How to write to your MP and the relevant government minister about an issue (as a Christian) in 14 not-easy steps

writingtoapolitician

There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).

There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).

Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.

If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.

So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.

1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.

So be gracious and charitable.

Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.

2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.

So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.

3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).

So be wise and humble.

4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.

So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.

It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.

There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.

This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.

5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.

So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.

People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.

6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.

So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.

It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.

7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.

So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.

It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).

8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).

So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.

We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.

It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.

So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.

And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-3

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.

So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.
Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 27:28-29

In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).

11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.

So love with actions; not just words.

There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.

When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.

Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.

If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.

Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.

It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.

James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre

 

13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.

Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.

14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.

So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship.

Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.

Public Christianity and bearing the image of God: some confessions and a response to the response to Q&A’s Christian episode

Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.

Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.

Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.

Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).

I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.

“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.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.

We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.

It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.

trump

So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:17

I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.

I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms.  The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…

“… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:10-14

Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.

Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?

Did they say “X”? 

Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…

And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20

This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.

This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.

A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.

Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.

In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.

Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.

If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.

12 Great ideas on Faith and Public Office

The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.

The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.

galileotrial
Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.

1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.

This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.

If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.

In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.

2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.

We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:

“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”

Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.

3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.

It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:

  1. agape love
  2. humility
  3. altruism
  4. vision
  5. trust
  6. empowerment
  7. service

I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.

 

John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.

This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill

What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.

In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.

4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.

I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.

Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rationale for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.

5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public

Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.

“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”

6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).

Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.

7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.

Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.

The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.

If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?

The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.

How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?

This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.

8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’

This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…

Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.

Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.

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 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.

9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.

This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…

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 is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.

10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.

A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).

Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).

The question I wanted to ask the panel was:

Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?

This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.

11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”

Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…

The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”

12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’

In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.

The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.

Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.

You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you-in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.

I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”