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Christian social reform: What is the agenda? (Part I)

A foundational lecture on why and how Christians should be involved in the public square by Dr. Michael Schluter for the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland.

What is a Christian vision for society? What kind of society should we seek – not just at a general level but at a specific level in terms of health, education, urban regeneration, finance and so forth.

This is my subject for this lecture. There is a pressing need for us to develop our thinking on this because, in a society in conflict, the key decisions about the future are made while the conflict is still in progress. For example, the kind of society that we got at the end of the second World War was already determined when the fighting stopped. The Attlee government[1] had already made all the major decisions about what would be implemented in the years that followed. In the same way, when conflict ends in Northern Ireland the kind of society you end up with will be determined by the decisions made and the agendas set now. So you have to think ahead before the conflict is fully resolved. And the real issue you need to think about is what kind of society do you want in Northern Ireland in the years to come. 

The question of an agenda is not a trivial one. What will be the policy agenda of the partners in the Northern Ireland assembly? Is it going to be the language of human rights that dominates? Is it going to be an agenda of economic growth? Is it going to be focused around freedom and choice? Or is it going to be around a word like ‘modernisation’ – whatever that means? 

These problems of defining an agenda are clearly demonstrated by the main British political parties. Tony Blair’s speech at his Party’s 1999 conference was heavily criticised in the press for a lack of substance around the key words he was using. What exactly is his agenda? What is ‘Blairism’? People still are not really clear. The Conservatives came up with forty-six different policy statements in October 1999, but what holds those policies together? Is it simply changes in the taxation system? Arguing that people should have more money is something people agree with, but it’s not a message that grips the imagination or fires the heart. 

Or take the problems of Christian Democracy in Europe. Based on the ideology of ‘personalism,’ which is based very much on relationships, there has been great difficulty in translating that into a specific policy agenda. So in Germany right-wing policies have been pursued under the term Christian Democracy, while in the Netherlands left-wing policies have been pursued under the same term. So we are left wondering what Christian Democracy stands for. 

Moving on, We might ask how Christians should respond to something like NHS reform. The Christian Medical fellowship had great difficulty responding to the introduction of the internal market in the NHS. Their members were deeply divided on whether it was good or bad. But why was it that Christians could not articulate both what they agreed with and what they disagreed with at a level of principle? It seems to me that this is something to which Christians should aspire. Christians should be able to identify what values and what ends they stand for in the policy arena. 

Part of the problem is that Christians are too bound up with single-issue politics – abortion or euthanasia or Sunday trading. There are two reasons why we must go beyond single-issue politics. First, if we focus on a few single issues it leaves much of public policy debate without a Christian influence. And, second, it’s very difficult to win an argument on a single issue without putting those issues into a wider context and showing how they are part of a wider social vision. Now, where is that wider social vision to be found? I want to argue that biblical law provides the agenda for Christian engagement in public policy areas. 

That is a slightly controversial position and I certainly agree that we have to look at the Old Testament through the New. But listen to these words of Jesus: 

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men. 

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven. 

Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.11-20) 

Jesus tells us that his disciples are in the tradition of the prophets. We act as the prophets acted. and Jesus gives two illustrations of what the prophets did. they acted as salt – preventing moral decay – and they acted as light – high profile light. Then he insists that he has not come to abolish the law which was, after all, the agenda of the prophets. he told them that, far from abolishing the law, he had come to fulfil it. Then, linking law and kingdom, he says that if we want to be great in the kingdom of God we should practice and teach God’s law. This is not a matter of saying that if we practice the law God will be pleased with us and advance us in the Kingdom. Jesus is saying that there is an intrinsic link between practising and teaching God’s law and the spread of the kingdom. 

Jesus himself indicates how that linkage works. In the tradition of the prophets we are salt and light. But if we do not act as salt, if we do not prevent moral decay, then people will throw us out and trample on us. That is, we will be irrelevant to people’s lives because we are not engaging with the social process. Or if we are not light we will be failing to point people towards God. yet this is what social action is all about. it is the process of preparing people to receive the gospel. It’s like ploughing before you sow. If you sow without ploughing, if you try to evangelise without showing how Christian belief impinges on wider society, you will have little impact. This is what we have seen in Britain since 1945 – a lot of evangelism, but very little fruit from it. That’s because we’ve failed to engage with people on the social process.

Michael Schluter 

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

[1]First British post-war government led by Prime minister Clement Attlee

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