The political dimension of faith today

Before the upcoming municipal elections, it would be a good idea to analyze the relevance of Christian faith vis-à-vis politics, whether social or partisan.

Faith is not one act among others.  It is an attitude that includes all acts, every person, together with their feelings, intelligence, will, and life options. And it is a basic experience of encounter with the Mystery which we call the living God and with the Resurrected Jesus.  This encounter changes life and the way of seeing everything.  Through faith we see that everything is united and tied to God.  God is that Father/Mother who created all, and who walks with all and who attracts all so that all can live with a fraternal spirit, caring for one another and for nature.  This social love is the central message of the  new encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti.  Faith is good not only for eternity, but for this world.

In this sense, faith embraces also politics with a large P (social politics) and a small p (partisan politics).  A person can always ask oneself: to what extent is politics, whether social or partisan, an instrument for the realization of the values of the Kingdom such as social love, fraternity without borders, personal and social justice, solidarity and tolerance?  To what extent does politics create conditions so that people are open to cooperation rather than mutual destruction, without communion with one another and with God?  In the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, the best politics is that which embraces the heart, and also care and courtesy, however surprising that might be.

Faith is life a bicycle

Faith is not only a personal experience of encounter with God and with Christ in the Spirit.  It is translated concretely in life.  It is like a bicycle with two wheels on which it is grounded: the wheel of religion and the wheel of politics.  

The wheel of religion is found in meditation, prayer, liturgies, secular and Bible reading, pilgrimages, sacraments, or in a word, in worship.

Many reduce religion only to this wheel, especially on Catholic television channels.  These are generally a Christianity that is merely devotional, one of Masses, saints, rosaries and a family ethic.  Almost never does it deal with social justice, the drama of millions of unemployed, the cry of the oppressed or the groans of the Earth.  Those in this camp try to escape the reality of so many struggles.  This type of Christianity has difficulty understanding why Jesus was arrested, tortured, judged and condemned to death on a cross.  This type of Christianity is a comfortable Christianity, as if Jesus had died in old age surrounded by his followers.

Worse is the style of faith proclaimed by neo-Pentecostal churches via their TV and media programs.  There you never hear the message of the Realm of love, of justice, of fraternity and of pardon.  One never hears the fundamental work of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor, theirs is the Kingdom of God…Woe to you, the rich, because you have had your easy life!” (Luke6,20.24).  In its place there is a type of reading of the Old Testament (rarely from the prophets) where material wealth is highlighted.  They do not the gospel of the Kingdom, but one of material prosperity.

The majority are poor and logically need a basic material footing.  There is a real hunger that brings martyrdom to millions of believers.  But “not only by bread does man live” said the Master.  Human beings have another primal hunger: a hunger of recognition denied to women, to the lowly, to blacks and to the LGBT community. There is a hunger for beauty and transcendence, a hunger for the living God who is a God of tenderness and love for the most forsaken.  All of this, the essence of the message of the historical Jesus, is not heard from the mouths of the pastors.  The majority of them are wolves in sheep clothing, since they exploit the simple faith of the lowly for their own benefit.  Even worse, they are politically conservative, reactionary, normally partisan, supporting politicians of dubious conduct, interfering, as occurs today in Brazil, in the government’s agenda, naming individuals for high positions.  They do not respect the Constitution which calls for a secular State.  The actual president, who was once a Catholic, is taken advantage of for the convenience of these neo-Pentecostal churches as a base for their slanted, reactionary, authoritarian, fascist government.

Tied to them, there is a group of nostalgic Catholics of the past, conservatives who opposed the Pope, in the Pan-Amazon Synod launching evident lies, false news items and other attacks via youtube.  They can be conservative Catholics, but never Christians characteristic of Jesus, because in his legacy there is no place for the hate, lies and slander that they spread. 

Faith has a second wheel, the wheel of politics, which is its practical side.  Faith is expressed through the practice of justice, solidarity, disclosure of oppression, protests across borders, social love and universal fraternity as the Pope underlines in Fratelli tutti (n. 6).  As one can see, politics here is synonymous with ethics.  We have to learn how to balance ourselves on both wheels in order to proceed correctly.

Among those who live an ethic of solidarity, of respect and of a search for truth, there are many who call themselves atheists.  They admire the figure of Jesus for his profound humanity and his courage to condemn social evils, and for that, to suffer persecution and to be crucified.  Pope Francs articulates that well: I prefer those ethical atheists to Christians who are indifferent to human suffering and the resounding injustices of the world.  Those who seek justice and truth are on the road which ends in God, because the true divine reality is love and truth.  Such values are worth more than many prayers if these are said in the absence of justice, truth and love.  Whoever is deaf to human sufferings has nothing to say to God and He does not hear these prayers.

