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Living Politically With Love

Tuesday, 6 August 2013  | Bruce Wearne

Paul's Letter to the Romans 13

Let every person consider themselves subject to [the regulations] of the prevailing authorities. For [you can be sure that] there is no authority without God's consent and that those that exist have been set in place by God's arrangement [of things]. Therefore those refusing to subject themselves to these authorities are [actually] opposing what God has ordained. So those in such [an attitude of] opposition render themselves liable to judgement. For [your political] rulers are not a deterrent from good works but from evil. And is it your intention to avoid the ruling power's deterrence? Then [set yourself to] do good and you will have the ruler's commendation. For he is God's administrator for you for good. But you have [every] good reason to fear should you do evil; he does not wield the sword to no purpose. For as the administrator of God His task is [indeed] vengeance on evil doers, expressing anger [in a formal way] on those who commit evil. And that is precisely why you need to be subject [to their regulations], not merely because of this [their task which is to make a public] expression of [divine] disapproval but also for the way you understand yourself [and your responsibilities].

It is just the same with paying taxes. For [in this ministration] they are God's own officers called to be ready to attend to these matters. Ascribe to every [kind of] person whatever is due to them. Give tax to the one to whom you should pay tax. Give due respect to the one to whom you should show due respect. Give compliments to the one you should compliment. Owe no-one anything except that [arising] from love for one another. For loving the other person is the fulfillment of the law. For all of these: "You shall not commit adultery; you shall do no murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet" and any other commandments, are all summed up in this one rule, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Where love is at work no evil is done to your neighbour, and in fact love is the fulfillment of the law. And, at this point, let me add this: know what time it is, this is indeed the hour to be raised from your slumber. For our rescue is even more immanent now than when we [initially] believed. The night is far gone and the day has drawn near. So let us leave behind deeds [that had to be] done in dark and [instead] clothe ourselves with regalia for the light [of day]. And let us conduct ourselves with requisite discipline, neither brawling nor boozing, neither sleeping around nor wasting time, neither getting into trouble nor scheming. But instead be fully attired with what the Lord Jesus Christ provides and give no attention whatever to the flesh and its covetous desires.

We need to examine Biblical teaching to see how that helps us reflect upon the consequences of Christian discipleship for our political life.

In Jesus Christ, God has taken care of how humans are to henceforth stand before Him. Paul then goes on to explain how God maintains His sovereign oversight on whatever is to be confronted in this life. Whether it is paying taxes, giving respect to those whose task it is to ensure public order and peaceful administration, or learning how to speak appropriately to people. Civil life is a shared domain in which the Christian is called to live a life which "gives a stamp of confirmation to the good and delightful and perfect purposes of God." Not that God needs our endorsement, but He has made us so that our lives can indeed endorse His purposes.

Whether it is taxation, using polite language when addressing those clothed in the regalia of public office, making contributions for the provision of necessary social services, or stepping aside and letting another go first, all of these, and more, are part of a Christian's social duty - "loving our neighbours as ourselves."

This is also advice that discourages both quietism and complacency. "Everyday life" is about taking on the tasks God allows to develop in our social fabric and contributing so that these tasks and the relationships they develop can flourish. We are called to participate fully in this life. It has been given to us. Since God raised Jesus from the grave it is subject to His redemption. In this life we are provided with full attire by the Son of God Himself. It is, in fact, He who also confers authority on those occupying public offices that are simply ways in which humans serve each other.

Of course Christians are called to give due respect to those called by God to serve us. This is indeed

… giving ourselves to being re-made by a refreshment of our thinking so that the good and delightful and perfect purposes of God can be given the stamp of confirmation by our lives (Romans 12:2).

This may not, of itself make a ruler "Christian" in any automatic and personal sense, but in his "memorandum concerning public attitude" Paul calls upon his readers to respect the work of public officials as the religious duty of those called to perform it by the One who has been given all power and authority.

But take note. This is no matter of:

Well let's see if you can do the best you can before this world passes away and all these things that now get in the way of Christian service will have disintegrated into meaningless nothingness anyway.

To the contrary. This is none other than the original cultural mandate given to the man and the woman as part of their creation on the sixth day (Genesis 1:28-31) and now it is republished with respect to how it is to be worked out in the social rules and manners we develop as part of our bodily life, part of our living sacrifice (12:1). The task of cultivating the rich dominions of God's rule is not just "out there" somewhere over the horizon. It is also "right here", here in our street, here in our own local community.

