During the lead up to Easter known as Lent the ancient practice of fasting is observed. Fasting is designed to reorient our focus back to where it should be, away from the distractions (and sins) we so easily find ourselves falling into. Isaiah has some very interesting words on the nature of fasting that God desires:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers…
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
…to let the oppressed go free,
…to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Isaiah 58: 3,6,7 (NRSVA)
I want to focus here on the link between God’s ‘fasting’ and politics. Things can get pretty heated around election time. Who one votes for is almost on a par with whether one is a follower of Christ or not (or so certain people would have you believe). I personally am extremely wary of placing politics anywhere near on a par with Christ as I can see how easy it would be to fashion for myself something that becomes more important than Jesus himself, i.e. to make an ‘idol’ of politicians, political parties or political ideals. I also, personally speaking, prefer to keep my political inclinations to myself. I consider the right to a secret ballot just as important as democracy itself. Also worth noting is that this prized thing which we call democracy, and over which wars are fought and men, women and children have been killed, is not in any way ‘biblical’ (and ‘biblical’ is often a term used by those advocating ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ so I generally steer clear of the word). To get to the point: democracy as we know it, where every adult gets to vote, is very much a 20th century invention.
Having said that, I cannot see how Christianity or Christians can be disengaged from politics. Like it or not, Jesus himself was a political figure. The occupied Israel of 2000 years ago was a hotbed of political resentment and various groups all searching for a new leader who would set Israel free. At that time, Jesus was perceived as a political figure despite his basic refusal to engage with those who wanted to attach to him their own desires and ideals (no wonder he got up people’s noses, he point-blank refused to engage with them in the manner they wanted). Jesus can even be said to have been a political subversive, but his subversiveness – being the embodiment of God’s Upside Down Kingdom – was totally unlike anything anyone had ever imagined. Jesus was subversive even to the subversives! We can confidently state that Jesus was a political radical. Even his death was that which was reserved for dissidents.
So what does that mean for those of us who claim to be his followers? How does this manifest itself in the 21st century? Our world is dominated by politics and although we must not allow politics to become our ‘idol’, we can’t escape the fact that we still live in a world where people are hungry, lonely, suffering, poor – a world where 19,000 children under the age of five die from preventable causes every day.
God, help us.
How do we as Christians respond? Did Jesus have any words in this area? The answer is yes, quite a lot, actually. This is (in my opinion) his summary:
‘All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men from each other like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right ‘Come, you who have won my Father’s blessing! Take your inheritance—the kingdom reserved for you since the foundation of the world! For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was lonely and you made me welcome. I was naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you came and looked after me. I was in prison and you came to see me there.”
“Then the true men will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you lonely and make you welcome, or see you naked and clothe you, or see you ill or in prison and go to see you?’
“And the king will reply, ‘I assure you that whatever you did for the humblest of my brothers you did for me.’
Matthew 25:32-40 (JB Phillips)
What is interesting in the context of the 21st century is that all of these things are affected by, and shaped by, the decisions of those in power. Which leads us back to politics.
While I personally find it impossible to align myself with any particular political affiliation (because there will undoubtedly come a time when one’s faith or one’s conscience clashes with the party political line) I do believe that Christians should be actively involved in politics. You may be wondering how one does this without political affiliation. I am ‘politically active’ in that I am a member of several pressure groups involved in lobbying both the UK parliament and overseas governments on cross-party issues. In particular I support Avaaz, CAAT, 38 Degrees and Tearfund (Tearfund engages in both helping the poor and lobbying parliament on their behalf). I have just come across another group called Labour Behind the Label, which seeks to promote awareness of the conditions in which garment factory workers carry out their work. I have just written an email to my local Member of Parliament (MP) asking him to sign a motion calling for the companies involved in the Bangladesh garment factory disaster in 2013 to pay the compensation the victims are due. Several big brands, including Benetton and Matalan, have yet to pay a penny. You can read more here.
If you find you’re not in a position to actively do very much by way of caring for the hungry/homeless/lonely, etc. (see Matthew 25, as quoted above), because you have other commitments or find yourself, like me, feeling the effects of ill health, one way you can still be active is by signing petitions and communicating with your government representative (here in the UK it is my MP whom I write to). It doesn’t take more than a minute to read the details of a petition and add your name. It doesn’t take more than a quarter of an hour to write an email or letter to your MP. For me, it’s good to know I can do something.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
from The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost