Alfred Barry, Sermons Preached at Westminster Abbey, London: Cassell and Co., 1884.
Christianity and Politics.
Christianity and Politics.*
"As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. . Fear God. Honour the king."—1 Pet. ii. 16, 17.
I desire to continue to-day the consideration of the direct effects of Christian faith on the course of our own daily life, and so on the well-being of human society. Now, for that progress of humanity which we call civilisation, it is assuredly necessary, first, that each man should have full scope of freedom for the play of energy in his own individual work and culture; next, that all individuals should have their place of duty and power in guiding the common life of the whole nation; and lastly, that all nations should feel themselves bound together in one human brotherhood by a common law, a mutual duty, an unrestricted sympathy. Our inquiry as to the bearing of our Christianity on our practical life has already touched on its relation to the first of these elements of life. I have sought to trace its beneficent power over what we call "business;" that is, on the private individual work by which most of us have to live, and by which all maintain their right places and functions in human society. Here I have
* Preached on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, Oct. 9th, 1881.
tried to set before you its power to purify business by truth and honesty; to inspire it with new energy and instinct of perfection; to calm this vivid energy by contentment; and to subordinate it rigidly to the cultivation of the higher humanity in thought, morality, devotion to God. To-day I would speak of Christianity as it bears upon our social and political life, and try to test the power of the Gospel on the social element of human life. How far does it teach us to bear our part rightly in the common life of the nation? How does it teach us to guide that common national life, so as to serve the interests of all humanity, and thus to redound to the glory of God?
Suffer me here to remind you that, while these questions concern all Christians deeply, they ought to come home with some especial force to us Englishmen. For we belong to a country where, for generations and even centuries, every man has had his recognised freedom, power, and duty, in political life, to an extent which perhaps has hardly been the lot of any other people. This country, moreover, is one which, by the unexampled spread of its commerce and its language, its institutions and its political power, has certainly been called, in a very special degree, to be a fellow-worker with God for the good of all mankind. In our own political freedom and self-government, and in this world-wide influence of our country, we take a not ignoble pride. But to a Christian that natural pride ought to be merged in a deep sense at once of thankfulness and of responsibility. "What shall we render to the Lord for all the benefits that He hath done unto us?"
The very question sends us back with increased earnestness to the consideration, what has Christianity
to do with political and social life? What is its message to those, who earnestly desire to do their duty to a great country, and their still higher duty to all mankind?
I. There are those who are strangely disinclined to recognise any connection whatever between the two. Just as some men try to separate Christianity and business, the Sunday worship and the week-day work, so others would altogether banish religion from social and political life. Sometimes in fear of its transcendent power over the mind, and dislike of the morbid and fanatic forms which that power has often assumed; sometimes in the idea that it accords solely with the higher spheres of being, and cannot be transplanted to other soil; sometimes in a mistaken jealousy for its sacredness, lest it should be contaminated by the wear and soil of ordinary life. To some extent, perhaps, the course of modern thought and practice has tended in this direction. The days of political sermons are over—on the whole, happily over. The pulpit has surrendered to other agencies some functions of teaching which it formerly exercised. We ministers of religion, with a view to our higher duties, often find it necessary or advisable to restrict our freedom of political action and influence. But can it be (as some think) that the life of Christian faith, in its ideas and its aspirations, can bear to be dissociated from the social and political life, which occupies so large a part of our experience? Is it not startling that, with some noble exceptions, the organs of opinion on this political and social life deal with all other motives, and omit altogether—:what, nevertheless, those who speak would never themselves ignore—that religious motive, which, if it be true at all, ought to have an universal scope of power? If these things are well, then perhaps
men ought to follow out these ideas to their logical conclusion, as the old ascetics did, by altogether retiring from the world and its interests. But, whatever is right, it is surely wrong and futile to attempt the impossible task of altogether separating our religious and political life; as if we were different men at the polling-booth and on the platform, in the political association or the House of Parliament, from what we are in private and family devotion and in the Church of God.
