These are the days of Elijah...and Obadiah too

Ian Geary, Executive Member of Christians on the Left, explores two Bible characters who have a lot to teach us as we prepare for the General Election.

As the General Election approaches many churches in the United Kingdom will rightly want to take seriously this important national political moment.  Churches will pray for the election and the candidates. They might perhaps hold ‘hustings’ debates to facilitate a serious discussion of the key issues. A key driver will be a sincere desire to be ‘salt and light’ and an influence for good as the election proceeds.

The Church of England recently made a positive and welcome contribution to debate, seeking a ‘ for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take’. In a letter aptly entitled ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The House of Bishops stressed that the key election issues highlight the need for ‘..a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be’. Given the challenges we face, we need more not less emphasis upon a common good approach to political life.

Of course engagement and interest may vary and Christians are not immune from the culture we live in and attitudes that prevail. As the election draws near we will be reminded (very swiftly I expect) that we are in the midst of a time of deep disenchantment with politics and politicians.  The reasons for this are complex and this perception will filter down to Christians. In response the SHOW UP campaign, a positive Christian initiative is attempting to highlight the positive need for Christian engagement in public life up to the election and beyond.  Such endeavours are vitally important particularly when there will be a lot of anti-political ‘noise’.

However my specific concern is this: How do we uphold the good that is done in politics and not lose sight of the central purposes of God’s Kingdom and the significant place of the church? How can we be political and not lose our prophetic edge?

In seeking to unpack this question I find 1 Kings 18 and the story of Elijah and Obadiah a helpful starting point. It reminds us of the need to remain faithful to the Kingdom and also to be wisely and thoughtfully engaged in politics.

This passage suggests a dynamic interaction between Obadiah who works within the ‘system’ and Elijah who challenges the ‘system’ and the powers in his role as a prophet. Both are valid, but not equally. I would submit that Elijah is the fulcrum of the story. We see the value of Obadiah’s faithfulness but it is Elijah who confronts Ahab and the pagan prophets.

Through the account of Elijah and Obadiah we learn that good can be achieved within the system, that revelation shapes prophetic action and that the Kingdom is the ultimate source of authority and is not subject to the temporal powers.

In the passage in question we see that Obadiah who faithfully serves King Ahab has achieved good whilst in that role. We are told in verse (4) that he had protected one hundred prophets from death at the hands of Jezebel and in verses five (5) and six (6) he is sent to see if grass can be found to feed the animals as a famine was besetting Samaria.   Crucially we see that he is an active believer, his faith is not nominal. In verse twelve (12) he pleads with Elijah that he has ‘..worshipped the Lord since my youth’. Thus godly devotion and political service are not incompatible. Discipleship and spiritual formation makes for good politics.

Obadiah underlines the fact that good can be achieved in politics, even though any earthly system of governance is flawed. Politics reflects God’s rule albeit in a limited and constrained manner. God by his grace is at work through the gospel message of his incarnated son who came to redeem all things.  God’s plan is to restore all things (Acts 3v21) and that means he is interested in every human activity and institution.  Therefore, politics cannot be immune from the reach of God’s amazing love, indescribable grace and the extension of his Kingdom.

It must be possible to appreciate God’s plan of ultimate redemption and respect where through political action and struggle justice and righteousness have prevailed. Political action in the United Kingdom has seen health care established, minimum standards in the labour market, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the foundation of the welfare state following years of destitution in parts of the country. Those who criticise politics in a blanket and cynical way should reflect on their lazy thinking when they overlook these important achievements. Prophetic engagement by the church should not inadvertently endorse this attitude (which feeds populist politics) and in some respect is generated by the parts of the press interested in sensation and excessive negativity.  Many politicians in all parties enter the profession with some measure of good motives, however defined.  Again this does not mean that they are perfect or indeed the system cannot be improved but our assessment of politics must be clear and balanced. MPs and local councillors work long hours serving their community and constituents, helping people who have no voice and little resources. This is barely mentioned in the national discourse. There are many Obadiah’s in the UK, serving their local community through politics and achieving good. This might be limited and temporary but it should be acknowledged.  

Of course the Obadiah analogy is not confined to politics, good can be realised in all manners of public life and community work such as being a school governor, journalist, business person, classroom assistant or road sweeper. My concern, experience and reflection is focussed on the political realm. If we can appreciate the virtue of pragmatism, then we can understand how Obadiah saved the lives of the prophets and how Wilberforce was single minded in challenging the slave trade. Obadiah is a pragmatist, he has the ability to gets things done.

What we don’t know is the things that Obadiah didn’t do, perhaps the things he did because he had to do but would rather not have wanted to and things he did that might look dubious to our ‘modern eyes’. We don’t know. All Christian politicians will need to know that there is a time to comply and a time to defy the established political order. This is not a straightforward matter. It calls for discernment and grace.

And now to Elijah. I would submit that if Obadiah signifies legitimate political service as mission, then perhaps Elijah is representative of the Kingdom of God. We see that from verse one (1) it is the word of God, his prophetic revelation which sets the scene for the activity: ‘…the word of the Lord came to Elijah’. Could this be an encouragement and corrective to all of us? We need to seek God’s guidance and word in all our activity. Without it the scene is set by humanistic and secular assumptions and well-meaning liberalism dressed up as Christianity. We are not here to endorse the liberal social, political and economic order. Engagement with the political culture should not mean we become assimilated to its presuppositions.

We see that Elijah carries God’s authority and Obadiah recognises this, in verse seven (7) he bows down at the sight of Elijah and calls him ‘ lord’. Elijah then instructs Obadiah to tell Ahab that he is here. Elijah is confident, aware of his mission and unbeholden to the powers. This is why we must never conflate the temporary, important work of politics with the Kingdom or see the Kingdom and church as somehow ‘marginal’.  Politics is important and can make a difference, but it is imperfect and imperfectible, limited, hollow and it cannot save, transform and redeem. Of course much of political discourse acts to mask and conceal this fact. Like Elijah the church is to know its mission, to be clear on its role and speak truth to power and not ‘baptise’ and sacralise earthly powers. There will be tension and there should be. I heard the American preacher Louis Giglio preach in 2013 and say that the world thinks that the church is marginal to it when in reality the world is marginal to the church. This may sound arrogant but I would submit that it is true. We need to be absolutely clear on this. We cannot do politics without theology and unless we get our theology right our politics will be wonky.

Finally, Elijah is simply not beholden to the powers. Obadiah who works within the system fears for his life (the powers like all Empires rule through fear and as feeble humans this will impact us) but Elijah won’t have any of it. He must present himself to Ahab. See verse fifteen ’…As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today’. See the operative principles: God lives, we serve him and we must surely do his will. Everything else is commentary. Walter Brueggemann describes Elijah as someone on a ‘…rampage of transformative action, confronting and challenging the power of the throne and creating, beyond royal control, zones of new life that defy any normal explanation’.

How can we operate in the community, politics, commercial and social sphere and create these ‘zones of new life’? This election is important for many reasons but there is a bigger, deeper and richer story of God’s politics, his rule and reign which is life giving.

The last twenty years has seen a growing appreciation that evangelism and social action are integrated activities. Flowing from this Christian engagement in politics has taken a fresh, more positive tone within the mainstream. Yet, my sense is that there is much more to do in our engagement and crucially in our theology.

I believe that we need both an affirmation of the legitimacy of political service and a more mature understanding of the political dimensions of the church in an eschatological sense. We also need a wise understanding of the powers. In these endeavours a reflection on the example of Obadiah and Elijah is a helpful starting point from which to set our compass.