Worried about how Christianity gets treated in the political realm? Join a party for God’s sake (and your neighbour’s).

Do you ever feel like Christianity is profoundly misunderstood by those outside the fold? Do you feel maligned by the way the church is spoken about by the ‘left-wing media’ and by those with ‘progressive’ political agendas?

Are you worried about religious freedom, or that Australian culture is falling apart, in part because it is ignoring the Christian framework and heritage underpinning many of the good things and institutions that keep our society together?

Are you a Victorian Christian feeling like the state Labor government has some pernicious agenda to wipe you out of public life?

Are you at the point of wondering whether the approach of ‘lobbying’ is actually working, or even an approach to worldly power that Christians should be adopting?

Are you perhaps frustrated by the fruit borne by the approach to the political sphere that looks like starting a ‘Christian’ party, or ‘Christian lobbying’ that seems to get its agenda from the ‘political right’ or some sort of moralistic framework that seems far too interested in sex or Christian self-interest?

Are you a total Mike Baird fan boy, or fan girl?

It’s possible you answered yes to one or more of these questions; if so, might I humbly submit a solution.

Join a political party, for God’s sake, and the sake of your neighbour. 

Get involved. Not because political solutions are solutions for every problem of modern life. Not to build some sort of Christian empire or the kingdom of God via the political process, but because some political problems actually require political solutions.

You know the thing about political parties in Australia… they’re democratic. They’re also, by lots of reports, struggling for numbers; and perhaps a chance for you to have a disproportionate influence on policy for the sake of your neighbours. You might even get to run for office; and so stand in the tradition of a long line of Christians who have been actively involved in government as a way to love and serve both God and country.

Perhaps the way to no longer be misunderstood is to make ourselves known by being part of the process (maybe we need Christians who pursue journalistic excellence in the mainstream press, so take their place in newsrooms and editorial meetings around the country too). Perhaps our tendency to build Christian cultural ghettos is coming back to roost; ironically as the state steps in to make those ghettos ‘less Christian’ (via legislation about employment discrimination); maybe the ironic and irenic response would be for Christians to stop blasting our politicians with screeds and lobbying campaigns, and rather, to go to where they are.

If regular church attendance in Victoria is in line with the national average (8%) then there are 456,800 church goers in Victoria. In the midst of a membership push and a reworking of the party’s framework a couple of years ago designed to give members more power, Kevin Rudd revealed the Labor Party has about 40,000 members nationally… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it… what it would look like if some of those 456,800 church attendees signed up and just started faithfully turning up to branch meetings?

The church needs both clean hands and dirty hands when it comes to politics

 

I’d like to propose three ways for us to think about being political citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world. Three ways that don’t necessarily overlap, but that we need to make space for in our conversations about politics within, and outside, the church.

  1. Clean hands: There’s certainly a role for Christians to have a prophetic voice from outside the political system; where we keep our hands ‘clean’ (and non-partisan) in order to call our leaders (and public) to an idealised vision of life together as global citizens. This voice might call for ‘political’ solutions via government, but it might also invite imaginative solutions from the ‘public’ (and Christians in the public) apart from professional politics. This is the sort of approach that recent posts on voting as a Christian and letter writing as a Christian have explored (though they’ve also worked on the assumption that the following two options are legitimate and important).
  2. Busy hands: Which leads to the second sort of ‘political’ work; the work that involves creating institutions that work for ‘political’ change in the broadest sense — ie meaningful change for the good of citizens of the ‘polis’ (be that local, state, national, or global). Christians have a great track record in starting these ‘institutions’ (including schools, charities, welfare agencies, hospitals, and more recently social enterprises that tackle particular problems. I believe we’ve dropped this from our thinking a little recently because we’ve been conditioned to see this third model as the way to make ‘real change’ happen.
  3. Dirty hands: The assumption in the modern west is that real change happens through policy-making. This is the trend that gave birth to the religious right, but that also underpins the progressive movement and its attempt to create a secular utopia via legislation. There’s also a need for other Christians to take up the challenge of getting our hands ‘dirty’ through involvement in the political process, in established political institutions (our political parties) in a manner that will ultimately involve the ‘suffering’ of compromise. The ‘dirty hands’ label comes from a talk I heard from Julia Gillard’s speechwriter/advisor Michael Cooney (mentioned here) on being a partisan political actor with an active faith; it draws on a political ethics essay by Michael Walzer that compares partisan actors who are willing to compromise in hard and messy political situations (and so dirty their hands) to achieve slightly more righteous ends to the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah.

