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Hope that needs action’s clothing

06 February 2015

Anthony Cane looks at two books on faith in the political arena

Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a language of life in faith and politics
Allan Aubrey Boesak
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.80 (Use code CT478 )

Good News for the Public Square: A biblical framework for Christian engagement
Timothy Laurence, editor
The Lawyers' Christian Fellowship £9.99*
*available from www.lawcf.org

WHILE both Allan Boesak and Tim Laurence seek to explore the contribution that Christianity should be making in contemporary politics and the public square, their books could hardly be more different. Boesak's work is an extended sermon on hope, vividly written and passionate, if ultimately rather vague in its conclusions. Laurence's short book is considered and careful, with important points in danger of being lost through a rather dry style.

Boesak is the first holder of the Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation studies at Butler University, Indianapolis. His will be a familiar name to those who are aware of the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, in which Boesak played a courageous part that was marred by both sexual and financial controversy. With that background, and now working in the United States, he is well placed to write of the dashed hopes after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the election of Barack Obama. Boesak none the less rails against cynicism as making us "foolish and apathetic" in the face of injustice and oppression.

Dare We Speak of Hope? answers its own question with a series of chapters all beginning, "Only if we speak of . . .", and covering topics such as woundedness, struggle, peace, dreaming, and hope's "children" (anger and courage). The combination of biblical exegesis and stories of the struggle for justice, especially in South Africa, is well done. I suspect, however, that many of Boesak's American readers will find his comments about their country and President challenging and uncomfortable. While President Obama is happy to speak and write of "the audacity of hope", he has (in Boesak's view) allowed the pressures of politics to strip away the prophetic impulse implied by such a phrase.

Tim Laurence is a former banking-regulation lawyer who came up with the idea of a Lawyers' Christian Fellowship lecture series on a "biblically shaped contribution to public life". This series forms the basis of Good News for the Public Square, although rather than take the straightforward route of publishing the lectures, Laurence (in collaboration with his contributors) has summarised and reworked them. This makes for an impressive coherence of argument, even if the style is more univocal than might be expected from a book with five names on the cover.

The book gives the impression of being aimed at a conservative Evangelical readership - which is a shame, as there is much of value here for a wider audience. Laurence offers a brief summary of his approach as follows: "Practical love, shaped by the gospel, wisely deployed." What this means is explored in terms of four key questions relating to government and political life. These are authority (what is the part played by the authorities?), truth (how shall we know what is true about society?) goodness (what is our substantive vision of flourishing life for human society?), and hope (what is the way to get from here to there?).

While there is plenty of room for disagreement (surely eschatology and the parables of the Kingdom are as significant in articulating a vision of human flourishing as the doctrine of creation and the Ten Commandments?), and many references of the "Bible-believing Christian" variety grated a little with this reader at least, the clarity and depth of the argument makes Good News for the Public Square well worthy of attention. If at times it would have benefited from the kind of passionate prose at which Boesak excels, it is just as true that some of Laurence's rigour would have improved Dare We Speak of Hope? It is probably too much (given their very different approaches to sexuality) to hope for a collaboration. 

Canon Anthony Cane is Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral.

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