Wednesday, 26 June 2013

When politicians are also people of faith ....

This post first appeared on my blog at the time of the ALP leadership ballot in late June, 2013.  Events since then, particularly the change in the ALP government's policy toward asylum seekers, have necessitated some further material in this post.  In early September, the Australian Federal Election led to a change in government from the centre-left ALP to the centre-right Coalition, but this article stands essentially as it was written roughly a month before the change of government..  Bob.


Now, when leadership tensions are reaching a climax within the Australian Labor Party, and when many ALP members are thinking of returning to the leadership of Kevin Rudd, I'd like to reflect on the impact of a politician's religious convictions on their political service.  (A few hours after this was posted, Rudd in fact returned to office as Prime Minister.)

When a politician is also a person of faith, there are a variety of approaches they take to the relationship between their faith and their religious practice.

The most common approach is for the politician to declare a strict separation between her / his life as a politician and her / his life as a person of faith.  The classic example of this was John F. Kennedy who spoke, during his presidential campaign in 1960, about his own strict separation between his life as a politician and his life as a worshipping / practicing Catholic, including an undertaking to resign from office if a conflict of interest ever arose between his religious faith and his political duties. 

We see this approach in politicians of both centre-left and centre-right orientations in all countries.  In many ways, this is the "default setting" for a politician who is also a person of faith.  It's the easiest way to handle being both a politician and a person of faith, whatever the politician's religious convictions or political persuasion.

Other possibilities also have been seen
  • Particularly for politicians who combine a right-of-centre political persuasion and a conservative religious outlook, there is the option of functioning like any other secular politician, only with the extravagant use of pious rhetoric on occasion (at least when in similarly pious company).  This is very popular among many politicians in the United States.
  • Another option (seen in politicians of a variety of persuasions, particularly those with a more superficial understanding of their faith) is to limit the impact of one's faith on one's politics to the advocacy of conservative policies on issues relating to marriage, sex, and bioethics.

There's one further option, one that I see as far more creative and positive than any of those I've mentioned above.  It is much rarer and far more politically risky: 

Occasionally we see a person of faith who is also a practicising politician, and for whom politics is a calling, a sacred vocation, just like the vocation of a priest, monk, nun, pastor, rabbi, or imam.  And in many ways these politicians treat their political calling with the same reverence as the ordained treat their pastoral calling.  Some studied theology before going into politics.  Some served as clergy before becoming politicians (including many high profile African-American pastor-politicians).  I know one individual who became a priest after leaving politics.

Generally, these politicians are found in centre-left parties, but are usually not party "insiders".  They frequently have a troubled relationship with the movers-and-shakers found within their parties' establishments. 
  • Their combination of high intelligence, high integrity, and (at times) low levels of modesty often make them uncomfortable colleagues.  (The low levels of modesty are often a result of the sense of vocation.  Believing that one is "called" by the Sacred for one's task can often lead to arrogance if one is not careful.) 
  • As well, openly being a person of faith within a centre-left party with a pluralist-secular ethos leads to other difficulties.
Occasionally, through sheer talent and a public desire for transparent integrity, they become senior government figures.

In my adult life, I've been aware of four politicians of this sort who, across the English-speaking world, reached the heights of being the leader of a national government:  Jimmy Carter in the United States, the late David Lange in New Zealand, Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, and Kevin Rudd in Australia.

Each of these individuals had their flaws:  Rudd's temper - as well as his tendency to micromanage - was an obvious case in point, as was Lange's ego.  (And Rudd's personal flaws were given a wide airing in various political post-mortems following the election.)

All of these leaders had a real problem with knowing whom to trust.  While Carter was particularly known for his naiveté, each of the four tended to trust people who (it could be argued) took advantage of their trust.
  • In some cases, the misplaced trust was bad for their career.  Rudd trusted the ALP factional and trade union powerbrokers in 2010.
  • In other cases, the misplaced trust led to disastrous policies.  Blair trusted George W. Bush before the Iraq War.
While each was well-read in the area of theology, perhaps their theological reading could have been better-focused for a politician.  While Rudd's penchant for the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well-noted, perhaps each of the four could have been better prepared for their political vocation if they had spent some more time with the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote of the need for those in public life to be wary of their fellow-inhabitants of the political environment and to avoid naiveté, in the interests of the public good.

