The Blanket

Faith & Politics
A Response to Davy Carlin

Billy Mitchell

Davy Carlin, in A Personal Voyage of Taboo, has opened up what could prove to be an interesting, and much needed, debate. The whole issue of faith and politics is, as Davy rightly suggests, a taboo subject. Churchmen will engage in inter-faith dialogue. Politicians will engage in political dialogue. Community activists will engage in inter-community dialogue. But seldom will we find all three coming together to discuss the relevance of faith to politics and social policy. We like to think that faith and politics and faith and social action are separate. Yet scratch us deeply and we will find that many elements of our political and social attitudes are influenced by beliefs that stem from either theistic or atheistic ideas.

In many cases - perhaps the majority of cases - religion is more civic (nominal) than spiritual, but just as powerful in terms of its influence. I am not suggesting that the conflict in Northern Ireland is a religious conflict in the sense that people are fighting over issues like transubstantiation or the veneration of saints. However it is a conflict that does have religious implications because in many ways it is a conflict between Catholic Nationalism and Protestant Unionism. This is well illustrated in the respective positions adopted by both Eamonn de Valera and Sir James Craig soon after the secession of the twenty-six counties.

As early as 1931 de Valera claimed that "There was an Irish solution that had no reference to any other country; a solution that came from our traditional attitude to life that was Irish and Catholic. That was the solution they were going to stand for so long as they were Catholic" . Four years later, in his St. Patrick's Day address to the nation, de Valera made it quite clear that Ireland was a Catholic nation - "Since the coming of St Patrick 1500 years ago Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic nation" and, he concluded, "she will remain a Catholic nation". There was no mistaking where de Valera stood - Ireland was, and would continue to be, a Catholic nation.

Sir James Craig, when Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, responded to de Valera a few years later with his much quoted comment, “In the South they boasted of a Catholic state. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic state. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state”. De Valera’s Catholic Constitution for a Catholic Nation was mirrored in James Craig’s Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People, and both were proclaiming publicly what most people knew privately, that the politics of the Irish conflict had deep religious roots.

Even today we still use the terms Catholic and Protestant as synonyms for Nationalist and Unionist. SDLP and Sinn Fein spokespersons use the terms “Catholic”, “Irish” and “Nationalist” interchangeably when referring to their communities. DUP and UUP spokespersons use the terms Protestant and Unionist in a similar manner to describe their communities. There is a wide range of social and political positions that are rooted and grounded in theological principles. These need to be addressed and they need to be addressed, not just by church leaders and theologians, but by a broader range of political, civic and community leaders.

It is for this reason that I welcome the debate initiated by Davy Carlin. However I am not sure that we can unpack the core issues of religious influences, be they for good or evil, on social and political life if we get bogged down in a debate over the authenticity of the gospels or the existence of Jesus. That debate has been ongoing since the first century and will continue so long as there are people who come to the debate with their own theistic or atheistic presuppositions. I am not suggesting for one moment that the historical reliability of the gospels is not relevant. Far from it, without the historical events recorded in the gospels Christianity is just another set of beliefs.

Different scholars have come to widely divergent conclusions about the historical reliability of the gospels. Those of us who have had the luxury of researching the scholarly debates relevant to the reliability of the gospels and the existence of Jesus will make up our own minds based partly on our own presuppositions and partly on the evidence and the quality of arguments based on that evidence that is presented to us. For those who have not had that luxury, the debate would be meaningless; and for the vast majority of believers, whether Protestant or Catholic, their faith is all the evidence that they need. Clearly Davy and I hold different views on the issue and I see little value in us rehearsing the time-worn arguments for and against our respective positions.

What is important is the need for debate on the influence of religion on social and political issues, particularly where religion has been used as a tool for political manipulation and oppression or where it has been used to justify religious nationalism. As I see it, the crucial issue in that debate is not so much the credibility of the gospels as it is about the credibility of the interpretations placed on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Virtually all New Testament scholars, both for and against the historical reliability of the gospels, agree that they were written primarily for theological rather than historical reasons. Thus Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were primarily interested in conveying their understanding of the person and work of Jesus to their first-century readers. Interpreters of the gospels are no different. Most New Testament exegetes approach their task with certain theological presuppositions. They may be influenced by the social system or the political environment in which they live or by the doctrine of the church to which they belong rather than the social, religious and political context of the first century. Thus all too often we have theological interpretations of material based on presuppositions, prejudgements and questions that were not known to the gospel writers.

Schweitzer, in his “Quest of the Historical Jesus”, shows how 18th century commentators on the Life of Christ reflected more the beliefs and ideas of their own period than the period in which Jesus lived. The rationalist Venturini gave us a rationalist Jesus. The romantic Renan gave us a romantic Jesus. In more recent times the pacifist, John Howard Yoder, presented us with a pacifist Jesus while the liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino, presented us with Jesus the Liberator. Materialist approaches to the person and work of Jesus are provided by the Portuguese Marxist, Fernando Belo (A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark”) and Michel Clevenot (Materialist Approaches to the Bible). In all cases the commentators start with the premise that the historical Jesus did exist.

The problem with so many interpretations of the gospels and the teachings of Jesus is that we have as many portraits of Jesus and as many teachings as we have interpreters. The problem is exacerbated when the interpretations are proclaimed as the truth to the exclusion of all other interpretations and are further exacerbated when these ‘truths’ influence the development of social policy and political philosophies. It is in such situations that religion can be used as a tool for either political exploitation and oppression or for spiritual and/or socio-political liberation. For better or for worse gospel commentaries and the theological concepts that are drawn from them are based on presuppositions that are all too often read back into the gospels rather than drawn out of the gospels. It is my firm belief that Jesus should be interpreted within the social, political and religious context of the period in which He lived.

