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I have followed the debate about clergy involvement in the upcoming elections over the past few weeks with keen interest. While I suspect the comments made by the chairman of the Barbados Christian Council (BXC) and Monsignor Vincent Blackett were misinterpreted, the discussion on a whole is important and timely.
Once more we come to the question of the level and quality of involvement by the church and her leaders in political life. Many of us still remember the experience of “first Sunday” pronouncements by the Dean of St Michael’s Cathedral and the many challenges issued to the nation through that medium in the 1980s. No matter where you stood on the political or secular spectrum, you were forced to take note and even, in some cases, respond. As in the case of the neighbouring territory of Antigua and Barbuda, a change in Barbados’ Government was, in no small measure, attributed to a single sermon.
For better or worse, our national and regional societies have changed. The voice of the church seems less influential, widespread or even welcomed. However, this is no reason for clerics to retreat from taking positions on points of morality, justice, faith (including culture) and social accountability. The point of departure for most Christians is around “partisan politics” which, unfortunately, has become extremely polarising and divisive.
Politics is essentially about how we live, thrive and share a common social, political and economic space, which unmistakably are matters that the faith community must be concerned about. The faith community must never be a passive observer but an equal and active partner at the table of the governance process.
In light of an impending and inevitably keenly contested general election, there are vital roles for the faith community in general and the Christian church in particular, to play. Firstly, we must ensure we have the moral authority, integrity and neutrality to do so. It is imperative that the heads of churches, BXC, Barbados Evangelical Association and Pentecostal Assemblies of the West Indies come together for a time of reflection, fasting, prayer and unity building. This will be a painful but necessary exercise if they are to emerge under the anointing of the Holy Spirit to speak with one voice, and not be used by others as a tool for manipulation, legitimacy or rubber-stamping.
Secondly, these leaders could offer themselves to the various parties contesting the election in three powerful ways. The first is as spiritual directors to the parties in general. We are the servants of the same people, and we recognise that citizens are more than names on an electoral list. The clergy can play a pivotal role in journeying with party leaders, in a non-biased way, keeping in focus the dignity of the human person in every political action and interaction. It is too easy in the ‘‘cut and thrust’’ of a campaign to sink to levels which demean persons or debase the noble ideals of a political party.
Thirdly, the faith community could also provide counsellors and spiritual advisors to every candidate in every party and where necessary, even to those running as independents. Few of us in this small community can truly appreciate the havoc which a campaign plays on family life in general and marriages in particular. Some of the best citizens evade involvement in political life not because of issues of personal competence or willingness, but out of a commitment to the preservation of their family life.
Beyond the slurs, open insults and innuendoes of the political platform, there is the taunting of children, threatening calls and on some occasions, fear for the general safety and welfare of relatives. As a nation, we lose out on the service of good men and women, who see this particular “dark side” as too high a personal price for them to pay.
Fourthly, there could be an inter-faith council established that receives complaints of immoral illegal or unacceptable behaviour: violence, abuse, threatening behaviour; slander; vote-buying and the like, and meets with political leaders periodically during the campaign to address such matters.
There is, therefore, a distinctive role for church leaders and lay faithful to play in elective politics. The above proposed model would go well beyond the need for a “code of conduct” to be enforced (and as we know, those are more often breached than adhered to and respected).
The nature and level of involvement is something which must be decided on by each Christian, guided by church rules, traditions, a sound interpretation ofHoly Scripture (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:23) and above all, an answer to the ultimate question: “Will this action impede or help promote my proclamation of the lived Gospel of Jesus Christ?”
– REV. DR MARCUS LASHLEY