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Politics of Scripture

A Political Theology of Election(s)

Despite meeting all the eligibility criteria, Peter and the men disciples did not regard the women and mother Mary to be considered for this new post of apostleship. They were looking to choose ‘one of the men’ who would meet the criteria.

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”

21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” 23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 NRSV

2024 is a year of elections across the world. Russia, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, European Union, India, UK, US, just to name a few countries, have general elections this year. It has been reported in Time magazine that 2024 is the ultimate election year with at least 64 countries going for polls, representing a combined population of 49% of the people in the world choosing their leaders, and the results of which will prove consequential for the years to come in shaping the political landscape of our world..  

As I write this reflection, India is reeling not only under the heat of the summer scorching sun, but also is reeling under the heat of political fever with the ongoing general elections happening in seven phases spread across 44 days, with nearly 960 million voters, which is the biggest and largest election the world has seen. Though the intentions of electioneering process have been to take democracy to the corners of India and to give every voter a voice and a choice, it has been very unfortunate that the political parties fight elections with might, muscle, money, market, religion, and caste power. It is horrendous to notice that election campaigns in India today run on caste lines where, ‘cast your vote and vote your caste’ takes centre stage. The state elections in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India exemplifies how the major political parties are appeasing various caste groups to gain power. It is also atrocious to see and hear the kind of hate speeches made by leaders and candidates against their opponents. Anti-muslim speeches have increased dramatically by the major political parties and their leaders in power. Indian opposition parties have criticized the Prime Minister for such hate speeches. Their speeches are so inflammatory that voters’ minds and sentiments are fired up, pitching one community against the other, playing politics based on religion and caste. Alluring voters with freebies and monies is another aspect of the elections in India. 

Another important aspect in the context of Indian elections that calls for attention is the (under) representation of women. With about 471 million women voters in India today, political parties do all they can to win over them. But when it comes to giving them sufficient representation, the record is abysmal. In 2019 general elections, only 9% of the total candidates who contested were women. Gender inequality continues to be a growing reality in Indian polity despite some affirmative actions like the ‘women’s reservation bill’ which mandated the reservation of one third of legislative seats for women. Patriarchy ensures that the powerful men get more powerful with their muscle, money and caste power, conveniently excluding women to be represented in Indian electoral politics. 

If politics is about ‘polis’ (people and polity), and if elections are about choosing leaders who can serve the ‘polis,’ then how can we redeem and reclaim politics and the elections from the clutches of the powerful so that the spirit of democracy is affirmed? It is through diverse inclusion, where those on the margins are consciously included and represented.  

In the current context of elections, how do faith communities engage with election(s) from a theological perspective? How does a political theology of election(s) offer insights about those who are included in – and excluded from – electoral processes? By having ‘s’ in parentheses in election(s) I intend to acknowledge how a political theology of election(s) is not about God’s choice of a people for salvation as in the theology of ‘election’ but is rather about discussing the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the electoral political systems today, where God chooses to be on the side of the excluded. 

On this Sunday of Ascensiontide, from the reading of Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, we read about the first election in the early church to fill in the role of the apostleship that Judas Iscariot left from among the twelve disciples of Jesus. Two names are brought forward, Barsabbas and Matthias. The disciples prayed and they simply chose lots, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was added to the eleven apostles. Sam Candler calls these two people, Barsabbas and Matthias, whose names have been put forward for the first church election process as “the patron saints of elections!” Indeed they are both pioneers of elections, which is about choosing the process for leaders in the early church, and for me, they are also the first candidates who were brave in allowing themselves to be publicly scrutinized, meeting the set eligibility criteria to become an apostle.

Why in the first place should Peter and his other men disciples go for an election of choosing a new apostle on their team? What is the purpose of the elections? Peter stands up in the assembly of 120 people and proof-texts from the scriptures, particularly Psalms 69 and 109, both of which are psalms of David and psalms of vindication. Peter explains the need to replace Judas among the twelve. Since it was within the settings of the early church, grounding the need to choose a person based on scriptural texts seems appropriate though Peter’s hermeneutical usage of the texts in this case is unsavoury and de-political. Though Peter was engaging in a politics of his own, but for me, any usage of scriptural texts to meet to the needs of one’s own political agendas not only diminishes the relevance of the revelation of God through the word but also depoliticises the text and the context of the text.  

It would have been helpful if Peter explained the need for the twelfth person on the team of apostles was to serve, care, offer pastoral support to the 120 gathered disciples and beyond, and for that purpose to be met, the early church needed a right candidate and so an election was inevitable. If the purpose of the election was also to bring in a person with new blood, new gifts, new visions, new ideas and new energy into the team ministry of apostles, why did Peter and his men disciples go for a narrow apostolic election, when there were many other women disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus with them? These women devoted themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 1:14). 

