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Do I really have to march?


Peter Graystone examines his reluctance to join political campaigns

NIGEL wants me to go to Brighton. Oh, dear! I have nothing against Brighton, nor against Nigel. But I know what this is going to involve. On the last Sunday of September, Christians are gathering on Brighton beach, as part of a huge campaign to change the trade rules that keep workers in poor countries trapped in poverty. The gathering is timed to coincide with the arrival of the Government in Brighton for the Labour Party Conference.

I don’t need persuading that poverty is a great evil, or that trade justice would immeasurably benefit the world’s poorest communities. It’s the campaigning part that I’m hesitant about. Nobody told me in Sunday school that this was going to be required: 45 years of church-going have persuaded me that when anyone walks past with a placard, it’s best to shut my eyes and pretend to be praying. I’ve used the excuse that I don’t want to mix politics with faith to avoid many difficult decisions.

"It’s going to be fun," said Nigel. But that’s not what I need to hear. I need to be persuaded that demonstrations really are the kinds of events in which Christians should be involved. "If the New Testament were full of evidence that it comes naturally to God’s people to take part in political campaigning, I’d have no hesitation," I suggested restlessly. Nigel didn’t argue; he just told me a story.

Ten years after the death of Jesus, the emperor Caligula announced his intention to erect a statue of himself at the heart of the temple at Jerusalem. He sent his legate, Petronius, to oversee its construction. Knowing that this would be inflammatory for the Jews, and expecting trouble, Petronius took 12,000 soldiers with him.

As the army travelled, stopping for winter at Ptolemais, the Jews decided what they should do to oppose this outrage. They began a campaign. Thousands of men gathered to petition Petronius. They were determined that this should not be perceived as an armed uprising, so they took along their wives and children. It was a family outing.

Deputations went to see Petronius, taking bundles of letters to show the strength of feeling. Their campaign continued day after day, and it wore him down. Impressed by their character and reasoning, he was persuaded. Petronius wrote to the emperor, refusing to organise the building of his statue. Caligula was incensed. He replied immediately, sending an envoy with a demand that Petronius kill himself before the sun set.

In Ptolemais, Petronius was expecting Caligula’s response. It was no surprise when a messenger arrived bearing an imperial letter. Petronius unsealed it and read: "The emperor Caligula is dead; all previous orders from him are rescinded." The letter demanding that he kill himself arrived the next day — the messenger with the news of Caligula’s death had overtaken it.

The statue was never built. The Jews returned to their farms. Petronius died peacefully in his old age.

Nigel walked away smugly and started to play with his mobile phone. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. If campaigning was integral to the culture of the Jews at the time of Jesus, perhaps I have been ignoring the political significance of other events in his life.

Perhaps his entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey, surrounded by a chanting crowd and parodying Pilate’s military processions, was as much a peaceful demonstration as a spiritual triumph. Perhaps it was a campaign for a kingdom in which the poor receive justice and the oppressed go free, to replace a land which a distant emperor rules for and through a rich élite.

Nigel wins. Sunday 26 September: I’ll be there.

Peter Graystone is a Reader at Emmanuel Church, Croydon. His book Signs of the Times is published by Canterbury Press.

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