Seeking the Welfare of London Pt 3
seeking the welfare of london pt 3
Many of us breathed a sigh of relief as 2016 drew to a close. It had been a roller-coaster of a year for national and international politics. The EU referendum in June, the surprising election of Donald Trump in November – we thought that surely 2017 would prove to be more settled. Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case so far. As I write, we’re all still reeling from the announcement of a snap general election; the internal wranglings of the Labour party leave us with little effective opposition in parliament; and Europe is gripped by a season of elections in various countries where far-right, nationalistic and even fascist views are on the rise again and represented in political parties.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes it leaves me feeling overwhelmed and wishing I could simply bury my head in the sand and ignore it all. I am tempted for a moment to sympathise with the view of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who said in 1896:
‘Pastors should concern themselves with the souls of their parishioners, should promote charity, and should keep out of politics.’
But that’s not really how I feel. I’m committed to remaining engaged and involved in local and national politics. Why? What drives my conviction that Christians should be wholeheartedly committed to political engagement in their neighbourhoods and nations? I think the answer to that lies in several key passages of Scripture which have shaped my thinking over the years. All of them have to do with how we live as God’s people in the world in which he has placed us. As Rowan Williams claimed in his 2008 Holy Week lectures:
‘the Christian Church is itself a political community: it’s about living together in justice. Now that is no fashionable modern discovery, it’s already taken for granted in Christian scripture. The early Church saw itself as a body of citizens: you’ll find the language in the New Testament, famously in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘your citizenship is in heaven’ says Paul, using the Greek word politeia.’
Citizens & Ambassadors
I’ve always found great inspiration from the apostle Paul’s words in both Philippians 3:20 and also in 2 Corinthians 5:20. In the former he makes this claim about our citizenship being in heaven. In other words, our politeia – our political identify and existence – is to be informed by the rule of God’s kingdom, in that sphere where it is God’s rule is already established – heaven. When we pray – as most of us do daily – ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, we’re praying that God’s sovereign rule, presently realised fully in his heavenly sphere, will also be established among us on earth. We’re asking for his government, his politeia, to be established as our government.
However, this is not as simple as imagining that a heavenly government will simply descend and take charge. We’re caught between the times – we live in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. God’s ultimate rule is worked out in this present age through our lives, through our witness. We live in two cities as St Augustine would put it – the earthly city and the heavenly city. We cannot escape the fact that we live in an age in which many powers and authorities live disobedient to God’s rule – denying the lordship of Christ. It’s within a fallen and broken world that we make our way as Christians. However, we can remember where our ultimate allegiance lies – our true citizenship is derived from the heavenly city – the city of God.
So we live with a kind of dual-nationality. St Paul knew something about holding dual-nationality – he was content to draw advantage from both his Jewish lineage and his status as a Roman citizen. But principally, he claimed, Christians find their identity in the city that is to come – the new Jerusalem.
That does not mean we live quietest lives however – far from it. Christians, Paul says to the Corinthian church, are to be ‘ambassadors’ – the ones through whom God makes his appeal for all things to be reconciled to him. The role of an ambassador is to protect, to preserve, and to promote the rule and culture of one territory or realm while sojourning in another. Indeed, embassies – the residence of the ambassador and their staff – are seen as being little outposts of their native territory. A patch of land – a place where the rule and reign of their native society is established even in the midst of foreign territory. An ambassador for Christ bears witness to, and seeks to establish, the rule of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of a foreign land. However hard it is, we must ‘sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land’.
Exiled Here For The City
One of the great biblical motifs is that of exile. In the narrative of our human fall, we suffer exile from the garden given for us. God’s people Israel suffer exile from the land given for them. Christians discover that the forces of sin and death have caused us to be exiled from God’s presence – an exile remedied only by Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.
Exile can seem to be about separation, punishment, consequence of rebellion. And so, as we journey towards our eternal home, we can be tempted to feel pretty negative about this place, this time to which we’re exiled. But as ever with God, he works redemptively so that even that which could be full of despair and sorrow may instead be the cause of hope and joy. Our exile, we discover, can be about God’s purposes to bless.
Christian hope not about escaping the world, but transforming the world – this is essentially a political task. Luke Bretherton, in his seminal book ‘Christianity and Contemporary Politics’, describes and follows St Augustine’s scriptural basis of his political theology. For Augustine, the key text is Jeremiah 29 in which we heard read earlier, and in which we’re exhorted, even in exile, to ‘build houses and settle’, to ‘plant’, ‘marry’ and ‘increase’. Ultimately, we’re to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city… in its welfare you will find your welfare’
Jeremiah 29 is a profoundly influential text for the Jews in exile, in the inter- testamental period, to the early Christians as they sought to interpret their place in the world, and to the Christian tradition through St Augustine’s dependence on the passage for his magnum opus ‘The City of God’.
It’s an influential text for a Christian seeking to understand a theology of Community Organising – as it points us in the direction of relationship building, coalition forming, collaborative work for the preservation of common societal goods.
The exile to Babylon in and around 587 was a tremendously significant period in Israel’s history and their national consciousness. It was a period in which the temple of Solomon was destroyed and looted by their attackers, and in which they felt as though all hope of seeing God’s promises fulfilled had gone. ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ writes the Psalmist. ‘How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land’. The exile to Babylon came to represent the forces of the world opposed to God, just as slavery in Egypt had previously symbolised the oppression of God’s people and his plans. Exile was also seen as a judgement upon a wayward and rebellious people – a punishment for the Jews.
However, the letter to the exiles from Jeremiah suggests a different reason for their exile.
‘This is what the Lord says: “When the seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place”’ (Jer. 29:10)
When the seventy years are completed for Babylon? The Jews thought their exile was a punishment for disobedience, but it seems as though in God’s plan it was the very presence of his chosen community in Babylon that was to obtain some kind of transformation of Babylon.
Build, settle, plant, marry, increase… Seek the peace, prosperity, welfare and flourishing of the city – for in that is your peace, prosperity, welfare and flourishing secured.
In tumultuous political times, I find courage and hope in this kind of understanding of my Christian political identity. For I know that my active engagement and participation in local, national and international politics is not futile. I know that my purpose, along with my sisters and brothers in Christ – the church, is to be salt and light in our society. We are to be citizens of heaven who live as ambassadors of Christ in the places we find ourselves and with the people to whom we are called.
Our exile is for London. It’s part of God’s purposes for us that we engage in political life – for we ourselves have a new form of political life. The church is a political economy which finds its inspiration in our daily prayers – that God’s kingdom would be established on earth as in heaven; that forgiveness would reign supreme; that we would be delivered from evil; that justice be done; that the poor be lifted up and the hungry fed; that the prisoners and captives find freedom and deliverance; that we hold all we have in common and give to each as they have need.
I try to put this vision into practice in two main ways: First, through the work of London Citizens and Citizens UK. I love the vitality and energy that comes from this relationally-based form of community organising. There is a real sense of bottom-up engagement with issues that really matter to people, and a pragmatic approach to power and influence which seeks to organise communities to achieve the change they seek. Second, I love being a member of Christians on the Left – an organisation affiliated to the Labour Party. CotL seeks to support all Christians to become more involved and active in local and national politics, and in particular to support those Christian called to get involved in political life through the Labour party. It’s all about helping us to ‘Show Up’. You can find out more about both these organisations by clicking on the links below.
When we become a Christian, we are given a new political identity – a new political home that surpasses all other allegiances. We are called and commissioned to lives as ambassadors of Christ, citizens of heaven, joyful exiles living, loving and giving ourselves wholeheartedly for the sake of the world that God loves, and for which Jesus died. That’s what I believe politics is really all about.