This usefulness of some Niebuhrian scepticism toward political movers-and-shakers would have been particularly useful in two situations when these leaders made decisions that were seemingly inexplicable in terms of the values either of ecumenical Christianity or of social democratic politics: 
  • Tony Blair's decision to participate in George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq a decade ago, and
  • Kevin Rudd's decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, rather than resettling them in Australia, after resuming the Prime Ministership. 
Both men made highly flawed decisions in these cases (in my opinion), decisions that may have been radically different if either Blair or Rudd had reflected on their policy options with a more Niebuhrian quality of scepticism toward the motives of those advocating these policies.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Has the Uniting Church lost its ecumenical "mojo"?

I'm a Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia.

I'm also an ecumenical staff person. 

I've been able to make these two statements together for about a year now.

Earlier in my life, there was a period of nine-and-a-half years - from early 1992 to late 2001 - when I could also make those same two statements together.

In that earlier time, I found very little conflict in these two roles as a UCA minister and an ecumenical staffer.

Now I'm not so sure.

In that earlier time, my ministry as an ecumenical staffer was in the context of being part of a church whose ecumenical commitment was part of its bedrock identity.

Now, I'm not so sure.

In the thirty-six years since the Uniting Church came into being, I suspect we've lost some of our ecumenical "mojo".

In the years soon after the union of the Congregational and Methodist Churches (along with the more sensible wing of the Presbyterian Church)  in 1977, we were identified strongly with the move toward a wider unity among Christians.  In fact, the Uniting Church's goal was seen by many as to go out of existence (at least in its current configuration) as we became part of a wider union with other Christian churches in this country (a union which - by definition - would be something different from the Uniting Church which came into existence in 1977).

In recent years, we've become less of a movement toward unity and more of a denomination.  Increasingly, we've become very comfortable as a denomination.  In my opinion, we've become far too comfortable as a denomination.

As in other denominations, there are some of us who are enthusiastic about ecumenism and some who are suspicious about ecumenism, saying things like "As long as the others become like us, ecumenism is fine ... but WE don't have to change anything."

This Saturday, 22nd June 2013, is the 36th anniversary of the day that the Uniting Church in Australia was founded.  For those of us who are members of the UCA, I'd like to suggest a few things for which we can pray.

One prayer is that we can seek to keep the distinctive gifts and graces (what Roman Catholic religious orders call charisms) of our parent churches:
  • the Congregational respect for diversity,
  • the Methodist optimism both in regard to God's grace and in regard to human nature, and
  • the Presbyterian respect for serious scholarship.
Another prayer is that we avoid the serious errors of our parent churches:
  • the parochialism of Congregationalism,
  • the moralism of Methodism, and
  • the legalism and pedantry of Presbyterianism.
A third prayer is that we can, once again, find our ecumenical "mojo".

(You may also wish to see a later post, exploring the UCA's ongoing ecumenical task.)

The Galatian challenge: a sermon (Galatians 3: 23 - 29)

In one of today’s lessons, we are presented with one of the great statements of the Christian faith.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

These words in the Letter to the Galatians have always been a challenge to the Christian Church.  In each of the past two centuries, the Christian Church has discovered one of the phrases from Paul’s great affirmation of the oneness of God’s people, and found the phrase to be a call to action.  I hope that, in this century, the Christian Church may do the same with a still third phrase.

1.         “... there is no longer slave or free ...”

In the late eighteenth century and though much of the nineteenth century, many Christians discovered this phrase and found it to be a call to action:  “...there is no longer slave or free...”.   But slavery was still a problem.  Slavery was still practised, even in colonies of nations professing the Christian faith, in some cases even in the nations themselves. 
There were even some examples of Christians arguing in favour of retaining slavery, and trying to use the Bible to justify slavery.  (However, the vast majority of those who supported the continuation of slavery did so on purely secular, economic reasons.)

