The political and sociological aspects of ministry
Regular Network Norwich and Network Ipswich columnist James Knight looks at how the message of Christ relates to issues such as nationality, culture, religious background, social status and education in Part Seven of the Spreading the Good News series.
One of the unique and special things about Christianity is that at every level the news of Christ has the power to affect anybody that hears it; that is to say, unlike virtually anything else that impinges on human endeavour - education, background, class, social status, intelligence, wealth, or talents and abilities, Christ’s love supersedes all of these things to the point where they are (save for a few exceptions) incidental to salvation. It does not matter where you come from or what you’ve done, the power of the Christian message can change the life of any man or woman, provided Christians do not hastily attempt to blend Christianity with worldly things; that can be a bit like trying to get bananas from pear trees, and is likely to compromise some of the power of the message.
The story of creation has been about Christianity, this much is certainly true. But for some it is likely that the news will be received as an interference on some already good practices which are ordinarily seen as primary practices and held with high regard in worldly circles; practices such as government, employment, education, business, and health services, and most of the criteria mentioned in the above paragraph; therefore it is essential that the message does not simply became blended with these things, it must stand on its own as the ultimate life-changing primacy.
It need not diminish the qualities of worldly things or necessarily replace them, but it supplements them and adds context. For example, God can heal, all Christians know this; but the good news of Christ has no panacea whereby it can elicit a cure for, say, glandular fever as a replacement for doctor’s medicine. We have a relationship with God, but we have responsibilities ourselves. God can heal the sick, but He wants us to do our bit, and take responsibility so that He does things through us as well as through Himself.
Moreover, knowing as we do that the news can sometimes incommode and frustrate if it is used either at the wrong moment or out of context from the real situations at hand – it is important that we tell folk the good news in a way that does justice to Christ, not by trying to elicit bananas from pear trees, nor by chopping off branches, but by planting new seeds.
Christianity is not just about spreading the good news, it is about making everything good - it is about being patient, loving, and understanding, even in times when the news has been tersely rejected or when the news of Christ is the last thing on a person’s minds due to some other distracting concerns. Patience is a virtue – never more so than when helping people on their spiritual journey.
But what of the impact in the political domain? It is true at this present time that politics is more likely to impact on some people’s Christianity than the other way round, particularly moderate ‘take it or leave it’ Christians. It seems unlikely that very many politicians will feel any need whatsoever to bring faith based belief or religion into their work, particularly with the negative religious associations with 21st century political struggles and bloodshed. In the political domain, religion is becoming a bit of a hot potato, and it is going to take some strong voices to change this.
Christianity, being antithetical to most state-over-people controls, is very often treated like a cancer in government (particularly in some of the most oppressive countries outside of Europe). Hence Rousseau, whose work Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Amongst Men still reads like a totalitarian guide book to those whose minds are disposed towards such actions, claimed Christianity to be opposed to the social spirit. Perhaps in its diluted form it once was; it need not be anymore. But we should be quite wrong if we thought that Christianity should penetrate into these areas by strong marching forces. It is not so, helping a man to salvation is a personal situation, never a corporate one. We are fighting against innocence and incredulity, against indifference and indolence - but our loudest collective voice will never be as powerful as our individual personal connections; therefore it is worth remembering that if we want a loud collective voice, it must begin at the individual level.
Christianity does not simply affirm or deny the real story of our existence; it reveals to us something which no man or woman who did not know Christ could have possibly guessed. Christianity takes the Nietzschean ideal of self-betterment and twists it round into something even more astounding, it teaches us humility and allows us to be humble and modest in self-betterment; that our improvement is not part of the Nietzschean narcissism, it is part of the sacrificing of the self into better things - things which our instincts at one point rejected as being an encroachment. In that sense, Christ’s death and resurrection should be talked about in the same spirit and frequency in which a man talks about the news in today’s papers - and we mostly find that those who know Him do, in fact, talk this way. They have accepted the Holy Spirit and have, thus, brought the good news of Christ’s resurrection into their daily living.
The widest cleavage between Christians and non-Christians is very often realised not in questions of ultimate existence, but in day-to-day habits. Thus we should try as best we can to incorporate Christian principles into as many daily habits as we can. Most people will gladly embrace many of the tenets of Christianity, if not Christianity itself; they have made an abstraction of the faith - it has become, to them, vague and impractical. But learn to incorporate good Christian wisdom into necessary situations in people’s lives and there is a good chance that these abstractions might become more relevant to them as time moves forward.
In the second place, much of today’s sinful behaviour is attributed to bad circumstances - such as impoverishment, or a bad upbringing, or a parental divorce, or bad heredity; thus a recidivist lad of eighteen with a string of convictions is, in the eyes of many, far from being a sinner - actually a victim of ‘the system’ - he is exonerated, free from the label of sinner, to the point where almost all personal culpability is taken out of the equation. Irrespective of background or class, if we are to stir the consciences of such men and women, we must, I think, approach it from another direction. The news that Jesus loves them will only begin to resonate if it becomes manifestly obvious that they are loved by us too; and of course the biggest demonstration of love is shown in how much we are prepared to be active in helping folk that need help; by being supportive, and listening to them as well as them listening to us.
We must always keep in the minds of the listeners the resounding fact that Christianity is good news not simply because it is beneficial but because it is true. Thus to inculcate a sense of understanding regarding truth is to do a good service to the listener, particularly as we bear in mind that many good folk are of the belief that we must not carry too far anything that intrudes our daily comfort zones. This ‘true or false’ standpoint will be most helpful if we can show people the value that is ordinarily placed on ‘truth’ in their daily comfort zones and how ‘false’ things when they were initially felt to be true, end up disappointing in a horrible way. There is no room for middle ground when it comes to Christianity, a fact which is anathema to many, particularly bearing in mind that many of the people to whom we are trying to teach the good news have taken the middle position. It is not always realised that the position they have taken is, in fact, the most illogical, for it transmits to them a subliminal fantasy that mutually exclusive propositions - in politics, science, or religion, can all be equally true or valid, or that whatever suits one’s fancy is okay. Both need to be comprehensively denied.
The ‘multitude of religions’ fallacy
It is true that the vast amount of religions worldwide does distract those who are still contemplating Christianity, but we should not, in my view, let alternative religions and other mythologies put us off. They are inevitable and, in some ways, helpful in addressing the naïve nature of mankind - they show how easily susceptible and impressionable the human mind is, and can, if spoken about correctly, help our non-believing friends to develop a better understanding about widely propagated propositions, including this self-congratulatory atheism that pervades in these present times.
For every religion that is created by man, we have the true fact of God in human flesh who died on the cross for us; for every religion which teaches its adherents that ostracism, archaism, self-torture, extreme sectarianism, and insularity, is God’s chosen way of life for them, we have the only true God who tells us we are the light of the world and that we should live full lives and delight in His grace. When we juxtapose all of the world’s religions, we find much myth and much fact. It is our job to separate the two and show our family and friends what is ultimately real and what is misleading.
And it is here that I want to mention that these subliminal thoughts about mutually exclusive propositions, which I mentioned a moment ago, lead to another worldwide error of thinking, regarding other religions. Many people seem to think that there are a multitude of religions from which one has to make a choice, but if our decision making is in accordance with the underwritten rationality, there are, I would say, only two feasible choices - Christianity or Hinduism. Islam (along with its superfluous subsidiaries) is only the most propagated of the Christian heresies (of which there are many), and Buddhism (along with its many subsidiaries) is only the most propagated of the Hindu heresies or digressions (of which there are many). Authentic Paganism has long since ceased to exist. All that pertains to truth in Judaism, Greek Philosophy and Tribal beliefs, survives in Christianity.
There are, in fact, only two which we need to consider - the rest are superfluous; traditional in many cases, but superfluous. We may think of belief systems as we do deodorants - we can separate them into perfumed and unperfumed. By perfumed, I mean those which have rituals, traditions and cultural attachments. Many of these are found in Africa, South America and in the least oppressive parts of Asia. By unperfumed I mean those which belong in the domain of moral analysis, philosophical analysis, and the universal search for truth and meaning. Now if one religion is going to claim itself to be the right one, it must be both perfumed and unperfumed; that is to say - the true God must have both the scented and the unscented; He must be accessible, His revelations must be explicable and receivable in the cognisance of everyone, irrespective of their background, their nationality, their status, their heredity, and their physical and mental abilities.
And the only religion to fulfil such standards on which a judgement can be made is Christianity. The Hindu religion fulfils only part of it. The scented factor of tradition and inculcation and the unscented factor of Brahman and the pantheistic Hindu trinity (plus other gods) builds a wall between what philosophy and the sciences tell us, and what history and psychology tell us. Christianity is the only religion that breaks down the wall; it takes an evil man and tells Him that if accepts the living God he can have salvation and be washed and cleansed. It tells an African tribesman, whose mind has been inculcated with spurious local customs about sea gods and animal worshipping, and it tells him to cast his load on Jesus Christ. It tells an oppressed woman in Iran or North Korea or Syria whose distressed mind has been impressed upon with fanatical teaching that the situation is not hopeless - that Christ is the way, the truth and the life - that hope can be found in Him. It tells lost souls scattered all over the world from Devon to Darfur, from South Yemen to South Korea, from East Brooklyn to East Timor, that their lives can have direction and meaning because the one and only God, the Creator of the universe, loves us enough to be born a man so that He could die on the cross and wipe out all our sins to bring us salvation.
And that is how one is to know which belief systems are true and which are not; for even the most inculcated Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Animists, Shintoists, Scientologists, or Mormons have some idea that what is written deep in their hearts is contrary to the things they are absorbing into themselves. Christianity, it seems to me, is the only faith which tells us the truth about the self, and the world and universe in which we live.
There is one more thing to be noticed regarding this specific topic about trying to make all religions ‘one’. The relativistic whispers which tempt people into this all-embracing belief system is deceiving them in a quite propitiatory way - it is carrying them away into a chamber or self-praise - into resolutions which they find it hard to allow themselves to doubt. Their conviction, what seems like a passionate striving for togetherness but is really an audacious presumption, allows them to step into provinces that were never intended for them; thus they step into the territory of the Christian or the Hindu or the Muslim and claim a parity which itself would, and does, chip away at the fundamentals of each belief system.
They try to make square pegs fit in round holes, and when they can’t they end up making new holes that will take all shapes and sizes. The biggest delusion consists in the suggestion that the best way forward for those who wish to be religious is to try to unite them all; that all ambitions should be ambitions of a moral togetherness based upon spiritual heterogamy. But that is quite false. Our real union should be based, not on something disparate but on something axiomatic; you do not find truth by acceding to everyone else’s delusions or by placatory acquiescence, for to admit such a thing is to admit that man alone has all the answers; thus contradicting the original system of belief in a higher authority. The island upon which they are stranded may be starting to get a little comfortable - they may have adapted to their surroundings. But it is far more beneficial to begin building a boat in the hope of making it back to the mainland.
I have said before that Christianity makes no concessions to any conflicting points of view; Christ claims that only through Him can we have salvation. Many people of different faiths find this very hard to take. Will it really make no difference whether it was Islam or Mormonism, science or megalomania, the Bahai faith or the Moonies, socialism or totalitarianism? Well surely no difference that reveals any mitigation. Whichever it is, it is not what Christ has planned for His creatures; for they have rejected the only thing that could have opened the door to Heaven for them. Even their disgust at the exclusiveness of Christianity was merely a disguised form of existentialism; a parochial endorsement of the self, it was controlled more by pride than by thoughtfulness for others. Our Lord says all of our sins can be forgiven, except the sin which these men and women who wish to compromise the Christian faith are committing - the sin against the Holy Spirit. Just as those who add their own words to the Bible really take things away from it - those who try to change religious truth to suit their own relativistic fancies, are still making the fatal mistake of claiming for all, that which can only be known by some. It is self-refuting - in one breath it tramples all over truth, in the next breath it claims there is nothing underfoot.
The central theme in this message has been a very significant observation that we can take away with us - that is, in a world where nationality, culture, religious background, class, social status, education, and individual abilities form a varying and iridescent mosaic of personalities and emotional types, the message of Christ is primary and comes to break down any relativists comfort zones or proprietary fancies. In other words, we must be wise in realising not just where the good news is being spread or to whom, but what impact the news is likely to have when it appears to so many to be contrary to that which is commonly thought or accepted. In the most important sense Christianity makes no concessions to this modern ‘democratic’ way of thinking - for Christ Himself claims to be the One truth that underpins all the other secondary truths - therefore one must expect that we might be exposing our good news to a little more fire than we anticipated. It is with this knowledge that we can start as we mean to go on - by putting on the armour of God (Ephesians 6:11) and pressing forward to glorify Him in all we do.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk