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Christianity, Politics and Courtesy

What a strange few days since the death of Margaret Thatcher.  Much of the debate seems to have veered between hatred and hagiography[1] with a limited amount of comment in between.  This weekend the BBC will have an awkward decision over whether to play Ding dong the witch is dead which has reached no. 1 in the music charts.

Personally, although appalled by the glee with which some people have greeted her death, I feel a little left out by the polarised reaction.  I both admire many of her achievements and feel uncomfortable with some others.  I am also fully aware that there are members of Christ Church within all of the three major parties; there is no party line here!

So, let me make a simple point: the Bible is not a right wing book; nor is it a left wing book.

In her famous speech to the Church of Scotland in 1988 Mrs Thatcher sketched her thoughts on the interface of Christianity and public policy.  She suggested that the Bible does not tell us “exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have.” As she explained, “On this point, Christians will very often genuinely disagree; though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect. What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.”[2]

Having spent a good deal of time in the book of Proverbs recently, it is obvious that the Bible is intolerant of laziness and would indeed promote individual responsibility.  Look at these “right wing” proverbs:

10:4    Lazy hands make a man poor but diligent hands bring wealth.

28:19  He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.

 

So, is that a clear endorsement of traditional “right wing” values?  Yes, individuals need to work hard to provide for themselves.  However, alongside that the book of Proverbs will also declare in “left wing” terms:

13:23 A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.

14:20 The poor are shunned even by the neighbours, but the rich have many friends.

The writer here is declaring that sometimes you can work hard and yet receive no reward.  To modernize, there may be a few big supermarkets that can drive your prices down so low that you cannot make a profit.  So, while the individual must work hard; sometimes there are structural problems within an economy which need addressing.  Maybe the government of the day needs to regulate.

Proverbs 14:20 makes the simple observation that if you are wealthy then even when you fall on hard times your friends can help you.  I like Iain Duncan Smith and know that he has invested much of the last decade exploring fairer ways of distributing welfare.  However, the reality is that it is easier for him to live off £53.00 per week than for many because he has wealthy in-laws who insulated him from poverty when he was forced onto the dole in the 1980s.

How we treat the vulnerable in society is a genuine mark of our humanity and indeed our attitude to God:

14:31: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God”.

Poverty should not exist within the church: members should care for one another.  Yet, within wider society, the question of how to treat the needy with civilised generosity without weakening work incentives is a difficult one.  The Bible would insist that there is no simple right wrong solution or left wing solution.  While there is sin in this world, there will always be poverty –either self-inflicted; a function of a disaster or poverty imposed by others.

So, this side of heaven, let’s be humble; be wary of simple caricatures of left wing or right wing solutions and be courteous to those who disagree with us.


[1] Idealising someone to the point of sainthood.

[2] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107246