Thursday, April 10, 2014

David Cameron on Jesus and the Big Society

Tony Blair's Spin Doctor-in-Chief, Alistair Campbell famously batted away a journalist's question concerning the faith of the former Prime Minister by saying, "We don't do God." His curt response was taken by many commentators as a symptom of our secular age, where faith and public life just don't mix. Well, the current Prime Minister has taken it upon himself to mix them up and "do God" in a big way. In a recent speech to Christian leaders in Downing Street David Cameron claimed that, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it.” (See here and here)He went on to use the language of "evangelism" in relation to the activities of the State and spoke of his enjoyment of Church-going, which gives him "a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.” Fair enough, I suppose. 

Being a Christian and that. you might expect that I'd be inclined to applaud  the PM's remarks. Not quite. Call me curmudgeonly old contratian if you like, but you're not going to get anything more enthusiastic from me than the sound of one hand clapping. Why so churlish? For starters, I'm inclined to be a tad cynical concerning Cameron's paean to "Christian Britain". Might it have something to do with wooing disillusioned Christian Tory voters back to the fold? Could be. After all, it is widely reported that many are shifting their allegiance to Ukip in the wake of the introduction of gay marriage by Cameron's government. Besides, what on earth did the PM mean by, “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago. I just want to see more of it”? Was he conflating the 'big society' with the kingdom of God, and was he proposing to ensure that there will be 'more of it' by harnessing the power of the State? Christendom redux. Who does Cameron think he is, Charlemagne the Great?

But my main beef is with David Cameron using the language of evangelism in relation to the work of government. He is quoted as saying, "Of course I see my number one role and responsibility as sorting out the economy and turning the economy round... Aside from that there are some really big things that this government is doing which are about that improving state of the world and evangelism.” Uh? Since when has it been the business of government to do evangelism? Evangelism in the New Testament sense of the word means to herald the good news of Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of the world. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the mission of the Church rather than the State? The State can and should use it's power to free up the Church to get on with its task. Paul encouraged Christians to pray for rulers to that end, 1 Timothy 2:1-7. What Cameron had to say on using overseas aid to help alleviate the plight of persecuted Christians should certainly be welcomed in that light. That's why one hand is clapping. But to speak of the government doing evangelism is another thing altogether. 

Church and State have quite different roles and a clear distinction should be made between the two institutions. The State has been ordained by God to restrain evil and promote the wellbeing of society (Romans 13:1-7). The Church has been called to carry out her Great Commission from the Lord Jesus to preach the gospel and make disciples for Christ from all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). But the Church should not expect or desire that the State will proclaim the gospel. Fix the economy. Reform the Heath Service. Pass better laws. Yes to all those things. But evangelism? No. The cause of the gospel is always harmed when harnessed to the power of the State. Look what happened when Missionaries cosied up to Empire Builders in the Victorian era. We need to remember the Church fulfills her Christ-ordained task, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts'. (Zechariah 4:6). 

That is not to argue for a secular State where faith-based values are denied a voice in the public square. Such secularism is not neutrality, but the privileging of atheism. Believers are called to 'seek the peace of the city' (Jeremiah 29:7) by bringing God's word to bear on the issues of the day and living as whole life disciples of Jesus. Rather than having a 'Charlemagne complex' maybe that's what Cameron meant by "Jesus invented the big society". Jesus called his followers to salt and light in the world, Matthew 5:13-16. Inspired by their faith believers have often worked for the good of their fellow citizens. The Good Samaritan and all that. Think of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury in the world of politics, Christians helping their communities by setting up food banks, serving as school governors, or what have you. If Cameron wants to carve out a bigger role for faith-based organisations in Britain, that is all to the good. But that is not to say that we wish the State to join us in doing the work of evangelism. Christians having a beneficial effect on society is not the gospel. It is a consequence of the gospel that calls believers to a life of love and service.

Still, the 'big society' that Jesus 'invented' was not a Christianised State, but the people of God gathered out of all nations, redeemed by his blood and transformed by his resurrection power. No political party may lay claim to God's 'big society', not Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Ukip. It's way too big for that,
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10) 

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