Here’s some interesting analysis from a McCrindle Research post on some National Church Life Survey data (it is a few years old now).

The NCLS data (2011) shows that most Christians believe that Christians should be active in public policy through making public comment on policy issues (80% support this), advocating and lobbying governments (75%), and almost two-thirds (63%) believe that the church should publically advocate on policy issues, and more than two-thirds (68.5%) believe that church goers should campaign for global poverty and injustice issues.

It’s interesting that the questioning behind these results assumes the role of the church (institutionally) looks like the ‘clean hands’ option. It’s hard to make a distinction between the institution of ‘church’ and what members of the church do in the world if you’re a fan of the ‘priesthood of all believers’… and these categories obviously overlap a little because I’d expect politicians who are Christians to be politicians driven by convictions that their primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but an awareness that their role will involve some compromise, and I’d also expect them to be more open to hearing the voices of those with ‘clean hands’ (even if sometimes those idealised voices might be frustratingly detached from the real world of politics).

Personally I’ve figured out that I have a strong preference towards 2, with some parts of my job meaning that 1 (particularly being non-partisan) is important… But I would be incredibly supportive of people in my congregation joining (almost) any political party; from the Greens to the Libs, with a vision for being a faithful Christian voice in the policy discussions of those parties. I’m not suggesting engaging in the democratic party by stealth or takeover; but rather becoming part of established community institutions in order to offer a faithful presentation of what Christians believe, and policy solutions that come from a Christian imagination about what a good life in secular community might look like. We Christians have something to offer when it comes to inter-faith relations because the very nature of the history of the church is that we’ve emerged from other faiths and defined ourselves against those faiths while also being called to love our neighbours who disagree with us. Christians have long thought of themselves as ‘exiles’ living amongst people we’re called to love as part of our ‘citizenship’; and that has led Christians, historically, to all three positions outlined above.

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

If you want a precedent for getting involved in the political process (apart from Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, who managed to work in two of the Bible’s most anti-God regimes while being commended as ‘righteous’); look no further than Erastus, who Paul mentions in Romans 16. Erastus managed to rise to a form of political prominence in the Roman imperial regime in Corinth (then, of course, there’s Constantine).

Part of the more recent secularistion or ‘church in exile’ narrative acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian in a post-Christian age; but lots of our collective handwringing seems to forget that we’ve still got small bits of social capital to spend on the way out, and also that we were part of setting up lots of these institutions and still have some ability to ‘game the system’… we’ve just been too focused on other stuff. The nature of the sort of democratic approach to politics born out of Christian convictions about the inherent dignity of all people is that politics is still fundamentally (as much as it is influenced by other forces like lobbyists) a ‘numbers game’… and it’s the people who are in the meetings who get to set the policy agenda. This isn’t an invitation to grab power and to use it to beat up our enemies; that would be to make the mistake of the Christian right. It’s an invitation to consider what faithful presence in our civic institutions looks like in a way that makes space for different views and communities in our polis. It’s not about taking up the ‘sword’ of Government (as Romans describes civic rule), but figuring out how the cross of Jesus shapes an approach to the ‘sword’… The cross-shaped approach to politics isn’t about domination or wielding power and influence, but serving; it’s about knowing the limits of human political power, but also about offering oneself as a sacrifice, in this way, for the sake of our neighbours. That, incidentally, is the approach we see modelled in the Old Testament by exiles-in-political office.

I’d love to see Christians joining all our parties; from personal conviction, not simply to win a legislative bunfight out of self-interest (or group-interest). There’s not a policy platform out there that wouldn’t benefit from a Christian imagination being incorporated via the presence of more Christians. A Christian imagination shaped by the message of the Gospel and the understanding that Jesus is both true king and example; this sort of transformed imagination brings both:

a) a particular sort of altruism born from the recognition of the inherent, created, dignity and value of the marginalised or ‘less productive’ person, and
b) a particular vision of what a flourishing secular human society could be, where space is made to see individuals and communities with different convictions about life as neighbours to be loved, rather than enemies to be defeated (and even if people are ‘enemies’ we’re called to love them too).

