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Christians can and should get involved in politics ... just like Jesus did


By Allen Sleith

I've made reference to American theologian H Richard Niebuhr several times in this column. His elder brother, Reinhold, is probably more famous, though I think Richard was the better thinker.

Reinhold was a favourite intellectual inspiration for President Obama, whose sane, measured and cultured persona seems all the more desirable given the last few months of unseemly drama that passes for governance under the new regime.

These are testing times for public life. The resurgence of populism is perhaps the most marked feature of recent developments, and it's not yet clear just how that will play out in the near to middle future.

The senses of flux, uncertainty, resentment, fear and aspiration seem to be jostling for supremacy in the body politic, and many of the old certainties are being called into question.

The words of Reinhold Niebuhr, uttered only half in jest, perhaps sum up the mood of many. He quipped: "Every time I find the meaning of life, they change it".

Niebuhr's quote, apt though it is, is far from being his last or even his best. When the Second World War was still raging, and its outcome far from certain, Niebuhr penned this famous statement to help bring clarity, resolve and realism to those wrestling with the crises of the day: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man's tendency to evil makes democracy necessary."

The language lacks the inclusivity that contemporary discourse now rightly uses but, that aside, the main insight of Niebuhr's dictum continues to keep us aligned with the true and the good.

Niebuhr was one of the premier political analysts of his time. But it's worth remembering that his contributions were based on something deeper - an understanding of the nature and destiny of human beings in light of the Christian gospel.

And for those who say that Christians should stay out of politics or that the church should mind its own business, I would reply that the prophets of Israel, Jesus himself and those who would follow after had plenty to say in shaping the common good so as to more resemble the kingdom of God.

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