Jonathan Bartley

Jesus’ alternative election strategy

By Jonathan Bartley
May 1, 2010

The Times newspaper has been running short pieces by Christian backers of the three big parties in Britain, getting them to say why Jesus might support their favoured political horse. Frankly, the politics of Jesus (to adapt the title of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s justly famous book) does not work like that. The collusion of overbearing religion and politics killed him as a subversive, but even the grave the empire built could not contain him. Nonetheless, Jonathan Bartley decided to play ball in a good-humoured way, having got the paper at least to allow him to ask, “Would Jesus have voted ‘other’?” Here’s what he came up with…

The idea that Jesus would opt for the agenda of one of the main three parties is at best questionable. At this General Election there has been the usual push from religious leaders, churches and faith groups urging that people come out and put their cross on the ballot paper as a matter of duty. But the Cross of Christ is something which brings a different perspective to bear.

Would Jesus vote for a smaller party or independent? Would Jesus spoil his ballot paper? Would he have voted at all in a system which is so manifestly unjust and unrepresentative? Here are 10 suggestions to encourage debate about whether Jesus might in fact opt for something other than a vote for the big three.

1. Jesus didn’t accept the narrow agendas of his day – notably those set down by political and religious leaders. When asked a question about whether a specific tax should be paid - the subject of an ongoing row between the parties of his day - he said in effect “you aren’t asking the right question”. It is likely that he would not align easily with any one party but instead seek to challenge the narrow agendas and assumptions on which their agendas are based.

2. At his trial before the politician Pilate, Jesus suggested: “everyone on the side of truth listens to me”. This was a direct challenge to all politicians who are inclined to manipulate facts in the pursuit of power. The Apostle Paul after him identified ‘party spirit’ as destructive, and considered it a sin. Jesus would advocate widespread reform of the political system. But such changes would not be based around first past the post which see millions of votes wasted and allows safe seats and unaccountable MPs. Neither would He support party lists which entrench more power with the parties themselves. He would be far more likely to support reform based around helping independents and smaller parties have fair and full representation. He might even advocate a lowering of the voting age not just to 16, but for all children – with a parent exercising a vote on their behalf until they were old enough to exercise it themselves. The Kingdom of God’, he said, belonged to ‘such as these’.

3. When Jesus stood in a referendum himself before Pilate, he made a quiet and measured response rather than a pitch for support. As Jesus’ own example suggests an apparent loss might in the long run be a victory. If Jesus were to vote at all he would see it as an act of witness, rather than a bid for power. In the same way as veteran MP Tony Benn said upon his retirement from Parliament that he was leaving the House of Commons to “concentrate on politics”, Jesus recognised that politics is about far more than winning elections. It was Benn’s conviction that movements change things, not big parties who tend to respond within the parameters and perspectives set by wider social movements. The Green movement is a good example of how, while gaining very little political power, change can be brought to a whole political agenda by faithful witness.

4. Jesus’ teachings about peacemaking, loving enemies, and turning the other cheek cannot easily be squared with the invasion of Afghanistan which all the main party leaders supported. Jesus would point out that such actions tend to make the world far less safe, creating more violence not less. He might also suggest that they cause many more people to be radicalised, create more hatred and violence and an escalating threat of terrorism. Nor would he support nuclear weapons which all three main parties are committed to maintaining, either through Trident replacement or other means. Jesus would certainly not approve of a Government which underwrites the commercial trade in arms. He would be far more likely to support greater investment in conflict prevention and resolution, active peacebuilding and peacemaking, above and beyond the £1 in every £2,000 currently spent on military solutions.

5. Jesus would challenge the idea that decisions should be made first and foremost in the national interest. He taught that all are made in the image of God and of equal worth, regardless of where they live. The Parable of the Good Samaritan referred to love of neighbours beyond one’s borders or national identity. He would see it as scandalous that the type of migration control which all three big parties support, discriminates against people on the basis of where they are born. He would urge a higher goal than just 0.7 per cent of GNP being spent on overseas aid for the rest of the world while up to a hundred times more is spent on our own interests through government expenditure. He would be far more likely to support measures to open up borders, not close them down.

6. Jesus would not have bowed down at the altar of economic growth in the way that the main parties do. He would have robustly challenged the Capitalist model which they have bought into, and which has led the global economy to the brink of disaster. He would speak out against a system based largely on credit, profit and wealth creation. He would advocate instead new economic models which do not involve the ravaging of the planet, and do not contribute to disparity between rich and poor. The word “inequality” is mentioned nowhere in Labour’s manifesto. It gets just four mentions by the Lib Dems and seven by the Conservatives. But it would have been a word constantly on his lips as he pointed out its links to mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy, lack of trust and social mobility, poor educational performance, drug use and domestic violence throughout the richest countries in the world.

7. Inclusion was fundamental to Jesus’ social and political view. He went out of his way to speak to those marginalised by society. The vision he set out was one where all were welcomed and cared for. None of the three main political parties make any manifesto pledge to make mainstream schools more inclusive for disabled children. The Conservatives have even promised to end what they call “a bias towards inclusion of children with special educational needs” in schools. Jesus would have an active bias towards inclusion.

8. Jesus would not support competitive culture in schools based around testing and league tables which all the main parties accept to a greater or lesser extent. He would encourage instead, the development of schools based around co-operation and mutuality. Some of his harshest words were also reserved for those who excluded children, so he would more than likely support schools based on models where children have a far greater say in how they are run.

9. Jesus advocated freedom for captives, not more prisons. His approach to criminal justice would not be centred around punishment but instead restoration. While some of the main parties place restorative justice as an “add on” to policies centred around prison, with elements of rehabilitation, Jesus would support policies which placed restoration between victim and offender at the heart of their approach.

10. Jesus would almost certainly have challenged privileging religion, whether that meant ongoing reserved places for religious leaders sitting in the House of Lords, opt-outs from equality legislation or the promotion of religious schools which discriminate in employment and admissions against the non-religious population as well as against some other religious people.


© Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted with acknowledgments from one at Times Faith Central (http://timesonline.typepad.com/faith/).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.