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PEOPLE AND THINGS – Priests and politics

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE AND THINGS – Priests and politics

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The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. – Luke 4:18
The declaration by Reverend Guy Arlington Kenneth Hewitt that he is considering seeking the nomination for the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in Christ Church West has caught the interest of the Press and public and provoked a discussion on the extent to which it is appropriate for an active minister of theology to pursue political office. 
I believe myself to be well qualified to speak on the issue since I am theoretically trained in political discourse, exposed to the rigours of its practice and agnostic; so I am without bias on the religious side.
A few weeks ago, in the course of discussing irrelevant sections of the Caribbean constitutions, mention was made of Section 44:1 (c) which was removed in 1981, paving the way for priests like reverends Hewitt and Joseph Atherley to seek political office. The removal of this section however raises questions about the logic of its inclusion. 
This logic is located in the framer’s desire to keep the church and state well separated. In those times, it was seen as improper for any Member of Parliament to be subject to the authority of a spiritual power or his/her temporal designate as is represented in the leadership of the church.
The extent to which ancient logic is not sufficient reason to retain laws is well encapsulated in one statement made by Thomas Jefferson. He said: “. . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind [and] institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
The political arena is now a very different place and the religious institutions now appear to understand their proper role in our development. Moreover, it can be argued that if politics benefits considerably from the perspective offered by lawyers, doctors, accountants and engineers, why should it not also benefit from the enlightened perspective of a priest?  
In all these instances, persons who serve in this leadership capacity agree to “put down” their professional mantle and subject themselves to the leadership of the party or country in pursuit of a more immediate developmental good. At no time would a doctor in politics ever believe himself not to be constrained by the Hippocratic Oath and the same logic should be applied to the priest whose oaths are no less compelling. 
Instead, one can argue that oaths, philosophical commitments and professional allegiances add considerably to the richness of the fabric that is politics today.
Although I cannot speak on behalf of the church, I am persuaded that the pursuit of political office is entirely consistent with the mission of the more progressive priests who identify with liberation theology. 
Consistent with the biblical quotation above, liberation theologians believe themselves to have a role addressing the plight of the oppressed, and what better tool to employ in this regard than the tool of political office. 
Interestingly enough, political activism differs little from the work of Jesus Christ, since He too was a politician if the true meaning of that vocation is properly employed; hence Christians should have little difficulty with a priest in politics.
The one legitimate concern regarding the priest in politics is the possibility that he or she might be inclined to exploit that designation in the pursuit of political office. This advantage however presupposes several things, not least of which is the assumption that the church provides a larger captive audience than the local rum shop. 
There is also the extent to which the priest’s flock is local or imported from across the island in cars and buses and if the said priest is contesting in the area in which he works.
Then there is the larger question of whether the priest might suggest that it is God’s will that he or she be elected and if so, would people believe him or her.
This issue is complex; however anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of us don’t take too seriously or adhere to the vast majority of advice given in the church. 
Finally, on the issue of this particular priest, I can perhaps shed some light on his “suitability” for political office since I know the individual and was fortunate enough to attend his ordination several years ago. Hewitt is certainly not the type of person one expects to enter the priesthood since he is a “regular” type of guy. 
In a world where one assumes that the priest resembles Jesus in terms of perfection, persons like Hewitt stand out since we can all see more of ourselves in him, which presents a level of honesty in the priesthood that I find refreshing.
In several instances, I find common ground with Hewitt, which is most ironic since I am agnostic, demonstrating the extent to which this priest is not judgemental and is the type of person who can identify with the diversity that is Barbados today. 
Nothing contained in the foregoing is intended to suggest that he is necessarily the best candidate. Instead, this suggestion is that a person who has been called to the service of the Lord should not by virtue of that act be excluded from consideration for this level of public service.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).