But to get back to what I feel is a crucial issue - the use and abuse of religion for social and political purposes. To ridicule people for having faith in God is to miss the point. We need to make people accountable, not for the object of their faith, but for the practical outcomes of their faith. If I claim to be a follower of Him who demanded that I love my neighbour as myself then I must be held accountable when I fail to practice that teaching. As I see it, the big problem with those of us who claim to be Christians is that we do not always practice Christianity. We have a tendency to practice our own prejudices and then try to use texts from the Bible as justification. I am saying “we” here, because I am all too aware of my own shortcomings, prejudices and failures. If Davy Carlin is asking people like myself to examine the relationship between faith and politics (indeed, between faith and daily living) with a view to getting rid of the negative and destructive elements of religion that we have tacked on to the teachings of Jesus, then I am in full agreement.

Davy reflects on the fact that religion generally takes root amongst the poor. This is true. In a great many cases religion provides an other-worldly source of comfort in the midst of poverty and oppression. For some it is a crutch to help them limp out of a bad situation, but for many it is a genuine deeply felt experience that remains even when the good times come. It is because these genuine spiritual experiences are so real that those at the top of societal power structures all too often use religion as a tool for social control and oppression. If the experience was simply a shallow crutch it could never become a tool for control. There is nothing wrong where a person's faith genuinely brings a sense of inner peace and fortitude in the midst of suffering. That is not something to be knocked. A spiritual experience to be authentic, and to have real life-fulfilling meaning, should exist in times of joy as well as in times of sadness. What we must challenge is the belief that a sense of inner peace in times of despair is all that religion has to offer offer.

True religion must also facilitate actions that address the root causes of poverty and oppression. It must also challenge those who use religion as a tool for social control. Fidel Castro said, “the church should take the lead in responding to the widow, the orphan, the hungry and the needy.” Notwithstanding the differences in belief and ideology that exists between Castro and Jesus, I would suggest that no genuine follower of Jesus could disagree with his statement.Indeed if we set Castro’s comments alongside those of the Apostle James (James 1.27) we will see that they are both singing from the same hymn-sheet.

This is where the debate needs to be focused and where we can learn from liberation theology. Theology needs to be done by those at the cutting edge of poverty and oppression if it is to be relevant to their needs. As J.R. Levison has noted, liberation theologians "feel that the communities of the oppressed should be the interpreters of the Bible". A theology that identifies and names injustice and that leads to actions that challenge injustice must be rooted in the experience of those who have or are suffering injustice. That will directly challenge traditional methods of doing theology. Again, to quote Levison, "In a world of injustice, biblical interpretation must be shifted from the educated elite to the oppressed. When this occurs, some interesting interpretations of the Bible in general and Jesus in particular result".

A "people's theology" must start with the historical Jesus who lived and worked amongst the people, not with a Jesus who has been defined philosophically by theologians. That means analysing the socio-political context of first century Palestine and interpreting the narratives of Jesus ministry within that context. A Christology that starts and ends with the creeds has nothing to offer those who seek to challenge injustice and oppression. Christology must start with the historical Jesus for it is the Jesus of the gospels, not the Jesus of the theologians, who challenged the social, political and religious power structures of His day.

As a scientific socialist, Davy will naturally feel that Jesus (whether the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the creeds) is irrelevant to his socialism. As a Christian socialist Jesus is fully relevant to me. I am motivated by the life and teachings of the historical Jesus and sustained in my daily living by the Risen Christ. This is where I part company with many liberation theologians who appear to have problems with the idea of a Risen Christ. If the crucified Jesus did not rise again (no matter how you interpret the resurrection) He was nothing more significant than any other radical teacher. Why apply Marxist theories to the teachings of Jesus if Jesus was simply one of many radical teachers?. Marxism does not need Jesus to be relevant and liberation theologians who reject the Risen Christ ought to stick with Marx and go the full way an also reject the historical Christ. With a foot in both camps are they not as guilty as the powerful elite of using religion as a political tool (albeit in a good cause)?

I can respect Davy for being consistent. As a scientific socialist he feels no need to use religion either as a source of inspiration or as a tool to manipulate others. I trust too that he will respect my position. As a Christian my social conscience, and thus my social actions, are rooted in my spiritual beliefs and I would hope that my faith is my motivation and not something that I use as a tool to manipulate others. Where there is mutual respect for our differing belief systems, coupled with agreement as to what is needed in terms of social and political change, I believe that we can do business.

As Davy has rightly pointed out there are a lot of taboo subjects associated with the issue of religion that need to be unpacked. We have only scratched the surface and perhaps we can continue with the debate without imposing too much on the other contributors to the Blanket.







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Index: Current Articles

2 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


I See Dead People

Anthony McIntyre


Faith & Politics
Billy Mitchell


Rose Tinted Culture
Sean Smyth

30 August 2002


Four Women Political Prisoners Die On Hunger Strike
Mags Glennon


A State In A Sectarian Society
Anthony McIntyre


Derry Homily
Brian Mór


The Violence of Curfew
Sam Bahour


Colombian Solidarity
Sean Smyth


The Oldest Profession
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain




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