The Politics of 2016: How Should Christians Respond?

The Politics of 2016: How Should Christians Respond?

By Matthew Judson

Two thousand and sixteen. It is a year that will forever be associated with the vote by the British people to end four decades of membership of the European Union. Spurred on by the British electorate’s act of defiance, Europe now seems awash with nationalism, populism and political insurgents.  Across the Atlantic, we now know that the next American president will be a demagogue businessman with no political experience.Farage_Trump_Tower.jpg

All over the developed world this year, we are witnessing the re-emergence of populist nationalism as an electoral force capable of winning high-stakes votes. This should be of great concern to all those who see themselves as progressive, but especially to Christians. The values of fear, deceit and exclusion which we see on such ugly display are incompatible with our identity in Christ.

Fear Itself

The hallmark of this new brand of politics is its basis in fear. Here in the UK, it seemed that, for much of the lead-up to the referendum, the referendum campaign was infused by fear: on one side we witnessed fear of international co-operation, fear of globalisation, and, most unsavoury of all, fear of non-native residents. On the other side, how many were motivated by the fear of the unknown, fear of economic doom or fear of losing national prestige?

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The victory of the Leave campaign especially seemed to mark a victory for the forces of populism and fear. Different people voted to Leave for different reasons, and I do not intend to suggest that it was not possible to do so while keeping hold of Christian values – let us not forget Justin Welby’s statement that “you can’t say ‘God says you must vote this way or that way’”. However, many of the values on display during the campaign, on both sides but especially from the Leave campaign, seemed to carry connotations that I felt uncomfortable with as a Christian.

The underlying issue for many Brexit voters was their feeling that globalisation has failed to improve their welfare. Rather than voting for the hope that appropriate policymaking could make globalisation work for everyone, while acknowledging the benefits it has already brought for many of us, a lot of voters in this group voted to try and reverse the process of globalisation, fearing that the situation would worsen. For some, the key issue was immigration: the vast majority of these voters voted from a fear of diversity rather than the hope that Britain can and does benefit from being a globalised, multicultural economy in an increasingly globalised, multicultural world. For some, trade was key, and many people voted for a more protectionist and isolationist system based on the fear that trade might undermine our economy, as opposed to a hopeful vision of a single European market enriching all its participants. Some voters, particularly older voters, saw sovereignty as an important factor. Such concerns  should not be dismissed, but international relations work on the basis of co-operation, and we should not be fearful of negotiating the comprises that are often necessary.

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As an optimistic Remain supporter, I was both exasperated and angry to see the Remain campaign resort to fear-based sensationalism to appeal to voters. There were times when all Cameron and Osborne could do was to scare people about the short-term economic effects of Brexit. This was while Farage, Johnson et al talked optimistically, if unrealistically, about Britain’s trading future outside the EU structure. That the Remain campaign in general, and the government in particular, was so willing to resort to fear should be a great cause for concern.

In last year’s election, the Conservatives eagerly spread fears about Scottish nationalism and the supposed dramatic fiscal irresponsibility of Labour under Ed Miliband (who was cynically and unfairly painted as incompetent throughout the campaign). The success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was based in significant part on stirring up fear among the white working classes of globalisation, immigrants and the so-called ‘liberal elite’. This suggests that fear-based campaigning is fast becoming the political orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic.

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As Christians, we cannot endorse this brand of fear-based politics. I believe that the (empty) cross is the greatest symbol of hope that there is. The entire Christian faith is based on a fundamental and deeply-rooted conviction that the power of hope and of love is stronger than the power of fear and of hate. Hence God’s love was able to overcome guilt and break the power of evil. Hence we strive to live out heavenly values here on our fallen earth. Hence we hope, indeed we believe, that we will pass on to live with our Saviour, rather than to face condemnation. Jesus came to this world to give hope to the human race, and our trust in him should be based on the hope that we can live freely in spite of our failings, not on any kind of fear (see Romans 5:1-2).

