Politics and forgiveness

POLITICS AND FORGIVENESS is an unlikely combination. One senior Baptist world leader said to me, “There isn’t much forgiveness in politics”. That gives us no excuse for rejecting it as our task and responsibility as Christian human beings. After all, the combination of God and Humanity is unlikely, and seems implausible in the world as it is, but it is basic to our faith.

I want to explain why I think forgiving – God’s forgiveness and ours – links the heart of the Gospel with the reality of politics.

This talk is an invitation for each of us to examine our own attitudes to politics, to search our own experience of politics, and to assess again how we read politics in the light of the Gospel.

My starting point is that POLITICS IS INESCAPABLE. In this Assembly we have looked at the problems and possibilities of a modern city like Bradford. No serious response to them can avoid politics. We have just been hearing about education, and our responsibility as Christians to play our part in contemporary debates about the purpose and content of education and to share in the new governing bodies of schools. We do not want education to be a ‘political football’ but there is no way it can be conducted in our large and complex society without politics.

We all have a few neighbours we can move without politics, but we only get in touch with most of our neighbours (in the biblical sense) through large scale organisations of one sort or another which involve some kind of politics.

Christians rightly desire peace in the world, an end to hunger, persecution and torture; Christians rightly desire more just trading relationships in the world and a more caring, respectful way of living with our material environment. The desires, which are part of our deepest prayers for the coming of God’s Kingdom, lead us into politics.

Secondly, that politics is inescapable is not obviously good news, for POLITICS IS ALSO DISAGREEABLE. We have great visions for human good but instead of enabling them, politics seems often to block their realisation.

Sometimes politics is disagreeable because it cuts across our self-interest as judged by our selfishness. The well off, for example, may resent paying taxes, even when they are used to help the less well off. Sometimes politics is disagreeable because to a less selfish judgement it appears wrong in its aims or methods; so we object to it, not out of selfishness, but out of concern for the human good and the divine right. For pacifists, any politics which is prepared to use war is ethically disagreeable. And when affairs are so organised that the cause of the weak and the poor goes unheard, politics is really disagreeable.

Thirdly we come to the question: if politics is both inescapable and disagreeable, HOW ARE WE AS CHRISTIANS TO JUDGE POLITICS? How do we feel about politics? What does our practice show is our real estimate of politics? What judgement is explicit in our church teachings on political questions?

There is the judgement that politics is not very important. We have better things to do, like evangelism or cultivating our gardens! But, if our evangelism is wholistic, can it exclude politics in any simple way?

And there is the judgement that politics is, in practice,  futile; it means a lot of work for little progress. Now, in thinking of politics as relatively unimportant or futile, Christians are at one with many non-Christians. Part of our common problem is despair about politics; it is a point at which it seems plausible to be conformed to this world, sharing in its disillusion which ranges from a superficial fashion to a deep brokenness of heart and spirit.

Another judgement is more peculiarly Christian. It is that politics, especially party politics, is fallen and sinful. It is said that politics, as practised, is without God and without hope. Politics is sin and, not surprisingly, it reaps the wages of sin which is death. Its final futility is the will of God. All this adds up to a radically negative Christian judgement on politics. This negativity lurks as a shaping influence in much of our spirituality. And occasionally it is made explicit in ethical direction. I have heard, for example, of a Christian leader discouraging young people from being actively and hopefully involved in serious party political work on the grounds that such activity is simply fallen.

Now this judgement is plausible because there is much that is disagreeable about politics. Yet I do not believe we hear in this assessment an adequate approximation to the judgement that comes from the heart of the Gospel. God’s wrath is not the whole story, for its essential dynamic is directed by God, who in His wrath remembers mercy, and plays itself out as we are enabled to pray for that mercy (Habakkuk 3:2; Isaiah 54:8).

If we do not try to escape from politics nor take a simply negative attitude, what are we to do?

