Religion and politics make one

Religion and politics make one

Susan Smith

22 October 2012

 

In John 17:11 the Johannine Jesus prays that his eleven disciples “may be one as we are one”.  
 
Even though Jesus was with the eleven only, this reading has been used by ecumenists, Christian social activists and those who recognised the importance of constructive inter-faith dialogue to advance greater understanding and shared outreach among believers. That's good as Heb 4:12 assures us that “the word of God is living and active”. 
 
However, the contemporary reader need not be bound by the insights that historical-critical methodologies offer but can complement them by literary-critical and rhetorical-critical interpretations of a particular text.
 
I was reminded of the Johannine text a few days after viewing snippets of the Jo Biden and Paul Ryan vice-presidential debate, and then reading subsequent poll ratings. The Economist indicates that it was a draw.
 
What I find particularly fascinating about these two men is that both are Catholics, apparently still committed Catholics, but committed to quite different positions.
 
Republican candidate Paul Ryan voted against President Obama's Health Care Reform Act, he supports Private School vouchers, and he voted for the former President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.
 
On the other hand, different advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association appreciate the pro-teacher voting record of Jo Biden, the Democratic Party Vice-President.  
 
Biden opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and supports governmental funding to find new energy sources. He believes action must be taken on global warming, and wants his country to be part of the United Nations climate negotiations.
 
Such significant ideological positions are paralleled in our own government as several government ministers including senior ministers Bill English and Gerry Brownlee are Catholic, and we are aware of their positions on the different economic and social issues that confront us. Their Labour Party counterparts hold quite different positions.
 
Wikipedia reports that English is “an active Roman Catholic, but considers his religious beliefs personal and separate from politics”. Perhaps Paul Ryan has a similar position. On the other hand, Biden appears to have embraced the Catholic teaching that “work for social justice is a constituent element of preaching the Gospel”.
 
What is more obvious today is that theological differences seem more significant than denominational differences. Those who believe that our churches are mandated to be concerned about social injustices or about an option for the poor find it difficult to identify with those who argue that religious belief is a personal matter only and separate from politics.
 
Such contrasting positions exist, often in uneasy tension, in our numerically large, heterogeneous Christian churches.
 
If we are to be one as Jesus and the Father are one then it seems to me that that is our primary responsibility–to arrive at a common understanding in respect of the major social issues we face today in Aotearoa New Zealand.
 
Perhaps our starting point in our shared reflection could be the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”!   Matthew's Jesus brings together the social and the personal in a wonderful way.