If we are a church that truly believes this message, we must not stand and watch as the politics of fear gains strength and popularity. We must be clear that, whatever our political convictions, our motivation in the public sphere must be to spread the love and the hope we find in Christ, not to play on people’s insecurities in order that we might push an agenda based on fear. Hope is so central to what we believe that we must never lose sight of it. It is only by visibly demonstrating this hope in the lives of those we come into contact with that we can begin to transform the world.

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A further concern that arose from the referendum campaign was the blatant disregard many of our leading elected representatives appeared to hold for the truth. The Leave campaign was especially guilty of synthesising assertions that had no possible justification based on facts: the notorious claim that it could redirect £350m per week to the NHS stands out, as does the insistence that Turkey’s accession to EU membership is imminent. There were also outlandish claims about the effect of immigration on the British economy. The proposition that we could maintain full economic access to the EU whilst capping immigration was perhaps the most blatant lie of them all (free movement of labour is part of the definition of a single market), but one that may well have clinched the result for Vote Leave.

Osborne_4300.jpgOnce again, while the Leave campaign was arguably the worse offender, the Remain side was far from innocent with regard to untruth. It played fast and loose with statistics, claiming that Brexit would cost each family £4,300 per year, a figure that was extremely (and no doubt deliberately) misleading. Osborne’s panicked declaration that a Leave victory would prompt an ‘emergency budget’ was disgraceful, as was Cameron’s insistence that he would immediately invoke Article 50 in the event of a Leave vote.

However, the high priest of post-truth politics is not British, but American. The Republican president-elect has insisted that the outgoing president was born in Kenya, claimed that ‘thousands and thousands’ of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks and suggested that the Mexican government deliberately sends immigrants with social problems to destabilise the USA. On policy he has claimed he could eliminate the national debt within eight years, force Mexico to pay for a border wall, and that climate change is a Chinese-led conspiracy theory.Birth_Certificate.jpg

As Christians we cannot condone dishonesty; the command not to lie is one of the Ten Commandments, and is underlined by Paul in the New Testament (see Colossians 3:9). While exaggeration, interpretation and selective presentation of figures (‘positive spin’) has always been part and parcel of political campaigning, for good or for ill, straight lying is an ugly sight that should have no place in democracy. Political parties must undergo a cultural change, but there is also a role for other public bodies. The church must be at the forefront of an attempt to make truthfulness a non-negotiable aspect of public service. The most obvious way to make a difference (but also perhaps the most striking) is to lead by example. Local churches must ensure they are known as places of honesty and integrity. Individual Christians must exemplify these values in their own lives.

The Exclusion of All Others

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A final concept that we see increasingly frequently, and which should be of great concern to Christians, is that of exclusivity. At the heart of Brexit’s success was the promise of restricting access to our economy and our borders. The rhetoric many in the Leave campaign adopted with regard to European citizens living in the UK was particularly unsettling. The vilification of ‘immigrants’ – and the blame they have received for many of the country’s ills, despite being net fiscal contributors as a group – was and continues to be shocking. The campaign uncovered anger against non-indigenous residents across the country, and revealed a widespread belief (wrong, in my opinion) that life would be better if Britain was kept exclusively for the British.

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While it is obviously untrue to suggest that all Leave voters were motivated by xenophobia (and we must not allow all 17m to be unfairly bracketed as such), it is a statement of fact that a vote to Leave was a vote for a less close economic and political relationship with our largest trading partners and closest geographic neighbours. In an increasingly protectionist world, and with the government committed to reducing immigration (itself a protectionist target), it will be very difficult to realise the idea, apparently held by some Leave campaigners, of a more open, globally connected Britain. There is a danger that the UK will become a much more insular, inward-looking country outside the EU.