These would be of benefit to the Liberal/National Coalition, to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to the Nick Xenophon Team, and you know, to One Nation as well. While I don’t want to totally outsource solutions to public life in Australia to the political realm, I’d love to see more Christians join these parties; rather than just sniping from the sidelines, or seeing our democratic participation exhausted at the ballot box or via a few letters here and there. I love the idea too, that Christians in partisan politics might model a better way of operating across the partisan divide (and this is where I think model 2 from the 3 above has real benefit in that it might create the sort of spaces that can unify people across this divide).

There are those writing about the situation for Christians in Victoria who seem to assume that ‘progressive politics’ (or the left) is, in itself, the enemy. I’d want to suggest that we all, as Christians, want some sort of ‘progress’ as a civilisation; we all want to be always reforming, or always transforming; and as Christians we have a particular kingdom shaped view of what progress looks like (and sometimes people in the past got it right, so real ‘progress’ for humanity might lie in conserving certain things). All our parties have ‘messy’ platforms and ideologies that are ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian-values’; so to do the broader ‘right’ and the ‘left’…  but there are also opportunities to bring goodness and truth to our neighbours within the parameters of each platform/ideology. The left tends to see the world ‘systematically’; where problems (like systemic injustice) need systemic solutions (like big government, and legislation that impacts ‘institutions’ or systems); and this does fit with a Christian understanding of sin (when sinful people get together it shouldn’t surprise us that they build systems marred by sin); the right tends to see problems and solutions resting with individuals. There’s a paradox here where the problems in our world are both… Perhaps it is to our detriment that reformedish or evangelical Christians have been so fixated on the individual nature of humanity (and salvation and stuff), that we’ve become suspicious of the progressive left and considered it part of the problem.

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

A lot of this ‘faithful presence’ thinking comes as I work my way through James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World; and I’m a bit worried that this proposal runs the risk of reinforcing a problem he’s diagnosed in how we westerners think of public, civic or political life. There are, as option 2 above suggests, other ways to tackle social problems that also benefit from the presence of Christians.

It’s important not to buy into the modern view of politics, and to recognise the limits of political solutions, which, as he puts it:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Hunter warns Christians in politics (on the right or left) against using the state as a vehicle for a ‘Christian’ agenda; or to ‘aspire to a righteous empire’  (he uses this common criticism of the Christian right to critique the Christian left), and he also wants us to avoid political participation being the ‘easy way out’… he sees a role for the church as an alternative, autonomous, political framework (our first citizenship even), suggesting that Christian engagement in politics needs to avoid reducing the role of the church to just another political party.

“… in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”

And here’s two specific warnings on the particular advice at the heart of this post… first, for us not to avoid the difficulty of costly non-political solutions, and second, to work to undo the common view that politics is the solution to all our social problems (it is, however, a solution to political problems), and it would be amazing to have more politicians buying in to a view of the world that doesn’t see politics as where all the action is.

“Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

“Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression… Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations… To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”

I’ve reached out to a few friends who are members of various political parties to share their thoughts in a follow up post; and if you are a Christian, and a member of a party, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.

A letter to our Immigration Minister re: #Abyan

The debates around asylum seekers and the complex nature of the global refugee crisis often involve more heat than light. This is me trying to throw a little bit of light into the mix. The story of the suffering Somali Refugee Abyan has gone through at our hands has led me to shed tears, and led me to cry out for something different. Something that breaks this cycle.

Love, love is a verb.
Love is a doing word.
Feathers on my breath.
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter. — Teardrop, Massive Attack

The story of Abyan, the pregnant Somali woman (allegedly) raped on Nauru, has been belting my brain about this week, and my heart. It’s such a compounding of personal, national and international tragedy that it has driven me as close to despair as the story of Aylan Kurdi. Abyan’s situation is the result of many evils, and she has been tossed around on an ocean of horror — literally even — from Somalia, to a journey involving leaky boats and people smugglers, to Nauru, and into the hands of this evil man.