But, while there were a few who sought to use the scriptures in a corrupted way to justify slavery, the intelligent, informed leaders of the Christian churches were in the forefront of support for abolishing slavery.  For example, those who saw the film “Amazing Grace” a few years ago are aware of the work of William Wilberforce in abolishing the slave trade within the British Empire, and of the role played by his Christian faith in motivating him to oppose slavery.

Eventually, slavery was abolished in 1833 within the British Empire, and in 1865 in the United States.  And in the years since then, Christians of many church traditions have continued to be inspired by Paul’s words “no longer slave or free” to promote the fellowship of people of all races, and to oppose discrimination against anyone on the basis of their race. 

 “... there is no longer slave or free ...”

2.         “... there is no longer male and female ...”
In the twentieth century, many Christians discovered this phrase and found it to be a call to action:  “... there is no longer male and female...”.

In the first few decades of the last century, women’s right to vote was affirmed in most countries.
The second half of the century was a time in Western countries when the broader society was learning to affirm the dignity of women as active, contributing members of society.  Barriers and attitudes that kept women from realising their full potential in society were being challenged and often eliminated.  (Of course, this is still not yet fully realised, as we see in recent political events.)

And so it was also in the churches.  In many churches, significant changes occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century so that women, as well as men, were able to respond to God’s call to ministry in all forms, ordained as well as lay.  In those churches that do not yet ordain women, enough people – of both genders – have been inspired by Paul’s words “no longer male or female” to ensure that the issue is firmly on the agenda ... and that the issue is there to stay. 

“... there is no longer male and female ...”

3.         “... There is no longer Jew or Greek ...”
And now, in this twenty-first century, many Christians are discovering this phrase and finding it to be a fresh call to action:  “...There is no longer Jew or Greek ...”.

Slowly, Christians are coming to realise the great treasure of shared values enjoyed by Christians and Jews together.
Slowly, Christians are coming to realise the pain that Jews have experienced - a pain usually inflicted in the name of Christianity - over the past two thousand years.

Slowly, Christians are coming to realise that Christianity and Judaism are two faiths, each with its own distinct integrity and each with its own distinct mission to the world, but with a great pool of shared history.
Slowly, Christians are coming to realise that it is possible - and indeed necessary - to relate to Jews -
  • not as potential Christians,
  • not as an historical footnote to Christianity,
but as members of a vital faith in its own right - a vital faith that is intimately related to Christianity - a faith that Christians discount at great peril to the integrity of our own faith. 

Moving from Christian-Jewish relations in particular to other aspects of interfaith relations, many Christians today are being inspired by Paul’s words “no longer Jew or Greek” to ask the question of what it means to be a Christian in a world of many faiths, in a world in which all the many faiths are increasingly challenged to respect and to affirm each other’s integrity.
Of course, in all this, we need to separate our attitudes toward other faiths and the people who practice other faiths from our reactions to international political events. 
  • For example, we should not allow our reactions to the excesses of the present Israeli government to adversely affect our attitudes toward Judaism as a faith or toward the Jewish individuals who are our fellow-members of the Australian community.
  • Similarly, we should not allow our reactions to the excesses of some governments and movements within the Muslim world to adversely affect our attitudes toward Islam as a faith or toward the Muslim individuals who are our fellow-members of the Australian community.
If the nineteenth century saw the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer slave or free ...”;
and if the twentieth century saw the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer male and female ...”;
I believe this twenty-first century will see the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer Jew or Greek ...”.


Throughout the years, our faith continues to challenge us.  God never leaves us alone.  God offers us changing challenges in different times.  God always calls his people to a broader, wider, fuller vision of the scope and the extent of his concern. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

When faith "goes redneck"

All faith communities have this issue, even if it's more obviously a problem in some faith communities than others.

Frequently, whenever less sophisticated people either
  • "get religion" after a secular upbringing or after a merely nominal identification with their faith. or
  • change from one faith community to another,
they generally adopt a
  • less reflective,
  • less "tolerant",
  • more "fundamentalist",
  • and - let's be honest here - more "redneck"
version of their new faith than many lifetime members of their adopted faith community (or more thoughtful members of their new faith) would really like.

This is particularly the case when less sophisticated young people or less sophisticated males "get religion".  (For the most part, men are more likely than women to look at life in simple black-and-white terms.  Similarly, young people are less comfortable with "grey areas" than their elders.)

