Religion and Politics

Randall Hardy

For some time it has been accepted that there are two subjects which should not be raised in polite, British society - religion and politics. Both have the potential to bring about the strongest of arguments even amongst close friends. About a year ago events in New York and Washington provoked wide interest in the connection between religion and politics, especially the Islamic religion and Middle-Eastern politics. In this article I will investigate whether there is a similar bond between religion and politics in Biblical Christianity.

Islam - a Challenge to the West

In the aftermath of September 11th 2001, George Bush, Tony Blair and other Western political leaders were anxious to reassure us that Islam was a peace loving religion. That this was an over-simplification of reality should be plain for all to see. Historically Islam has always sought to establish itself as a temporal as well as a spiritual authority upon the earth. Mohammed developed a theology which allowed, if not compelled him and his followers, to war against those who opposed the rule of the religion he taught. Since Mohammed there has been a succession of Muslim leaders who have endeavoured to extend the political influence of their religion. Is there a reason for this?

The section on "Jihad," in the Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopaedia 2000 states, "Muslim law has traditionally divided up the world into dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (abode of war, that is, of non-Muslim rule). As Islam is the last, most superior and universal of manís divinely ordained religions, it is believed that the entire world must ultimately surrender to its rule and law, if not its faith. Until that time, a jihad against non-Muslim neighbours and neighbouring lands is the duty of all adult, male, and able-bodied Muslims. According to this traditional view, Muslims who die in jihad automatically become martyrs of the faith and are awarded a special place in Paradise."[1]

The Weakness of Secular Opinion

Why is it then that the Westís political leaders seem to be in denial of the fact that a central teaching of the Quíran and mainstream hadiths (summaries of traditions attributed to Mohammed) is to bring the entire world under Islamic rule? Not only have they described Islam as a peaceful religion, but they have also turned blind eyes to the on-going intimidation and persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims in countries as wide spread as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Nigeria and Sudan. One reason is probably that they recognise the fragile nature of international politics at the moment and donít want to take further risks by highlighting the human-rights violations which are common in many Islamic or would-be Islamic countries.

Another, perhaps more worrying reason is that they have failed to appreciate the true character of Islam, largely because in recent decades Western society has turned from the Christian understanding which helped shape it and embraced a secular world-view which fails to take any religion (including Islam) seriously. Religion has been portrayed as a sign of weakness, to the extent that those with religious beliefs are considered fundamentally irrelevant. The emerging champions of religion in Western secular thought are those who are classed as "moderates" - those who have embraced Western materialism more than the foundational teachings of their faith. Many world leaders are at this moment putting their trust in these twin hopes - that religion is of no consequence and that the moderates, especially in Islam, will ultimately become the most influential group. On both counts they could not be more wrong.

Historic Christianity

Does the Christian faith have a political agenda like Islam? Does the Bible encourage its readers to enlist in a campaign to establish Christian rule in every nation on the earth? Are present-day followers of Jesus Christ instructed to take up weapons of any kind to coerce people to surrender to the rule of the Church? Looking back over the history of Christendom, we can respond with a resounding "Yes!". The history of the Church, particularly in Europe, has been one of political ambition. Once it became part of Roman society it began to develop a political power-base of its own. Initially, State and Church were considered to have separate areas of authority - temporal and spiritual. However, history records an ongoing dispute as to which was superior. The Reformation (1517 onwards) seems to have strengthened the belief that the Church held ascendancy over the state - the new Protestant leaders aligning themselves with local and national political authorities. The continuing troubles in Northern Ireland are an example of how this link between politics and religion continues in Christian communities today.

History also shows that this combination of political and religious authority in the name of Christ has, over the centuries, resulted in the most terrible atrocities. In 1095 the first Crusade was initiated by Pope Urban II. Subsequent wars continued until 1291, all in the name of Christ and the Church. However the attitude of many who fought under the symbol of the cross was anything but Christ like. A series of Inquisitions ran from 1231 to 1834 which sought to force people to conform to the Roman Catholic religion. In 1252 torture was sanctioned as a means to this end. The birth of the Protestant religion continued the reign of terror in the name of Christ. Anabaptists was a name given to those who were not content with the theology of the better known Reformers like Luther and Calvin. They were not an organised group but many of them believed in the separation of Church and State. Many were tortured and martyred by other Protestants who insisted that the Churchís authority was political as well as religious. These examples show how the Christian Church has embraced a dual objective for the gospel of Jesus Christ over the centuries. There can be no doubt that many Christians have sought to establish a political kingdom in the name of their God, just as Islam has.

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ

If the Islamic understanding of "jihad" is derived from the teaching of its founder, is the same true for the Churchís theology of Crusade? On trial before Pilate, Jesus was asked if He was a king. His eventual reply is very instructive, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."[2] Jesus was face to face with the most powerful political leader in the land. His fellow countrymen had handed Him over out of spite, seeking his death and accusing Him of having political ambitions. Whilst Jesus did not deny being a king, He made it plain to Pilate that the kingdom where His authority lay was not one like the Roman Empire which Pilate served. "My kingdom is not of this world." The kingdom of Jesus Christ was no rival to the rule of Rome. We read throughout the New Testament that the Kingdom of God is a heavenly kingdom.

