Subsidiarity and Local Politics

In last week’s Christian Political Action podcast I spoke to Revd Luke Larner about his experience as a priest in the Church of England, practical theology, trade unions, and more. While speaking to Luke about his work in the Church as a priest, his PhD, and trade unions, the thing that stood out to me was his emphasis on the practical and the local. I agree with Luke that much of theology, even theology which calls itself practical theology, remains detached from the material contexts that people find themselves in. As such we need to turn to both the practical and the local in our theology and politics. 

Fairly early in the conversation Luke mentions the fact that when we talk about politics what we are essentially talking about is the polis. Polis being the Greek root of the word politics, which is defined in the Meriam Webster dictionary as “a state or society especially when characterised by a sense of community.” There is a connection between place and people, country and community. By focusing on this understanding of politics and our political belonging in our own geographical and social contexts we can consider the ways in which we can take effective political action. If we confine politics to the realm of Westminster, the UN, parliaments and politicians, then we miss out on the type of political action which can affect change in our communities, workplaces, and neighbourhoods. 

In the episode with Luke, he mentions the concept of subsidiarity which is important for our political engagement at a local level. Subsidiarity refers to the idea that political decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level or as close as possible to where they will have an effect. For example, decisions about funding for education should be taken by local governments who know the needs of local schools and children rather than at a national level. However, subsidiarity goes beyond just the idea of local government with city councils and local authorities. Subsidiarity can be applied to our workplaces through the mechanism of trade unions, to our communities through mutual aid groups, and to our churches through promoting a culture of democracy and lay involvement. 

Campaigning for a better world doesn’t always start with fighting for change at a national level, rather by acting locally where we are not only more likely to see change but we can gain the skills necessary for those larger and more ambitious national and global campaigns on issues that affect us all. For example, acting for safer and more accessible infrastructure and public transport in our local area can equip us with the knowledge and skills required for campaigning for a fully nationalised and sustainable transport system across the UK. Just look at successful local campaigns like the campaign for better transport and get Glasgow moving. By asking local councillors for more green space and getting involved in community gardens, we can come to learn of the mental and physical benefits of gardening, green space, and nature and be equipped with the experiential knowledge required to campaign with passion for rewilding, sustainable town planning, and national infrastructure plans that are considerate of our environment. Working together for trade union recognition in our workplaces and getting involved in the politics of trade unionism can equip and inspire us in campaigning for workers’ rights and an increased minimum wage more broadly. 

As was mentioned by Revd Dr. Doug Gay in our first episode of the Christian Political Action podcast series, an introduction to political theology the various forms of political theology (feminist, liberation, queer etc.) are produced out of specific historical and geographical contexts. Similarly in the latest episode with Luke we discuss the context of liberation theologies and the need for them to engage with both praxis and geographical, historical, and material context. It is not enough for us to accept the broad principles of liberation theology and other radical expressions of theology as an abstract idea as these concepts are birthed out of particular experiences, and as such the work of liberation theology is something we can all aspire to do. Latin American liberation theology does not map on to the predominantly white, western context of 21st century Britain. As we engage with God and with local struggles against poverty, environmental degradation, exclusion, and the intersecting structures of power that oppose change we can discern the call of the holy spirit to seek liberation in our own homes, workplaces, and communities. 

The spirit of God is not a static force leading us to contemplation of the correct political theory but rather the breath of life infusing us with power, courage, and resilience as we act, which allows for the kingdom of God to break through in to the here and now. This is not to say there is no place for political theory, but it is to say along with Gustavo Gutierrez that “all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution and of liberation, are not worth one genuine act of solidarity with exploited social classes.” In the same way that the incarnation of Christ occurred in a specific historical, geographical, and political context, our political witness is the same. The incarnation was God acting in solidarity with us, “the word made flesh,” and our political witness should also be expressed in action, following the words of the Lord’s prayer “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”