If we want to bring the Bible into political life, we cannot do so too directly. Or so we are told. Many in Western Europe wince when politicians elsewhere quote verses to support their positions, sensing that Scripture is being co-opted. The British especially are much more comfortable with an indirect approach, feeling that Christian organisations should take a similarly nuanced tack. How much more so for academics!
The problem is that the biblical text can end up being so far removed from public discourse that it begins to feel like a game of Chinese whispers: the end result bears little resemblance to its origin. Something similar happened with the 500-year celebrations of the Reformation in Germany. One strolled around Wittenberg amidst exhibitions celebrating a ‘liberty’ that Martin Luther would scarcely have recognised as the fire in Romans that set him alight. Of course, some allowed this fire to kindle violence, and much moderation results from a fear of this. But there is also a severe, if silent, danger in dousing the flames.
The Jubilee Centre has sought to make the fire of the Bible the strongest flame in the crucible of public life. This has meant applying it to contemporary issues with as little cultural refraction as possible. As has been the accusation against Protestantism, those who resist the perceived dilutions of tradition run the equal risk of arbitrariness and idiosyncrasy in scriptural interpretation. Certainly in seeking to re-articulate the Jubilee Centre’s political vision (a project nearing its completion), I am well aware of the fact that a direct use of the Bible creates a new set of complexities rather than simplifying things.
For a start, we must ask which passages to draw upon and when to do so. How do we approach the question of our attitude to the state? Do we simply respect the authorities come what may (as in Romans 13) or do we adopt a more critical, suspicious stance (as in Revelation 13)? Specific texts taken in isolation are nearly never any more helpful than working with principles like ‘freedom’, which are general enough to be co-opted by whatever ideology is currently prevailing.
So what do we do? Simply put, we start with the big biblical picture, find its centre, and work from that centre. What we have in the Bible is a story of God who creates the world as a gift, pursues a fallen people and commands them to love, acts self-sacrificially to save the world, and establishes an eternal kingdom consummated by a wedding feast. It doesn’t stretch the theological imagination too much to suggest that love is at the heart of this story. Love is embodied in Christ, but it is also commanded by Christ in his answer to a Pharisaic test:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
These words from Matthew 22 allow us to make yet another step: love is the hermeneutic key to the Old Testament, which includes the social vision cast for the people of God. And this is where, finally, we arrive at the specific matter of politics: Israel is a society in which love is structurally manifest. To participate as a citizen of Israelite society according to Torah is to love.
In some ways this is the beginning of the answer rather than the end. It leads us onto an examination of the constitutional order that these five books (and Leviticus and Deuteronomy especially) set out. Here we find an order that includes universal home ownership and deliberate provision for the poor stranger as well as a programme for national unity that sits alongside mechanisms by which local civil society retains its power against political and economic centralisation.
Elaborating its features further would take far more space than I have here. But the reason for spending so much time in preliminaries is that the practicalities sketched briefly here only have their force when they are anchored in the centre of the Bible, the gospel of love. It is amazing how much scholarly ink is spilt working out Christian ethics without establishing this centre. This is the only place from which we can fight the fire of forces in politics that militate against this love, albeit in a variety of guises that require an equally varied set of policy responses. Only from this centre can the Spirit (rather than the devil) be in the detail.
Matt Williams is a researcher at the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge. He has recently finished a PhD at Durham University under John Barclay entitled “Socio-Economic Ethics in the Gospel of John”. His current project is a rearticulation of the Jubilee Centre’s biblical vision for politics, to be published by Sallux (sallux.eu). He is married to Mercedes and is involved in several community projects.
Note: This piece was originally scheduled for publication on 6 December 2021.