The leader of New Zealand's Presbyterian church warns against slogans and utopian visions, arguing the best that we can do on Saturday is to consider the wellbeing of those around us
If you believe Helen Clark, this election’s about trust; if you believe John Key, it’s about change. The truth is, it’s about neither, because electioneering has very little to do with truth: it’s about persuasion.
Most of us know this, but still we want to believe that our vote counts for something more. We like to think we’re voting for someone we can trust or who will bring about real change. The book of Ecclesiastes, though, puts it in perspective:
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity… A generation goes, and generation comes, but the earth remains forever… All things are wearisome; more than one can express… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
A rather negative starting point for a faith-based approach to the election? Yes, but a necessary one. Forget the utopian vision. The best we can hope for from government, whether it is Labour-led or National-led, is incremental gains in certain key areas that Christians believe to be important.
But even here, we must proceed with caution, because Christians don’t necessarily agree on what those key areas are.
According to the Christian left, it’s about the delivery of social services with an emphasis on issues of social justice. According to the Christian right, it’s about moral issues, with particular concern for those things that are deemed to undermine so-called “family values”, such as the decriminalisation of prostitution, abortion and civil unions, and the ban on smacking. For some, it’s a blend of the two.
Underpinning each perspective is a set of convictions about what kind of society we want to live in. Associated with each perspective are expectations about the role the government should play in building that society. The more hands-on it becomes the more it risks being accused of social engineering.
The diversity of opinion among Christians on these matters tends to mirror the diversity of opinion that exists among New Zealanders as a whole. As such, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a uniquely Christian perspective on politics in general, or on this election in particular.
This does not mean that the Church, although apolitical, has nothing to say. In the build-up to the last election, the leaders of the mainstream churches produced a paper on what constitutes a robust society. Underpinning each person’s vision for society, they said, will be a number of assumptions about what it means to be human. One such view tends to regard each person primarily as an autonomous individual. Noticeably lacking from this perspective are references to the common good. As a result, the view of society emerges is that of a conglomeration of individuals.
An alternative view is derived from the conviction that our humanity is constituted most profoundly by our relationships. Neglect those relationships, and both personal wellbeing and society suffer as a result.
This relational view of the human person carries with it a holistic view of personal wellbeing including, for many people, a spiritual dimension through which we acknowledge a transcendent reference point to our understanding of human dignity and purpose.
In addition to its commitment to a relational view of the human person, the Christian tradition maintains that human activity is characterised by interplay between freedom and restraint. The freedom we aspire to is not the unrestrained freedom of the autonomous individual; it’s freedom that learns to identify and respect certain parameters and responsibilities, including a commitment to the integrity and health of the natural world, and is utterly bound up with the wellbeing and freedom of one’s neighbour.
Moreover, as the well known parable of the Good Samaritan suggests, we are obliged to take a broad view of who our neighbour is. This view will include the most vulnerable in our society, including the unborn; it will include those who are most different from us, including refugees and migrants; it will include the stigmatised, including welfare and sickness beneficiaries. One of the marks of a mature society is the extent to which it cares for, and upholds the dignity and worth of its most vulnerable members and refrains from indulging in the politics of exclusion, which most often take the form of scapegoating certain groups for society’s ills.
A broad view of who our neighbour is will also encompass obligations to the international community. National interests will be worked out in the context of global responsibilities towards the poor and suffering in other countries, and towards environmental and climate issues which impact upon us all.
This, it seems to me, provides a positive basis for assessing the policies of the respective political parties and moving beyond the slogans of trust and change.
The Right Rev Dr Graham Redding is the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin.