Politicians and the Church

Bishop Benjamin Phiri says politicians should not be allowed to do politics in Catholic churches.

“I repeat no politics! No politics! If you are in a political party, it’s just there (where you do politics from). When you come here, you are just a mere Christian. We should worship and know God. Your political party is not God, your leader is not God, he or she is just a person like you,” says Bishop Phiri.

Christians today often forget that the word translated as “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia, means political assembly. Like the assembly of Israelite authorities from the time of Moses before it, “church” is Scripture’s name for a gathering, political community, with its own law and authority figures. Not surprisingly, when the growth of the Christian movement began to threaten the stability of established Roman society in Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD, the Roman proconsul Pliny issued a decree prohibiting “political associations” (Pliny the Younger, Ep. 10.96) as part of his violent crackdown on Christianity.

That the church was and is political does not entail the pursuit of violent sovereignty and the imposition of Christian ways on others, however. But it does mean that the Christian church is a public reality, that in the patterns of its life it cannot submit itself to a political authority other than Christ the humble Lord, and that it will always be in a politically influential relationship with the other communities with whom it shares its places.

And because of the ways Christian authorities have historically exercised their political power to oppress those under them, both Christians and others, we find ourselves living today in social arrangements committed to a distinction between “the political” and “the religious.” But as important as restraining Christian overreaching has been, this distinction has fostered a misunderstanding among Christians: that the Christian life is primarily a private matter and only secondarily a public one; that Christianity concerns chiefly the individual and the soul, forming the community and the body only derivatively.

The result of this misunderstanding, this privatisation, has been a kind of deafness to the claims of God’s revelation on our political life according to Scripture. With this deafness has come a political life that is not disciplined carefully by that revelation, not discipled by Jesus. Consequently, the Christian presence in political life in Zambia is often felt as a puritanical crusade whose banner is “the biblical position” on a handful of moral “issues,” positions that influential Christians are prepared to enforce broadly by their numbers and wealth.

Turbulent political currents in Zambia do not often bring out the best in people. They expose our vulnerabilities and leave many Christians with the impression that the life of faith should not soil itself with politics. Somehow a squeaky clean Jesus can be peeled from what the New Testament presents quite plainly as a vigorous Jewish man whose way of speaking and otherwise living in public, not least the way he formed community in Israel, got him executed by the imperial occupier of his place and time, charged with the sedition of being king of the Jews. Preferring a tidier, less demanding Jesus, many Christians have withdrawn from any substantive and intentional participation in formal political processes.

But withdrawal itself is not politically innocent. And other Christians, for whom formal political processes have been key to a minimum of well-being, who have not been able to afford the luxury of waiting on the sidelines, have joined Jesus in the political fray. With a political vision, they have channelled and embodied the prophetic witness to God’s justice and compassion that we find in the Bible, often at great cost.

The church is called to embody a life-giving political community with or without a healthy political system.

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