I despair at the lack of options on the table for Abyan at every step on this journey. I despair at the lack of choice. I despair that her dignity has been taken from her — a little more — at every turn. And that I, as an Australian, have been complicit in some of this, and that we in our prosperity, have the potential to offer dignity and freedom much earlier in the piece, and the responsibility to offer it now. As costly as this will be for us in dollar terms. The problem is that we keep trying to outsource this cost to our government, to be paid for by our taxes, sure, but we want to wash our hands of the decision making, and keep them clean when it comes to dealing with the mess. Our government — our politicians — then become the people we send in to clean up our horrid mess, and we crucify them because their hands get dirty. That doesn’t seem fair either.

I was blown away by many things at the recent Faith and Public Office Conference (12 of them here), one was the metaphor of ‘dirty hands’ — the cost that comes with being someone who bears responsibility in public office, who has to navigate complex moral issues on our behalf, and bear the cost of often attempting to choose the lesser of two evils in order to do good. Politics can be a messy game. It’s easy to throw stones from the sidelines so that we never dirty our own hands. It’s easy to get outraged, to grandstand, to say “not in my name” — but to never put your name on the line, like our politicians have, and to never offer to get your hands dirty.

The catch in this situation — in Abyan’s story — is, I can’t see a good or convenient way out of this mess, like many can. I absolutely recognise that other people think differently on this — and are free to. But, I’m not sure the ‘clean’ answer was not simply for our government to allow her pregnancy to be terminated. Some may argue that this is the ‘least messy’ option, or even a good option, but as a Christian who believes life within the womb is human life, I don’t think ‘termination’ is a ever a ‘good’ option (it may be a least bad option — like in situations where there’s a genuine choice between the life of a mother, and her child). If I’m being consistent, it always involves the ‘termination’ — the death — of a human life. At 14 weeks, this life within Abyan, is moving, it has a beating heart. It has just learned to “grasp, squint, frown, and grimace. It may even be able to suck its thumb.” I know this because when you want to keep a baby, you treat it as a life from the moment you know it is there, there are websites and books where you read about this stuff, and you chart the milestones (especially on the first, after that, it’s all a bit passé until they take that first breath and you know you’ve run the pregnancy gauntlet).

Despite the obvious (and consistently drawn) link to unborn children in the film clip to Massive Attack’s Teardrop (featured above), I think the song is about the cost of life in this messy world (here’s a little account of the life of Elizabeth Fraser, who wrote the lyrics, including what she says the song’s metaphor means for her). I think it, both lyrically and in the video, explores the cost of life lived with death — or mess — or our broken humanity — as an ever-present consequence. The fragility of life. It’s better, perhaps, not to be born into this world, except that birth is the path to life, and life itself is inherently good. Even though it hurts. I think it offers stumbling love — love as a verb — as the solution for us as we navigate this together.

Teardrop on the fire.
Feathers on my breath.

You’re stumbling into all…
You’re stumbling into all… — Teardrop, Massive Attack (I took a while to settle on the ‘official’ lyrics of this song, because nowhere on the internet seems to agree, but José Gonzalez’s cover is relatively clear)

What does love look like here? For Abyan? In this mess? Love, I think, looks like being prepared to stand beside Abyan, to bear some of the cost, to lay down something of ourselves for her sake.

I should be filled with the same grief at the picture of an ultrasound of a refugee baby ‘terminated’ — aborted — as a result of our solution to this complex global issue as I am by the picture of a child who fled evil but didn’t make it into the care of a nation like us. I don’t think Abyan should be forced to carry the cost of this evil — any of it — perpetrated on her for the rest of her life either (I expand on this a bit in the letter below, so before you send me hate mail, read that, and then send me hate mail). In isolation, there’s no ‘good’ outcome here — but people aren’t meant to live in isolation, we’re meant to carry the cost of evil together. To dirty our own hands for the sake of pulling someone out of the mud of these horrors (in part, lest these horrors also pull us into the mud).

Ultimately what happens to this life — this baby — will be, and should be, Abyan’s choice. But at the moment, at least if we’re talking about this pregnancy as involving a life, she has no good options. We all make life and death choices about those we have a responsibility for, every day, I’m about to feed my own kids a healthy breakfast — and the choice not to serve them an unhealthy breakfast will shape their lives. But this isn’t a decision she should make alone, and it’s not a decision she should make confronted with only terrible options. That sort of decision compounds the horror of this horrible set of circumstances. I like the idea, throughout the Bible but best articulated in Deuteronomy, that our decision making is generational. That we shape the people who come after us as we make decisions that end up being decisions made on their behalf — and what marks out people who follow the living God of the Bible, is that we choose life at every turn, even if it costs us — a pattern we ultimately see in Jesus, but one that’s there in the opening books of the Bible, this was the choice facing God’s people in the Old Testament:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” — Deuteronomy 30:19

This choice is harder than it sounds. The Old Testament is the story of people failing over and over again to choose life. Making messy decisions that compound messy decisions. Generationally. We need to choose life over and over again — at our cost — to break this messy cycle in our lives. This, again, is modelled at the Cross, where Jesus chooses his own death, in order to bring life to others. He gets his hands dirty, and pays the cost. So we might live, and so that we might take up our cross and offer to lay down our lives, or get our hands dirty, for the sake of others.

I was challenged by all this — the brokenness of this situation, the ‘dirty hands’ metaphor, and the example of Jesus as a way out, the call to ‘choose life.’ So I wrote to the Hon Peter Dutton MP, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and offered to get my hands dirty. Well, in a generational sense, I offered my family’s hands.

Robyn and I have offered to adopt the unborn baby, and find some way to also care for Abyan. The ‘why’ is a bit buried in the letter. So here it is:

“I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.”

I should have said “we” here, because Robyn, without hesitation, said yes to this crazy idea. And I love that. Adoption like this may not be what Abyan wants, it probably isn’t, but I guess my desire for her is simply that she have choices beyond the choices she faces today. I want for her, and for the many like her, that they have not just the same decision making capacity, dignity, and freedom they’d have without the suffering they’ve experienced and fled from, but that this would be increased because they have the offer of stumbling love from their global neighbours to add to the mix. So our offer, really, is an offer to love Abyan according to whatever terms she, and our government, might allow.

The tragedy is that there are many Abyans. The global refugee crisis creates stories like this every day. We’ve heard Abyan’s story because it has been brought to our attention, but our responsibility extends to Abyan, and beyond. Are you prepared to dirty your own hands? Maybe it’s time you told someone, someone who has had their skin in the game — via politics — for some time. Maybe it’s time we stopped haranguing — however gently — and started offering our empathy, and our assistance.

And so:

 


Dear Peter,

I’ve been praying for you, and your office this week (and for many weeks, but especially this week). I lead a church community in South Bank, Brisbane, and some of our number are refugees in the community on bridging visas. I’ve heard their stories and I know just how complicated the refugee issue is globally, and locally. I know its a situation where there are no ‘good’ or easy solutions. That millions of people have been displaced, are hurting, and are needing care. I want to make the following offers, and I explain why below.

1. I would like to find a home for Abyan’s child, it seems that a decision has been made that this child will be born. I would like to spare Abyan from as much cost involved in this decision as possible. And I would like to pay it. I’m sure there would be people in our church community who would be willing to adopt Abyan’s child, because I spoke to my wife this morning and we would be happy to adopt this child. There may be others more fitting. But somebody needs to make this offer.

2. I know this one would involve invoking your Ministerial prerogative, but I would like to offer our community’s care to Abyan, so that if she wishes, throughout her life, she might have a relationship with this child. But I would find housing and an appropriate amount of counselling and care for her within our community, or the wider Christian community in Brisbane.

My prayer for you, offered every time a story like this hits the paper, is that you would continue to act with wisdom and increasingly act with compassion. I think we can always have more compassion, and the refugee crisis is getting worse, so our compassion must keep increasing. I believe the outpouring of offers of support from within the Australian community in response to the Syrian crisis is a turning point and an example of what this might look like. People in the community stand ready, willing, and able to open our homes to those in crisis. We’re prepared to open ours for as long as it takes.

I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.

I know this situation is complex. It’s a mess — and not of our making. It’s horrific and I thank you for bearing the cost of that horror, seeing and knowing things that most of us would wish to remain ignorant of. Making decisions on the basis of data that we don’t have.

I know also, that in our prosperity, Australia has a role to play in providing that care and this role is often outsourced to the government. We want to wash our hands while yours get dirty, and at our worst, we want to point at your dirty hands as evidence of a lack of compassion, when we could instead be extending them to help.