We see this situation in a particularly dramatic way within Islam and within evangelical "Protestant" styles of Christianity.  The media are more likely to highlight the problem of "fundamentalism" within Islam and within evangelicalism, largely because of the impact on world politics of radicalised Islam in the Middle East and radicalised evangelicalism in the United States.

Nevertheless, this is an issue for all faith communities, in all nations.  All faiths have equivalent "fundamentalist" groups.  When people in these groups let their faith "go redneck", it causes real harm to the faith traditions with which they identify.

All of us, whatever our faith, should avoid the temptation of evaluating any faith community merely on the basis of its worst practitioners.

Monday, 3 June 2013

"Our congregation is great at hospitality!" (Or is it?)

I've heard people in congregations of all denominations - and, indeed, of all faiths - speak about the extent to which their congregation excels at hospitality.

Now, I've experienced some congregations which absolutely excel at hospitality.  (Two brilliant Australian examples, in my experience, are the Mount Martha Uniting Church in Mount Martha, Victoria, and All Saints' Anglican Church in South Hobart, Tasmania.  And I know there are many others.)

I've also known churches where, while the people say the congregation is very hospitable, I've struggled to find signs of that hospitality in evidence.  (Obviously, I'm not naming names here.)

Is your congregation all that good at hospitality?  Here are a few questions to see how hospitable it really is.  (By the way, as a Christian, I'm speaking here in Christian terms.  Any readers from other faiths - Jews, Muslims, Baha'is, etc - are invited and encouraged to translate these questions into their own context.)

1.     What's the quality of the coffee or tea on offer after the worship service.  Is it of the quality you'd serve at home?  (In Australia, there's a brand of cheap instant coffee - with the same initials as the phrase "Industrial Relations" - which I'd swear was kept in business mainly by congregations of the Uniting Church.)  Good coffee and tea is a necessary starting point.  (Please disregard this one if your congregation is Latter-Day Saints).

2.     While I'm on the subject of coffee and tea, is it Fairtrade?  Hospitality is a global thing.  Let your hospitalty reach out to the world.

3.     What does your congregation look like?  Are there people from a variety of racial and ethnic groups?  A variety of income levels?  A variety of educational levels?  A variety of  political viewpoints?  A variety of sexualities?  A variety of theologies and spiritualities (at least within the context of your tradition)?  That sounds pretty hospitable.  Is everyone pretty similar to everyone else?  Maybe a bit less hospitable.

4.     (Please disregard this one if you are from a Muslim, LDS, or Salvation Army background:)  When was the last time the popping of champagne corks was heard during the social hour after a worship service?  Hospitable congregations celebrate in style.

5.     During the week, between regular worship services, how many of your congregations's regular activities are gender-specific, age-specific, marital-status-specific, etc.?  The more events between services to which ALL are welcome, the more hospitable your congregation is.

6.     How many active members of your congregation got involved in your congregation within the last 3 to 5 years?  The more the better.

7.     How many of your congregation's key leadership group are the sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, or even grandchildren of key leaders in your congregation's past?  If your answer is "most", does this mean that it's particularly hard for newcomers to become part of your congregation?

8.     Think of the people who've left your congregation to go to other congregations in your area.  (Every congregation has them.)  Some would go to congregations with different approaches to faith.  That's OK.  Some would go to congregations with different worship styles.  That's also OK.  How many went to congregations with a similar faith stance and a similar worship style?  What were their reasons for leaving?

9.      How hard is it for people who are newcomers or infrequent worshippers to have their child baptised in your congregation?  (Or whatever is the usual rite of welcome for small children in your tradition?)

10.    If your tradition celebrates an "open communion" (or at least a rather broad eucharistic hospitality) is that fact emphasised at your eucharistic celebrations?  Conversely, if your tradition doesn't celebrate a broad eucharistic hospitality, is that fact played down a bit in your services?"   (In faiths other than Christianity, please translate this question in whatever way makes sense for your tradition.)

I really hope your congregation is as good at hospitality as you believe.  In any event, I hope these questions may help your church, synagogue, mosque, corps, etc., to be as welcoming and hospitable as your community deserves its communities of worship to be.