Faith and Politics: A Reflection

Recently, a number of people have asked me to “describe” my “politics”.  Given that I seem to excoriate both the Liberal and Labor Parties (for non-Australian readers, they represent, respectively, the “conservative” and “progressive” wings of Australian politics, although both terms are now rather meaningless), where do I sit on the political spectrum? Or am I apolitical – or do I just write off all political parties and politicians as useless and snipe from the sidelines?

Firstly, in terms of my “personal politics” (although, as far as I’m concerned, in politics the personal is always communal) I am definitely left of centre.  I’m neither a “radical greenie” nor a “card carrying Marxist”  (whatever either of these epithets may mean) but some basic principles I adhere to may be listed as follows:

  • Economics is always about human inter-relationality and about being a means toward human flourishing, and is not primarily a mechanism through which nations or corporations enrich themselves at others’ expense;
  • Government does have a strong and legitimate role to play in the curbing of the markets’ worst excesses, especially where and when those excesses become socialised as “economic crises” that hurt the vulnerable and the poor;
  • The idolisation of work as the principle means of measuring human worth has both stripped work of its potential to enhance human dignity, as well as shackled human labour to exploitative notions of “economy” and “enterprise”;
  • Humanity needs to drastically re-engineer the ways it extracts, consumes, and distributes the resources of the biosphere – a high technology, high consumption, high population context is unsustainable in the long term.  We are going to have to make significant and sacrificial adjustments to the way we live if our species is not merely to survive but to flourish.

Ultimately, however, my politics is informed by my faith.  Which isn’t to say that I seek to impose a theocracy on this country, or that I support those who do.  Rather, I mean that my politics reflects the fact that the Gospel of Christ critiques all human systems and structures from the point of view of the Kingdom of God: that radically transformed condition in which human dignity is fully realised and affirmed.  Put another way, any and all human institutions (including political parties and their policies) which degrade human dignity and facilitate exploitation fall short of the Gospel to which our lives are vocationally called, and are therefore legitimately critiqued from the Gospel’s perspective.  This is a critique that transcends partisan political divides and emphasises, not merely our common humanity, but the inescapable dignity of our creation in the likeness and image of God.

It is in this context that I criticise both the Liberal and Labor parties.  And at the heart of that criticism is the fact that both parties have betrayed the best standards of their respective traditions – standards that were ultimately about human flourishing and the transformation of human lives.  On the Liberal side of politics, this is represented by the abandonment of the moderate centrism that sought to steer a middle path between political and social extremes, and thereby embrace as wide a portion of the social milieu as possible.  The captivity of the Liberal Party to hard-right neo-conservatism represents a shift to the extremes of neo-classical economics and free marketism that facilitates exploitation and encultures our society and its institutions into a “devil take the hindmost” mentality.  On the Labor side of politics, this betrayal revolves around the abandonment of the social democratic platform that sought to include and involve those sections of society which had been traditionally excluded from the political process, as well as ensure that the State did not simply become another means of economic exploitation.  Labor’s institution of “pragmatic” politics, which has corrupted and destroyed the faction system that used to be one of its great strengths, as well as its craven surrender to the neo-liberal ascendancy, represents a wholesale sell-out of human sovereignty to the self-interest of destructive corporatism.

The common thread in both betrayals is the abandonment of inclusiveness in favour of a politics of power-as-the-end-in-itself which excludes and denies.  Whereas Jesus in his ministry proclaimed a Gospel that invited and involved, both sides of politics in Australia have embraced a mode of being that privileges “insidership” and “reciprocal but exclusive advantage” – cultures that not only facilitate but reward incompetence, a sense of entitlement, and the self-perpetuation of a culture of corruption that, in its narcissism, actually sees itself as normative and in the nation’s best interests.

But this is also why I refuse to post gloating comments (or, at least, remember to try and not do so) whenever a politician suffers a particularly public disgrace, despite whatever may be my personal opinions about the individuals concerned. To list such individuals’ flaws as politicians or human beings might be to make statements that are true, might be to make statements that I personally agree with – but it is also to make statements that are neither original nor insightful, and which do not enable us to confront – and be confronted by – the question of how such individuals came to be in politics to begin with, never mind how they ultimately rose to positions of power and responsibility.

In other words, the making of such comments does nothing to examine the nature of our political culture – and of our complicity in that culture.  They are, in effect, a “get out of jail free” card that loads all the opprobrium (however warranted) upon individual politicians, while conveniently ignoring the issue of how those individuals are themselves products of a corrupt and self-serving process in which we, the citizenry, both participate and collude. In other words, this is what the Italian novelist and politician Leonardo Sciascia referred to as the “culture of the Mafioso”: the presence, not merely of corruption, but of a culture of self-serving silence, of the convenient overlooking of uncomfortable truths, of the averted eyes and the unenquiring mind.  The political culture of Australia is the political culture of a Mafioso state – not (necessarily) because of the presence of organised crime within that culture, but because we ourselves participate in, and facilitate, that corruption with our silence and with our unreflective involvement in self-interested partisanship.

And this, ultimately for me, is the difference between “prophecy” and “commentary”.  Commentary might be true, and it might be relevant to the immediate context: but it does nothing to shake us out of our complacency, to get us to examine our lives in such a way that we might respond to the Gospel’s call to a vocation of dignified and inter-relational being (a mode of being, it hardly needs saying, that understands the difference between accountability and recrimination).  Indeed, commentary frequency reinforces all the evils which it purports to expose.  Prophecy, on the other hand, undertakes a far harder and more dangerous task: it calls upon society to be truly self-examined and accountable; to recognise its own participation in, and responsibility for, the ills of which it complains; to respond to the call to transformation, not with mere commentary, but with substantive reconstitution of our very way of being.  In short, nothing less than transfiguration, and everything which it involves.

Which ultimately brings me back to my political “stance”.  My politics is grounded in my faith, and in the Gospel of Christ which proclaims the dignity of all humans by virtue of their creation in the likeness and image of God.  And it is grounded in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which truth-speakers were called to speak truthfully to the world, despite the cost to themselves personally or the hard road their vocation entailed.  I stand in that tradition and I walk on that road, not because I am so conceited as to think of myself as a prophet, but because my faith convictions leave me no other alternative.  The very authenticity of my being cries out to me to do and be this way; my understanding of politics, and of the prophetic realm within any political culture, makes this part of my vocation of being.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All Rights Reserved.