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Public Justice and a Community’s Political Conversation

Monday, 8 November 2010  | Bruce Wearne

The description of our “political system”, given by Brian Walters SC, my university friend from down the street and across the creek, who is also the Greens Candidate for Melbourne in the 2010 State Election, provides a convenient starting point for my reflections. He writes:

Our political system is the way we arrange the community’s conversation about the use of power. (See his website here.) 

This is Brian’s astute “conversation starter”, as he steps out on the hustings. It shows that while he appreciates the complexity of political and, indeed legal, debate, he also wants to hear from, and listen to, his would-be electors since they share with him a basic human responsibility to keep political conversation fresh and open. There’s something refreshing in this formulation and it may even re-centre or re-construe the centre of political gravity in this political system by emphasizing the political responsibility shared by us all. The formulation may even relativise the place which political parties have tended to assume in “the community’s conversation about the use of power”. They are means by which the conversations take place and are not the conversation itself.

In our form of political governance, all of us as citizens are involved in this conversation whether we like it or not. Just governance in this polity, means that all of us are called to develop a deepened understanding of the structures in which this conversation is to be realised. Politics might not always have been like this, but today in Victoria, in Australia, in our region and across the globe, our contributions to “the community’s conversation about the use of power” are an integral part of our life-long stewardship. In Brian’s terms it is our human “vocation” that propels us into political life, since politics is also one thing in our life we cannot avoid as we get to know ourselves and the world around us and offer our help to others.

The statement provides a window on the contribution of this particular citizen who has been involved in many conversations about the use of public-legal power. Those conversations, at that legal elevation, are unavoidable if the complex decisions that have to be made are going to ensure just governance in and for this polity. That’s also part of what the word “community” refers to in our political system. But the “ community conversation” embraces all, at whatever level we open our mouths to say what we have to say.

And as citizens at this time in the history of the world, this description of our political system is also a neat and timely reminder that we need to recognise the political responsibility we share for this polity, and for all our neighbours, near and far, new and old, local, glocal and global. That ongoing process which, even against many hurdles, sees the flourishing of personal responsibility under heaven, coram Deo (before God), is indeed an integral part of our political lives that not only needs ongoing emphasis in words, but calls forth our bold involvement in the development of organised political deeds. And how else do we contribute positively to our community’s conversation about the use of political power if not by contributing to our polity’s political conversations?

For many, political conversation is irksome and discussion about politics is avoided. The problem here is that such an avoidance of our shared God-given responsibility is actually deeply embedded in our political system. Whether those who prefer to avoid politics like it or not, their avoidance of politics is at the same time deeply political. We hear many prominent politicians who, with great ambiguity, espousing anti-political political ideologies. Their stated aim has often been to enter parliament in order to limit (what they say is) politics, and in recent times this has been pre-eminently advocated “on both sides” by the perpetual mantra that government is appointed in order to bear true allegiance to the sovereign free market. A mere two years ago that sovereign seemed to be toppling but now, on all sides, her loyal retainers have rallied to her cause to keep her on her shaky Dow-Jones throne. I will not expand further on this here, except to say that the entrenched power of this ideology in our political system actually makes it all the more difficult to engage positively in the “community’s conversation” about the “use of power”, particularly when rival politicians actually accuse each other of descending to “politics”! And at times the public statement of some politicians give the distinct impression that the currency levels, the market indicators and the recent polls on whatever issues, are the much preferred source for learning “real” community sentiment. There’s deep ambiguity at work here which any constructive political conversation is going to have to explore and overcome.

Somehow, in our conversations with such contra-political citizens and politicians, we have to find ways to help them reconsider the narrowing of their political responsibilities, by showing them that they have blinded themselves by a denial of their political vocation to contribute to the “community’s political conversation” and that politics is indeed about “loving your neighbour as yourself” with justice. Actually, these anti-political elected parliamentarians may have been very diligent in their duties to electors and in what they have achieved. That’s part of the deep ambiguity we should not ignore. It is in their political conversation that they seem to find it excruciatingly difficult to admit that that is what it is all about. But as the Psalmist says:

So now you small-time little rulers, you had better wise up!

You who only judge on the earth, hadn’t you better get the point?

Serve the Lord God with an attentive awe- take joy in your task only with trembling

Give homage to this adopted son of God too -

Lest he also get worked up (Psalm 2:10-11)


Avoiding politics is neither part of the politician’s job nor is it part of the citizen’s office. So why is it that politicians and citizens want to avoid politics? What’s gone on in our shared political past that leads us up this garden path? Why is it that political responsibility takes on such an ambiguous aspect, and particularly so among those who profess that Christ Jesus, the promised messiah of Israel is God’s nominated ruler of all the earth’s princes, prime ministers, presidents, and rulers? Christians who see it as their vocation to enter into this “community conversation about the use of power” had better also set themselves to develop a better historical understanding of themselves - to take a stand in such conversation may be to position oneself near a ditch that we have dug by our cumulative tradition of political avoidance. Take care!

But after all, to bring the two words “Christian” and “politics” together in this polity, in Australia 2010, will inevitably bring with it the expectation that here is a group of people spouting “Christian politics” who don’t want to enter political conversation at all because they already know all there is to know about government and have decided that politics is simply a means by which to ensure that all citizens follow the Christian way. We should neither under-estimate our calling to enter into the “community conversation”, nor should our conversation be at the expense of our re-education about our history and why people tend to distrust “Christian politics”. Of course we want our neighbours to discover the benefits of Christ’s rule, but He has told us clearly enough how that is to be done, and our political responsibility is to love our neighbours with justice.

To take up our place in the “community conversation” is to signal a willingness to work to find concrete and helpful ways to resolve genuine political problems. When we do enter into the conversation and when our views are dismissed out of hand we will still have to find ways of maintaining loyal momentum in the conversation which is part of our responsibility.

In that sense those of us who remain “outsiders” to the current political parties by not joining them, should not assume that this present discussion is only possible among non-aligned dissenters. Just because conversation partners may be card-carrying members of a prominent party trying to extract our vote - whether Labor, Liberal, Greens, Family First, Australian Democrats, Christian Democrat, Democratic Labor or whatever - does not mean these party members are unperturbed by the state of “community conversation”. Could it be that concern about keeping political discussion fresh is actually a significant factor binding all of us in our current political situation?

And that, in brief, is where I see my political contribution being made. From my vocation as a Christian student of sociology, I seek to draw attention to the fact that political parties should be developing coherent and comprehensive policies that not only respect our pluralistic political culture, but also set out their respective visions for the future of our political system, including how they propose to reform the contribution of political parties to our parliamentary democracy. Why? In order that political parties become genuine political avenues of what they are called to be coram Deo (before God): organized servants of public justice for all!

That sums up my view about how I propose to take up my political responsibility as a Christian citizen at this time. I hope what I have written encourages Christians and other citizens to dig deep and reconsider the ongoing task of building community conversations to encourage the flourishing of cumulative public justice for all.

Bruce C Wearne


Thursday, November 04, 2010


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