Politics, Theology

Personal and political: a basis for a more radical theology

1) The relationship between people and society

personal and social 1

This diagram shows the basic relationship at the core of all sociology: between people and the society in which they live.

Each person is an individual who lives within a social environment. This is the way God created life to be, we are social beings made for community.

The nature of this relationship between people and society is at the core of political debate. The left tends to emphasise social responsibility and the right personal responsibility. Karl Marx believed that the economic social conditions into which people are born completely determine their life chances.  In contrast, Margaret Thatcher declared ‘There is no such thing as society’ because she wanted to emphasise personal responsibility.

2) The radical impact of selfishness

personal and social 2However, we live in a world where this relationship between people and society is so often oppressive. It is fractured by individual selfishness and acts of corporate self-interest.

We see it everyday, from individual acts of aggression and abuse, to the corporations who continually flout the laws and rip people off. Selfishness is embedded and compounded in unjust social conditions where rampant inequality creates poverty and vulnerability.

Our whole social order – the economic, political and religious, has been warped by these self-regarding tendencies. There is a ‘crack in everything’ which the Bible calls sin. It expresses itself in both idolatry (failure to love God) and injustice (failure to love our neighbour) and is manifested in both in individual choices and in the corporate and structures. Rather than being a way of judging others, sin is the best way of explaining the mess that the world is in.

3) The radical impact of the good news of Jesus Christ

personal and social 3

The gospel of Jesus is good news which changes both people and systems. It speaks to our deepest personal needs because it is a message of affirmation, forgiveness and liberation.  But it is no individualistic ‘escape ticket to heaven’.  It is news which Jesus defined as bringing ‘good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and a release to the oppressed’.

Inward change leads to outward action. A transformed individual seeks to transform the world around them through their actions. This is the essence of a radical gospel: rooted in personal commitment and expressed in social and political witness. A faith which can speak to both to our deepest personal needs and provide a vision of a transformed society.

This diagram was adapted from one in Bryant Myer’s brilliant book ‘Walking with the Poor

7 thoughts on “Personal and political: a basis for a more radical theology”

  1. Excellent article, Jon. As you invite theological interaction, I want to offer the thought that sin can be (and perhaps usually is) something more active than “failure to love…”. It may be more valuable to think of idolatry as “pursuing love for other objects than God” and injustice as “pursuing love for self above others”. I am thinking of psalm 1:1, which has sin in three dimensions: active pursuit, a stifling influence on others and passive indifference. I know you can’t get all of that into a simple diagram!


  2. OUtward action only follows if we understand the inward change as effecting the entire person, Too often Christian gnosticism has led to us separating soul from mind and body so that we preach a gospel that focuses on saving souls and forgetting that the Bible teaches that we are indivisible body, mind and spirit. Consequently we think that Christianity is a personal, spiritual phenomenon that does not call for outward expression in positive action.


    1. Hi Geoffrey – thanks for the comment. I would completely agree. The challenge of Jesus is to follow him – with everything we have – not just mental assent to a set of beliefs which remain within ourselves and only expressed in church.


  3. It would be consistent to say ‘personal change leads to social action and social change leads to personal action.’ After all, inward and outward starts to chop us up into bits which the rest of the good article avoids. I do believe the radical gospel is rooted in both our (meaning people in togetherness) personal and social commitment and witness. In the final paragraph, emphasising transformed individuals over transformed society has the danger of loosing the thrust of the rest of the article which suggests an inseparable interdependence of the personal and the social.


    1. Hi Joe – thanks for reading and for your comment. I think its a good point and I would agree that this diagram emphasises the inseparability of ‘the person and the social order’ which is the title that Myers gives it in its original form. I did not mean to ‘over-emphasise transformed individuals over a transformed society’ but I think I am concerned to always maintain the priority of personal agency. It may well be my evangelicalism which prompts it, but I feel that personal beliefs are the core from which social activism flows. I like the Temple quote: ‘If we have to choose between making men Christian, and the social order more Christian, we have to choose the former, but there is no such antithesis.’ Temple was right – these two emphasises cannot be separated – but he was also right in recognising their order of dependence on each other. The gospel must transform individuals if it is to transform society. (I explore this in greater length in this chapter from the book ‘Crossover City’ http://resistanceandrenewal.net/ethics/resisting-tribal-theology-and-going-deeper-together/


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