Fellow believers have said to me recently that Christianity and politics don’t mix, and our focus should be evangelism.
This view, or some variant on it, seems to be held by many Christian politicians as well.
In a recent discussion with a member of government, he expressed shock with how his party was treating asylum seekers, as well as how they were slashing aid to the world’s poorest people.
When he asked the Christian leaders of his party how they reconciled their faith to these policies, their response was, “you don’t bring your faith into politics.”
Are they right? Is Christianity apolitical?
The Australian government announced the biggest cuts to the aid program in our nation’s history before Christmas 2014, setting us on a trajectory to become the least generous we’ve ever been to our overseas neighbors.
Baptist World Aid responded by calling on our supporters to let the government know they were disappointed with the aid cuts.
We engaged with the politics, but we believed doing so was to follow a tradition that Christians have been following for almost 2,000 years.
The earliest Christian creed that we have is “Jesus is Lord.” From its first utterance, this was more than just a personal and private truth; it was a dramatic and radical political statement.
To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar was not. It was to say that the way of Jesus should govern not only our private and congregational lives, but also the affairs of communities, enterprise, the state and, indeed, all of creation.
The confession and practice of this truth regularly brought Christians into conflict with the state.
While Christianity was young, and still seen by many as a minor sect of Judaism, the most profound conflicts arose as Christians refused to worship the emperor and the gods of Rome.
Many Christians were persecuted, and some, like Polycarp, martyred as a result.
As Christianity’s influence grew, this profession led Christians to openly condemn many of the social policies of Rome, including infanticide and gladiatorial death matches.
Atheist historian W.E.H. Lecky said, “There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of gladiatorial shows, a feat that must almost exclusively be ascribed to the Christian church.”
This is a grand statement, but for Lecky the end of the gladiators marked a new era in the West, where all human life was recognized as having intrinsic value, an echo of the Christian belief that we are all created in the image of God.
We saw Christian political engagement lead to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade 200 years ago.
In the United Kingdom, the work of the Christian group known as the Clapham sect, alongside campaigning heroes like William Wilberforce, saw hearts, minds and eventually legislation change in order to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade.
And it was only 50 years ago that the Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. stood upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared his dream for a United States, where people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Just like our Christian predecessors, we are called to declare Jesus’ lordship by joining with him in renewing and transforming this world, knowing that on his return he will complete this work among us.
Jesus demonstrated and preached to us about what this transformation will look like.
He spent his time with the tax collectors, Gentiles, prostitutes, those with disabilities and the poor.
He announced his mission was to proclaim good news to the poor, healing for the blind and freedom for the imprisoned and oppressed.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear that his kingdom will be a place where the hungry are fed, the mourners are comforted, and the meek, poor and peacemakers are all blessed.
This understanding of his present but not yet fully realized kingdom gives us a responsibility, but also a framework for our engagement with politics.
It by no means gives us clear policy prescriptions, though it helps to inform our understanding of what Christ-shaped policy looks like and reminds us that justice for the poor and marginalized must be of central concern to Christians.
In a secular liberal democracy like Australia’s, to say that Jesus is Lord, does not mean we try to legislate every Christian virtue, but rather it means we are called to use our Christ-shaped values to speak out in protecting the rights of individuals, promoting the common good and pursuing justice.
Government aid has a significant role in helping to break down the barriers that prevent people from lifting themselves out of poverty.
I believe this means that when Australia or any nation dramatically slashes aid, Christians should speak up.
Gershon Nimbalker is the advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia. A longer version of this article first appeared on the BWAA website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @Gershon_N and BWAA @BaptistWorldAid.