PNP's recommitment: No quick fix — Part 1

PNP's recommitment: No quick fix — Part 1

Howard Gregory

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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The following is the sermon preached at the service of recommitment of the People's National Party (PNP) to nation-building held at the Boulevard Baptist Church on Sunday, January 17, 2021:

Gracious God, we put ourselves before you in this moment with waiting heart, expectant desire. Open our eyes that we may see your promise fulfilled; open our ears that we may hear your word whispered to our deepest being. Amen.

This service, organised by the PNP, has implications for our life as a nation, even as it is centred on the life of one political party in our two-party democracy. We need to understand, however, that even as we gather in this fashion, there are many who profess the Christian faith who take a position that anything that has to do with political parties, representational politics, and governance stands outside of the realm of Christian faith and witness, and my very presence here and participation in this service is supposed to be a clear manifestation of compromise of my leadership role within the Christian community.

Our most recent general election bore evidence to a decreasing level of participation in the electoral process by citizens and, while we can advance various arguments for this developing trend, I venture to suggest that there is also a religiously grounded position advanced by some religious traditions and individuals that is at play in this developing trend. This position also finds support within the wider national context as there is a significant level of cynicism regarding matters related to politics and governance. And yet I want to suggest that such a judgement, while representing the dis-ease which many have with our political culture, fails to understand how involvement in politics is connected with profession of faith as a Christian, and is consistent with scriptural understanding of politics and governance.

The politics of the last four years in the US, and which came to a head on January 6, 2021, provides us with more than ample evidence why, as a nation, we should be wary of attempts to promote disengagement by some religious groups in politics. What is manifest in that context is how sections of the Church in that country that have preached a gospel of separation of Church and State (read politics) have become extremely doctrinaire, using three or four buzzwords, apparently as the esse of the Christian faith, and as their guiding principle in support of President Donald Trump, and which led to the violent attempt to undermine the democratic system of governance in that nation. So, there are sections of the church in that country which also have their advocates in this country that must now make a serious act of repentance for their complicity with the president and the events of January 6, 2021.

In a book by William Willimon, a United Methodist bishop, entitled, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, he takes us into a sphere of the life of the Church which involves politics. He first lays out for us an optional foundation for understanding ordained ministry; namely, the image of the pastor as the community prophet moving about town agitating for reform, speaking out on justice issues, and engaging the powers that be. This figure has usually been identified with liberal theology (usually labelled as communists and socialists). In a clear case of irony, commenting on the contemporary world, Willimon points out that the political pastors today, on whom such labels (liberal) are not attached, tend to be evangelical conservatives — a curious exchange of theological bases for political engagement, as is evident in the unwielding support by sections of the evangelical community in the USa (and here in Jamaica) for Trump. Yet, not satisfied with the abandonment of this dimension of ministry by the Church, Willimon argues that, “[T]oo many of us contemporary pastors are far too easily pleased with present arrangements, less critical than we ought to be, [and] too deferential to Caesar and his accomplices.”

It was the late Bishop Neville deSouza who, in one of his synod charges to the church and the nation, advanced the position by way of a warning that notwithstanding the problems with Jamaica's political system and its dysfunctional dimensions, an even more negative path awaits the nation if it discredits its political system. These are his words:

“You know, one of the things I feel threatening Jamaica right now, and I will share it with you because you are my people in this, that while there are some busily tearing down both political parties which are the institutions we have inherited — we all know they have foibles and failings — but they are being denigrated and, I do not see any alternate force putting itself up and saying, 'Well, then, I will take over.' I would much prefer that than to be left with a void which anybody can fill. Because it is in that kind of void, which anybody can fill, that your democracy disappears… unless we pay attention to that, we might find that, nature abhorring a vacuum, the space may be filled with those who have no legitimacy in terms of democratic process.”

It is precisely the kind of denigration of the political parties to which Bishop deSouza referred which was part of the strategy used by authoritarian and fascist forces, claiming Christian identification, that sought to overthrow the democratic system of government in the US on January 6, and which should wake us up from any kind of complacency in the notion that it could never happen here. We need only recall the occasions when the name of Fidel Castro is mentioned on the lips of many Jamaicans, not by way of affirmation of the man and his philosophy, but when people are suggesting that we are an ungovernable people and we need a dictator to restore a sense of order.

Any serious examination of the biblical tradition will reveal that God not only is represented as creating human beings to live in community, but that he directed the process of nation-building for Israel as it moved from being a mere collection of clans to become a nation with the evolution of a system of leadership and governance.

Among the earliest perspective on leadership which emerged in the scriptures is that of a style not just as an expression of personal ambition and ego, but a calling of divine origin with overwhelming demands and accountability. As a political party within our two-party democratic system of governance, this is something that must be fundamental to the effective functioning of the party, and ultimately to the nature of governance which is offered, whether as parliamentary Opposition or governing party. It has to do also with the process of selection of candidates at the grass root or leadership level, whether the motivation of aspirants is grounded in the desire for service and altruistic intention, or the satisfaction of ego-centric needs.

The New Testament makes a similar affirmation about political leadership in the divine purpose for the ordering of the life of society. St Paul does not mince words when speaking about the place of leaders in the social and political realms. In Romans 13:1 we read: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

I want to use the opportunity to commend the leadership of the party for having this service of worship and recommitment at this time as it is most appropriate in light of current international focus on politics and governance, but also because of the state of our national political situation. This party suffered a clear defeat in the last general election, and, yet, regardless of the derogatory ways in which developing nations like ours have been labelled in discourse over the last four years, there was no denial of the outcome of our elections or attempts to reject the outcome with violence. At the same time, you have also gone through a change of leadership, which is usually an unsettling experience and time of adjustment for most institutions, and many obituaries have been written concerning the party and its future. Nevertheless, the unquestionable truth for this country is that, as long as this nation is governed by the two-party democratic system, it will never be appropriate for us to commit either political party to that state where obituaries are applicable.

As a national institution, existing within the era of technology and social media, the party has received much attention highlighted on various online platforms and, whether distorted or blown out of proportion, there is need for reconciliation. Reconciliation is never achieved by the pursuit of quick fixes or sloganeering. Genuine reconciliation is also confused at times with conflict mediation — a process whose goal is to lessen conflict or to get the parties to accept and live with the situation of conflict. Reconciliation becomes a process of bargaining in which both sides are expected to accede some of their interests in order to reach an end to conflict. A balancing process must be undertaken that will require both sides to give something up, but not give up so much that the conflict flares up again.

But let us not fool ourselves, as a nation, in believing that reconciliation is something which is appropriate for this party while the rest of the nation moves along in harmony and unity. Reconciliation is of the nature and intent of God, and is an imperative for the faith community, and around which it must engage the nation.

Howard Gregory is Anglican bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands as well as archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan.

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