Who is my Neighbour?
Jonathan Trigg prepares for the coming General Election
Who is my Neighbour?
isn’t the snappiest of publications. It’s the 52-page letter from the House of Bishops looking at how Christians should approach this year’s general election. Certainly it couldn’t have been declaimed in every parish church on a Sunday morning in the way that the Roman Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter was on 1st March. But you will find much food for thought in it, and I commend it to you. Read it here.
Underlying the argument is the idea that just as Christianity is an incarnational faith, in that we worship the God who took flesh and entered our life; so Christians should not withdraw from the world, but be engaged in it and work for justice and good. From that comes the simple duty of Christians to vote (although this is not stated explicitly), as well as the clear principle that we must not let the way we vote be guided by pure self-interest or group- interest.
However I’m going to risk suggesting that there may be a difficulty. The bishops assert that their purpose is:
…to help church members and others consider the question: how can we negotiate these dangerous times to build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties?
Their answer to this question is to look back to the Labour government of 1945 and the Conservative government of 1979 as administrations of real stature and vision, which changed the climate of their times. In their very different ways both left a significant positive legacy for the country, but in so doing bequeathed us an uneasy balance between the free market and the responsibility of the state.
The implication seems to be that we should regret the dull apathy of current politics where a growing number cannot be bothered to vote, partly because they know that elections are decided in a handful of marginal seats, partly because they don’t think the politicians can or will do anything significant to create a society that is truly worthwhile. I am a little sceptical about the possibility of a vision for society which all can embrace. European history is filled with examples of large groups of people uniting around a common vision and voting to back it. Sometimes what transpires, far from being encouraging, can be very frightening, when a government elected on a powerful tide is tempted to assume totalitarian powers.
Paradoxically, a degree of apathy might just be a sign of relative health.
Nor am I sure that hoping for one party or another to come up with something near to the full prospectus on all the issues will do much good. If we think of democracy as a way of enacting the people’s will for the good of everyone on all the major issues of the day, it is tantamount to asserting that we must conduct referenda on every major issue. Perhaps it is useful to see democracy more modestly as the precious, hard- won right to remove a government which hasn’t earned the nation’s trust, and to replace it with another whose proposals, taken as a whole, come nearer to alignment with more of the desires and hopes of the people.
What may be missing from the letter is a sharper reflection on the human condition. Yes, we are required to work for the Kingdom, we should aim for a society in which communities are nurtured and in which individuals can flourish, but we have to do this in a mixed and often dangerous world where hopes conflict and many people will continue to put themselves first. Thus more than a touch of healthy scepticism is justified, and we have to trim our expectations accordingly.
We have only one vote. We must use this to decide whether the economy, education, health, the preservation or the break- up of the UK, the EU, immigration, protection of the environment, climate change or some other issue deserves to be the controlling factor. Or whether we can find a party whose policies most closely match our hopes and principles on several of these. Or—and I don’t think this is necessarily wrong—we may decide that keeping one party (whose policies we believe to be potentially harmful) out overrides everything else, and decide to vote tactically. Christians will find themselves on both sides of all the issues I have mentioned.
Yet amid all these complex decisions, two things are clear. First, the command of the Lord to love the neighbour is the call to abandon self-centredness in all the decisions we make, including the way we vote. It is the call to enlarge our sympathies. Second, we are told to pray for those in authority. These are indeed dangerous and confusing times, as the Bishops have said. All the more reason for asking God's blessing and his guidance for this country as we elect a new House of Commons.