to-vote” card from the party you would never vote for, remember that political parties don’t have ultimate authority, even if they think they do, and that God has instituted authority. And that should take the heat out of politics, at least in your house, come Saturday night around the TV when the tally board goes up.