O’Donovan on politics and the pulpit

Oliver O’Donovan was interviewed about the American elections, democracy, and the Christian. He said some good stuff (which you can read here, or summarised here at Between Two Worlds).

The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide.

Then he said this. Which I’m not sure I agree with:

“The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on.”

These can be problematic if you think making the gospel heard and bringing in the kingdom means stamping Christianity on the forehead of those who aren’t Christians. Which some do. But they do also, to me, sound like a fair summary of our role as Christians living in society (depending on how you think you bring about the Kingdom).

Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait—while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand—humbly and without pompous pretensions.

Hang on. What? How are these two statements mutually exclusive in the way he frames them? How are some of those things he lists “political” but not tasks of the church? Or the other way around? How is “doing the work that comes to hand” not the same as making the gospel heard, bringing in the kingdom of God and making a better world? I would have thought that was exactly what the work that comes to our hand was… How are they not both political and the task of the church through the work of the Spirit which we pray and wait for… while also acting.

I might be getting this all wrong, but it often seems that this corrective of the old thinking has chucked out baby and bath water by insisting on the same dichotomy from the other side of the spectrum. People used to say “preach the gospel, preach the gospel, preach the gospel” and good works and loving people kind of got pushed to the side so far as the church is concerned. And that’s bad. But the answer isn’t to say “do good works, do good works, do good works.” Isn’t “do good works while preaching the gospel/preach the gospel while doing good works” a better way forward.

Maybe the real distinction between my thinking and O’Donovan’s here is how the Spirit works – I don’t necessarily think we sit and wait for the spirit to move, I think we move, praying and trusting that the Spirit will work through our actions. I don’t see “doing the work before us” as distinct from waiting on the Spirit.

Finally, he offers some worthwhile thoughts on how to talk about politics from the pulpit, which I’ve summarised below.

Some Don’ts

  1. Don’t act as if you are a well informed pundit with inside knowledge just because you’re a preacher: “Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy.
  2. Know what to focus on, and what to ignore: “Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities.”
  3. Don’t buy into the idolatry of modern politics: “The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
  4. Don’t talk without knowing what the terms you’re using mean in both the Christian and secular political realms: “Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others.”
  5. Don’t introduce concepts with baggage without knowing how those concepts relate to others: No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words…
  6. Don’t preach politics like a politician, do it ethically: “One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody.”
  7. Don’t be partisan: Don’t pick a side just for the sake of picking a side: “The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully.”
  8. Don’t not be partisan: Sometimes the question of truth is an obvious distinction between the parties.
  9. Don’t avoid choosing a position to avoid offending people: there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on.
  10. Don’t avoid controversy for the sake of avoiding controversy: We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers.
  11. Don’t be controversial just for the sake of presenting your opinions: “Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel.

Some Dos

  1. Rather than pretending you’re a pundit help equip the church to think through what is known about a situation.
  2. Don’t mix messages: The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action.
  3. Preach politics for the purpose of fostering engaged Christian thinking and action: The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities… How one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation.
  4. Preach politics understanding why it’s important in a democratic setting: “Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society.”
  5. Don’t preach to persuade to your point of view, preach to demonstrate the Biblical position on an issue: “…the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience. It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason.
  6. Preach Politics from the Bible: When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question.
  7. Keep yourself out of it (mostly): “it [your own view] will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised.”
  8. Preach to the Christian conscience: “Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.”
  9. Aim to present the Gospel of Christ in the context of each political issue: In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation