Apathetics anonymous

Nick Spencer, April 2003

The blunt truth is that people increasingly see politics and Parliament as remote from their lives.”  

William Hague’s words to a packed House of Commons shortly after his 2001 General Election were not those of an embittered loser. Tony Blair had been re-elected Prime Minister with the lowest share of the eligible electorate for more than a century. Labour received fewer votes than any winning party since universal suffrage was introduced in 1928 and fewer than Neil Kinnock had received in the process of losing the 1992 general election.

The 2001 General Election was simply one of the many signs that the British are political disengaged. Around 34 % the eligible electorate voted in recent local elections, approximately the same as did in 2002. The UK has, on average, the lowest turnout rate for elections to the European Parliament. Political activism is highly unfashionable and party membership is at an all-time low. Politicians are widely thought of as corrupt and mendacious and political television as dull and irrelevant.

Yet, at the same time, the last 12 months have witnessed two of the largest mass protests in British political history and recent years have seen single issues such as anti-capitalism, sustainable development and fox hunting claim the front pages. What is going on here?

The roots for our current political disengagement are complex. A massive majority and weak opposition contributed powerfully to the low turnout in 2001. The political landscape has morphed over the last decade so that many voters find it difficult to understand the real differences between the main parties. The charge of sleaze badly stained politics in the 1990s and has merely been replaced by that of spin. An overly centralised political system has left the electorate feeling distant and powerless. Our soundbite culture, a ratings-obsessed media and our almost unquenchable thirst for entertainment has helped turned politics into something of a soap opera.

Each of these factors has help disengage the public from politics. However, underlying all of them is a major shift in our view of the world. A post-modern society like ours is wary of meta-narratives, all-encompassing stories which explain our identity, purpose and destiny in life. People today are reluctant to sign up to any organisation or institution which offers a comprehensive agenda based on a ‘big picture’ approach.

Instead we prefer to choose causes and campaigns which fit with our own personal agenda. Our allegiances are modelled in our own image and we create for ourselves a political smorgasbord of interests which fits our lives and lifestyles. The result is a kind of consumer politics, in which people choose particular causes according to their own interests and self-image, rather than adopt the programme of any official organisation. Our current political parties, founded over a century ago and based on modernist approaches which offer a complete explanation for and solution to the nation’s ills, inevitably fail to offer the desired choice and flexibility. If people can choose any one of 6,800 coffee combinations when they visit Starbucks every day, they are unlikely to be satisfied with ‘A or B or C’ in General Elections twice a decade!

Biblical politics

Looking at the Biblical idea and practice of politics for guidance in this area demands much care and humility. Examples of how anachronistic Biblical models for governance have been hijacked for people’s pre-existing agendas throughout history are legion. We need to recognise that political apathy is a wholly modern problem, that the Old Testament is, in Oliver O’Donovan’s words, ‘a disclosure that took form in a succession of political developments, each one of which has to be weighed and interpreted in the light of what preceded and followed it,’ and that there will always be a number of arguable interpretations which deserve consideration and respect. All in all, a careful process of de- and re-contextualisation is needed.

Having recognised this, it seems that scripture offers guidelines in three particular areas: structure, safeguards and values.

The Israel outlined the Torah had a multi-layered but non-hierarchical political system, in which particular authorities dealt with the issues most appropriate to them but where the emphasis was always on the responsibilities of the individual, family and locality rather than on kings and councillors. Six distinct ‘authorities’ are identifiable – individual, family, clan, Levites, tribe, and kingdom. Between them they formed a network of concurrent powers each instituted by God and protected, limited and empowered by the national constitution, and each fostering a particular means for individuals to engage in the ‘politics’ of the state.

The political reality of the nation turned out to be rather different and that was why safeguards were as important as the structure itself. The foremost of these was the Rule of Law, outlined in Deuteronomy 6 where God makes it clear that the law was not just for the lawyers but for everyone.  ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’

Everyone included the king and in Deuteronomy 17 the Israelites are told that any king they might elect over them must be answerable to the Law just as they are. ‘When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law… he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers.

In much the same way there was a limitation on the king’s power and wealth, the Torah stating that he ‘must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself… must not take many wives… [and] must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.’ Given the regional cultural in which kings were considered to be divine and to have divine rights these restrictions were astonishing.

Beyond structure and safeguards, were the distinct values which underpinned the understanding and exercise of power. Power belonged ultimately to God: all human authority was answerable to him and should accordingly remain accountable, humble and cautious. The political rights of a decentralised system like Israel’s came with strict responsibilities and it was the people as a whole, rather than just its political leaders, which were held to account for the sins of the nation.

And true, Godly power, as revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ, was not found in the right to control and manipulate, but to serve and love. ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them,’ Jesus tells his disciples. ‘Not so with you.’

Renewing the covenant

Each of these factors can be used to guide our thinking about political engagement today but perhaps the most relevant one is the Biblical idea of covenant. The Mosaic covenant which underpinned the political structure as laid out in the Torah instructed the Israelites ‘to walk in [God’s] ways and to keep his commands and decrees and laws,’ so that they might ‘live and increase’ and be blessed. The promise was not unconditional, however, and failure to follow the law would result in them not living long in the land. They may have been commanded to ‘choose life’ but ultimately the choice remained theirs.

In this way the exercise of political authority was part of the greater whole of a conditional, covenantal relationship between God and his people, and bound up with the concept of mutual obligation. Such a covenantal agreement would, of course, be far more problematic in a pluralistic society such as 21 st century Britain and yet it would provide an important antidote the consumerisation of politics which divides the world into providers (politicians and public sectors workers) and consumers (taxpayers).

Politics and the church

There is also something for the church to learn in all this. Confidence in government and politics has fallen over the last twenty years, just as it has for every institution, not least the church. In the same way as our post-modern, consumer culture has seen people move from mainstream political engagement to single-issue politics, ‘religion’ has fast been replaced by ‘spirituality’, a much vaguer, more individualised concept. Man is by nature a spiritual animal, just as Aristotle said he was a political one, but the manner in which he is spiritual – and political – is different today than it was even 30 years ago.

Those Christians interested in political engagement have a task to use our single-issue commitment to re-energise mainstream politics whilst not losing sight of the importance of acting counter-culturally, and using the covenant principle (amongst others) to shape our 21st century politics. And in much the same way, the Church has a role in connecting with the spirituality of the modern West and using it to lead people back to the source of all authority and love.

Nick Spencer’s booklet ‘Apolitical Animal?: A Biblical Perspective on Engaging with Politics in Britain today’ is available from the booklets section of our website.

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Category: News and Reviews

April, 2003

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