And the UK is far from the only country in which messages of nationalism rooted in exclusivity are increasingly finding success. Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States on a platform of tearing up trade deals and preventing Mexicans and Muslims from entering the world’s oldest liberal democracy. In France, it seems almost certain that the anti-EU, anti-diversity Front National will have a candidate in the second round of the presidential election in the spring. This is causing mainstream Republicans to lurch to the right. Dutch nationalism, spearheaded by the extreme eurosceptic Partij voor de Vrijheid, is on the rise, and may well do well in forthcoming elections. Even in Germany, the unashamedly Islamophobic far-right group Alternative für Deutschland is on course to seriously unsettle German politics. Exclusivity, it seems, is now back at the heart of many people’s concept of nationalism, and forms a central plank of this new wave of populism that is connecting with voters across the developed world.

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As Christians, we should be very concerned that messages based on exclusivity are becoming so popular. Exclusivity is rooted in selfishness (an aversion to sharing our prosperity with others) and fear of diversity (the idea that multiculturalism diminishes or dilutes our national identity). By contrast, God’s love is selfless, inclusive and all-embracing. In his time on earth, Jesus consistently broke down barriers and railed against those who attempted to restrict divine favour and the attainment of ‘holiness’ to a select group of religious leaders. We also read in the New Testament that God’s people thrive as a diverse group, evident most obviously in Paul’s triumphant proclamation that all people are equal in Christ, regardless of ethnicity, social status or gender (see Galatians 3:28).

Therefore, if we are to be a church that demonstrates the inclusive and infectious love of God, we must be seen to be standing firmly against notions of exclusivity. We should guard against those whose core values are based on excluding certain groups, instead showing ourselves to be a community that revels in its diversity, and seeks the end of social barriers.

How Should We Respond?

First of all, the recent wave of populist nationalism holds lessons for those involved in politics. The rise of groups such as UKIP, FN and others is in no small part the result of the tendency of ‘mainstream’ conservatives to pander to their right flank for several years. Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel, Romney and others have to take at least a degree of responsibility for the rise of nationalist populism in their respective countries. Engaging in debate with figures such as Trump and Le Pen has given them oxygen and legitimised their arguments in the minds of many voters, and therefore allowed them to thrive electorally.

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It is vital to recognise that, in the twenty-first century, politics is increasingly based on identity rather than ideology. Some more extreme groups have gained popularity because they provide a clearer sense of identity than more conventional politicians. Brexit and Trump have both harnessed dissatisfaction with neoliberal capitalism, and provided a clear alternative identity, one rooted in nativism and insularity. The ‘establishment’ so many voters now detest has failed to provide a strong response. We need politicians who are not ashamed of holding progressive values and who seek to answer voters’ legitimate insecurities by passionately appealing to the hope of a more inclusive and equal society, not promises of authoritarianism and exclusivity.

Another factor is the media, which has played a role in helping nationalist populism to gain currency through its constant coverage of sensationalist stories. In particular, the support that tabloid sections of the press in the UK lent to the Brexit cause (and in general to the xenophobic views of some Brexit campaigners) has ­a lot to answer for insofar as spreading misconceptions and encouraging the divisive politics of fear. Some of the hyperbolic statements made in, and by, some newspapers about Ed Miliband last May were truly cringe-worthy. The American media has been spineless in its failure to offer any kind of robust challenge to the outlandish and outrageous pronouncements made by Donald Trump. Ideally, editors would not neglect the important position they have in democracy, and take more responsibility. Realistically, there need to be strong voices of moderation providing unbiased views. Voters too must be more willing to search out truth. As much as they are part of the problem, new technology and social media must be used as part of the solution by determined politicians and programmers.

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Similarly, while sections of the media have unjustifiably blown out of all proportion the extent to which politicians are seen as dishonest and self-interested, those in Westminster have to recognise that there is no smoke without fire and take steps to improve their image. It is not enough to simply assert that the vast majority of MPs are sacrificial public servants working in the interest of their constituents; Parliament and the government must learn a culture of transparency and straightforwardness that many voters feel has been lacking for too many years. While some MPs, including Christians from across the political spectrum, have made progress in this direction, there is still much work to be done. Trust in politics is necessary for a functioning democracy, and, if our system is to work, it must be restored to the many who have lost faith in politicians and parties and all colours.