I read the story of Abyan and her rape on Nauru with horror. Horror because there is no way that I, as an Australian, put her in this situation, as much as the people smugglers and her decision to get on a boat with them, and the horrors in Somalia are also responsible. This is a horrific situation and it is a confluence of global and local horrors. It grieves me, and moves me to compassion, as I trust it does for you too. But I know there are no easy solutions.

This situation grieves me in a slightly fuller sense, too, because like many in our community I believe there is a human life quickening in the midst of all this horror. A human life who is not guilty of the crimes committed in Somalia, by people smugglers, or by the rapist on Nauru. A life that will join an ocean of casualties from this refugee crisis without the freedom to choose between a UN camp or a rusty boat. As a Christian who believes in the inherent dignity of life — both Abyan’s and this child’s — I should feel the same when I see a picture of an ultrasound as I did when I saw that traumatic photo of Aylan Kurdi. I recognise this child’s life is in the hands of his mother, where it should be, we all have responsibility for the lives of those around us, and we all make life and death decisions, of sorts, in myriad ways, every day.

I’m not seeing many choices on the table for Abyan though — she does not have the freedom we might expect in Australia to make these life and death decisions. There aren’t that many ‘good’ options on the table here, because good options cost someone something, and good options are hard to find in situations that just seem to leave everyone with dirty hands. But I believe in these situations you’ve got to offer your hands for the sake of others. Especially if you ever want to credibly speak out against people making decisions who have offered their lives in service to our country and its interests. So, this is why I have made this offer, and why I continue to pray for you and yours. For wisdom and compassion.

I know that conventional lobbying would involve me starting a petition or something at this point. I’m not interested in playing that game. I’m interested in offering costly solutions to complex problems. I will share this letter with my network, online, in the hope that others will be moved to offer the same response to situations like this, but I want to assure you this is not an act of grandstanding, this is jumping the fence and asking to play on the field.

If you have any other ideas for ways our church community could help bear the cost of this global crisis, I would love to hear them. You, your family, and your department are in my prayers. Thank you for serving us as a member and minister of our government.

Regards,

Nathan Campbell

Bloody Hands: What our media and our politicians teach us about us

“People of Rome, we are once again free!” —Brutus, after the death of Caesar


Image: Carl Theodor Von Piloty, Caesar’s Death, via Wikicommons

I keep reading that the problem with Aussie politics is politicians keep turfing/knifing/assassinating one another without going to the people for a vote/voice. I keep hearing media pundits who are angry about leadership changes, but don’t acknowledge the blood on their own hands. Like Karl, in these two clips from the Today Show this morning.

 

 

I keep hearing politicians blaming the media. But I’m pretty sure this is a problem with the vox populi. The voice of the people. It’s too loud. It’s too selfish. It’s too powerful. And both the media and our politicians — people who should know better, and should have roles to uphold in public life — are too reactive to this voice. And not active enough in calling us, the public, to match our voice with actions. To do more than just sit on the couch and (loudly) express our discontent as we consume media, which exists, at least in part, to fuel our desire to consume our politicians. It’s a vicious cycle, and this viciousness is at least, in part, our fault.

I think the problem is that our voice is now too loud. It’s amplified by social media, by polling, by a media that increasingly makes us part of their coverage (check out the number of news stories featuring impromptu vox pops via Twitter, or report on discussions on social media as though they are substantial, or required for substantive coverage of a complex issue).

There’s a certain amount of the 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years story that is down to political opportunists within their parties — but most would be leaders want to lead, and have some sense of how that leadership should happen. Rudd and Abbott were both, in some measure, brought down because they concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected few — their staffers — at the expense of their elected colleagues. Both parties appear to play a game predicated on holding on to government, rather than governing well. But they can be excused for doing this, because our political parties, and parliaments, are actually full of people who’ve put their hands up and said “we want to make a difference” and “we believe in something” and power in a democracy is fundamentally based, and held, on providing good government. Or so it should be. People who want power for power’s sake either already have billions of dollars, and treat parliament with contempt, or they get weeded out by the system. I’ve met quite a few politicians from local, state, and federal politics — as a trainee journalist, in my role with an economic development lobby group in North Queensland, and through various connections — and just about every one of them, from all sides of the political spectrum (including Bob Katter) have been more than decent. They’ve been people of character and virtue seeking the good of their neighbours according to their ideologies. You wouldn’t know it from our media, or from the public perception of politicians — but I think public perception drives the way politicians are portrayed in the media as much as the media drives public perception of politicians. Plus. We make it so difficult for politicians that they constantly walk on egg shells, we nail them for deviating from whatever script we think they should be following, and then complain that they’re ‘robotic’ or ‘inauthentic’… We also tend to believe that government, managing the competing priorities of individuals and community groups, and managing an economy, is simple. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

Why is it that making good decisions and making popular decisions seem to be at odds when they should be synonymous? It’s that we, the people, are typically driven by one agenda. Selfishness. It’s almost politically impossible to bring in unpopular policy that is good policy. And part of that impossibility is the 24 hour news cycle (and its in built cynicism about people who hold public office). This news cycle bombards us with story after story about policies that potentially come at our cost. And so, opinion turns. With social media we don’t just get the media we deserve, we create it. People share outrageous things, and express outrage, as a default.

But good government costs us, and it requires selflessness, rather than selfishness.

We’re facing a population that, on average, will be much older than populations of the past. We’re unhealthier than ever because we stuff our faces with convenient junk food. We are selfish with our money and don’t want to pay more tax in order to pay down spiralling debt. We want government spending on quick fix solutions, or entertainment precincts, where we see an immediate benefit rather than long term infrastructure projects. These problems require tough solutions that come at our cost. But try selling those to the electorate. As Ross Gittins says, we’ve become a nation of selfish contradiction.

People lay the blame for our political unrest at the feet of the media, there was a hint of that in Tony Abbott’s gracious concession speech, but the media is feeding a demand that we create. We buy more, watch more ads, and engage more when there’s a hint of blood than we do when things are business as usual. My Facebook feed last night is evidence of this.

Your voice has not been taken away. Sure, you might never have been polled personally, but polls work because they reflect the people who respond to them, and they get responses from enough people (though only around 6% of people who are asked, are prepared to respond) to give an accurate picture of public opinion. And if it’s not accurate, that’s probably as much the fault of the 94% of people who don’t care enough to respond when polled. Having your voice heard might start with never saying no to an opinion poll, even if the call comes at dinner time.

Even without polls. You have a voice all year around. It’s not just contained in the very small percentage of people who are polled, so that the media know who we want in office. You know what speaks louder than polls? Being active in public life. Writing letters. Calling talkback radio. Speaking out. Serving. Volunteering. Joining a party and becoming part of the process of forming policy. Working in the public service. Meeting your local member. Loving your local member, regardless of ideology. Thanking them for serving you even if the knife is never far from their back, and the electoral precipice that we’re so keen to tip them over, is never too many steps ahead.

Our say has never been taken away. It’s been amplified. Our political turmoil is a reflection of politicians who react too quickly to public sentiment, and a media that is getting really good at quickly gauging public sentiment, but also increasingly good at shaping it. Stop being shaped by the media and start shaping it. Read beyond your circle. Selflessly pursue truth, and share it. Share ideas you disagree with, with grace and charity, not just to show how engaged and superior you are to those who are governing. Be charitable to people on both sides of the political divide rather than immediately, and naively, adversarial. Converse. Find common ground. Try to understand why people hold ideologies other than your own. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but our public square, and the players in it (increasingly including us via social media) are actively working against these ends.

Until we make it clear that we don’t actually want to be governed by a popular politician we’re going to be increasingly subject to a media (and a social media) that is increasingly reactive, and increasingly able to quickly take the whimful pulse of an Australian public. We’re not just driven by whims, we have short attention spans, we love outrage and controversy. We’re fickle. We turn against people quickly on the basis of what we read in the media — be it traditional media, or social media — that has a vested interest in serving us up material that conforms with our ideology (whether we pick our media outlet, or a social media algorithm picks who is serving us up content), and wants to keep us outraged because outrage is sexy, and it sells.

