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The loss of a collective purpose in democracy

by
31 May 2024

So, how should Christians approach the election season? Alison Webster offers ideas and encouragement

THE pre-election season is upon us, with its endless psephological speculation, pundits’ predictions, solemn party-political broadcasts of varying quality, and conflicting media interviews on radio and TV.

But the big question that casts a shadow over the whole General Election is this: what difference does my one vote make? Will any of this make any difference?

We know that human beings around the globe have campaigned — sometimes unto death — for universal suffrage. The first Black South Africans queueing to vote 30 years ago declared that they finally felt human again. Women and working-class men in the UK do not have to go too far back in history to a time when we were disenfranchised.

And many on the underside of power still need active encouragement to register to vote (and further encouragement to find suitable ID). So, why do we doubt its value?

 

IT SEEMS that we have lost faith in ourselves as part of collectives and communities. The global economic structures that shape our lives do this to us — deliberately: they set us up as competitors with one another, and have us believe that our individual “success” must come at the cost of another’s. We have become separated from one another, isolated, and alone.

Some have benefited hugely from this system. Others are treated like waste. The inequality within our communities, our nation, and our world grows ever wider. The natural world has been asset-stripped and is in crisis, and humanity is sinking deeper into a global crisis of mental ill-health, addiction, and status anxiety.

 

ALL of this makes it more important, not less, that we be active as citizens. However fragile we feel as churchgoers, we embrace a vocation to cultivate and invest in collective endeavours — the antidote to the forces of fragmentation at work in our culture.

How do we give voice to those in our communities who are vulnerable? And how do we ensure that their voice is heard in the public square? Our Christian communities include those who are exhausted by economic dispossession; those who face criminalisation for being homeless; those whose personhood is undermined by their uncertain immigration status; those who are traumatised by war, racist violence, trafficking, and domestic and sexual violence.

Our churches and communities include carers and others who work for poverty wages, and those with disabilities, chronic pain, and ill-health — whose benefits are being contested yet again.

 

THERE is much at stake, theologically, in this General Election. What counter-narratives are we offering? How are we modelling healthy communities in which the strong support the weak, so that everyone benefits? As Christian communities, we do this most effectively when we join with others in broad-based citizens’ alliances to build people-power and organise for change: diverse networks such as those formed by Citizens UK, working with vastly different people for the common good.

Those who engage in these forms of participatory democracy feel a sense of agency. Many of them have experiences of winning change at local level, and develop skills as leaders. They get to tell important stories to those who seek political power, and can hold these people to account further down the line.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland can support churches that feel moved to organise a hustings (churcheselection.org.uk), a safe occasion on which citizens can gather to get to know prospective parliamentary candidates and question them closely on the issues that matter most to them. Christian involvement in elections, therefore, can go beyond simply using our vote.

But using our vote is crucial. Elections are a time when we join with fellow human beings and make a collective choice. As churches, we can create an excitement about voting, a pride in having our say, and a sense of camaraderie in doing our civic duty. The main Christian denominations are backing the Voter Registration Campaign, to ensure that as many of those who are entitled to vote can do so (voterchampion.org.uk). This is especially important given the changed rules on voter identification. Voter Registration Sunday, on 16 June, will provide a special focus for action.

Jesus had important things to say about the value of the one in the context of the many. It is a paradox that, without individuals, there is no collective; and yet the individual has no meaning apart from the collective. Election time brings us back to a truth about humanity which our Christian faith holds dear: we are one body. We need one another.
 

Alison Webster is the general secretary of Modern Church.

The Church Times and Modern Church are hosting pre-election webinars on 3 and 10 June. For more information, visit: churchtimes.co.uk/events.

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