In the Judeo-Christian Scriptures the wheel of politics (ethics)seems more important than the wheel of institutional religion (worship, confer Matt 7:21-22; 9:13; 12:7; 21:28-31; Gal 5:6 and the prophets of the Old Testament).  Without ethics, faith is empty and ineffective.  It is performance and not preaching which counts for God.  It is worthless to say “Lord, Lord” and to celebrate a religion of aerobics; it is more important to do the will of the Father, which is love, mercy, justice and pardon, all practical things, and, for that reason ethical (confer. Matt. 7:21).  By ethics in politics is meant the dimension of responsibility, the resolve to build relationships of participation, and not exclusion, in all social circles.  This calls for transparency and disdain for corruption.  Currently, problems of hunger, unemployment, general decline of life’s conditions and exclusion of the great majorities are of a social and political nature, and therefore pertaining to ethos.  Here faith must reveal its power of mobilization and transformation (Fratelli tutti, n. 166).

Social politics (P) and partisan politics (p)

As we have said previously, there are two types of politics: one written with a capital P and the other with a small p: social politics (P) and partisan politics (p).

Social politics (P) is everything that concerns the common good of society; the good is the participation of people in social life.  For example, social politics has to do with public health, school and transportation systems, street infrastructure and maintenance, water and sewage, etc.  Similarly social politics embraces the fight for a neighborhood health center or for a bus line to a mountain top.  We can briefly define this by saying that social politics or that with a large P is the common search for the common good.

Partisan politics (p) is the struggle for state power, for winning municipal, state and federal government.  Political parties exist to attain state power, whether to change things via a free process or to exert constitutional power (to maintain the status quo).  The party, as the word itself says, is part and parcel of society, and not all that society is.  Each party is backed by interests of groups and classes that draw up a project on behalf of the entire society.  If parties arrive at state power they will conduct public politics according to their particular programs and their vision of problems.

As far as partisan politics go, it is important that the person of faith consider the following points:

What is the program of the party?

How are people involved in this program?

Has it been publicly discussed?

Does it satisfy the real and urgent needs of the people?

Does it foresee the participation of the populace through its movements and 

organizations?

Have these groups been listened to from its conception, through its implementation 

to its control?

Who are the candidates who represent the program?  What backgrounds do they have?  Have they always maintained strong contact with their constituents?  Are they true allies and representatives for causes of justice and social transformation and respect for rights?  Or do they strive to continue social relationships as they are, with their contradictions and inherent evils?

These days, before the rise of conservative and fascist thought in Brazil and other countries of the world, conscientious and committed Christians need to come together to recuperate the democracy in danger of being pulled down.  It is also required that they return to health, personal and social rights and the rights of nature, devastated by the greed of Brazilian and world capitalism, responsible among others, for the extreme fires of the Amazon and the Pantanal.

These simple criteria are enough to understand the simple shape of the party and the candidates, of the right (if they want to maintain unchanged the relationship with the forces that favor their permanence in power); and of the left ( if they want substantial changes to overcome the perverse structures that marginalize the majorities), or of the center ( those parties that balance the right and the left, always looking for advantages for themselves and for the groups they represent).

For Christians, it is necessary to analyze to what extent these programs are in harmony with the project of Jesus and the Apostles, how they aid the liberation of the oppressed and the marginalized, and to what degree they open space for the participation of all.  It is important to emphasize however, that the partisan decision is a matter of each one’s conscience and that a Christian knows which direction to take.

Given the connection of social exclusion due to the logic of neoliberalism, the financing of the economy and of the market, faith points to a partisan politics that should reveal a popular and free as proclaimed in the encyclical Fratelli tutti (n. 141-151).  This politics aims at another type of democracy: not only a representative/delegated democracy, but a participatory democracy through which the people and their organizations help to discuss, decide and direct social agendas.

Finally, it is important to inaugurate a social-ecological democracy that incorporates as citizens with rights to be respected, the Earth, ecosystems and beings of creation with which we have relationships of interdependence.  We are all Brothers and Sisters according to the encyclicals of Pope Francis: Laudato Si: on the care of our Common Home, and the recent Fratelli tutti of 2020.

Partisan politics has to do with power, which to be strong seeks to have always more power.  There is a risk in that, the risk of totalitarianism in politics, of politicizing all questions, of seeing only the political dimensions of life.  In opposition we must say that everything is political, but that politics is not everything.  Human, personal and social life has other dimensions, such as the affective, the esthetic, the pleasurable and the religious.

Conclusion: the dangerous memory of Jesus

Christians can and should participate in politics at all levels, those with a large P and with a small p.  Their action is inspired in the dream of Jesus, that implies an impulse of transformation of social and ecological relations with courage in the vein of the encyclical Fratelli tutti.  Nevertheless, we must never forget that we are heirs of the dangerous and liberating memory of Jesus.  Due to his commitment to the project of the Reign of love, of justice and of filial intimacy with the Father, and, especially due to his compassion with the humble and the hurting, he was led to death on the cross.  He rose, so that, in the name of the God of life, to enliven the insurrection against partisan and social politics that penalizes the poorest, eliminates the prophets and persecutes the preachers of a greater justice.  He strengthens all who want a new society with a fraternal and caring relationship with nature and with all beings, loved as human beings, and with the God of tenderness and goodness.

Leonardo Boff is a theologian, a philosopher and has written “Brazil: to conclude the refoundation or to prolong dependence“.  Vozes, Petropolis, 2018

Translation by Richard Korn

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