Now, in this opinion, as in most widespread opinions, there is a curious and perplexing mixture of truth and falsehood. It is perfectly true that all political and social life, even at its best, belongs to this world, which must pass away. Hence, on the one hand, it cannot touch that sacred individuality of the soul, in its personal relation to God in Jesus Christ, which is the essence of all true religion, and the source of the spiritual or eternal life, which can never die. Nor, again, on the other hand, can it either make or break the Communion of Saints—that spiritual brotherhood in the Church of Christ, through common unity with Him, knowing no distinction of nations and languages, incapable of being limited by space and time, or destroyed by the hand of death. It is true, therefore, that in all this the Christian breathes a higher air, and is in his absolute loyalty the citizen of a better country than this world can give. Just as he cannot be a mere man of business, so he cannot be a mere politician, a mere student of social science, a mere philanthropist. He must be something more. When higher duties and interests intervene, he must unquestionably sacrifice the lower, and refuse to give to Caesar the things which belong to God. But it is surely the grossest, if the commonest, of fallacies to
suppose that what cannot have the first place in our hearts is to have no place at all. How often we forget the pregnant words of our Lord Himself, "These things ought ye to have done and not to leave the others undone!" The kingdoms of the political world are to be made, so far as we can help to make them, "the kingdoms of God and of His Christ." As the body and soul act and react upon each other, so it is with the political and social conditions of life on the one hand, and the religious life of the spirit on the other. True that we are "pilgrims and sojourners on the earth;" yet the condition of the land of our pilgrimage concerns us as we pass through it, and tells upon the safety and the happiness of the passage itself. There are (as we frankly confess) times, offices, and persons such, that in them the higher religious enthusiasm may claim rightly so absolute a predominance, as to leave no room for aught else. But, as a rule, it is bad for an individual, if he cares nothing for political and social interests; it is bad for a community if any classes in it, especially those of higher tone and profession, hold aloof from all political action; it is bad for religion, if it cut itself off altogether from any part of the common life of those whom it would lead to higher and better life here and hereafter.
I believe, therefore, that Christianity has very much to do with the great principles of political and social questions; and I venture to contend that the Gospel, as in the celebrated words of the text, lays down great laws, and writes them by grace on the heart, which ought to rule our common national life, even in its dullest routine, even in its wildest excitement.
You will not, indeed, as a rule, find its teaching
expressly and formally directed to national life at all. For the stock examples of patriotism and love of freedom we still quote the worthies of ancient Greece and Home. For the Scriptural examples of deep love of country and loyalty to its head, we still turn to the pages of the Old Testament, as in the cry, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning," "O pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee." But this results partly from the circumstances under which the New Testament was written, partly from the great ideas which it had to enunciate. If we look to circumstances, we observe that, when the Gospel was first preached, it was addressed to those who, under the universal despotism of Home, had lost all opportunity of free national life. If we look to what is of infinitely more consequence—the essential spirit and glory of the Gospel—we see that it has to deal with universal and eternal principles, identified with no forms of social and political life, able to rule and inspire all, jet bound up essentially with none. But yet, under the sway of these principles, the nation has become what in the first days it was not— the unit of human society. The national life in every Christian country has developed itself with a singular intensity of power; and the fire of patriotism and loyalty has burnt all the more brightly, because the Gospel has broken down the barriers which seemed to guard, but tended to choke it, and has let in upon it the free air of heaven. The power of the Gospel has always been directed to give life to great universal principles, leaving them to work for themselves in all their natural spheres of action, whether the family, the nation, or the race.
II. Is this not so in the case before us? I suppose we all allow that the three great requisites for political life are the love of freedom, the spirit of loyalty, and the enthusiasm of brotherhood, or patriotism. See with what singular simplicity and vividness these are brought out to us in the words of the text!
