Sunday, June 30, 2024

Faith, equalities and rights, and democracy


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, concluding, today, with equalities and rights, and democracy. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Let’s begin with some principles. First, it is worth noting that Jesus did not live in a democracy, but under the rule of a colonial empire, the latest in a succession of colonising empires. The State we live in, and the state of that State, is a constantly changing accident of history, and not something to vest ultimate identity in. Nor did Jesus ever advocate exerting religious power for temporal gain. Whenever the Church is seduced into trying to do so, the vision of following Jesus is corrupted.

Second, Jesus emphasises the command ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Command, here, should be understood as divine decree: that it is the human vocation to love one another, in the same way that it is the vocation of the sun and the moon to light the day and the night. When we seek to withhold from others what we would not want withheld from ourselves—and not least when we seek to exercise control over others by declaring that we know what is best for their own good, better than they do—we violate that divine calling.

Third, while democracy, as a system of government, is traced back to ancient Greece, Jesus adopts and expands this model, taking the term ekklesia—a word used 114 times in the New Testament—to describe the church he will build. The ekklesia was the citizen’s assembly in Greek city-states, such as the Decapolis, a league of ten such cities local to Jesus, which enjoyed political autonomy from the Herodian Kingdom and its successors, the Herodian tetrarchy and the Roman province of Judea. The Athenian model was based on three institutions, the ekklesia, boule, and dikasteria. The ekklesia was the sovereign governing body, meeting weekly, writing laws, determining foreign policy, and appointing officials to serve one-year terms as head of state and organisers of festivals. The boule was a council of representatives, chosen by lot from each district (‘tribe’), meeting daily for a one-year term, responsible for the day-to-day running of the city, and setting the agenda for the ekklesia. The dikasteria were courts in which cases were brought before lottery-selected jurors.

In the early church we see citizenship—the criteria for participation in the ekklesia—broadened to include women, slaves, foreigners (the gentiles), and youths, all of whom were excluded from the Athenian ekklesia. We see representatives appointed to administrative roles by lottery, but also by refined terms (when the Hellenist widows complained that they were being overlooked in the distribution of food to widows, those chosen to administer the distribution fairly were only selected from among the Hellenist part of the church community). Settling disputes within the church rather than going to external courts was also encouraged—deliberative democracy, working alongside representative democracy.

So, we see that Jesus and his first followers take up and develop democracy. We see this today in our structures of church governance, including the congregation as local ekklesia, with its own parochial church council and elected officers, as well as elected representative synods and appointed bishops. It is also worth noting that Christianity has been a major influence in the evolving democracy of England.

Let us turn now to the readings set for this Sunday, asking what light they might shed.

Our Old Testament reading is Lamentations 3.22-33. The context is this: Jerusalem has been laid waste, Solomon’s temple burnt to the ground, the city walls pulled down, the royal court taken into exile, all at the end of a devastating siege. Everything is broken. Yet we are reminded that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. And so, we are encouraged to hope, in place of despair; to look for evidence of the Lord’s compassion; and to bear the burden of rebuilding. Every party standing in the forthcoming General Election has appealed to our collective sense of brokenness—a creaking NHS, a cost-of-living crisis, anxiety about broken borders. We would do well to attend to the tone of their messages: do they emphasise hope? do they highlight compassion? do they make messianic claims as to their own (and theirs alone) ability to save us? are they honest about the challenges facing us, and the cost?

Our Gospel reading is Mark 5.21-43. We meet a desperate father, who wants the best for his daughter, and a desperate woman, who is excluded from full participation in society. This raises questions of what we might call equalities and rights. It is worth noting that the woman is trapped by a law intended to ensure menstrual health, and also that the World Health Organisation calls for us to recognise that menstrual health should be recognised, framed and addressed as a health and human rights issue, not a hygiene issue. It is worth noting that the woman chooses to ignore the law, in her determination for restoration, and despite her fear of the consequences. We might also note that Jesus uses power to empower others, as opposed to building his own empire. He focuses his attention—and ours—on the woman, not the crowd, and on the little girl, not the commotion around her.

Finally, let’s turn to policies set out in the various manifestos, relating to equalities and rights, and to democracy.

On equalities and rights, Labour and the LibDems highlight equality for women in the workplace, Race Equality (Labour proposes an Act, the LibDems a Strategy), and workplace equality and ease of access to public life for disabled people, while the Conservative focus here is more on health and welfare reform. On gender identity, the Conservatives plan to implement the Cass Review recommendations, to ‘protect young people who are questioning their gender identity from ideologically-driven care,’ while Labour insists upon ‘freedom to explore sexual orientation and gender identity.’ Both statements uphold the importance of safe space, to question or explore. The LibDems go further, proposing reform of the gender recognition process in favour of respecting a person’s identity claim, and the Greens further still, simply affirming the right to self-identification for trans and non-binary people. This is clearly an example of a complex and contested issue—of crowds and commotion—where legislation matters, and compassion for real lives, including family members, matters even more.

The LibDems affirm the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Greens the Human Rights Act and ECHR, while Reform UK would leave the ECHR, remove the 2010 Equalities Act, introduce a Comprehensive Free Speech Bill expressly ‘to stop left-wing bias and politically correct ideology that threatens personal freedom and democracy’ (i.e. no freedom of speech unless you agree with us) and an Anti-Corruption Unit for Westminster (which could be weaponized against political opponents).

On democracy, Labour, the LibDems, and Greens all propose extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds (at 16 you can join the British army; Athenian democratic citizenship was from the age of military service) enabling them to participate in the democratic processes that impact every area of their lives. The Greens recognise the right to national self-determination for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the LibDems propose a federal UK with a Federal Constitution, including determining the structures of government in England. Labour would reform the House of Lords, the Greens replace it with a second elected chamber, and Reform UK replace it with a structure to be determined. Reform UK would also replace the Civil Service with political appointees that changed with every government.

Issues of equalities and rights, and of democracy, have a bearing on how we conduct ourselves, as the ekklesia Jesus is building. Who is included, as a citizen in the kingdom of heaven? Who is here, in this place, on equal standing? Who gets to have their voice heard, their perspective respected, their daily lived experience taken into consideration? Are those who have been here for fifty years entitled to more power than those who have been here for six months, simply by virtue of having been here ‘first’—or should the first be last, when it comes to exercising power in this kingdom? Are all included, equally, regardless of gender, age, socio-economic means, ethnicity, disability, abilities, sexuality, family status, education? If not, whose ekklesia are we?

These issues also have a bearing on how we vote. We live in a democracy. There are four political parties standing in Sunderland Central: the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens. Reform UK offers an alternative to democracy: namely, authoritarian populism. It is an alternative that many Christians in the USA have embraced, the ‘Christian nationalism’ that coopts Jesus in service of political power concentrated in the hands of wealthy, white, culturally ultra-conservative men to the exclusion and control of other groups. It is antithetical to the Way of Jesus, beloved, and to waiting quietly for the salvation of the Lord. I said that it is not my intention to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for, but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote? This is my caveat: I would have significant issues with anyone who called themselves a follower of Jesus and who voted for an authoritarian populist movement.

As we place our cross in a box on the ballot paper, may we reach out to Jesus, and, grasping the hem of his outer garment, may we be rescued from whatever keeps us from loving service of our neighbour. And may we go out at peace and be made whole.



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