Priests and politics

Politics is the application or the use of different processes for seeking or establishing a legal basis of distributing or deploying power and authority towards the governance of a nation. But, that is also what I call big “P” politics. There is also small “p” politics. Big “P” relates to nation-state governance, as a unit of analysis, and small “p” to any process of application of influence towards any intended outcome by a partisan group of self-organising individuals.

Therefore, what happened recently at a local congregation in PJ needs to be appreciated before we, who were involved not in the specific context, start preaching about the truths into another local situation through higher level generalisations. Unless we know what exactly was said and what was meant, and know many group members, we outsiders should refrain from making unfair judgments or comments; even if we do it for analysis.

Within any Catholic context (and I declare I am not Catholic), if I am not wrong, the local priest is the spiritual authority for the proper governance of the religious and spiritual authority of the Global Catholic Church, subject to his own authorities above his jurisdiction, but usually these are related to doctrinal issues and not local contextual or human issues.

Was Jesus political?

If we assume we lived during the time that Jesus lived, and was in the audience when the Pharisees and Scribes asked the question: “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Was this not a truly and full fledged political question? In fact, it was both a political and spiritual question. Implied within that logic were legal, political, and spiritual issues about how much ‘tithe’ should be paid to the temple authorities.

Now, how is this different than what we face today? The big “P” politics of the nation-state makes requisite for priests and pastors nationwide to speak on and teach about bribery and corruption and the abject hindrance of this is to good and poor governance of our nation-state.

If a priest or any pastor speaks about this subject (it could be another equally efficacious one too) and teaches about what is right and wrong about such governance in Malaysia, is that Pulpit Politics?

My view is that only when the priest or pastor explicitly says or guides his congregation on exactly how to vote in the general election (GE) is he is being “political”; otherwise he is engaging in big “P” politics which is a legitimate consideration for the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide. How else could the Church worldwide be at the forefront of issues like the fight against slavery, or ethnic cleansing, or the abuse of the Jews during the Second World War?

What can we learn from Jesus?

Let us learn from this trick question that the Pharisees (or experts of the Laws of Moses) asked Jesus and how he replied. They framed it as an either-or question. Pay taxes to Caesar or to the temple?

Jesus, knowing their intent, reframed this by his answer to their question. He replied that they should pay taxes to Caesar for his purposes and pay to God for his purposes. It is famously translated as, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is his.”

Now, can we not do the same? Understand and give our heart learning and leanings to God, especially about issues related to poor governance of this nation-state. In such matters, and especially in High Churches (or Churches with hierarchical ecclesiastical authority), such teaching will always come from the priests or other qualified others.

In autonomous self-governing, and especially evangelical Churches, who believe in the priesthood of all believers, this ‘what and how’ of “politics, or what is political may vary largely and can be equally debated”. In the worst extreme, they must agree to disagree in some agreeable way.

Regardless of the reality, there are some simple guidelines which preachers/teachers of the Bible can preach or teach, especially through the sermons, but must always restrict them to instructions only about the principle of big “P” politics but never go so low as to get involved with small “p” politics. The big “P” applies to every other organisational governance as well, and democracy, too, may not be just Man’s idea.

If and when they drift away and get emotional or passionate about such matters, there should be correction, but only from those with credible authority to do so. It may be categorically unbecoming of any parishioner to stand up during a service itself and chastise the priest publicly.

What is the lesson for the Church?

Worldwide, there is a false theology and bad science which suggests that all politics is dirty and therefore the Church of Jesus Christ should stay out of politics. It began with the failure of the Church in the days or pre-science, when the then Church argued for a faith-based biblical view of the material world and thereby concluding that the earth and not the sun was the centre of the universe.

Rene Descartes, a Catholic scholastic, argued rationally and proved the existence of God after others established the Copernicus-Galileo proof of the sun as the centre of the universe, and the then Church lost its faith in the science of rational knowledge. Since then, with the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, both science and the church have been humbled to restrict their views to their domains of knowledge and expertise.

So, even as we do not want politicians to discuss and define our religious or spiritual rights; we equally do not want priests or pastors to talk about whom to vote for or against. But that does not mean that clean religion and good politics should not be taught to all adherents.

And this responsibility belongs to both sides, or even all sides of this dialogue. Otherwise we get a situation wherein crooks run riot in the public spaces of life and reduce us to merely praying for them on Sundays.

The Church of Jesus Christ is part and parcel of civil society, as the third force of good governance in any society. As with Cardinal Sin in the Philippines under President Marcos, when the state of governance gets so bad and corrupted the Church will and must speak up against bad governance.

History is replete with examples like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr or even Bishop Desmond Tutu, who have been well recognised by the secular world through Nobel Peace Prizes for the causes against various forms of wrongdoing. That is the calling of priests and pastors, too! May God bless Malaysia through this general election.

KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at kjjohn@ohmsi.net with any feedback or views.

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