The spirit of freedom—"as free, and not using liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God." Note here the true spirit of freedom in the assertion of our own rights and liberty of action, not for "maliciousness"—not (that is) for our own selfish purposes, or even for the wantonness of reckless exercise; but "for the service of God," that is, for the glorious privilege of fellow-working with Him, and in that fellowship of following the Lord Jesus Christ, by devotion to the happiness and goodness of His creatures. What could better describe the social and political aspect of freedom, as it is concerned not with our own individual work in life, but with the part which we are called upon to take in the great life of our nation? It is, indeed, thus only that it can be preserved; thus only can it be a blessing to the world. If once an individual, a class, a nation, which has been made free, either in an indolent or cowardly tameness cares not to assert its freedom, or, in a spirit of maliciousness, asserts it simply as a means of wealth and ease, of glory and power, then has it fallen from its birthright of glorious liberty; and history confirms the sentence of Holy Scripture, that it shall be, as it deserves to be, "a servant of servants," a slave of slaves.
The spirit of loyalty— "Fear God, and honour the king." The two principles seldom are, never ought to be, separate. If the king is honoured, being himself a
mere man, it must be because God is feared; because (in the grand words of the Old Testament) the king is "the Lord's anointed" or (as the New Testament more philosophically extends the idea) "the powers that be are ordained (as vicegerents) of God." Never, of course, can they be absolute vicegerents. There is to us but one Supreme King, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. All other authorities, whether in Church or State, are simply His imperfect representatives. But yet they are true vicegerents. They act under limitations, which they may not pass, under laws which are based on right, and not on arbitrary will; so fulfilling the purpose of God's Providence; so bearing a large share of the burden of humanity. Therefore, they claim at our hands, for His sake, true loyalty; which implies (be it remembered) not only obedience but reverence, not only duty but love. It is impossible not to remind ourselves that to us, far more than to those whom St. Peter addressed, that precept should come home. For he wrote to men who were living under a foreign despotism, wielding as its sceptre a ruthless sword. He wrote at a time when that sceptre was swayed by a Nero, with hands soon to be deeply stained, through mere cruelty and slanderous recklessness, with Christian blood. We have a rule over us, which is, in the truest sense, representative of the free life of the people; and that peaceful and righteous rule is at this moment invested, by the unanimous testimony of all, with the sacredness of deep personal reverence. "Well, indeed, is it for us. For never can a country prosper, unless the chief authority be hedged round with reverence. Never will it greatly prosper, if that reverence be untinged by some glow of love.
But beyond freedom and loyalty there is the spirit of
brotherhood. "Honour all men"—give (that is) to all, high and low, the respect, the consideration, the rights which are their due. In these words we trace the spirit of humility and forbearance, deference and respect for others, which limits the self-assertion of the strong individual, or the overwhelming majority. "Love the brotherhood" —in these words breathes the spirit of enthusiastic self-sacrifice for the whole community, which counts self as a little thing, which esteems it a joy and a privilege to live and to die for all.
It is true that, for the reason which I have already given, these commands are not confined to the body politic. The first extends far beyond it, to the whole race of man. The second looks especially to the brotherhood of the Christian Church, of which one essential characteristic is that it is Catholic or Universal, co-extensive in capacity and promise with all humanity. Nor shall we fail to discover that this truth is of great significance, in preventing that absolute absorption, in social and political interests, which degrades our own highest humanity, and that idolatry of patriotism to one single country, which may easily become inhuman to others. But, nevertheless, the principles of this deference and self-sacrifice must apply, in its right measure and degree, to every community of which we are members; and certainly in no doubtful application to the nation, especially if it be a free nation and therefore a true brotherhood. Nay, it seems to me that the spirit of enthusiasm for the whole brotherhood, which in things national we term patriotism, certainly more than loyalty—perhaps even more than freedom—is the characteristic teaching of the Gospel. We cannot call Christianity a religion of equality. For equality is a dangerously ambiguous
word; in one sense it is a sacred and priceless truth; and in another it is an unnatural and impossible figment. But the other two names of the famous triad it certainly may assume. It is unquestionably a religion of liberty and fraternity; yet a liberty restrained and tempered by loyalty; a fraternity recognising one Almighty Father, and so reverencing all who bear mission from Him. There can hardly be nobler elements of the true political life. They can hardly be more plainly taught, more vividly enforced, than in the pages of the New Testament. How, therefore, if we are Christians indeed, can we fail to rekindle at the altar of our Christianity the undying fire of high social and political aspiration?
III. Is it not well to ask ourselves what is our actual experience here? We are all, in some degree, gifted with political power; and in this I include not only what bears this name in a technical and restricted sense, but all opportunities of acting upon the common life; whether in this or that city and neighbourhood, or in the nation at large; whether by legal vote, or by moral influence; whether by helping to make law, or by moulding public opinion. Nothing is clearer than that this power, as it has constantly widened out during the last half-century, will extend more widely still. Nor can I suppose that any one of us, who reads and thinks, can be devoid of political interest, or can pass through these critical times with a stupid or supercilious carelessness.
But we are also Christians, and, as Christians, we are bound to see in all our life, corporate as well as individual, an opportunity of conforming our own souls to the image of Christ, and of stamping the impress of His will and His example on the life of the whole community. What should this Christian faith teach
us in regard to political enthusiasm and political action?
First of all, it ought to give us a freer and more energetic determination to claim our right share in the social and national life. For to us history is no mere phantasmagoria of change; in which one nation rises and another falls, one class advances and another recedes, each individual struts his brief hour on the stage, and then gives place to another short-lived and impotent actor. Those who hold that wretched idea of life may well despise their freedom, and surrender it contentedly to any authority, which will take from them the burden of an aimless and hopeless existence. But no Christian can ever hold this view. To us history is a working out, through human hands, of the great dispensation of God to man, the central fact of which is the manifestation of Jesus Christ. In that working out every truth maintained, every wrong undone, every tear of the oppressed wiped away, every education of an individual soul, every elevation of a class, is a step towards the final consummation of all things in the victory of truth and love. It is a service to God, and a preparation for the sovereignly of Jesus Christ. If we have power to aid in that progress, we have responsibility. By that responsibility we are bound to claim our own freedom, and use its opportunities. By that responsibility we are bound to direct in right channels the great power and influence of our English people. How can any one who realises this stand aloof, while the great drama of political life is unrolling itself, in selfish devotion to his own business, in indolent and cowardly care of his own ease, in philosophic indifference, or in a religious asceticism despairing of the world? No! In any
great political crisis, as surely as in the critical times of the spiritual struggle within, or of the battle of the Church without, he will hear the Lord's words, "He that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth." Hearing, he must and he will obey.
But, in the next place, feeling that in all social and political action there is a service of Christ, he will strive, as in his private business, to keep it honest and truthful, unselfish and pure. The words, I fear, sound almost an irony to those who know what the war of politics too often is. They who look anxiously on the progress of free institutions see with absolute dismay, not merely the occurrence of corruption and bribery, of slander and misrepresentation, of treachery and intrigue, but—what is infinitely worse—the humiliating fact that these things are looked upon as matters of course, even made the recognised subject of sport and ridicule. The very laws which should guard against them are baffled and enfeebled through want of the support of public opinion. The very men who pass them are tempted, almost forced, virtually to break them. Last Sunday I ventured to urge upon you how monstrous falsehood and dishonesty in business must seem to those who believe that in it they serve the Lord. Must we not plead even more earnestly against these same evils, when they are poisoning the very constitution and political freedom of which we are so justly proud? What matters it how common they are, or how often tacitly excused by that insensibility to wrong done to the public, which constantly deadens a conscience sensitive to wrong done to the individual? These things, to
every true man, still more to every true Christian, are deep and deadly sins. "Woe be to the country where they gain supreme dominion! Woe be to those who have influence and power, in Church or State, if they stoop to palter to them, if they bear not a bold and unmistakable witness against them! What can our conscience say of these things when we come to kneel before God? What will He, the great Judge, pronounce upon them when He comes at the Judgment Day?
