If you don’t do politics what do you do?

Palace of Westminster seem from the South Bank
Palace of Westminster – Shane Rounce, Unsplash

Rev James Watterson reflects on Christian political and environmental engagement:

Back in 2004 the electoral commission ran a TV advert to encourage an apathetic electorate to engage with the political process (the turnout at the 2001 general election had been the lowest in 80yrs). The advert featured a line drawn animation of two friends voiced by the stellar talents of Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. Broadbent’s character is seen reading the newspaper and commenting on the European Parliament, only to be hushed by his friend who tells him dismissively – “I don’t do politics.” The remainder of the advert shows Spall’s character beginning to comment on the state of the roads, UK sporting performance, the price of groceries, litter, graffiti, and pub closing times, only to be immediately shut down by his friend because – these, after all, are political issues. The point is clear and well made, politics impacts on almost every area of life. If you don’t do politics what do you do? If we have a view on anything from the education of our children, to the price of the food we eat, to the ease of our journey to work, to the quality of care we receive when we are sick, then we do politics.

It’s not difficult to recast the conversation in environmental terms – and perhaps some of us have had conversations like this. We perhaps mentioned an upcoming COP, or the need to reduce fossil fuel burning only to be told, I’m not into that green stuff (they may well use David Cameron’s appalling phrase but I’ll avoid it here). If our friend then ever mentions concerns about the quality of the air they breathe or the water they drink, the cost of the food they buy, the sewage that ruins their day at the beach, the heatwave that spoils their summer holiday or the flood that forces them from their home, their fears that their children may have a lower quality of life and so much more beside, we would be quite entitled to remind them that they don’t do that green stuff. Although, hopefully, we would instead help them to see the connections between their own interests and the need to take care of the planet we all share (for more on how to do this check out our 25th Anniversary webinar with Katharine Hayhoe here).

In reality, whether we are alert to the fact or not, politics and the environment concern us all. These two great overlapping spheres include so much of life, what we need to simply exist, and what we need to live full and meaningful lives. If you don’t do politics, if you don’t do the environment, what do you do?

The people of ancient Israel might have posed a different question. Their scriptures begin with the resounding affirmation that: In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth. This is a statement of profound political significance. God, the writer is telling us, has made all that there is, there is no sphere of life beyond his power and concern. This realization was lived out in observance to the Torah which helped them to understand how their faith in the Creator God should affect every area of life; their worship, who they married, the clothes they wore, how they harvested their fields, their duty of care for the widow, the outcast and the stranger. The question that they might have posed would be: If you don’t do God what do you do?

Alistair Campbell may have famously advised Tony Blair not to do God, and in a secular society there are clearly issues of how convictions born of religious faith are best communicated in public discourse, but to the ancient people of Israel to do God and to do politics were one and the same you couldn’t do life without them.

By the time of the New Testament Christians were living as minority communities around the Mediterranean world, they had no real possibility of speaking truth to power in the way that the Old Testament prophets had confronted the kings and leaders of Israel and Judah, and they struggled to understand how the Torah might apply to them. Nevertheless, the underlying message remained consistent – Jesus was identified as the Word through whom all things were made and declared to be the world’s true Lord and Saviour, titles hubristically claimed by the Caesars. All of life was to be rethought in the light of his life, death, resurrection and promised return.

When we understand this we begin to recognize that that the whole Bible is a profoundly political book. The interlocking realms of political and environmental concern sit fully enclosed in the great all-encompassing sphere of the relationship of creation to Creator. Which is not, of course, to say that the Bible espouses one particular political theory. God’s Word comes to us from many authors writing in different times and places, with different agendas which seldom map directly onto our own contemporary concerns. We need to think and pray and study together to begin to understand how our faith should shape our political and environmental commitments.

Even when we have made that effort, we need to acknowledge with Paul, that we still see imperfectly, but through a glass darkly. As a result we may not agree on specific policies, or even parties, but at a minimum a belief in the Creator God who has entrusted this precious living planet into our care must surely lead to some reckoning with the need to live sustainably without damaging the natural world beyond repair. And a faith in a God who calls us to love our sisters and brothers, our neighbours and even our enemies must surely lead us to a politics which is concerned with grace, compassion and justice, not self-interest, and never xenophobia or hate.

With a general election less than a fortnight away the parties are busy jostling for our votes, and, for at least a little while, most of us are “doing politics.” I doubt many JRI readers need much encouragement to engage in the political process or to do so with a perspective shaped by science, faith and a concern for the natural world. But whatever government we wake up to on 5th July the work of political engagement will go on. With interviews and debates giving depressingly little space to discussion of policies for net zero, or any other environmental issues, and limited coverage of the recent huge march for nature (with the notable exception of Channel 4) the need clearly remains great.

Perhaps the real challenge then, beyond casting our votes on the fourth, is to commit ourselves to go on doing politics when the electoral dust has settled. That might mean that we connect with our MPs, perhaps contacting them in their first 100 days to voice our concerns about net zero, biodiversity, pollution etc. It could mean engaging with local government, perhaps joining a party or even becoming a candidate ourselves. It may mean joining protest marches, or joining Christian and/or secular pressure groups, and it surely means continuing to engage our churches to help them think through what a commitment to loving the Creator God and loving our neighbour might look like in practical and political terms. After all if we don’t do politics, what do we do?

James Watterson is JRI Operations and Development Manager – all opinions in this blog are his own.