Throughout the centuries, Christian churches have been tempted to take stands on political and economic issues. Those in power always hoped to have support for their activities, while those without power sought sanctuary from the church.
Siding with someone, on the one hand, may involve a subtle temptation to seek popularity, high position, power and success. On the other hand, taking sides may be a necessary consequence of the moral requirements of justice.
What makes taking sides with someone difficult is the fact that it may often mean turning one’s back on another party. Jesus, too, seems to have been aware of the problems that follow opposing someone. While he defines it in Matthew (12:30) as "He who is not with me is against me", in Mark (9:40) he nevertheless attempts to persuade people to join in with him: "For he who is not against us is for us."
Two perils: accommodation and confrontation
Of old, the Church has faced two perils in her relationship to politics and economic life. The first is accommodation, ie. adjustment to the spirit of the time, to current circumstances and to the pursuits of those in power. The second temptation is confrontation or an oppositional attitude against the various forms of earthly power.
These two approaches have their own genuine history already in the New Testament. Jesus urges people to subject themselves to the imperial power, yet with a theological reservation: "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s." (Matthew 22:21)
The Apostle Paul continues along the lines of compliance in Romans 13:1–2 where he states: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."
Furthermore, opposition to those in power has its beginnings in the New Testament. Upon being dragged before the Sanhedrin, the full assembly of the elders of Israel, in Acts 5:29 Peter responded to the accusations: "We must obey God rather than men." The Book of Revelations reflects a stark juxtaposition of the Early Church against the political powers of the time. The earthly power that persecuted Christians was considered the Antichrist, the opponent of God.
Thus accommodation and confrontation both have understandable and justifiable roots. The Church lives in the world, but her nature is greater than this identification with the world. The church is more than the world. Apostle Paul states: "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does." (2 Cor. 10:3)
Throughout the course of history both accommodation and confrontation have, however, led to polarised positions, whereby both the church and the world, ie. people, have ended up suffering. An opportunistic church that seeks to identify with those in power will end up in tragedy, sooner or later. Strict nationalism for example has been a hard temptation to bypass, especially for national churches that have passionately desired to identify with the destiny of a people or with a certain group of people.
During Hitler’s regime the so-called "German Christians" went right along with the National Socialistic system in power and its Aryan doctrine while they closed their eyes to the injustices taking place, thus losing an essential portion of their Christian identity. In the former Eastern European Communist countries, the political persecution of the churches caused many Christians to join in with the ideological and practical goals of the party. After the fall of the system, their spiritual credibility was questioned.
Accommodation can, then, be a consequence of a close alignment to an ideological world totally alien to the Christian faith. What is more astonishing is that even those churches that in principle critically approach anything earthly may have drifted into supporting the status quo.
In many holiness groups everything temporal is considered depravity; the mission of Christians is seen to be a solely religious matter of the salvation of souls. Thus there is a deep chasm between the church and the world. In their approach to the management of politico-economic matters, they either favour withdrawal from such issues or openly belittle them.
A holiness church that emphasises a departure from the world easily ends up on the margins of society, whereby it also omits the positive socio-ethical message entailed in the proclamations of the Old Testament prophets as well as in the teachings of the Gospels. A separatist or "disengaged" church loses its moral right to speak, becomes bland and ends up possibly siding with something it would never have taken into consideration in the first place.
How, then, should the Church justify the side she is on? Does the Church, then, necessarily have to be on someone’s side, and if so, on whose side?
I will sum up my contribution only in two arguments: the Church has to be on the side of the people and on the side of cooperation.
On the side of the people
The Church is and she has to be on the side of the people. This argument may sound populistic or even trivial. Who wants to be against the people? The argument that the Church should be on the side of the people is, however, not self-evident.
The old prerequisite for moral philosophy has always been that we make a distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values. If there arises confusion between ultimate objectives and the instruments by means of which we reach these goals, then the human sense of morality needs clarification.
When discussing the world of industry, of commerce, of investment, of wage policy, and of banking, we are bound to deal with economic and monetary values. The church – and why not every person – needs to be cautious of two pitfalls.
First, money must not be demonised. Earning wages is not sinful. Money has its own value as an instrument of productivity and economic activity. It is a necessary part of human undertakings. Pursuing profit and growth belongs to normal everyday life. Even the tending a small shop or street stand would not be possible except the proceeds covered the expenses, repairs, investments, as well as the livelihood of the business person and her family.
Jesus’ example of the three men whose task it was to take care of the talents entrusted to them still speaks to us today (Matthew 25:14–30). The landlord of the parable eventually invites to a feast of joy the two servants who invested wisely, whereas the third "economist" is sent out to cry and gnash his teeth. He did not even attempt to invest the talent given to him as a nest egg. The interest from his money was not materialised.
Secondly, money and economy must not be made into the ultimate goal of human activity. If so done, money will be deified.
According to the classical definition, to people their god is the one that they ultimately put their trust in and from whom they thus expect the greatest good. If money becomes an intrinsic value, it will, albeit often unknowingly, become a manmade god, an idol. Instead of money being the ultimate goal it ought to be an instrument in the service of matters greater than money itself.
So it is important to remember the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values. And on this very basis it is significant that the Church should desire to be on the side of the people. People are more precious than money.
On the side of young people
In practice what would siding with people mean? I will take only one example. What could we do for young people? What kind of future do we wish to give to future generations?
