Sunday 7 June 2015

Government and politics

Address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 7th June 2015, the 1st after Trinity, Year B

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people...religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” So says Linus in the Peanuts comic strip.
Well, I’m on dangerous ground, because today I’m going to talk about all three!

First, do you know about the Great Pumpkin? Every Halloween night Linus sits in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear. Every Halloween the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Every Halloween a humiliated but undefeated Linus stubbornly vows to wait for him again the following Halloween. The Great Pumpkin is a symbol of faith and persistence.

So, on to religion and politics.
The OT reading (1Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15) is about a momentous change of government for the Israelites.

From the time when Joshua led them across the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, right up to Samuel’s day, the Israelites lived in a fragmented, tribal society with no central authority and shifting allegiances. They were loosely held together by their common ancestry as ‘Children of Israel’, and also by a shared sense of covenant with the Israelite God Yahweh. But they prized their independence. They saw no need for a king – surely Yahweh would protect them better than any human king!

But they lived alongside other peoples who did have kings, the original Canaanites and neighbouring peoples – Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines. When disputes arose with their neighbours, the Israelite tribes came together in alliances under charismatic leaders whom the Bible calls Judges. The Judges led them in sporadic wars against their neighbours - we remember some of their names, like Gideon, Deborah and Samson, but others are less familiar.

Samuel is the last in the line of these Judges. Times are changing. The tribal elders have come to recognise that without central leadership the tribes will lose their independence. Samuel is too old to lead, and his sons are wastrels. So they come to Samuel and say, ‘you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations’.

Samuel holds to the old tribal values. He dislikes the very idea of kingship. He consults Yahweh in prayer, but Yahweh’s reply surprises him: ‘Listen to the voice of the people… They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them… only – you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them’.

Samuel understands the nature of the contract between a ruler and his subjects: in exchange for protection from enemies, the people must give up some of their freedom. He tells the people how a king will behave: “he will turn your sons into soldiers, your daughters will become his servants; he will take a tenth of your possessions and give them to his supporters; and you will be like slaves”. That remains the contract between government and people today – though government takes rather more than a tenth of peoples earnings in tax these days.

But the people refuse to listen: ‘No! …we are determined to have a king over us’, they say, ‘so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go before us and fight our battles.’ Despite his reservations Samuel leads the people to make Saul their king. From that time forward until the Babylonian defeat and exile the Israelites are ruled by kings - some good, some not so good, and some down right bad.

The moral of the story is this, I think.
God does not decree any particular form of government for us – he leaves it up to us to decide. That implies that it would be wrong for me – or for anyone else for that matter – to pretend to tell you from this pulpit what political choices you should make.

But we must take our responsibility seriously. As Christians that means trying as best we can, prayerfully, to make political decisions which align with God’s will and promote his kingdom. Such decisions will often not be black and white, but between shades of grey. We may feel uncomfortable about this, but Christians cannot withdraw from the political world – God is in the world of politics as much as he is in everything else.

We are blessed to live in a democracy in which we collectively choose who governs us.
We have just experienced the democratic privilege of voting in two referendums. The referendum on Equal Marriage was passed by a large majority – the other we’ve probably already forgotten! Wisely I think, the Church of Ireland did not call explicitly for either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ vote, leaving individuals to vote according to their conscience. Our Church, including the House of Bishops, is deeply divided on the issue. The people of the Republic have spoken clearly. Now it is time for all the churches - including ours - to adjust to a new reality, as Samuel did when he led the people to crown Saul as king. But I won’t hold my breath for any early change to the Church of Ireland’s doctrine of marriage.

We’ll have another chance to visit the polling stations soon, as the General Election to Dáil Eireann must be held by April 2016, and may come sooner. With the referendums out of the way politicians are once again starting to wind up their campaign machines. Our Christian duty when the election comes is to engage with the issues, reflect prayerfully on what will promote God’s Kingdom and cast our votes accordingly. Only after counting of votes and negotiations will we know for sure who is to govern us. Then we will pray for them in the words of the BCP, ‘O Lord, guide and defend our rulers – and grant our government wisdom’. Amen that they be granted wisdom!

But we may well be faced before long with another critical decision which will determine how we are governed for generations to come. The project for ever-deepening European Union is under stress due to economic and financial pressures and competing nationalisms. The British electorate has been promised an in-out referendum with an uncertain result. Just as the Israelites decided despite Samuel to appoint a king – just as our forbears decided 90 years ago to establish this State separate from the United Kingdom - so in our own time European states including Ireland will need to decide whether to join in a much deeper financial and political union, in effect a United States of Europe, or whether to go our different ways.

Let us pray that the Irish people and our friends in Europe may be guided by the Holy Spirit to make wise decisions.