And so …?

Yes, it’s on again. We go to the polls on September 7th. Let's just recall recent political history.

Up until a month ago, things were looking pretty grim indeed for the Labor Party. It  has held the Treasury Benches since Mr Rudd led it to victory in December 2007. Yet, despite helping Australia weather the global financial crisis, by June 2010 Rudd's Government was at odds with itself, and in anticipation of an election in that year, the party’s power-brokers dumped Rudd to make way for Julia Gillard who became this country’s first female Prime Minister. After the 2010 election, a minority Labor Government has ruled with the help of independents and Greens. But by late June a clear majority of Labor’s federal parliamentarians were persuaded that Gillard was an electoral liability; Rudd won a leadership ballot among his parliamentary colleagues and so for the last month has been back in the “top job”. As at the calling of the election on August 4th, opinion polls have rebounded dramatically so that now pundits say the election will be very close. The bottom line ensuring Rudd’s recall was that with him as leader losses would be minimized. With Rudd as leader the party would not be wiped out. 

But despite all the distraction of populist politics, Paul's admonition to Christians stands: government is a God-given duty for which citizens are also accountable. Our political system is very wobbly and these latest wobbles simply serve to confirm the deep materialistic cynicism that prevails unchecked across the entire electorate. It is almost as if discussion of the political responsibility of citizens to uphold justice can only ever be an after-thought once it has been decided which party will hold the reins of power for the next three years.

The prevailing view is "Are you for the government or against them? Are you left or are you right?"

That as good a summary as you can get of how this Federated Commonwealth, Australia’s version of parliamentary representation, continues on. Our Australian politics has traditionally presumed that all political issues can be resolved by either leaning to the left or to the right. And for legislation that might touch “sensitive” moral convictions, both major parties avoid clear and unequivocal statement of policy. And so, conscience votes become yet another means of avoiding political responsibility. In this way the accountability of elected representatives to their electors is at best confused, and easily unhinged by unscrupulous back-flips in order to win more votes. In recent times Prime Ministers have shown deft skills in fudging the fact that solemn electoral promises are being revoked.

But it is not only the ALP which manifests parliamentary instability. Usually, the Opposition – in the present the coalition formed by Liberal and National party members - scrupulously avoids making public any policy disagreements. These will only become apparent after gaining the Treasury Benches and then they will be protected by the cordon sanitaire they then blithely throw around a conscience vote. We have drawn attention to this again and again.

But these days both sides of politics doggedly hold tight to policies that attempt to marry pragmatism with neo-liberalism. And once economic liberalism was right and pragmatically conservative while socialism was left and pragmatically progressive. But that's not exactly how the parties line up these days. It needs to be kept in mind that in Australia, the ALP has been the political harbinger of neo-liberalism (Keating's economic rationalism), while the Liberal-National Coalition continues to scramble to take over the pragmatic image of "fixers of the economy". And so ALP liberalism parading as progressive finds itself opposed to Coalition pragmatism parading as conservative. And in this context, opinion polls become more and more decisive for how parliamentary parties present their policies. And at the same time the presumed “king-making” role of the mass media conglomerates (Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax) with their vested interests maintain a decisive influence over the way parties present their policies.

With this in mind, can we still call this parliamentary democracy? Yes, but as time goes on it has become harder for these dominant parliamentary parties to present coherent policies that define their political identity. That is why we see them mimic US-style "big-tent" politics as multiple political viewpoints are corralled under one umbrella to win elections. This is the norm on both sides, as they send out leaflet after leaflet trying to convince us that they represent the “diversity” that exists across the political community. The fear of alienating voters has certainly been a driving force in Labor’s two most recent leadership changes. But more to the point: Rudd is obviously hoping that he can help the ALP remain a “big tent", and this has been on display for months. In his announcement of the election he called upon Labor’s supporters, old and new, to dig deep and ensure the party could run a successful campaign. This appeal for funds while announcing an election was new. It actually indicates that the party, despite having already been maintained by significant public funds from its previous campaigns, is not in good shape. I cannot remember a Prime Minister using an election date announcement to solicit financial support for his or her party. It recalls the campaign strategy of the current US President. This may be just a straw in the wind but we should not assume Australia’s major political parties are healthy in any organizational and financial sense. In this climate, for the party to survive as a viable organisation in its own right, it must clamber back onto the Treasury benches.