It is a real temptation among us aging folks to start rebuking the young and their values. We do not often enough remember what the Romans said: "qualis pater, talis filius", like father like son. Have we known how to give youth proper models?
Youth unemployment is one of the most serious threats to the future. Are we capable of guiding youth to study, work and strive to achieve goals? Do we know how to offer those types of life models that render it advantageous for them to work hard for the future?
The welfare state has two basic aspirations. On the one hand, it should create the prerequisites to afford youth opportunities. We need an encouraging and uplifting atmosphere. It must be seen to that young people have meaningful and rewarding options in life. On the other hand, we have to bear responsibility for those young people whose life control is fading away. We need social safety nets. No one is to be left behind.
It is not right if the welfare services steer young people towards passivity at that moment when they ought to get their studies and work under way. In the Northern Europe it has been claimed that one out of four of the under 25-year-old cohort consider the personal income allowances coming from social services to be their real wages. There must be some way to set challenges, goals and energising objectives. Working for the benefit of youth is working for humanity, for the entire nation and for the future.
In some psychological theories paternal and maternal love are categorised as being different. In everyday life these roles overlap, often complementing each other. Paternal love is characterised as having a certain conditionality: a child is praised and thanked by her father only when she or he does something well or independently. A mother loves and accepts unconditionally. And a child’s developing self-esteem receives its necessary foundational security in just this unconditional love.
The core question for families as well as for society is how we can manage to combine paternal and maternal love. How do we both encourage young people to work and challenge them to try, while taking care of those whose circumstances are weaker to begin with?
On the side of cooperation
Secondly, the Church has to be on the side of cooperation. What does it mean?
It has always been difficult to specify the relationship between individual and community. Which is a requisite of the other? In the course of history, emphasis has been placed on the individual, leading to individualism, or on the community, resulting in collectivism.
Both isms have worked in accordance with the Procrustean Bed of Greek mythology. Procrustes, a robber from Attica, called the Stretcher, tortured his prisoners so they fit the bed, either by amputation or by stretching on the rack. The danger is ongoing: either an individual is stretched or shortened, or a community acquires the role of a victim.
All isms and ideologies are challenges to cooperation. When there are great ideals, convictions and ideologies, people become committed and excited – and act. Right before them are visions and goals which are worth sacrificing energy and time to. Does our day and age suffer from an ideological void? Has the high standard of living dulled human zeal?
Besides the human commitment they require, ideologies and convictions have always needed juxtaposition to other ideologies. Every great ideology has both attracted people and repelled them. So if we pine for noble ideals, we have to be prepared for a harshening of attitudes as well. How can we combine idealism and preparedness for cooperation? How can we hold on to our values while demolishing and dismantling confrontations?
The Christian Church, too, faces the same problem: how to maintain a worldwide mission vision, yet to respect all people? How can we hold on to the right doctrine, yet understand those who believe differently?
I do not believe in easy solutions. An ideology that for the sake of cooperation loses its own identity loses its essence. A programme that clings to being right, without respect for dissidents, easily leads to violence, either physical or spiritual.
Our goal should be to reach for a more complex, even a paradoxical, approach: I believe and I think I am right, yet I will defend your right to exist and to act differently. I believe that Christ is the only hope for the world, but I will not force you to come over to my side.
Genuine cooperation ought to allow space for both human uniqueness and for shared solidarity. The balance between individualism and communality is called for in all spheres of life, as much in politics as in religion.
It is difficult to evaluate if Western progress is still developing toward a greater appreciation of the individual. The last few decades have been a period of basic rights and freedoms. There has been an increase in the value afforded individual self-determination and human independence. An overemphasis on individuality can, however, lead to egoism and to indifference, to a hardening of attitudes, to an identifying of issues with personalities, and in politics to the quest for a public image accompanied by an impoverished set of values.
In Finnish society cooperation has been and is a strong antidote against various extreme phenomena. For example, side by side with the public and private sectors there is a strong network of civic organisations. No matter how the roles of the government and the labour market organisations will be set up in the future, at least up till now they have managed to have good cooperation.
Looking at the developments in the Finnish labour market policy over the past fifty years, we find that the most obvious feature is this increase in cooperation. Despite isolated polarisations, labour conflicts have decreased, the level of restraint has risen, the readiness to negotiate has increased and an air of conciliation has taken the place of the desire to squash one’s opponents.
Walking in someone else’s shoes
The need for cooperation rises out of humanity. Even the strongest individual cannot live alone but needs others. "No man is an island", but rather a section of a vast archipelago. Other people are not simply here to meet our needs, but serving them is the purpose of our lives. We are here for one another.
Walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the deepest universal adages and in its own way one of the core truths in the Christian faith. Most religions and ethical systems are united by the so-called Golden Rule, according to which we are to do for others what we wish them to do for us. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus expresses this in the following manner: "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you." (Matthew 7:12)
Genuine cooperation and ethics are based on the fact that we are prepared to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see life and the world from her perspective.
The principle of the Golden Rule, however, extends far deeper than just to ethics in the Christian faith. When Jesus Christ, God’s Son, became human in this human world, he did not think of his own position, "…who… did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6–8)
While Christ is an ethical example of what we are to do in dealing with one another, he is much more: God among us, the bringer of mercy, and Grace, the Saviour of the entire world.