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Pulpit Politics or don’t take anything they say in church seriously?

The fast-approaching elections in South Africa seem to have brought a number of politicians to preach their political views from the pulpit of churches. Anthony Egan SJ, a moral theologian and political scientist explores this phenomenon as we hurtle towards voting day.

As the nation crawls towards another election, we are seeing once again the rather tasteless phenomenon of political leaders popping up in churches on Sundays to try to convince worshippers to vote for them. With varying degrees of sophistication – or crassness – they will try to tell you that their party is the one to vote for because it is the one that Jesus would support.

Treat such claims with the contempt they deserve.

In his human life Jesus never voted once. He didn’t have the vote. No one had the vote. And if his relationship with religious factions in Judea are an approximation of how Jesus dealt with ‘political parties’, he rejected the very idea of factions or parties.

Though many biblical scholars suggest that he came out of a Pharisee environment, Jesus was vociferous in his criticism of the Pharisees. Though his ascetic lifestyle and need to disappear from the limelight suggested an affinity for the quasi-monastic Essenes, Jesus never endorsed the extreme sectarianism and social withdrawal that characterised the Essenes. Though many of his followers seem to have had sympathy for the violent ‘Zealot’ separatists, Jesus clearly saw that revolutionary insurrection against Rome was a high road to self-destruction. (The disastrous Jewish revolt of 66-70AD more than thirty years after his death-resurrection, proved him right in this too).

Despite their greedy clericalism, it should be noted that Jesus even counted among his friends members of the Jerusalem Sadducee priestly class.

What’s the point of this potted history? My suggestion is that Jesus was not so much apolitical as trans-political: his political views were driven not by ethnic or theological loyalties but by a moral vision that demanded personal integrity and a concern for the common good.

Such a politics is one that combines the ideal of justice for all with a realism about what is actually doable. This is done without creating greater harm through both intended and unintended consequences and an insistence that politicians live and act with integrity. It is hard to attain even in democracies, and particularly in electoral systems where one votes less for persons than for parties – many of which combine good people and crooked scum, sane realists and ideologically driven crazies on the same list.

Hence my objection to the pulpit-based grandstanding one sees as the election draws near. It is difficult enough for a thinking voter to discern what is bad, worse and politically delusional as it is. To have politicians trying to convince you that their position is Jesus’ position is at best dishonest, at worst a misuse of the church.

We should, if we are unfortunately subjected to such pulpit politicking, remember the words of a 19th Century Russian anarchist who warned that when rulers speak of God the people are most likely to get exploited. And vote accordingly.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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