We need to break this cycle which is, at every level, built on the selfishness of the public. Politicians can’t govern well for us because we are selfish. The media caters to our selfishness and self interest because it exists to sell products, and hold an audience. And we, the audience, keep coming back. If we want our voice to be heard in the public square, maybe its time we earned it by working for the good of the public, not our own good? Maybe it starts with a better public square. A better conversation. Maybe it starts with this idea the ABC’s Scott Stephens shared at a recent conference on Faith and Public Office.

Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.

This idea was caught up with giving the public voice its proper place, and including the excluded voices from that public voice. But Stephen’s vision for the public square went beyond this, it involved a move from the sort of public square that relies on people reflecting the public’s already entrenched (selfish) views back at itself to reinforce them. It involved stepping beyond cynicism into the realm of the imagination, fanning our ability to imagine and work towards something better than we have, rather than just trying to toss out stuff we don’t like. The problem with how things currently play out is that our media reflects our self interest. Stephens expanded his vision for this virtuous public broadcaster with the below, but social media might give us this opportunity. Instead of being an opportunity for more of the same, just without the code of ethics and the professionalism of the mainstream press, these aren’t direct quotes, they’re notes I belted out as Stephens spoke, but they do articulate a picture of something better that we might be a part of:

Is it the role of the broadcaster to give people a vision of what they already think on whatever device they want. The moral responsibility of a public broadcaster has to be something larger than that.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common.

All journalists want their watergate moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

Maybe if we start modelling this our politicians will listen, and so too, will the media. Maybe we should, whether we’re part of the church or not, take on this picture of a virtuous contributor to the public square. We have an opportunity via social media to be a new kind of public broadcaster…

Maybe the first step is being comfortable with silence. Using it to contemplate, rather than looking to fill it with arguments and new information that we assess through the prism of our selfish, unimaginative, hearts. The things we tend to imagine, at least in my experience, tend to be caught up with our own self interest, and our idols, rather than the common good and what such a good will cost us (though the common good, itself, can be an idol).

It’s not just our politicians and our press that have blood on their hands. We do too.

23 stab wounds create a fair bit of blood, so you can imagine that as Brutus proclaimed a freedom the Roman people hadn’t asked for, in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, he had pretty bloodied hands. Unlike the people of Rome who locked themselves in their houses when Caesar was deposed, and disposed of, because they didn’t want responsibility for his death, we locked ourselves in our own houses last night to watch the execution of a leader. With popcorn. And pithy insights. The blood is on our hands because the assassination, in part, was of our making. A product of our selfish, fickle, hearts, and the self-interested, fickle, public square this creates via the media and political scene that sets itself up and operates according to our whims.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine a different way forward — a different path to freedom. A different sort of blood on our hands.

People of Australia, we won’t be free until we stop crying for blood, we won’t be free until we’re prepared to start spilling our own blood for others.

Those of us who follow the crucified king have a model for a contribution to public life that involves blood on his hands, and our own. And it’s not through the knifing of others. It does involve the death of a king though — and its in this death, and this story, that we see what it might actually cost us to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts, and our minds. It’s this model of open-handed, sacrificial, love that will undo our grasping, and get our hand off the knife. The great irony, of course, is that the execution of Jesus was an example of grasping human hands wanting to usurp the rule of God, and it was an expression of those grasping hands at the start of the Bible, in Eden, that reached out, again, to push God from the picture. Grasping like this is part of the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us to find the blood of a leader on our hands because we don’t like tobe lead. Selfishly, we love our autnomy. We’ll kill for it — and we’ll end careers for it. It’s why we have blood on our hands. It’s why we grab for the knife. It’s why politics in our country is a fraught business. And it’s why something’s got to give. We’ll always have blood on our hands — the choice is whether its someone else’s, taken for our own good, or ours shed for the good of others, just as his blood was shed for us. The suffering servant, the one who gives of himself, and his comfort, for the sake of others, is a famous picture from Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament that very clearly describes Jesus, is the real “shepherd of the public square” and keeper of the moral ecology.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:5-6

It’s in Jesus that we see this play out. In his approach to power, in his failure to ‘grasp,’ in his being bloodied on our behalf. This is the pattern we might follow if we want to end the bloodshed, and change the public square for its good, at our cost. It is, too, how we might come close to solving some of the big political dilemmas of our time. Dilemmas created by human selfishness. Because its where we see love that brings freedom in all its bloody-handed fullness.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.— Philippians 2:5-8