But once more. Not only should our Christianity give spirit and purity to our political life, but it should also temper it by the sense of a deeper spiritual unity, underlying all political divisions, and a spiritual purpose of life, awakening a sacred enthusiasm, which politics can never stir. Conflicts in political life there must be: the existence of parties, concentrating individual force, is inevitable. But it concerns the welfare of every nation that there should be some power to rush in between the combatants, if ever their combat becomes deadly, and cry out, "Sirs, ye are brethren, why do ye wrong one to another?" Other such powers there are. There is the sense of our common English loyalty and freedom; there is the sense, not only of a common patriotism, but of a common human love of all that is true and pure and good; there is, as we see again and again in the fiercest political struggles, the bond of common sympathy with joy and sorrow, which makes the whole world kin. But these are (I believe) as nothing compared with the sense of a common Christianity; nay, beyond even this, the reverence for the humanity, for which, even when it knows Him not, the One Saviour died. God grant that, in all ages of
the future, as in all ages of the past, the name of Christ may still temper strife, calm and control the stormy political waters, and teach them to be still beneath the feet of Him who walked the waves!
Nor is this all. For Christianity must also intervene in the name of true spiritual individuality to keep a man from such absorption in political drudgery or political excitement as may destroy his true humanity. When once a man realises for himself that he has a present communion with God in Jesus Christ— when he has even a glimpse of what it means to have a part in that infinite future which stretches out beyond the grave, in the unspeakable bliss which we call heaven —then surely he can never degenerate into the mere politician or the believer in the omnipotence of social science; he will never sacrifice the true humanity of himself or his brethren at the altar of party spirit or political success. For he must hear the Divine voice which says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's."
Yet one other effect of Christianity on this political and social life I may surely notice. It must keep men from that idolatry of patriotism, which cares simply and solely for the wealth and the glory and the happiness of England, and forgets that these things, after all, are means and not ends; that they constitute, not a possession but a trust; that, only in proportion as they subserve the true end, which is the good of all humanity and the glory of God, are they deserving of our highest enthusiasm, or, indeed, capable of being commended in prayer to the righteous Providence of God. It is true that, as God has made us Englishmen, we are bound to seek to serve Him chiefly through the service of our dear
country. We acknowledge that those who forget it deserve the sneer which brands them as the friends of every nation but their own. But still it is Christianity which has actually created the sense of a brotherhood of nations, and of a true love of humanity. The days are gone, when, as in old heathen times, the word "foreigner" was the same as "enemy," and when, as under the old Jewish system, any one nation had a right to arrogate to itself the position of the chosen people of God. The true Christian, who by political action has any power to shape the destinies of his country, whether in the peaceful conquests of commerce and higher civilisation, or in the awful crisis of present or impending war, can never propose to himself any less object than that which was before the eyes of his Master —the redemption of all humanity from ignorance and misery and sin, and the regeneration of all nations to be parts of the great kingdom of Jesus Christ.
My brethren, this, and much more than this, does Christianity teach us as to the political life. I leave the teachings to your own earnest thoughts and prayers. God grant that by us all as Christians the lesson may be learnt! So shall our political life rise to higher energies of freedom and responsibility. So shall it be purer from all corruption and slander and deceit—fuller of the sympathy which should underlie all divisions—larger in its aims of beneficence to man and glory to God. May God grant this for the sake of our own souls and for the sake of the country we love; but far more for the sake of that service in which all individuals and all nations meet, the service of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ!
© Southern Cross College, 2004