The second of four different ways that Christians have sought to bring good to society aims to deal with causes, not just symptoms.
2. Transforming the structures of society (Matt 5:13)
The idea of the church as the ‘salt of the earth’, which is interpreted as having a preservative or purifying function, has a long history in Reformed theology and has been perhaps expressed most clearly in Europe in those countries with Reformed national churches, such as Scotland and the Netherlands. The famous Scottish Reformer John Knox introduced universal primary education in every parish in the country, overseen by the local church, in order to ensure that everyone could read the Bible for themselves. The socially-transformative wider impacts of this initiative made Scotland one of the most educated and prosperous countries in Europe, and a leader in the UK’s Industrial Revolution. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, who was Prime Minister of his country from 1901 – 1905, famously declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not cry ‘Mine’!”.
This is an idea that is growing in influence again, perhaps as a reaction to secularising tendencies that would push Christian faith to the margins of society. It is based on the Old Testament idea of ‘shalom’ (peace / wholeness). Life as God intends is a good life, enjoyed in relationship with him, with other people, and with his gifts in creation. It may be what Jesus intended in his promise of “life to the full” (Jn 10:10). It should however not be understood as a prosperity gospel. We see clearly in the Bible that not all wealth is obtained by God’s blessing (Amos, Isaiah, Micah) and not all suffering is the result of disobedience or sin (Job, Jeremiah, Jesus).
This has also been defined as “doing the will of God in the political sphere”, and we should applaud and support those Christians who enter local and national politics with a motivation to serve and improve their societies. But it is not only about political activity undertaken by Christians; it is also about political activity inspired by Christian principles. This is perhaps most clearly articulated by the poet and writer TS Eliot, in whose 1939 essay The Idea Of A Christian Society we read; “What the rulers believed would be less important than the beliefs to which they would be obliged to conform. A sceptical or indifferent statesman working in a Christian frame might be more effective than a devout statesman obliged to conform to a secular frame”. We see these principles operating in recent initiatives led by Christians such as the Jubilee 2000 / Drop The Debt campaign, the Make Poverty History campaign (which hold politicians accountable to the Millennium Development Goals) and the Stop The Traffik campaign.
Such political initiatives does not have to be simply ‘top down’ or national in scope, but can include community development processes which seek to harness the resources and initiative inherent in poorer communities, rather than simply relying on outside help. Christian development agency Tearfund works to empower churches in this regard, as they are so often the main or only form of civil society in their communities.
This approach emphasises the lordship of Christ over all the structures of society, and the church as his agent in expressing this lordship. It releases Christians for transformative work in whatever place they find themselves. But it can dissolve into a power struggle, as we see across Europe even now. And we should heed the words of Paul, for “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world” (2 Cor 10:4).
Next month, part 3 ……