This call for party unity and digging deep seems to be a shallow advertisement thrown together in haste. A month back, amid talk of budget blowouts, from both sides, an attempt was made to grant their respective parties a massive injection of funds; a back-bench revolt nipped that in the bud but the fact that it was tried confirms the suggestion that the major political parties are not only drifting but immune to much needed political reform. They assume that they can only ever be what they have now become under pragmatic neo-liberalism. Echoing the mantra of a former British PM they effectively promote the view: “There is no alternative!” For both sides, parties are merely electoral machines constructed to win government. The notion that a party should represent the needs and interests of the citizens who then hold it accountable has been largely forgotten amidst the “practical” task of winning an election. Unfortunately, only a few voices in the political wilderness contest this pragmatic view of the party-as-electoral-machine.

And so we face a structural displacement of authentic and accountable parliamentary representation based upon political conviction. Such politics tries to justify itself by: the accumulation of Facebook "likes"; successful interest-group brokerage; accommodation to competing media moguls; reference to opinion polls to endorse electoral machine demands over platform principles. In all of this fudging, spare a thought for the candidates who in making their appeal to voters aim to take their seats in parliament and at the same time remain accountable to their electors!

In that sense the underlying political crisis here in Australian politics is not so very different from what is being experienced in North America, the UK and Europe. Both the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition seek to include all shades of political opinion under their respective “big tents”. As with the United States the major Australian parties are so bent on advertising their indispensability to our system of government that the idea that they should welcome genuine political competition from newly formed parties sounds like a view from outer space. But on so many issues the evidence is patently obvious that they are no longer in tune with significant political views held within the electorate. They certainly make no principled appeal to what our “Westminster” system presupposes about parliamentary representation.

With the significant public funding these parties receive to run their election campaigns one would hope that they could encourage the emergence of new political opponents, particularly when they say they are encouraging “diversity”. No, the ongoing commitment to pragmatism by “both sides” means that any organized alternative political opinion is construed as a threat to “stable government”. Meanwhile the presumed political process that derives from two-sides continues to undermine genuine accountability of elected representatives to their electors if not open government itself.

The Australian Labor Party and the Coalition don't need stronger stakes to keep the sides of their expansive tents from flapping in the electoral breeze. They need to re-discover coherent political principles and commitments that can then be given form in genuine parties that then ensure their elected representatives will remain accountable to electors. They need to gain the courage to encourage debate about what a political party is; that debate is not merely an intra-party matter. Without a platform enunciating political principles for which they and their voters are willing to lose an election, they will continue on a course that simply undermines the political morale of citizens. Cynicism prevails. We need to find a way to help citizens avoid political cynicism and embrace the task of state-crafting citizenship.

Political life in western "liberal" democracies gives too much room to the view that the political party is an electoral machine. This current “big tent” tendency won't be checked without disciplined political party policy formation and public education that persuades all citizens about their own responsibilities for public justice. And in that sense Australian politics is in need of refreshing political re-education to help all of its citizens better understand their own responsibility for open democratic government with truly accountable parliamentary representation.

For Christian citizens of the Australian polity, the teaching of Paul about our political responsibility for just public governance is surely a safeguard against stumbling along the rocky road of political cynicism.

Ascribe to every [kind of] person whatever is due to them. Give tax to the one to whom you should pay tax. Give due respect to the one to whom you should show due respect. Give compliments to the one you should compliment. Owe no-one anything except that [arising] from love for one another. For loving the other person is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul identifies aspects of the incredibly rich mosaic of creational potential that continues to be apparent from centuries of human labour, labour made possible by God's ordinances. We labour on with a hope sustaining us, looking forward past all the present flourishing to the great harvest which will collect everything good together when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness. Paul's admonition about political respect is part of New Testament's update of "dressing and keeping the garden" (Genesis 2:15). He gives no quarter to any tendency we might have inherited to join in the cynical chorus or go to sleep on the job.

Bruce Wearne posts regularly on his site Nurturing Justice.


Gordon Preece
August 13, 2013, 12:37PM
Excellent piece thanks, Bruce. It probes deeper than the marginal differences the parties provide to their respective big tents to the larger more problematic things they have in common in our contemporary political malaise shared with other western countries.

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