‘Never discuss religion or politics with those who hold opinions opposite to yours; they are subjects that heat in handling, until they burn your fingers,’ wrote Thomas Haliburton in 1840.
Discussing politics is all the more incendiary today, because so much of that debate now takes place online, where the rules of etiquette have yet to be established. Arguments are often shallow and strident, opposing views are dismissed outright, and those who hold them are mocked, ridiculed and insulted. Unfortunately these attitudes easily spill over into the face-to-face world, and we’re losing our capacity for civil discourse in the public square. Civility relies on the ability to listen as well as speak, to consider opposing views on their own merits, to cultivate empathy for people on the other side of an argument, and to look intentionally for common ground and shared concerns.
These qualities are crucial for democracy to keep working, and are nourished by a biblical perspective of what it is to be human. That’s one reason why we believe that religion and politics should sit naturally together, and our research and training initiatives help people apply the Christian faith thoughtfully to their attitudes and discussions about contemporary issues.
The parable of the Good Samaritan
This parable (Luke 10:25-37) provides us with a wonderful example of how faith and politics can connect. Jesus told this story to illustrate how the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself should be worked out in practice.
When a legal expert asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’, Jesus’ answer showed the man was asking the wrong question. Instead of offering criteria for deciding who is worthy of charitable help, Jesus says what counts is an inner attitude of neighbourliness – of seeing others as fellow human beings whatever their circumstances, and acting compassionately towards them. This is echoed in the description of ‘true religion’ in James 1:27.
In what ways is this political?
Firstly, the person commended by Jesus as a true neighbour wasn’t the respectable priest or the teacher of the law; the unexpected hero, who crossed religious and cultural divides to do what pleased God, was an immigrant and an outsider!
Secondly, the story took place in a public context: the characters used the same infrastructure (a public road), they would have been concerned about the same threat (of being mugged), and the Samaritan used a local service provider (an inn) to help him take care of the injured man. The exemplary act of individual compassion was set in a public space with shared social goods, which community or political leaders had the responsibility to maintain.
Inspiring respect and civility
Jesus challenged the assumptions and attitudes of his listeners; in the post-Brexit world, how can this story inspire us with more respect and civility towards the ‘other’ – people of profoundly different views?
Let us start building relationships by focusing on the human experiences that are common to all of us, like being a parent, coping with a disability, or bereavement. It’s all too easy to reduce other people to their ideology or political affiliation, calling out, ‘Right-wing bigots’ or ‘Illiberal lefties!’ But people are always bigger than their caricatures. Jesus’ subtle twist in his answer opened the imaginations of his hearers to see the humanity they shared with the Good Samaritan. We also must exercise our imaginations to see the common humanity of those that some (in politics, the media, or simply the crowd) deem as less-than-human. From a commitment to shared humanity, we can begin to talk to each other across divides – even, eventually, about politics and religion!
Secondly, we can build relationships around a shared cultural narrative. I remember how the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics told the cultural story of the United Kingdom so richly. As it introduced Brunel and The Beatles, the national anthem and the NHS, I found myself deeply moved by
this wonderful narrative of my country – one which surely inspires Christians and non-Christians, Brexiteers and Remainers. It showed how much more there is that unites us in Britain than divides; so let’s talk about it!
As we head towards October 31st, and political events heat up more and more, let’s resist being caught up in polarising narratives and instead adopt the Samaritan strategy: see others through God’s eyes and build relationships of compassion, friendship and support as we love our neighbour, the Jesus way.
Image: 'The Good Samaritan' Vincent Van Gogh (1890)