In a patriarchal world, the men disciples conveniently disregarded women’s leadership and denied apostleship to their women colleagues. On Easter Day, Peter and the rest of the men disciples not only discarded the news that the women disciples brought to them about Jesus’ resurrection as an idle tale, but also disbelieved them (Luke 24:11). Women in the early church were left to be ‘no people,’ invisible, and unrepresented. Perhaps the first suffragette should have begun in the early church, then the course of history would have been different. A political theology of election(s) is about representation with a preferential option to those on the margins so that their voices are heard in governance and polity. When certain people today have been excluded in the arena of politics based on their gender, caste, race, and colour, institutions like churches should be at the forefront of encouraging the unrepresented and under-represented people to contest in elections.

When Peter and the male disciples announced the vacancy for a member on their team, they firstly agreed on three eligibility criteria for that role (Acts 1:21-22). The first criterion was that the nominated person should be one who accompanied the disciples during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them. Secondly, that accompaniment was not partial, but had been right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, from John’s baptism to when Jesus was taken up from them. Thirdly, the person to be nominated must become a co-witness with the rest of his disciples to Jesus’ resurrection. The intention of setting the eligibility criteria for a role is an expression of their expectations for that role. In the early church, the criteria for a candidate were based on the experiences one has with Jesus Christ and the willingness to be a witness to the gospel of Jesus’ new life experience. 

For me there can be no better candidate to meet these criteria than the Easter women disciples and mother Mary who were devoting their time in prayer and fellowship with Peter and the men disciples that have set the criteria. These women were the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. They were with Jesus throughout his ministry, including at the Good Friday and Easter events where the male disciples deserted, denied and betrayed Jesus. They have been accompanying the disciples during all the time when Jesus went out with them. Despite meeting all the eligibility criteria, Peter and the men disciples did not regard the women and mother Mary to be considered for this new post of apostleship. They were looking to choose ‘one of the men’ who would meet the criteria. Women were categorically excluded to be considered, for the pressures of the patriarchal world conveniently sidelined women leadership in the early church, which continues even in our world and church today. Though the women disciples met all the set criteria, they are un-choiced, they are forgotten, they are unrepresented, they are marginalized, and their voices have no place in this episode. The role of political theology of election(s) is to interrogate who is included and who is excluded and call on the citizens to have a preferential gaze to those excluded, listening to their voices, ensuring equity, equality and parity of all people irrespective of their identities to be represented and celebrated. 

For the way Peter and the men disciples discarded, disregarded and disbelieved the witness of women disciples about Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Day, it would have been a redeeming moment had they chosen and appointed a women disciple to be their co-apostle. It would have been a historic moment, if Peter and the men disciples chose and appointed a women disciple as one of the co-apostles with them, celebrating the equal image of God among all genders. 

The missional calling of this text is to strive for a conscious inclusion of people on the margins to be represented and elected onto leadership roles. This text is a wake up call to the church and the political parties to walk the talk about women representation. Over the period of time, the world has realized how women representatives contribute to improving development outcomes. Representation is a justice issue, inclusion is a democratic issue and equality is a constitutional issue in our world today. The role of faith(s) is to ensure representation of the unrepresented and under-represented is vitally addressed, conscious inclusion of those excluded communities is strived for, and equality of all people is affirmed. The election and selection of women and people on the margins should not be a mere act of tokenism to tick the box of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, but should be a genuine calling of Christian discipleship celebrating the gifts of people of all genders and identities.  

To conclude, where is the divine in this text? For me the divine in this text is located and heard from the women disciples and Mary, mother of Jesus who were conveniently disregarded and discarded to be the apostles in those elections. Their suffragette cries of not being considered for the apostleship challenges me to stand for people who are categorically excluded from elections and leadership roles, for God in Jesus journeys with them. A political theology of election(s) for all the nations today is about the kingdom of God, is about inclusion of those on the margins by defeating all forms of exclusions, is about people who live up the call of serving people through politics and is about locating the divine among the excluded in our societies. May 2024, the election year across the world, brings out the best results with leaders committing and working for peace, equality and justice for all through their policies and governance.

God of all nations and God of all generations,
We pray for the election year across the world.
May your Spirit grant people wisdom and understanding so that
Leaders who uphold values of democracy, secularism, dignity, and justice be chosen
To govern countries in truth, love, peace and integrity.
Give nations leaders who are committed to serve selflessly
For the cause of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable,
So that the excluded are liberated,
the strangers are welcomed,
those on the margins are empowered,
where diversity is respected, rights are affirmed,
and mutual flourishing is celebrated.
Into that heaven of freedom, O God, let our countries awake. Amen.

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