Faith and politics: speaking truth to our own power

By Jill Segger
September 22, 2018

Speaking truth to power is a blade with two edges. Whenever we make that claim, we would be wise to keep an eye on the one which is turned towards our own hand.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out recently against the injustices perpetrated by Amazon, Wonga and the roll-out of Universal Credit, many of us cheered. Another group tutted about ‘keeping religion out of politics’ – a choice which, if carried through, would mean people of faith being required to accept the status quo without any enquiry as how that condition came about. Others engaged in ‘whataboutery’ regarding shortcomings which exist in the conduct and ethics of the Established Church. While these are matters for justifiable scrutiny, criticism and reform, to wait for perfection in one area before acting in another is surely a prescription for impotence. Metanoia is a piecemeal process.

Justin Welby is a figurehead. What he says obviously attracts more attention and comment than would be the case if an unknown parish cleric were to speak on the same lines. But at the same time, he is not a supreme ruler. His standing is described as being primus inter pares – first among equals – and not all those equals live in the country whose social, financial and fiscal practices he was condemning. Equally, many who have taken umbrage seem to have little knowledge or understanding of the radical teaching which lies at the heart of Christianity. Philip Booth, writing in the Daily Telegraph on the Archbishop’s intervention, offered the perfect illustration of this shortcoming: “A robust Christian case can and should be made for a market economy. The market runs all the way through the Bible. Many parables, such as that of the workers in the vineyard are grounded in the reality of market exchange.” Thus entirely missing the meaning of the divine generosity which oversets transactional human preconceptions and expectations.

One would hope that the gospel imperatives of justice and care for the vulnerable would be the driving force of all who follow Jesus, but to ignore the contributory factors indicated above is likely to muddy the waters where it really matters – that is, beyond the predictable polarities.

It is in this region that issues of power and status become the elephant in the room. It may perhaps be easier for those of us whose tradition is not hierarchical to see this, but dissent cannot afford to be complacent. Defensiveness about power and the desire to protect our standing can affect any of us. Resistance is however, more difficult for those ecclesial bodies who are constituted around the heirarchical model. Add in the privileges enjoyed by the Church of England, and the question posed has to be around the institution’s willingness  – perhaps even its capacity – to speak truth to its own power. There is a small but vociferous element who interpret any reduction in privilege as persecution. They are thus uneasy about any stance which might make Empire displeased with them. It follows that Empire will be happy to encourage this thinking.

Power, status, influence. Some would say the first two enable the third. But the precarious nature of power, and the fear of its loss are likely to undermine integrity in witness and in action unless kept under honest review. This is the responsibility of every one of us and it is not always comfortable. But it is the price of laying claim to that prophetic voice which must not fall silent: “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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