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Don’t just be religious ­— try helping people

03 January 2014

The Church should refocus on ethical and political engagement, not inward-looking cultic activity, argues Hugh Rayment-Pickard

THERE has been a dramatic rehang­ing of paintings at Tate Britain, and they are now lined up in strict chronological order rather than by artist, movement, or school.

The reordering prompted me to look afresh at an old chocolate-box favourite: John Everett Millais's The Boyhood of Raleigh, with the young Walter Raleigh listening intently to the stories of a sailor who is pointing out to sea.

It is a painting that evokes the power that ideas can exercise within human history. Everything that Raleigh represents - world explora­tion, the beginning of a new global awareness - starts with ideas planted in the mind. These ideas, like seeds, propagate from some­thing hidden and inward into con­crete historical actions and realities.

We do not often think of Jesus as a significant thinker with world-changing ideas, but this is an over­sight. Jesus's teaching that we should extend love even to our per­secutors, and that our forgive­ness should have no limits is in itself astonishing. But Jesus expands this ethic into a radical ideal of political order: the Kingdom of God, in which every individual is loved and recognised as a full and equal citizen.

Perhaps we are so familiar with the sound of this teaching that it is easy to forget both its distinctive­ness and the challenge it poses to all forms of self-interested human politics.

WE HAVE to look back two centur­ies, to the Christian philosopher Georg Hegel, to find arguably the most dramatic account of the power of Christian ideas. For Hegel, Jesus is essentially an ethical and political prophet who lives only for the pro­clamation of a truth "of colossal bold­ness", and is crucified as "a martyr to the truth".

Christ is like Millais's sea­man, whose prophetic hand stretches out towards the hori­zon. We sit like the young Raleigh, lost in wonder at what we are hearing about the King­dom. For Hegel, the Kingdom is the very idea of God himself taking the form of human community. When at last we find it, at the far end of the twisting road of history, this Kingdom is a community of peace, free from violence, and in whose service we find perfect freedom.

For Hegel, the "idea" of God is much more than a political theory, it is the engine of human history; a restless, questing idea that is power­ful enough to create and destroy em-
pires, to raise up heroes, and bring down rulers. Humanity is power­less in the face of its inevitability.

The destiny of this idea is already fixed; it will succeed, given time, in creating a peaceful universal king­dom on earth. Human history is simply the story of this idea's work­ing itself out, as year succeeds year.

Sometimes, its achievements will be obvious, as democracies replace tyr­annies. At other times, its ways will be dark and mysterious, as the good are defeated and evil seems to prosper. But good will out, because this idea is more cunning than any of its enemies. It will rule us all, eventually. As Hegel puts it: "Hu­­man­­­­­­­ity must transpose itself into this kingdom." 

THE power of the Kingdom does not come from physical strength - after all, it is only a thought, thinner even than air. Its power comes from its truth, from spiritual necessity. To contest it would be like trying to wrestle an angel, or fight a mathe­matical equation: its correctness does not depend on our agreement. The Kingdom will happen - with or without our approval.

A few people that Hegel calls "world historical individuals" are able to discern the development of the idea of the Kingdom in their own age, and force a global shift in our thinking. These people are not necessarily Christian, but neverthe­less have become servants of the idea of God.

Nelson Mandela could be con­sid­ered one of these. He managed to embody the idea of radical forgive­ness in an age of mass communi­ca­tion, so that the world was forced to pay attention. In loving his oppres­sors before an international TV audi­­­­ence, Mandela showed us how forgiveness can dismantle even the most fanatical system of oppres­sion.

WE HAVE only to leaf through a few parish magazines and diocesan newspapers to realise that churches are not properly focused on the colossal and bold ideas in Jesus's teaching. Increasingly, churches focus their energies on trying to make people religious rather than trying to transform society into the shape of the Kingdom.

Religious activity is regarded as an achievement in its own right. Increases in Sunday attendance and additional of acts of worship are taken to be advances in God's King­dom, while broken people and bro­ken communities are all around us.

The invitation to join the church is rarely pitched as the chance to be part of a movement that can change the political order. Normally, church membership is advertised as an opportunity to participate in religious activities, to attend religi­ous events - to become one who adds to the number registered on the parish roll.

In contrast, the ideas that Jesus outlines to his followers involve no religion at all. Instead, he speaks of bringing good news to the poor, heal­ing for the broken-hearted, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. These are phrases that we are unlike­ly to find in any parish mission-statement. This does not mean that religion has no part to play, but that it must be in service to the Kingdom.

If the Church of England is look­ing for a New Years's resolu­tion, it could consider putting Jesus's big ideas about the King­dom back at the centre of its mission. This would re­­quire a massive re­adjust­­­ment of priorities away from "cultic" religious ac­­­­­tivity and towards ethical and political engage­ment. But there would, in truth, be nothing very strange about this move. After all, Jesus himself tells us to seek first the Kingdom; the strange thing is that we are not doing more of this already.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology  (DLT, 2007).

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