Last week’s Faith in Politics report by the Evangelical Alliance gave an interesting if somewhat predictable snapshot of Evangelical Christians’ views on politics and their likely voting intentions. The split in support for the different parties is roughly the same as the general population: of the 76 per cent who have made up their minds, 31 per cent are intending to vote for Labour, 28 per cent for the Conservatives, 12 per cent for both Ukip and the SNP, and 11 per cent for the Lib Dems. It goes to show that, unlike the Republicans in the US, no one party here can claim to have the almost unique favour of Christian voters.
There are some things, though, that the majority of respondents did agree upon: 96 per cent believe that democracy is precious and 94 per cent are planning to vote, which is far higher than the 65 per cent national turnout at the 2010 General Election. 92 per cent believe that politics involves too much media manipulation and spin. This is probably one of the main reasons why the same proportion want to see more Christians willing to get involved in party politics and stand for election.
However, out of those 92 per cent, I wonder how many have ever considered getting involved in party politics themselves? I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions that when we pray to God asking Him to change or fix a situation, we need to be open to the possibility that He might very well tell us to be the one to do it. We like the idea of more Christian MPs and councillors because they are more likely to represent broad Christian interests, but hopefully and more importantly we want to see them acting with integrity and bringing more of the light of God’s love and compassion into the political arena.
The problem, though, having talked to many Christians about this, is that party politics is seen as a dirty game where faith and religious belief run the risk of being compromised or worse if we step into the political fray and become attached to a party. The public perception of politics is that it is full of greed and tribalism carrying a constant whiff of corruption, as we’ve seen with the stories surrounding Jack Straw and Malcolm Rikfind over the last few days. Why would Christians want to align themselves with this world when they can do plenty of political good in the form of social action through our churches helping the poor and needy week after week?
Let’s be honest, when was the last time we were encouraged from the pulpit to go and enter the murky world of politics? Or how many Christian books are currently available on the outcomes of Christians going from being a gathered Church to a dispersed one, fully participating in changing the political landscape by direct party political involvement? There aren’t exactly swathes of encouragement around for those curious enough to examine it all further.
This is why Andy Flannagan’s book Those Who Show Up, which is released today, is such a fresh revelation. Andy is the Director of Christians on the Left, which exists to be a prophetic voice to left-sided politics, and is also one of the directors of Christians in Politics. With the backing of many Christian organisations and denominations, Christians in Politics are currently running the Show Up campaign encouraging Christians to vote. But, more importantly, this campaign is using the General Election as a catalyst, and has something much bigger and ambitious in its sights – the dawn of a new era of extensive Christian political involvement. Those Who Show Up acts as a manifesto for this vision.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has given his blessing to the book, and in the foreword he writes:
Upon entering politics, Charles de Gaulle is reported to have remarked: “I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” This is the sentiment that can be found in this book. It is a robust call for us – all of us – to re-engage, or in some cases participate for the first time, in the political world. This is not a book about supporting any one party, but about encouraging people to engage with politics deeply and critically, as a means of shaping our life together.
This is a book calling for the redemption of our political system through the direct impact of God’s kingdom. It does not propose this via grand plans or campaigns from the outside, but as a result of an army of ordinary individuals making sacrifices and simply getting stuck in.
In the same way that the Bible is replete with rather ordinary people whom God used to do extraordinary things through their obedience and faith, Those Who Show Up tells the stories of a number of Christians from across the political spectrum who, through their desire to serve God, have simply found themselves impacting the political realm in significant ways.
Gavin Shuker was born in Luton and, following university, he returned with some friends to set up a church. They began to work alongside students, homeless people, and those working as part of the sex trade. They quickly realised that those they were working with were often victims of dysfunctional systems and structures. They realised that in order to deal with these problems, they would need to become more politically involved. Gavin joined the Labour Party. Following the expenses scandal and the resignation Margaret Moran in 2009, he became their new candidate. Despite the seat being seen as a lost cause by his party, Gavin worked to build relationships with a wide range of faith and community groups and, at the age of 28, became the MP for Luton South in 2010. Through his new position, combined with the work of the churches, he is continuing to have a tangibly positive influence in the town.
Gavin is also making waves in Westminster and has quickly risen through the ranks to Shadow Minister for International Development.
Elizabeth Berridge was the first in her family to go to university. She had grown up with an interest in Africa and, before she went away to university, took a year out to work in Ghana with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). One morning she and the other students were being taught by a visiting speaker who drew seven circles representing the seven spheres of society – family, economics, government, religion, education, media and the arts. She explained that Christians should be living out their passions and dreams in these public spheres, instead of retreating to their own Christian caves. Elizabeth described the session as “the electricity being turned on”. She knew from that moment that government was where she was called to be, despite having no prior contacts or experience. She returned to train as a lawyer and then, several years later, having been given a leaflet about the Conservative Christian Fellowship, she joined the Conservative Party in 1997. In 2006 she was appointed Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and used her position and international work to lobby internally within the party, working to build understanding of and relationships with ethnic minorities, and especially the British black community.
Elizabeth became a member of the House of Lords following the 2010 General Election at the comparatively young age of 38. Since then Baroness Berridge has has instigated the All Party Group on International Religious Freedom and has lobbied to amend legislation on ‘revenge porn’. She is also part of the Advisory Council of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East which supports the work of Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’. She has built strong relationships and prays regularly with colleagues from the other parties.
Andy Flannagan himself gives an amazing testimony, starting off as a young doctor and worship leader who took part in some summer teams with Tearfund. Through his songwriting he continued to become more involved with Christian NGOs, seeing injustice and poverty first-hand around the world. This then developed into advocacy work, causing him to meet MPs. He writes:
As I met more and more MPs, the thing that stood out for me most was that there was simply no magic dust in Westminster. These were normal people trying to do an incredibly difficult job. It was as if the Wizard of Oz’s curtain had been pulled back to reveal something less sophisticated than I had imagined. There was no great level of genius operating, from what I could see. These were not superhuman people. They had simply shown up. Parliament had been demystified for me. Having worked with some incredible surgeons, CEOs of NGOs, writers and musicians, I suddenly saw that the inhabitants of the village of Westminster were really quite ordinary. It made engaging with the place seem so much more possible.
Through those early months of interaction I also became utterly convinced of something else – that we needed a lot more Christians with spines in Parliament. I had experienced so much of the creativity and brilliance of Christians working in the world of full-time Christian ministry, and was realising that we needed more of that energy working on the inside of politics rather than merely lobbying from the outside.
Andy had spent years sitting on the fence before signing up to the Labour Party. He continued to become more involved around Westminster leading times of prayer and worship, then, six years ago, he became director of the Christian Socialist Movement (now Christians on the Left).
These three, along with many others in the book, began their political careers by simply having their hearts stirred by God as they observed injustices. None of them set out with a strong interest in party politics, but, by following God’s lead, He has brought them into places of power and influence. It is the same for many other Christian MPs and councillors around the country.
Those Who Show Up is firmly grounded in Scripture, talking as much about biblical theology as practical realities as it breaks down the mystique of politics and tackles head-on the reasons why many Christians avoid political engagement. Just as it was for Jesus, Christians cannot compartmentalise different areas of their lives. There can never be a sacred/secular divide because God’s authority is over all things and He cares about all areas of our lives.
Politics is presented as a mission field that is crying out for Godly people to come and transform much that is wrong with it. The book constantly reminds us that Christians will be able to reach far more people when they look to live out their faith and callings in those seven spheres that opened up Elizabeth Berridge’s eyes to what God could do through her life. This is the core of the book’s message:
The problem for us as the church is that we have desired that change in the various spheres, but have not always been meaningfully present in those spheres. We have sought change via prayer and petitioning from the outside, but have not always followed Christ’s pattern of incarnation by being involved on the inside.
Something that the church leaders I meet will readily confess to is that much of our investment and time in the last thirty years or so has been spent impacting the religious sphere. Our energy and finances have mostly gone into training people to be better worship leaders, better preachers, or better small group leaders. We haven’t been investing so much time in training people to be better journalists, better politicians, or better artists. We invest heavily in making our religious ‘product’ better, most significantly our Sunday gatherings. But if we are investing primarily in the religious sphere, then in theory we may be only impacting one seventh of culture. The church has been waking up to this problem, but sometimes the framing for our endorsement of these jobs in the spheres has been purely evangelistic. Just this year I was at a missionary conference where it was suggested by the main speaker that the only reason Christians should be involved in these spheres was that it would provide a way to meet people who might become Christians. Presence there was just a strategy for saving their souls, rather than a desire to see transformation in each of the spheres. And yes, of course as we disciple people in the religious sphere, we hope that they have more impact in their working environments, but that’s not the same as training them up for the specific challenges found within each sphere.
The lack of an undergirding kingdom eschatology explains so much of our previous political engagement as believers. Without a desire to see the transformation of all things in all spheres of life, our interests were understandably focused on the religious sphere. So we were only politically awoken when someone came to step onto our turf, to disrupt what was going on in ‘our world’. So when Sunday trading laws are proposed, marriage is being tampered with, or religious liberty is at stake, then suddenly we are interested. That limited our voice into the rest of the spheres but also allowed us to be characterised as people who only cared about our own issues. It also led to a rather defensive posture and siege mentality spilling out in the tone and methods we use to communicate. Sadly both in the West and in other parts of the world this is still true. We look like those who are rather desperately defending our patch of land, rather than seeking kingdom values in all of society.
Andy Flannagan has written a book that is both prophetic and practical. It paints a picture of politics which shows that Christians can move from the sidelines to the centre of the pitch with little difficulty if they choose to do so. He is also quite clear that spending time in that environment will be tough and challenging at times, but, with support from the wider Church, those who find their calling to dwell in the difficult places can make a significant difference quite often beyond what they could imagine.
Those Who Show Up is essential reading for every church leader. It provides a compelling vision of how our churches can be beating hearts that fill their members with passion to take the gospel into all corners of society. This book has challenged me, caused me to pick up my Bible, opened my eyes to new things, and inspired me to pray earnestly and seek more of God’s will. It may well do the same for you.
Those Who Show Up is launched today and available to buy from Muddy Pearl.