Might we not set about reforming politics so that its disagreeable features are weeded out? Should we TRY TO MAKE POLITICS AGREEABLE after all? Might not the power of the Gospel transform politics out of all recognition? So some argue that politics is potentially agreeable, but it goes wrong when it is run by the wrong people on the wrong principles. It might be taken as a sign of hope that so much political argument, when you look into it, seems to be trying to diagnose what is wrong so that the appropriate remedy may be applied and all be put right. Are not the conflicts that make up so much of politics attempts to secure power for the right people to govern on the right principles? Of course the sad thing is that, often those you believe to be the right people lose the struggle for power and, even sadder, the right people usually turn out to be flawed like the rest of us. It is not easy to get a workable agreement about who are the right people anyway; and to go ahead without workable agreement is to get involved in the development of dictatorial politics. All political parties and movements are sustained, in some measure, by people who think on these lines; they are the right people and the others must be kept down, or out. There are Christians who think in this way in strongly Christian terms. Often what they produce is fresh evidence for the disagreeableness of politics rather than a demonstration of the Gospel. Suppose some hard and clear reading of the Bible were taken as a source for legislation in our secular pluralist society. What difference would it make? There is quite a lot of history to go on here, not much of it encouraging.

I wish to say nothing to discourage Christians from rousing themselves to speak prophetically and to seek to influence politics. But we have to be aware of the great dangers, not least to our own spiritual truth and humility, if we, as those who are simply right and good, try to gain, or regain, decisive power in government or culture in a crusade against the wrong and evil. And we shall only store up disillusion for ourselves and others if we imagine that we might eliminate the disagreeable features of politics. 

Let me put this point in a simplistic picture. Suppose we somehow got the good in power and the bad out of power, perhaps in prison or suppressed. All would not be well. The conflict involved in getting to that state of affairs, and maintaining it, would make for disagreeable politics even for those who do not much care about human rights. Keeping people in prisons is disagreeable, even if the only people in them are those who ought to be there, which is hardly true in our sadly, even scandalously, over-crowded penal system. In such a society the good can never relax. They will always be anxious, fearful of enemies, always suspicious and potentially punitive in the way they look at others. The peace of God will hardly be there. 

We should, indeed, always work for the best that we can achieve in politics, but without deceiving ourselves or others into engaging in politics with the expectation or the sense of mission that politics can be so transformed that it will no longer be disagreeable. Since we ourselves are part of the disagreeableness, we shall carry that disagreeableness into any future we help make. As Spurgeon once said to someone who was looking for a perfect church, “when you have found it, don’t join it, you’ll spoil it”!

If we may not expect to eliminate the disagreeableness from politics, is there any other way to relate to the politics we cannot escape?

I believe there is; the clue for it comes FROM THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL. The key word that means most to me is FORGIVENESS. But ‘forgiveness’ is just one of a family of words which point in the same direction and if you prefer another word it does not matter. It is the reality rather than a particular word that counts.

What does God do when He is faced with a fallen, sinning, humanity in all its disagreeableness? He grieves, He judges, He reveals His wrath, but above all He sets about forgiving, and His forgiving subsumes everything else He does, for He wills life, not death. God sets about forgiving because He is forgiving. It is not an occasional thing He does. It is what He always is, in the unity of His justice and love, of His being creator and His transcendent holiness. God’s settled policy, His constant practice, is forgiving.

We are told by the Lord to forgive seventy times seven. Long before we had forgiven that many times we would lose count, as one act of forgiving flowed into another and we became forgiving people. Forgiving would be our character, the source from which our actions came, the attitude and spirit with which we looked out on to the world and went to meet what is disagreeable. I am not like that yet, but God always has been and always will be.

Since God is forgiving, He sets about forgiving. Forgiving is not something that can be done in a moment. It requires a sustained and inventive process; it has to be begun, prepared for, enacted, persisted and eternally upheld. God responded to the sin of humanity by setting about the process of forgiveness. The centre of this age-long process is the incarnation and dying, and raising, of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world and extends, through the spirit, the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness to the ends of the earth.

We believe that in Christ there is a new creation. Its foundation is the love which made God the friend of sinners, the love that suffers at the hands of those who are sinning, and which prays, as Jesus did, “Father, forgive them”. To live in God’s world now is to live within the scope of that prayer of Jesus, however difficult it is to believe that it has been, or is being, answered. We are invited to carry on living, even to carry on our politics, within the hope set by the prayer of Jesus.

WHAT IS FORGIVENESS LIKE? How does it work? What does it do? To forgive is not to say “The wrong done doesn’t matter, please go on as though nothing serious has happened”. To forgive is not to condone wrong. To forgive involves accepting and enabling the acceptance that wrong has happened, and that wrong is wrong. But forgiveness bears the weight of what is wrong, and then beyond that, it consists in making it possible to see that wrong, even terrible wrong, is not the end of life and love. Forgiveness is not a matter of pretending the Cross was not serious; it is like knowing the undeserved grace of resurrection, of life beyond death.

To forgive is to keep the door of God’s Kingdom open for those who are shutting it in their own faces. For example, those who oppress and do not care for the poor, to whom belongs the Kingdom of God, exclude themselves from it. To invite them to change their bias so that it is towards, and not against, the poor is a forgiving ministry, because it points them to the way in which the Kingdom is open for them. 

To forgive is to remind people of their calling as God’s creatures, to be His stewards and representatives in the earth, even when they seem set upon blasphemously destroying creation.

To forgive is to do whatever is possible to bring home the truth to the wrongdoers; not just the truth that they are wrong, but the truth that they are worthwhile and valued despite their self-wasting; the truth that life can be repaired and restarted within the calling of God. To do whatever is possible to make this true for the wrongdoer, the forgiver not only talks. He acts. He acts to demonstrate the reality of the possibility of living life as God’s creatures and stewards and children, with the door of His promise open and inviting.

Are not these aspects of forgiveness familiar to us as the good news we have believed, so that we know ourselves as forgiven sinners? But are we also growing into forgiving people, who react to all the world with a forgiveness like God’s? If we try to be like God in our forgiving, what boundaries will we set to it? Are we not invited to meet even the disagreeableness of politics in this spirit, hope and practice? That would mean we do not fall for superficial reactions to the rottenness of politics. We take a second look, looking for what is worthwhile, for what can be affirmed, rescued, sifted from and given a future through and despite the rottenness. In particular, it means recognising and respecting the worth of many, many people caught up in political movements and institutions, who need such redemptive affirmation, so that they know they are not lost in futility, but that the way to God’s Kingdom is open for them.

Can we not work for politics as an instrument of peacemaking, even in a world of dangerously over-armed and often bellicose nations? Or is there nothing to work for politically? As long as we are in politics, that is, in this life, we are to say that there can be no release from self destruction as the punishment of our disagreeable politics? That sounds to me not merely to lack the generosity and patience of a truly evangelical spirit, but to be so sweeping a generalisation as to be nonsense; against it we can all quote, because we all experience, examples of politics in which good is achieved in some measure despite the rottenness.

Can we not therefore affirm and work for politics as processes whereby community might be built, by which really divisive issues might be sorted out so that fairer, more friendly, societies result?

This affirming of hope, this pioneering of the way of hope, right in the situation that makes for despair, is the very hinge of forgiveness. It cannot be done by those who stand aloof but only by those who carry the load of the reality of politics, who take honest responsibility for the situation as it is at any point, in all its disagreeableness. That is why affirming what is worthwhile in the realities of politics involves suffering. God does not forgive without suffering. We cannot forgive cheaply. To work and struggle to hold open the door to the hope of God’s Kingdom in human affairs cannot be painless. That is why I think the active politician (whatever her faults) who works hopefully for human community without cynicism, is a truer sign of Christ than the armchair critic of politics, be she never so righteous. 

In short, a forgiving approach to politics is not daunted by its obvious and profound disagreeableness, for it hopes against hope and works in the love that bears all things.

When you look at politics you can often see such forgiving going on, and then you will know where to join in. Joining in will not be easy. It will involve getting your hands dirty so that you will only be kept going by the grace of being forgiven. And joining in will mean taking sides; not necessarily choosing this party rather than that one, though the distinction between parties is often significant for the Christian judgement; but certainly taking the forgiving side of any party against its own cynical, hopeless and punitive side. For the real choice in politics is between actively believing in the reality of human hope through forgiveness or succumbing to the human meaninglessness we are left with if there can be no real release from what we have made of ourselves, our societies and our world through individual and corporate sin.


We should be aware of the way in which, in the very activity of politics, forgiveness operates, hiddenly and spasmodically. Perhaps it is no more than a shadow of God’s forgiveness (as Bonhoeffer put it). Nevertheless, wherever we live in forgiveness as it is mediated in politics, there is much to be grateful for.

Politics is composed of the conflicts of interest, the personal animosities, the misunderstandings and disputed interpretations, the antagonisms and tensions of groups and communities, which can so easily slide or explode into war. Sometimes politics teeters on the edge of war and then falls over – or is pushed.

But sometimes politics works in such a way that it sets a real boundary between itself and war. Life is far from perfect inside politics, but it is better than war. Life is not the same in Bradford as it is in Beirut. To produce politics out of the human material that seems so well suited for war is a real and hopeful change. We Christians should not be so impatient for the perfection of heaven that we cannot be grateful for any transmutation from war to politics. ‘Do not despise the day of small things’. Politics is a way of living together where the shadow of forgiveness gives some cover, whereas war is made by the systematic exclusion of forgiveness in human relations, a refusal to hold open the way of life for the enemy.

Secondly, any organised life requires that individuals and groups be given power in order to perform socially useful functions. (Politics, remember, is inescapable). Power however tends to corrupt, and lots of people get responsibilities beyond their competence, so they make a mess of things. By all legitimate and humane means we may try to remove incompetent and untrustworthy people and replace them by better. But the ‘better’ will still not be up to the job, which is morally and practically difficult.

Sooner or later, we must grow weary of changing personnel and reconcile ourselves to making the best of those who are available. We have to give power to inadequate people like ourselves, and with the power we must give them critical support. Such support will have to be forgiving in institutional and political ways. When society gives power to people, it should keep in mind their frailty. It is foolish and unkind to trust leaders, in society or church, as though they were gods. They need to be loved with forgiveness. That means practically taking account, in advance, of their actual or potential inadequacies and setting the powerholders round with suitable checks and balances, with accountability and disciplines, so that their power will not run away with them, but they will be helped to use it positively. Calling powerholders to account will be of limited use if it is done unforgivingly; that is, if the intentions or effect of checking is to take away that degree of freedom which is essential for the performance of their socially desirable work. Wherever we see power being abused, we may feel tempted to try and eliminate such power; but it is unrealistic to expect good to be done without power. The practical task is not to eliminate power, but to set it within a discriminatingly supportive social discipline. There is a lot of power in our own country that is not sufficiently accountable; the city and the banks, the police, the government, and (as in private duty bound, I must add) even university teachers are in question here.

But, too often people are brought to account so unforgivingly that it makes them shy away in defensiveness. All accountability must justify itself by effectively changing and releasing power to be more socially useful; it must set free the less than adequate for fuller service, not merely discourage or discard them.

The approach of another general election reminds us how questionable our system is, despite all its virtues. When any party can think that winning two-fifths of the popular vote will suffice to gain outright dominance in the House of Commons, so that it will not need to listen to, or respect, large sections of the community, government is not sufficiently protected from the tendency to abuse power and to be the instrument of sectional privilege. The terms under which our governments are given power need to be more forgiving of the arrogance, the complacency, the insensitivity, which so easily beset human beings in power.

Thirdly, one great contribution the church may make to politics is that it keeps the world and the hope of forgiveness alive in a political world where it often seems like a foreign body. The idea of forgiveness lives even in politics, partly because the churches send out people with a living experience of being forgiven and of forgiving. Of course, sadly, not all Christians are like this but the many who are, are important. David Bleakley, the Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, has recently written about the way in which there has come, out of the whole people of God, a great army of believers who cooperate at every level and lead reconciling community organisations, often at great personal sacrifice. He calls these people ‘future tense’ Christians because they are determined not to be shaped by the past but to reach forward for God’s future. They have ensured, he says, that though Northern Ireland has been tested to breaking point, its society has not been shattered: ‘on the contrary, community goodwill is a persistent fact of life. . . . and Irish Christians, Protestant and Catholic together, are crossing and recrossing these bridges every day’. 

I believe it follows from this that churches, like schools, should be concerned about the kinds of political education they offer. People may be nurtured in churches to be friendly and forgiving as persons, but do we not need more encouragement and help to understand the society we live in, so that we can work forgivingly in and through its institutions, processes and culture? And since the newspapers and the television are the most influential political educators to which we are all exposed, ought we not in the churches to ask, more seriously than ever, how our minds and spirits are formed by them from day to day? Do the media interpretations of politics encourage us to participate forgivingly? Or is our superficial religious aversion from politics sometimes confirmed by superficial irreligious treatments of it in parts of the media?

Politics is not holy enough for us Christians or entertaining enough for some of the media; to combine these two objections just to get a bigger stick to beat politics with is to make an unhealthy moral hybrid. By contrast, sound political education would help us to understand how the wisdom of forgiveness is needed in our political life. Unless we have a deeply grounded vision which looks upon politics forgivingly, we shall not be able to live with it and to work for it to be continually re-opened towards the gracious promises of God, who by His forgiveness, denies sin the victory and will bring His whole creation into liberty.

A talk given at the Baptist Assembly, at Bradford, in April 1987, revised.

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