The first thing I had to learn as a trainee teacher is that to plan anything without a clear set of intended outcomes is a recipe for disaster. It is a universal truth. Unfortunately, the tendency in politics and increasingly in business is to decide what you want to do and then see where it leads.
And so, if you want my opinion, the parliamentary decision to commence bombing in Syria was an error of judgement – an uneasy political fix driven largely by domestic pressures and short on both strategic and tactical thinking.
However, that is just my view. The decision has been made and is already (with a speed that suggests the result was a foregone conclusion) being executed. How should Christians react? Here are some reflections:
1. We should pray. On one level, of course, that’s stating the obvious. But we need to pray in breadth as well as depth. The object of prayer is transformation, and our prayers at this time need to be informed by a knowledge of national and international affairs as well as by our experience of God’s love and mercy. We should bring to Him not just our fears but our hopes, not just our people but all people, not just the sins of the world but the self-centred feelings and desires within ourselves that are part of the problem. Any transformation of the world has to start within each one of us.
2. As already suggested in the preceding paragraph, we need to keep ourselves informed. That means watching the news, dipping into a range of newspapers in print or on line (rather than sticking to the one that tells us what we want to hear) – in short, digesting a variety of different interpretations and opinions. This will be precious ballast for our prayer, but also our armour against the slanted interpretations that we can expect to hear from politicians, media pundits and religious commentators. It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and it is only by opening our ears to different and possibly conflicting versions of the truth that we may grasp the bigger picture in all its complexity.
3. We need to be politically engaged. That message has not always been popular with Christians, but in this age of moral relativism we are uniquely equipped and called to be the conscience of the nation. We may, and indeed should, differ amongst ourselves, but we share a body of revealed spiritual and moral truth that (like it or not) forms the ethical foundation of our polity and still permeates the fabric of our society and governance.
That does not mean, I hasten to add, that secularists and other faith communities may not equally share in this calling. In an important sense those voices should function as the Church’s conscience. We will always have a distinctive viewpoint, and our conscience must be primarily informed by our own understanding of ultimate truth. However, we have no right to be tribal about the truth. And every occasion on which we find ourselves at odds with others of manifest good-will is a prophetic opportunity to reflect on whether we are still being honest to God.
What might political engagement mean in practice? While blocking our ears to the siren-call of class, political and cultural loyalties, we have a duty to make our Voice heard and to call our political class to account. For now, the die has been cast, but opportunities will arise in the coming months to assess the viability of our military undertaking and to challenge our elected and unelected leaders on their conduct. In the meantime we have a core duty to show Christ’s love to everyone regardless of their faith or politics. To do less is to abdicate the responsibility we share as part of God’s incarnate presence in the world.