But while we do need high-level action, it is not enough to simply make generalisations about groups of people, and seek to provide them with political solutions on a ‘macro’ scale. Reaching and including everyone requires sensitivity and understanding on a ‘micro’ level. Perhaps the most important response to today’s politics is to listen. While politicians obviously need to do this better than they have done, and forge a new politics that offers hope for everyone, there is also a big role here that God’s people could play.

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The story of the good shepherd tells us that God’s love will meet us wherever we are (see Luke 15:4). If we are to be the body of Christ, we should want to live by the values Christ showed us. This means we must be prepared to meet everyone where they are. Jesus wanted his people on earth to look after the vulnerable, and this has to include going after those who feel lost and left out by politics today. The first imperative for Christians who dream of a compassionate society must be live this out in our own lives: to be compassionate. This means we should take everyone’s concerns seriously, and seek to build relationships with those in our communities. People will only see the hope and inclusivity of God if they experience it on a personal level in their own lives. The lesson of the referendum must be that there are millions of people who do not feel listened to or cared for by ‘mainstream’ politicians. We would be failing to heed our commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves (see Matthew 22:39) if we did not show tolerance, patience and care to those who cannot find it elsewhere.

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There is a greater need than ever for Christians of all political dispositions to be living and visible examples of God’s love and care to the world. As the church, we must unite around the central values of our faith, putting kingdom before tribe, and proudly advertising the fact that we will always have hope, no matter what trouble the world brings. In a world in which so many seem to be struggling with identity, we must own our identity in Jesus, one far deeper than any provided by politics. Now is the time for the body of Christ to be his light in the world, shining brightest where there is most darkness. This is the response that the politics of today demands of those who seek God’s heart. Overcome fear by living out hope. Challenge lies by speaking truth. Combat exclusivity by showing the inclusivity of Jesus. I believe that if we manage this, we will be building at least a glimpse of God’s kingdom, His will done here on the earth.

People turn to fear when they have lost hope. Could it be we, God’s people, who provide hope where it is lacking? In all the problems that we see, we must never lose sight of the truth that every problem is an opportunity in disguise. Perhaps the events of 2016 could cause the problem we having been waiting for.

About the Author

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I am a gap-year student from Luton with a passion for politics and economics. I have spent eight years living outside the UK, in Jordan and then Cyprus, experiences that have convinced me of the need for a government that provides for its people. I am a Christian, and I believe that my faith provides a perspective on life that informs and helps to shape my political convictions. I have finished my A Levels, and am volunteering with Christians on the Left during my gap year, before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. I am excited by the potential to make a difference to my country and am keen to see where God’s plan for my life leads me.

 

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commented 2017-01-14 17:05:19 +0000 · Flag
The new nationalism was triggered, at least in part, by a global neoliberal capitalism that has put half the world’s wealth in the hands of a busload of people, while millions live in poverty and children starve; a global neoliberal capitalism that wages perpetual war against non-threatening countries for strategic geopolitical ends; a global neoliberal capitalism that continues to plunder and pollute the planet to the point of exhaustion and potential ecocide to increase obscene wealth accumulation and disparity.

Where was the Christian left during the past several decades when this global neoliberal capitalism was gaining steam and coming to dominate world affairs? Where was the OT prophetic voice on behalf of the vulnerable and exploited, the NT righteous anger of Jesus toward the oppression by the rich and powerful? To attempt to resurrect that voice now, primarily in opposition to the new nationalism (ugly and bigoted as much of it may be) is to see the mote in our sisters’ and brothers’ eyes but not the log in our own.

Confession of our complacency and repentance for our complicity in the structural evil of global neoliberal capitalism must be our first forms of addressing the collapse of the house WE helped to build on the sand, now that the storm is raging.

https://www.amazon.com/Life-Truth-synoptic-gospel-Theophilus-ebook/dp/B00NIZOJ4C
@ChrLeft tweeted this page. 2016-11-28 15:50:58 +0000





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