Jesusí response to Pilate provides a clear test of the nature of any kingdom - as relevant today as it was then. Jesus told Pilate that if His ambitions were for an earthly kingdom, then His disciples would have already been fighting to prevent Him being handed over to His enemies. All political kingdoms in history have required war to establish and maintain them. This is the nature of political power and it was recognised by Jesus when He answered Pilate. From this we see that those who have since fought to secure a "Christian" political authority have been greatly deceived. They have fought (and are still fighting) for a cause which is something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A New Type of Kingdom

Perhaps the significance of this statement by Jesus concerning the spiritual nature of the His government is best seen by considering the Old Testament nation of Israel. The land The LORD promised to them after they left Egypt was to be an earthly kingdom. The previous inhabitants, the Canaanites, had piled sin upon sin until God had had enough of them. They were now to be judged and dispossessed of their land and the Israelites were to be His means of accomplishing this. They were called to make war on these people. They were to show no mercy to the different tribes nor make treaties with them, but were to destroy them completely. Yes, The LORD would be with them, but they were to fight in order first to conquer and later to defend the land. Israel was to be a temporal kingdom, established according to principles of fight and conquer, rule and subdue. Today Israel has been re-established as a nation and once again it has to fight for its very existence.

Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the establishment of Godís Kingdom, "Thy Kingdom Come". However, unlike Israel the Church has never been provided with geographical borders for the kingdom it is to build. Like their fellow Jews, who were looking for a political Messiah, it seems that Jesusí disciples struggled with the teaching that His kingdom was a spiritual one. After His resurrection they asked, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"[3] His answer pointed them away from the residue of political ambition they still carried. Later two of them were to emphasise the distinction between this earth (which is temporary) and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (which is permanent). John wrote, "Do not love the world or the things in the worldÖ (for) the world is passing away," whilst Peter asked Christians, "What manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?" Paul taught with the same emphasis, "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth." The author of Hebrews said the great men and women of faith had turned away from earthly kingdoms because "they desired a better, that is, a heavenly country"[4] There can be no doubt that there is a striking difference between the nature of the Old Testament kingdom of Israel and the New Testament kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even when Jesus returns and establishes His kingdom on the earth, it will be only until His Fatherís purpose is fulfilled. Soon after the completion of that period this universe will be destroyed and Godís new creation revealed.

Utopia or Uproar?

When people of any religious creed have a vision of that creed becoming the dominant world power, there can only be one thing they are working towards - Utopia. Whatever its qualities, they believe the religious and political system they promote to be the very best solution for the ills of mankind. Strange then that history, ancient and recent, repeatedly records these quests for Utopia as the cause of some of the most violent and merciless campaigns the world has ever witnessed. If the Bible does not encourage Christians to engage in political warfare to establish divine rule on the earth, does it have any hope for the future? Yes it does, but not the immediate future. Incredibly, the Bible is the only set of scriptures belonging to a world faith which predicts the almost universal rejection of the teaching it records. It repeatedly warns that before the return of Christ, Christianity will decline under a cocktail of pressures. Jesus Himself taught that there would be an incredible rise in lawlessness and this would result in many giving up their love for Him.

It is extraordinary that the rejection of the Christian faith by Western societies, which gathered momentum in the twentieth century, is now producing exactly the results the Bible described nearly 2000 years ago. One list, written by Paul, reads like the contents page for todayís tabloid newspapers - "For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God"[5] In another letter he describes in detail the stampede into violence, immorality and sexual perversion that we are witnessing around us because people have wilfully "exchanged the truth of God for the lie". What of the future? Having invested so much in the secularisation of our societies, it is unlikely that we in the West (and those elsewhere who seek to imitate us) will collectively acknowledge that we are reaping what we have sown as social breakdown escalates around the world. Instead we will almost certainly seek to use political, emotional and perhaps even physical pressure to cause those who do not conform to our so-called "enlightened standards" to comply for the good of all. When this happens, will anyone remember that this too was described in advance in the Christian Scriptures?

Is There any Hope?

All this is a very dark picture. Can we find any light at the end of this tunnel? Certainly there is - for one day Jesus Christ will establish His Kingdom on the earth and it will be a reign of true global peace. However, this will not be a kingdom established by political means. Nor will the Church persuade the majority of national and international politicians to walk in the ways of The LORD - amongst these are some who motivate the rejection of His sovereignty over the nations of world.[6] Their policies will lead to global crisis and people everywhere will suffer. Only when this reaches its climax will Jesus Christ intervene and establish His Kingdom. Whilst it seems there is very little hope of any society as a whole turning from the courses they are set on, there is still the opportunity for individuals to stand back and examine the various agendas for Utopia which are offered as alternatives to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For many their faith is in a completely secular society. Others are working to establish religious global government, by force if necessary. There are other alternatives too (New Age teaching for example) but I wonít list them here. Ultimately we are the only ones who can decide for ourselves which agenda we will adopt for our own lives. Can paradise be built on earth through human effort? Experience so far suggests it canít. The alternative is for each one to face up to this truth and to humbly ask the God who raised Jesus from death to give them a new life and a new hope in Him who paid for their foolishness.

Notes:
[1] "Jihad," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopaedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation.
[2] John 18:36
[3] Acts 1:6
[4] 1 John 2:17-19; 2 Peter 3:11-12; Colossians 3:2; Hebrews 11:16.
[5] 2 Timothy 3:2-4
[6] Psalm 2

 


This article was first published in The Christian Standard, the journal of the National Council for Christian Standards in Society.

This study is intended as a stimulus to personal bible study. Every effort has been made to be accurate, but the reader should test everything (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess 5:21). Please report errors and omissions, and queries unresolved after consulting The LORD to the writer. To send an email click here.

© Randall Hardy, September 2002. This paper may only be copied in its entirety for private non-commercial use. All other usage requires the written permission of the author.


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