Apolitical animal? Lessons from a biblical model

Nick Spencer, March 2003

As the anti-war protests on 15 February demonstrated, engagement with single issues is strong. At the same time turnout for local and European elections in the UK stands near or below 30% [Peter Macdiarmid/REUTERS/Popperfoto]

As the anti-war protests on 15 February demonstrated, engagement with single issues is strong. At the same time turnout for local and European elections in the UK stands near or below 30% [Peter Macdiarmid/REUTERS/Popperfoto]

If there is widespread agreement and concern over the level of political disengagement in Mainstream politics in Britain today, there is rather less consensus about how to address the problem.

Its complex and varied causes – a huge government majority, a weak opposition, the decline of political ideologies, the rise of ‘new managerialism’, the enervation of local government, sleaze, spin and consumerism – make an easy panacea highly unlikely. Facing such a deep-rooted and multifaceted problem, single measures, like increasing e- and postal voting, will have only a limited impact.

We need to bear this complexity in mind when we turn to biblical teaching to help us think through the problem. Modern, hypermobile, post-industrial Britain has, by necessity, very different political structures to static, agricultural, pre-modern Israel. A direct transfer from the latter to the former will not afford us a quick solution.


The structure of early Israel

For this reason, we need to examine the Torah, the foundation of political Israel, with great care. The power structure outlined in the Torah is multipolar, encompassing six independent sources of authority, each with its own geographic jurisdiction.[1]

The individual The individual was the bedrock of the state and of the political process. The Torah placed people before structures and the Ten Commandments acted as a foundational constitutional safeguard, their pithiness helping each individual Hebrew remember the obligations they owed their fellow citizens and, in turn, were owed by them.

The family The extended kin group rather than the modern nuclear family, operated as an economic unit and thus had economic rights and obligations. Laws concerning the release of debt, the restoration of the debtor and the ban on interest were intended to preserve the financial self-sufficiency and integrity of the family unit, so that ‘each one… [can] return to his family property and each to his own clan’. (Leviticus 25:10)

The local community The community helped settle disagreements which transcended the family unit and had a de facto local government function as the court of first instance. It was responsible for fetching premeditated murderers from the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:11–12), for atoning for unsolved murders (Deuteronomy 20:1–3) and for enforcing obligations to the family when disputes had exceeded family boundaries (Deuteronomy 21:18–21; 22:13–19).

The Levites Levites had their own unique constitutional arrangements and provided a nationwide religious and welfare bureaucracy, charged with the maintenance and protection of those who fell outside the family group. They also had specific judicial responsibilities such as settling disputes too difficult for ‘lower’ courts (Deuteronomy 17:8–10) and a special ‘ecclesiastical’ court which gave them exclusive jurisdiction over crimes against the Sanctuary and the priesthood (Numbers 18:1).

The tribes or regions These were central to Israel’s identity and responsible for its military organization. Tribal representatives ratified actions of national constitutional importance and tribal officers were appointed on an ad hoc basis to represent the tribe on specific issues (Exodus 34:31; Numbers 1:16; 13:3–15).

Central government Centralised power was very limited before the monarchy. Its primary purpose was to coordinate national defence and to help foster a sense of covenantal unity through the highly important national festivals.

These six areas overlapped and were non-hierarchical. The ‘small’ was not automatically subservient to the ‘large’. For example, marriage took precedence over military service for a year (Deuteronomy 24:5) and the king was subject to the law, as preserved and taught by the Levites (Deuteronomy 17:14–20). In such a way, the Torah outlined a multi-layered political structure with the various authority units operating on a variety of levels. Government, in as far as possible, was not a distant, abstract entity but an immediate and concrete fact of life, based on natural ties of locality, community and family, and intended to give a positive incentive to maintaining productivity, social integration and individual worth.

Sadly, the reality was somewhat different. The monarchy concentrated and frequently abused power, in spite of Samuel’s detailed warning recorded in 1 Samuel 8:11–18. The prophets fought to limit destructive human and political ambitions. In spite of their efforts and several periods of revival and repentance, however, Israel was sent into exile after which point it was never again in a position to order its national political structure with any real autonomy.

Learning from the Jewish model

The Old Testament account of Israel’s failure is an honest and instructive example of how human sin is the ‘sand in the gears’ of any political structure. Nevertheless, our natural fallibility is no reason to ignore the direction in which biblical teaching points us. Broadly speaking, it offers guidelines for the conduct of politics in three areas: structure, safeguards and values.

Structurally, as we have seen, the emphasis was on a multi-layered, non-hierarchical arrangement, 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.

In terms of safeguards, there existed a number of checks and balances, such as the rule of the Law, the decentralisation of power and the role of prophets accountable directly to God rather than to the king, which countered political corruption and protected the rights of individuals.

Perhaps most importantly, both structure and safeguards were underpinned by certain fundamental values – that authority ultimately belonged to God, that the nation as a whole, not just the leaders, were responsible before God and that covenant relationships entailed mutual obligations – and these were intended to shape a just and secure society and thus establish the necessary conditions for meaningful political engagement.

Importantly, these three guidelines are non-temporally specific and as such, useful for 21st-century Britain in the same way as they were for Deuteronomic Israel. There will inevitably be debates about the precise nature of their application but overall they suggest that in order to foster engagement in mainstream politics, political processes need to be increasingly localised, political safeguards strengthened and a political culture that values responsibility encouraged.

At the same time, however, we need to broaden our understanding of what politics actually is. How we travel, spend our money, use public services, and operate at work all have a political impact which may seem marginal but, over a period of years, can profoundly affect our local communities and workplace. Political engagement extends beyond voting to incorporate participation in the PCC, PTA, workplace committees, and even neighbourhood watch schemes.

As we recognise this we will see that rather than being political consumers served by professional political service providers, as seems increasingly the case, we are all participants of the state and that Aristotle was right: man is by nature a political animal.

If you would like a copy of ‘Apolitical Animal?‘ please visit the booklet section of our website.

[1] B.G.B. Logsdon, ‘Multipolarity and Covenant: Towards a Biblical Framework for Constitutional Safeguards’

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2003

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