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Christianity And Political Participation

Christianity And Political Participation

Christianity has traditionally been viewed as an “other-worldly” religion, one more concerned with the hereafter than with the here-and-now. In the New Testament, Christ, in his trial before Pilate, is quoted as saying “My kingdom is not of this world”. And in many of the parables and apostolic teachings, emphasis is laid on spiritual rather than material treasures. It would therefore seem that Christianity sets its sights on the afterlife, treating life in this world as transient and full of trials and tribulations.

However, there are other passages in the New Testament in which Christians are exhorted to defer to duly constituted authority which has its ultimate sanction in God Himself. Christ’s famous dictum “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is often cited in this regard. A balanced view of Christian tradition will reveal that it takes this world seriously, no less than the world to come. If, indeed, the present life is a preparation for eternal life, it follows that it cannot be taken lightly and casually. It has to be lived fully and conscientiously. It means that individually and collectively, life must be lived according to sound moral and spiritual principles. For the Christian, therefore, social and political organization must reflect the values of the Gospel.

In the Biblical world-view, as reflected in the book of Genesis, Man is created in God’s own image and likeness and has been entrusted with the stewardship of creation. He must love God with all his heart and soul and strength and his fellow humans as himself. He must render an account of his life to his Creator. This is serious business and therefore Christianity expects social and political institutions and arrangements to facilitate this mission in every way. Christianity does not advocate any particular political system or give a blueprint for a specific form of social organization. It only lays down certain broad principles which it believes to be fundamental to any civilized society. The details are to be worked out in each social context according to the circumstances of time and place, using pragmatism and creativity no less than idealism.

The premise that man is created in the image of the divine is the basis of his inalienable dignity. His fundamental rights are rooted in his very nature as a human being, capable of rationality, self-determination and solidarity with his co-humans. The United Nations Charter, like many political constitutions, acknowledges this basic tenet, albeit in a secular, non-denominational manner. It is another matter that there is often a yawning gap between precept and practice. Many variants of the modern political ideologies of  liberalism and socialism trace their origins, directly or indirectly, to the biblical concept of  man being created in God’s image and likeness. The political slogan of “ Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” is an off-shoot of that world-view.

From high-sounding philosophy to the nitty-gritty of day-to-day political life is a far cry. But we cannot afford to be skeptical as the stakes are too high for adopting a merely Machiavellian approach to participation in politics. For a Christian, the logic of participation in political life is simple. He could reason as follows: God has created me as a unique individual, but not placed me in a vacuum. He has placed me in a society which is itself constituted by many other unique individuals like myself. So, we all belong together and need one another so as to grow to our full potential. Hence society needs a harmonious structure and a pattern of authority that promotes the common good even while upholding the dignity and rights of each individual. Politics is nothing but the exercise of that authority and is therefore essential and inherent to the nature of society. Now, how that authority is to be institutionalized and actualized is for each society to determine, taking into consideration its historical setting, peculiar circumstances and legitimate aspirations.

  Given the pluralism that exists in nature as a whole, it is not surprising that mankind is categorized into a plethora of races, nations and sovereign states. This by itself should not be a cause of dismay. Indeed it should be an occasion for celebrating the many-splendored variety of the human family. The problem arises when conflicts break out within and among states, and human rights suffer as a result. Indeed the whole thrust of governance should be the promotion of the security and integral well-being of the entire human community inhabiting planet earth. Thus Christianity frowns upon war and violence as an instrument of policy as this violates basic human dignity.  

As for the structure of government, Christianity is silent over what its form should be. Should there be a parliamentary or presidential or monarchical form of government? Should the legislature be unicameral or bicameral? Should the polity be unitary or federal? How should the police, the defence forces and the civil services be organized? Should the executive be merged with the legislature or be separate from it? How is judicial independence to be safeguarded? These and similar questions can be debated ad infinitum and various formulations arrived at to suit the peculiarities of social evolution. Christianity is only concerned with the net result of political action which should be the enhancement of the dignity of God’s children. It is also insistent that the means, no less than the ends of social policy should be consistent with human dignity. Thus, legislative enactments, executive actions and judicial decisions should conspire to promote that same objective.

In the present-day political scenario, where various political parties vie for popular support and compete for the exercise of power, Christianity shows no preference and endorses no one in particular. But it is emphatic that whichever party or formation comes to power, it should do nothing to violate human dignity and welfare. As Christ said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”. Christians are therefore exhorted to exercise their franchise and choose their leaders judiciously. While the clergy are expected to keep away from the direct exercise of political authority as it may lead to a conflict of interest with their pastoral function, the laity are encouraged to enter politics if they are so inclined and use it for the service of the people rather than for self-aggrandisement. By so doing, they will be the “salt of the earth” and the “leaven in the dough”.

Christians in India today face a piquant situation with the rise of Hindu majority fundamentalism which seeks to subjugate the minorities and establish an openly Hindu Raj. The Hindutva parties and formations are pushing an agenda that does not jell with the secular ethos of the Indian Constitution and is out of sync with the motto of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Christians find it hard to support such parties as their track record is not reassuring and their aggressive posturing offensive and intimidating. They will be constrained to support other more tolerant and inclusive parties and vote with them against the saffron brigade. They will have to shed their inhibitions about political participation as aloofness and passivity is not an option. If the fanaticism of the Hindutvavadis is not checked, sections of the minority communities, including the Christians, may be tempted to turn to agitational ways, and even militancy. That will be unfortunate but inevitable if the powers-that-be “fiddle while India burns”. What happened to the Muslims in Gujarat and the Christians in Orissa bodes ill for the future of the country.

Indian Christians should join hands with right-thinking sections of Indian society across the denominational divide and the political spectrum to combat Hindutva terrorism before it is too late. The saffron outfits that indulge in violence should be declared terrorist outfits and subjected to international sanctions and the full weight of the law. Christians should not hesitate to lobby with the international community for such action. It is not only the religious minorities but various subaltern groups such as tribals and scheduled castes who are at the receiving end of Hindutva bullying tactics. In fact it is a numerical minority that is organizing itself to overwhelm a scattered majority of the Indian community. The sooner the latter realize this fact and get their act together, the better for Indian nationhood.

The Indian nation-state faces a huge developmental backlog which calls for adept political management. Unfortunately what we see is political posturing and gimmickry. Vote-banking and one-upmanship are rampant, while we boast of being the world’s largest democracy. Our democracy may soon be reduced to a mere electoral circus every five years with little improvement in the quality of life of the “aam aadmi”. Political mismanagement has encouraged fundamentalism, corruption, violence and terrorism. A mere law-and-order approach to these evils will not do. Governance should be transparent, inclusive, responsive and effective; that is the challenge of politics. Our human and natural resources need to be nurtured judiciously. If Christians choose to enter political life in a big way, their task is cut out for them and they should rise to the occasion in solidarity with their fellow citizens of all faiths.

(Published on 13th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 16)