The Tense Consensus of Christian Citizens and Political Parties

It’s that time of the year where Singaporeans get to elect. Unfortunately, in almost every General Election (GE), we also see the worst in people be it from those who support the opposition or ruling party. At times, the conduct that we display as Christians can be embarrassing to say the least. From propagating fake news, making baseless accusations, engaging in character assassination, giving the most uncharitable reading, to even what comes across as simply a blind support for any one party. For some reason, the GE has that power to bring that ugly side out of us – a side that we dare not show in church because we know that it’s highly unacceptable. But what makes it unacceptable from a Christian perspective is that it not only fails to display kingdom ethics, it also calls into question the kind of relationship that we ought to have with political parties as Christians.

As someone working in Christian ministry, people have asked me which party I support. Of course as a church staff (and I suppose church leader), there is always added caution that needs to be taken when making such views known. Simply because whatever party you side with, there will be members of the church who will not only disagree, but strongly disagree with you. A certain credibility is at stake when being too open about supporting any one party. Not that supporting a party is wrong or even avoidable, but the reality is that seeing how all parties are never perfect, choosing to side any party will always bring up questions about the legitimacy of the wisdom behind your choice. And it is to this point that I think is worth exploring.

What is the wisdom that we ought to reflect when taking the side of any political party or candidate affiliated to a party? In my opinion, to borrow a term from the Christian ethicists Nigel Biggar, our relationship to any political party must always be a tense consensus. It is a tense consensus for the following reasons:

In the first place, scripture says that our citizenship is in heaven. In Paul’s instruction to the church in Philippi, he says “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ(Phil 1:27). What is overlooked is Paul’s use of the word πολιτεύεσθε (politeuesthe) which is often translated in English as simply to live. However, what it connotes is something a bit stronger than just living. As we look at the word politeuesthe, we find out that the root word used in secondary literature often connotes the idea of living as citizens under some kind of institution or rule.[1] Seen in this light, Paul’s imperative command to the Philippians should not be seen under the broad category of walking in a manner worthy of the gospel. Rather in using politeuesthe, there is probably an intention to use a narrower and more forceful appeal for Christian living based upon the fundamental identity of Christians living as some kind of citizen.[2] Hence a more accurate translation would perhaps be an instruction to “discharge your obligations as citizens”.[3] However, it is not any citizenship that Paul has in mind. Two chapters later, Paul makes clear that ours is a citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). This also means that the church is political in nature with Christ as her head. In other words, Christianity’s concept of citizenship and by extension allegiance, is always one that prioritizes Christ and his kingdom. By saying that our priority is always to Christ and his kingdom, I do not mean that our goal should be to christianize a nation or to even make society look like church. For one, this fails to recognise the plurality of the public square. Secondly, this would be to commit the error of 20th century theologians like C.H. Dodd in holding to a fully realized eschatology.[4]  But more importantly, it equivocates the kingdom of God with the city of man as though both can be judged in the same way. But as O’Donovan helpfully reminds us, the political nature of the church and by extension the kingdom, is vastly different from that of society and can only be discerned by faith. He says:

“…the political character of the church, its essential nature as a governed society, is hidden, to be discerned by faith as the ascended Christ who governs it is to be discerned by faith. Experienced from within, the church is a community of obedience and freedom, a society under law of Christ, heedful of his commands and direction and enjoying the freedom from all other lordships that he has won for it. Looked at from outside, it presents the appearance of a functional religious organism rather than a political one, having no visible source of government and right save that which is from time to time borrowed from or imposed by other rulers. The ‘perplexing character of its own citizenship’, described by the Epistle to Diognetus, turns on the paradoxical combination of independence and conformity to local law and custom.”[5] (emphasis added)

Because of this, our Christian citizenship naturally places us at odds with politicians and political parties who neither share the same vision or value as us. This is in addition to our Christian understanding of how all of us are fallen including political candidates.

That being said, it would be mistaken to think that there are no common grounds between Christians and the values and policies pushed for by respective political parties made up of fallen man and woman such that we can never take the side of any political party. Within the Christian tradition, natural theology suggests that we as fallen man can still share in common principles of morality. As Nigel Biggar elaborates:

What are these principles? Most basic are the goods, which together comprise what it means to flourish as a human being – for example, physical life and friendship. More specific are the behavioural norms generated by the intrinsic value of these goods…Sinful humans might also discern correctly what these generic obligations require in concrete circumstances: for example, whether the duty not to murder forbids a doctor knowingly to administer a probably lethal dosage of morphine to a suffering and terminally ill patient, or whether the duty not to lie requires a householder to give an affirmative answer to the Gestapo’s question, “Are there any Jews hiding in your attic?”[6]

Extending this to the area of politics and political parties, we can then say that we find ourselves having a certain affinity for certain political parties because they seem to espouse a vision of certain morality and common good that we as Christians believe in. However, as Christians we must also concede that any agreement made is always an imperfect compromise as the driving motivation behind the good may not always be the same due to the sheer fundamental difference in conviction, be it ideological or religious. Again, to cite Biggar,

“The nature of ethical agreement between Christians and others…is not whole and stable, but partial and provisional…What this implies is that, insofar as Christians agrees with non-Christians, they should regard it as an imperfect compromise, subject to criticism and yearning for perfection. So, yes, consensus – but tense.”[7]

To complicate matters, the fallenness of human beings also often means that politics can and do end up deploying dirty tactics be it mudslinging, character assassination, or perhaps even an abuse of power. We see this happening in the history of elections across the world. This ugly side of politics is one that should not sit well with any Christian since it is not reflective of the kingdom values that we as citizens of God’s kingdom hold to. Yet it is not uncommon to see political parties we side with using such measures. Again, the solution is not found in sitting on the fence for that is not quite possible. But precisely because of this, the wisdom that we as Christians must reflect, must be one that displays awareness of the fallen side of politics – perhaps to even call out dirty moves by parties that we support rather than to keep quiet and only highlight the positive things (we may support a particular political party and its policies without supporting their approach they take in winning the election). The failure to do so might, and does in fact give off the wrong impression that one is oblivious or perhaps even blind to the innate fallenness in any single party. Even worse, it may come across as an endorsement of such ethics in the name of politics’ normative nature – i.e. it’s just like that. In such a situation, from a Christian perspective, political allegiance is seen as questionable not when a christian joins a political party or takes a side but precisely when it fails to highlight the relationship that we have with political parties as a tense consensus. Of course, calling out dirty tactics is only half of it. There must be a conviction and action to similarly not engage in such tactics when constructively criticizing a political party that we do not support and this is not always easy because it requires great self awareness – an awareness of how bias we may be.

To conclude, this tension of a tense consensus ought not to be overlooked because if we are to be credible witnesses as citizens of heaven who is also placed here on earth, then we owe it not simply to the public, but also to the future generation of Christians on how and where we as Christian citizens stand in relation to political parties.

[1]See, Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, ed. William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 317; Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, ed. Charles Duke Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 638.

[2] This is also suggested by others such as Fee, Silva, Hansen and O’Brien. See Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New international commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1995), 161; Moisés Silva, Philippians, 2nd ed., Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 88; G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ; APOLLOS, 2009), 94. Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New international Greek Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1991), 146.

[3] BDAG, 846

[4] C.H. Dodd, The Gospel in the New Testament (London: National Sunday School Union, 1926).

[5] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 166.

[6] Nigel Biggar, Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2011), 31.

[7] Biggar, Behaving in Public, 43.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s