Good men doing nothing

There’s a recent post by Benjamin Corey which has attracted my attention. I have a significant amount of sympathy with this; Corey writes from a position very much like my own in terms of social gospel considerations.

But he’s from the anabaptist tradition, and is a non-voter, and advocates avoiding political power. There, I think he falls into a common trap which seems to me to pervade a lot of American political commentary, and an increasing amount of that in the UK as well – he sees governments as something set aside and different from the people. However, both he and I live in democracies, and the theory of democracies is that the people as a whole constitute the government via their elected representatives (unless you can run a direct democracy in which everyone votes on every issue of substance, which is only pratical in very small units). Thus I see his position as being one which refuses to involve itself in the organisation of the people. The way you do that, in a democracy, is called politics.

It seems to me that this is symptomatic of a desire in Christianity to set ourselves apart, to have nothing to do with society as a whole – and that is absolutely NOT “loving our neighbours as ourselves”, it’s more passing by on the other side of the road. It also falls into the trap of the “I’m not responsible for that, because I didn’t vote for it”, whereas unless someone voted against it, they are responsible. “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“ is the famous maxim of Edmund Burke.

Yes, in both countries the political system as it now exists is not actually very democratic. A party or leader who is opposed by a majority of voters can get into power (rather more easily in the UK than in the States; we have not had a government with the support of more than 50% of the population since the early 20th century here), and votes can be obtained by lying and by spending vast sums in advertising (on which there is no limit in the US). Both countries run first past the post voting systems, which tend to produce two party systems, and where there are only two parties, the internal machinations of the parties (which are not necessarily so democratic and which don’t involve the whole population) are perhaps more important than the actual electoral system. And the temptations of corruption are extreme when there is little jeapordy affecting elected representatives, as is the case with at least two thirds of MPs in the UK and possibly more in the US. Democracy is, as Winston Churchill said, a lousy system; it’s just better than all the others which have been tried.

There are ways of reducing the evils of the last paragraph. Voting by Proportional Representation, for instance, Term limits. Restrictions on political spending. Banning representatives from having outside interests both during and after their terms of office. You will not, however, reduce any of those evils by not voting or by remaining separate from politics. You need to organise (and Corey does acknowledge the value of organising) – but as soon as you have a group of people trying to work towards a common end, you are going to have politics. Some of the nastiest political infighting I have ever seen is, ironically, within churches…

This all smacks, to me, of the “Benedict Option”, a concept recently advocated by Rod Dreher. It’s a revamped monasticism. Now, monasticism is a really attractive idea for me, as an arrant introvert drawn to solitary contemplation rather than communal expressions of spirituality – but one which I feel I have to reject, for exactly the reason I gave above. In loving my neighbour as myself, I have to be involved with my neighbour, not to set myself apart from them in pursuit of some form of personal purity. The mendicant orders, the Friars, had it more right than did the monastics, to my mind. We need a “Francis Option”, not a “Benedict Option”.

As it happens, my Jesuit-trained Religious Instruction teacher, after I left school, gave me a piece of advice I commend to everyone else. I complained to him that I had no-one to vote for at the upcoming election. He replied that there were always Conservative and Labour candidates (in the US, think Republican and Democrat), and I said I didn’t like either of them. “So”, he said “Stand yourself”. And I did, and after a couple of tries, got elected, and then spent rather over 20 years as an elected representative at a local level and rather over 30 campaigning for what was then our third party, the Liberals (which became the Liberal Democrats shortly after I was elected).

He was, in fact, a Labour Councillor, and swore me to secrecy about his involvement (which included recommending which seat I should contest for the best chance of winning, advice I followed). However, he has now retired, so I don’t think letting the cat out of the bag will damage him. And, on the principle of “pay it forward”, I’ve since helped two people get elected as councillors for the Labour Party, so I don’t think his friends should criticise the decision.

As a parting shot, just because you’re an anabaptist doesn’t mean you need to be uninvolved in politics. I’ve recently been writing about the development of the UK parliament, and the hinge-point of that development has to be the English Civil War, where there was an armed conflict between King and Parliament. It was, however, as much a war of religion as it was of political structure, and Alec Ryrie of Gresham College has an excellent video “The Republic of King Jesus” on the topic.

Though I rather doubt that Mr. Corey is quite as extreme as our 17th century anabaptists!

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