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    panoramic view of Kenya Parliament Square

    Why should Christians get involved in politics?

    Alasdair Howorth

    March 25, 2020
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    To call the uk’s last few years politically divisive is an understatement; the landscape has shifted dramatically, gulfs and fissures widening between communities affected by increasingly aggressive rhetoric surrounding Brexit, the portrayal of rival parties in several successive elections, and other contentious issues. The middle ground has nearly disappeared.

    By this I don’t mean the political middle, the centre, but the location where we meet and respect those who come from different political backgrounds. There is a deep need in the world of tribalised politics for people to step up who put the kingdom of God first.

    I grew up in rural Kenya in the 2000s. Like most Kenyans my age, my first encounter with politics was the 2007 elections – now infamous for the violence that killed more than a thousand and internally displaced around 600,000. The first few days after the violence broke out were days of great fear. We were on the edge of the Rift Valley Province where the violence was worst, and could not leave our village as all the roads were blocked. After a week my parents sat down with me and my three brothers to explain that some of our neighbours were going to hide in our house until the violence blew over; they were receiving death threats from their colleagues and neighbours. The numbers grew over the next few days until we had about 25 people staying in our house, expecting that at any moment a mob could come for them. Thankfully we were spared, and after a month of sporadic violence life began to return to normal, but the country has never lost the scars of that month. To this day, the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps are a feature of the Great Rift Valley and can be seen from our living room window. Small wonder, then, that as I grew up, politics was nothing more than a synonym for corruption and violence – a realm to stay away from in order to avoid being tainted.

    detail of a panoramic view of Kenya Parliament Square

    Detail of a panoramic view of London’s Parliament Square (public domain)

    During the Kenyan elections of 2017, I was staying with some friends in my home village while on holiday from university. As we watched TV coverage of the vote-counting, the opposition party started calling out the election for fraud and demanding a recount – a dark echo of 2007. The families I was with reacted by becoming angry at the opposition leader for not simply conceding defeat, but I was left in a quandary. If the elections were indeed fraudulent, should we not be encouraging him to challenge the decision in the high court, praising his desire for truth? I realised that, like me, their only experience of Kenyan politics was of violence and insecurity. These people cared deeply for the small community they lived in and Kenya as a country, but they were not concerned about the existing structural inequalities or the sustained flourishing of the country – perhaps because they couldn’t imagine being directly affected. We were all privileged people who had the good fortune to remain untouched by shaky social policy, by being outside the structures that were created by these policies. On reflection, it was surprising to realise how very little we knew about the policies of the parties in question – only the tribal lines along which they fell.

    Was this really loving our neighbours as ourselves? When we love ourselves, we don’t simply hold ourselves in high regard. We take care of the structures that are in place around us, such as housing, food, access to health care, good transport, security, and work. Surely showing Christian love to our neighbours would dispose us to care deeply about election results and their impact on the lives of our neighbours – thus showing care and Christian love for the most vulnerable in society. And so, to love my neighbour, I must care about politics and try to affect them positively, particularly when my neighbours are not in a position to do so.

    Now, living in the UK, this conviction has brought me to work for Christians in Politics, an organisation that seeks to encourage and inspire Christians to fulfil the biblical calling to engage with politics and public life. The organisation was set up in 2011 by the leaders of Christians on the Left, the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, and the Conservative Christian Fellowship, who realised that they had more in common in their faith than in their perceived differences, and that Christians can be peaceful brokers between different political parties. Christians in Politics operates on two key ideas: that there is a biblical calling for Christians to enter politics and political life; and that we as Christians, while part of our political tribes, are a part of the shared kingdom of God before anything else. We promote the important message of politics as a mission field alongside preaching the gospel and serving our communities through a programme of events, training, campaigns, and resourcing. We are currently on our second “Influence Tour,” where we visit towns and cities across the UK, inviting local Christians involved in politics to share their journeys and inspire people to get involved in politics. We have been joined by activists, campaigners, local councillors, MPs, and mayors from across the political spectrum who meet with us in local churches.

    People attending our events have found it striking to see our guests generous and kind to each other despite coming from different parties and political perspectives. In today’s political climate of polarisation and populism it is tragic that the concept of disagreement without animosity is a strange thing. But that is precisely what Christianity offers politics – the capacity to disagree well. While different people can read the Bible and take away completely different political ideologies, it is impossible to ignore its clear message on the need to love one another – particularly those that are opposed to us. The message of disagreeing well is immensely powerful today and desperately needed in an age when the overwhelming influence of both traditional and social media seems to sow division and hatred rather than peace and mutual respect. All Christians pray and work for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven – in that we are united. Politics is how we believe that should be worked out in the polis; we may legitimately hold different views on that whilst maintaining our core commitment to Christ and his kingdom.

    detail of a panoramic view of Kenya Parliament Square

    Detail of a panoramic view of London’s Parliament Square (public domain)

    During a recent tour event we were joined by a recently elected MP and a candidate who had stood for a different party. As expected, there was a palpable tension when they arrived, but when our executive director brought them together with other Christians for a time of prayer before the event, the tension vanished. They were able to share a stage and even apologised for any hurt that they had caused each other during the election campaign. It was a powerful moment because it spoke to something far more powerful than political ideology – it was a moment of deep human connection, possible only through grace and forgiveness.

    When I ponder the role of Christianity in politics, I often turn back to the prophets. One passage in particular from Isaiah strikes me with its beautiful portrayal of God’s justice in our world. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). It is so easy to lose hope and see only the destruction and divisiveness of politics, but if we can see through the prophetic lens of Isaiah, we see not just the perfect future founded in Christ, but the call to be part of making it.

    This passage also suggests the possibility of peaceful cooperation between very unlikely parties. At Christians in Politics we do not advocate for one party, but call Christians to support those they think best while holding on to the vision of kingdom before tribe. With that vision in mind we as Christians are able to find those spaces in which we can vehemently disagree with those of different political ideologies while celebrating our shared humanity. In the current political climate, where populism and polarisation are destroying entire communities, we as Christians have something very unique to offer the political discourse. Because we are called to something much higher than any political party: we are called to drive that movement of healing and reconciliation amidst our differences.

    In 2008, in the aftermath of Kenya’s post-election violence, a family friend of ours took direct local action to fight lingering hatred between the supporters of different parties. He started organising activities locally, bringing different communities together in shared activity to bring about healthy discourse and healing, particularly through the local church, which was attended by people from both parties. One of my first memories after the violence is of helping him to run a football tournament which brought together young men from across the political divide. The post-election violence was my first encounter with politics and the horrible violence and suffering it can bring in its worst manifestations, but also my first encounter with the ways Christians may enter the struggle to bring about hope, peace, and reconciliation.

    Here in the UK, the church has become increasingly aware of the practical needs of those within and beyond it, and there has been a rebirth of efforts to see spiritual well-being holistically, as tied to social and economic circumstances. There has been a recent explosion of church-run charitable causes – one need only look to the nearest food bank or night shelter to see the impact that the church is having on vulnerable people. At the same time, it could do more. Our political climate is in desperate need of people willing to be peacemakers, ensuring civil discourse, respect, and mutual understanding. Christians must not simply concede the legitimacy of the political; Christians have a calling to transform our society.

    Contributed By

    Alasdair Howorth works for Christians in Politics, an organisation based in London.

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