Should the Keystone Pipe-line be built? Is globalization a good thing? Which political party should we vote for? These are questions which have provoked a tremendous amount of debate, not excluding loud shouting and mass protest, including sometimes violent protest. The question is: should the Church of God leap into the ideological fray and join the protest? Should we join the march and carry the signs? And if so, on which side? Please note: the question here is not, “Should individual Christians have opinions on such matters and take individual action?”, but rather, “Should the Church as Church commit itself to one side of the protest?” I ask the question because recently I heard that a Byzantine Catholic community used my akathist Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness as a liturgical part of expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt an odd sense of ambivalence. On the one hand I was happy that they found my akathist useful, but on the other hand I was a bit uneasy at the politicization of liturgical prayer. By this you can conclude that I believe that the Church as Church should rarely commit itself to one side of a political cause.
The dangers of doing so are threefold.
First of all, political movements and causes are hardly ever matters of simple, pure, and unalloyed right and wrong. More often they are complex and nuanced, with truth and falsity, good and evil, to be found in varying amounts on both sides. Sometimes the degrees of good and evil in one side or the other can be seen more clearly in retrospect. But this retrospect takes time, and discernment is harder to come by when we are in the thick of things. It is far too easy for us to over-simplify complex matters, and begin sentences with the words, “The truth is perfectly clear…” when actually the issue is far from perfectly clear. After history has given its mature verdict, hindsight (as they say) is twenty-twenty—but usually not until.
This is especially so because our view-points and opinions cannot be better than the information we are given, and the media rarely gives us good information. The problem is not simply that the North American media is divided between the right and the left, the conservative and the liberal. The problem is that neither side of the media is free. We delight in saying that we have “a free press”, and this is true if by that one means that a reporter writing an unpopular piece will not thereafter be taken out and shot, or vanish into a gulag in the middle of the night. But there are two ways of overcoming a truly free press. One is to terrify the media with threat of shotgun and gulag. The other way is to simply buy the press. This latter insures that only the owner’s viewpoints will find public airing. It is certainly cheaper than operating a gulag and it is, I suggest, the situation in which we currently find ourselves here in the West. (I am not saying it is any better in the East.) Our press is not so much free as it is bought, and those who work for it are perfectly free to toe the party line.
This means that before we form a final opinion we should take care to listen to all the many discordant and opposing voices in the debate and only then try to discern the truth. In most cases, each side has got some things right and some things wrong. That does not mean that we should not support a cause, but that our support must be as muted as the issue is complex. Usually we are choosing one shade of ideological grey over another, not choosing ideological white over black.
Secondly and following from this, it usually means that Christians and all people of good-will can be found on both sides of a debate. The abiding temptation is to demonize the opposing side and to assume that they have chosen that side because they are bad, evil people. “Surely”, we say, “no one with a conscience could support (fill in the blank with whatever you are protesting against)! It is perfectly clear that those opposing us have no arguments at all on their side, and that they only oppose us because they are (fill in the blank with your favourite term of derision)!” Terms of derision abound, and usually serve in place of sustained and thoughtful argument. There is an entire cornucopia of derisive labels available to choose from. Those on the opposing side may be Nazis, Fascists, Communists, Liberals, Fundamentalists, Racists, Anti-semitic, Homophobic, Transphobic, Islamophobic, and a growing host of other labels, usually now ending with the letters “phobic”.
If we assume that the issue is black and white and if we therefore demonize the opposition, we will almost inevitably be filled with an overwhelming and glowing sense of self-righteousness which blinds us to the legitimacy of the opposing arguments and the humanity of those advancing them. We see ourselves as soldiers of truth and light, waging war against the armies of darkness and barbarism. And (as the proverb has it) all is fair in love and war. And so in this war we are justified in bullying our opponents, of shouting them down, of driving them out, of calling them names, of depriving them of a living and a right to be heard. Even violence is justified against them, for our enemies of the enemies of truth and light, and must be eliminated at all costs. We can return from our violent protest with the warm glow of self-righteousness, secure in the knowledge that our violence is building a better world.
Nothing blinds the human heart and silences the conscience quite so effectively as violence in the service of supposed truth. If you doubt this, try looking at Germany in the 1920s and later when many people—Nazi and Communist—used violence as a tool against opposing ideologies. Of course when we employ bullying and violence in the service of our cause we do not call bullying and violence by their true names. We are not bullying or using violence. We are just standing up for civilization and making the world a better and kinder place. Unqualified support for a political cause which uses violent protest as a tool of discourse too often quickly descends into this kind of confrontation.
Thirdly, aligning the Church with a political cause distracts and detracts from our true mandate, which is the proclamation of the Gospel, the creation of a new and transfigured community, and the glorification of God. The Church then becomes no longer the unique instrument of God in the world and the Body of His Son, but just another NGO, just another loud voice in the marketplace crying for social justice. Our commitment to a merely political cause too easily politicizes the Church and effectively erodes its eschatological nature. We no longer regard ourselves as strangers and sojourners on the earth, but as political animals, partisans of the right or the left. A look around at the Christian communities who strove to be relevant in the 1960s by embracing such causes is instructive. They all have lost credibility in the eyes of the world as far as the timeless Gospel is concerned. The world applauded their political stands and their participation in protest marches and then completely ignored them ever after. Or, in the Lord’s words, having lost its savour, those churches were trampled under the foot of man (Matthew 5:13).
One can perhaps see this warning in the words of Christ to His apostles before His ascension. They asked Him if it was now the time for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel—i.e. for Israel’s political ascendency in the world, which they regarded as having been foretold by the prophets. The Lord told them that such things were not their concern, and that their task was the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Politics—even divine politics—was not the Church’s concern. The Church’s mandate concerned higher and more eternal things, as befitted a community anchored in the age to come.
But, one may ask, what about issues like abortion? Should not the Church as Church take a public stand on such things? Yes, and this illustrates the problem. For abortion is not primarily a political issue, but a moral issue with political ramifications. Political issues are usually always painted in grey, with valid arguments on both sides of the question. For example, there are, I suggest, good reasons for building the Keystone Pipeline and good reasons for not building it. There are good reasons for voting Republican and good reasons for voting Democrat. But there are no good reasons for killing a child (assuming that the child would not die if left alone—i.e. assuming the pregnancy is not ectopic). This issue is not between grey and grey, but between black and white. So, unless the moral issue involved in espousing a cause is as clear as that, I suggest that the Church as Church should stay out of the political ring. Christian individuals within the Church may take action in such causes if they wish. But they cannot say that they speak for the entire Church, or that the entire Church necessarily agrees with their stand.
We live in a liberal democracy, where open political debate is allowed and encouraged. This includes the freedom to gather and protest peacefully. This is very good, and can help to build a healthy society. But building a better society is not the Church’s primary task, and never was, even in Byzantium. Our task is to preach the Gospel, to heal and transform the human heart, and to glorify God. And after we as individuals have voted, and argued, and protested, and done our best to build a better world, we still must look up the heavens and pray, “Maranatha! Let grace come, and let the world pass away.” I am told that the Greek term for the posters used at protests is ephemera. That pretty much says it all.