Exploring the non-partisan nature of The Salvation Army’s engagement in the public sphere. What place does politics have in a life of faith?
Local body elections have just been held across New Zealand. We’ve seen billboards at every intersection, and our letterboxes have overflowed with pamphlets proclaiming the policies and merit of the candidates. It makes you think: what place does politics have in a life of faith?
Some people consider religion is a private matter, confined to the spiritual world and inappropriate in the public arena. If that is so then, for the Christian, political debate should be avoided and political action shunned. That is, after all, the true meaning of what is it to be apolitical—it means having no interest or involvement in politics.
But The Salvation Army is not an apolitical movement, even though it is sometimes described in those terms—even by Salvationists. On the contrary, our co-founder William Booth was keenly interested in politics because he was keenly interested in people. The word ‘politics’ has its origins in the word polis meaning the ‘life of the city’. If politics is about living together in community then all of life is political.
For William Booth, engaging with political issues made sense because it was a key means to address people’s needs and seek to bring about social justice and wellbeing.
Said Booth: Our work is to deliver people by turning them away from the iniquities. That is a fundamental principle. But we want help in that matter from the government.
We want our lawmakers to make just laws …
The Salvation Army is a politically non-partisan movement. Our International Positional Statement on The Salvation Army and the State declares:
Although (The Salvation Army) seeks to influence governmental and public affairs, it will not promote or endorse specific candidates or political parties. In working with any State or its agencies, The Salvation Army seeks to promote biblical values, including justice, truth, mercy, equity, human rights and peace, as part of its religious convictions and practice.
This non-partisan stance on political engagement has its origins in the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament. The biblical prophets were participants in the politics of their time—they experienced the reality of people’s suffering, they befriended those failed by their governments and their policies, they denounced abuses of power, and they spoke out of a vision of how things might be, rather than settling for the status quo.
The Salvation Army believes the church has a mission to meet people’s social, economic, spiritual and emotional needs. But helping people find answers to their challenges may require more than a service that meets their immediate need; it may require a different kind of involvement to address the reasons those challenges exist. Accordingly, The Salvation Army speaks into the world of politics on behalf of the invisible and marginalised, as well as rolling up our sleeves to work alongside the invisible and marginalised to help them form new ways of doing life.
In this way a lot of good has been accomplished, but there have been mistakes along the way, such as our lack of wisdom in the way we approached the Homosexual Law Reform debate in 1986. Since that time we have reflected deeply as a movement on our actions and the hurtful way some members publicly expressed their views. In jointly-issued statements with Rainbow Wellington in 2012, The Salvation Army acknowledged our official opposition to the Reform Bill was deeply hurtful to many, and pledged to rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue between our movement and the Rainbow community.
Rather than withdraw from political engagement, it is incumbent on Salvationists to apply the learning from such experiences, engaging in the political issues of our time in ways that not only promote the ideas embodied in our biblical values of justice, truth, mercy and peace, but also to exemplify them in our conduct.
Individual Salvationists are not bound by the non-partisan stance of the movement itself—we have people of all kinds of political persuasions in our ranks, as well as many who have never become involved in any form of political engagement.
The following suggestions are particularly for those who see the importance of engaging more effectively as Christians and Salvationists in the political life of our nation, but are unsure where to start …
Jesus said his disciples are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13–16), exerting influence in our communities in the way we go about doing life. This tradition of political engagement as a vital expression of our Christian faith is evidenced with our Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit.
Established in 2004, this unit paved the way for the opening of the Army’s International Social Justice Commission in 2008. The latter’s vision captures well the aim of all Salvationists in the political sphere today: ‘To amplify the voices of poor, marginalised and oppressed people and translate their real-life insights into policies, practices and life-giving opportunities.’
Susan Howan is a member of the Moral and Social Issues Council (MASIC) and a soldier of Wellington South Corps. She has worked in the public service for over 30 years.
by Susan Howan (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 15 October 2016, pp20-21
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.