‘Stay in your lane!’ This is the shout of those who are offended by the idea that people of faith have something legitimate to say about political issues.
One of the challenges for Prison Fellowship as we work within the justice system is answering the question, ‘Are we involved with politics or not?’ Without wishing to sound trite, the answer to this and other tough-looking questions can be found if we turn to the Bible. When we do so with this question, I believe we can only conclude that our mission is deeply political. We are involved in the politics of compassion, in a world fixated with the appearance of purity and the punishment of wrongdoers.
I would go as far as to say that it is impossible to follow Christ and not be political. I know this is a big statement, so let me explain what I mean:
In what has been called the most profound teaching of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, we hear a revolutionary description of a world turned upside down. It is a world where those seen as being at the bottom of society are raised to the top by God.
It is also a place where compassion is planted deeply in people’s hearts alongside mercy and love for others. If we turn to the Old Testament, we also see how God instructs His people to live lives that are set apart from other nations. They are to be a living example of God’s compassion and love.
In the book of Leviticus, we read about the concept of a ‘year of jubilee.’ Every 15 years, debts were written off and slaves freed. Refugees and displaced people must be welcomed and oppressive practices such as unjust money lending were outlawed. Compassion was even woven into farming practices wherein landowners must leave crops unharvested at the edge of their property so the poor could eat for free.
Those involved in our Sycamore Tree programme will know that the course talks about the benefits of restorative justice over retributive justice.
This idea of restoration is woven throughout this different, compassionate society described in the Bible. In fact, we preach a Gospel that could be described as the story of a God who creates humankind out of a longing for relationship, and who comes to earth to restore that broken relationship.
Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus calling us to be salt and light to the world. He says, ‘A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.’ Instead, we are told to put it on its stand, so it will give light to everyone.
Not only does Jesus describe a different, compassionate way of living in a different society, He tells us that we must live this out in such a way that others cannot fail to see it. The purpose of salt is to change the flavour of the food it is placed in. And the purpose of yeast is to transform bread. In both cases, we are warned that if these agents fail in their purpose, then they are useless.
So, are we political? I think we can only answer ‘yes.’
Peter Holloway is the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship England and Wales.
This article was first published in our quarterly magazine in:sight. You can sign up to receive our free magazine by post or via email by visiting prisonfellowship.org.uk/subscribe