All posts by oceangrove

Post-Election Dreaming

Having encouraged people to make sure God got a vote in the election, I then looked at the results and realised that God didn’t get many votes. How do I know this?  When people vote according to self-interest and/or avoid voting for candidates who, though highly capable and driven by the right ideals, do not belong to a party, God doesn’t stand a chance.  So I have been reflecting on what could be changed in order for there to be the kind of democracy in which ‘God’ actually can be elected.  

It is essential to realise that God works through individual people. This is possible because people have ‘souls’ connected to God.  However, it is impossible for God to communicate through institutions such as political parties, for institutions (even churches) have no soul, no conscience, no compassion, no connection with the divine. When MPs can only function through a party, and not independently through their own connections with God and the people of their electorates, the results are typically unholy.

Currently, we have the combination of a system of government in which ruling parties seem unable to sacrifice themselves for the good of the people, and a relatively unsophisticated electorate that does not understand how to make the system work for it.  

For a start, too many people, like first century Jews, live in hope of a Messiah who will save and deliver prosperity to them, and so they make their voting choices according to their assessment of the major party leaders.  The media follow the lead of their readers and give the leaders plenty of press, and in turn, the leaders soak it up, declaring “I will do” this or that or bragging about what “I” have done. It seems as though all Australia, including just about every politician, fails to understand that there is no elected executive branch of government included in the Constitution.  The Prime Minister, merely the manager of his party, has no more or less constitutional authority than any other MP and, as we have seen proven on several occasions in recent years, can be easily replaced with no reference to the electorate and little or no effect on the governance of the nation.

A far worse impediment to democracy, much less theocracy, has been the development of political parties.  Having grown up in the U.S., I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Australian Constitution, but those who wrote the American Constitution did not imagine the evolution of political parties into an essentially two-party system.  George Washington even warned his fellow Americans to beware of political parties as anathema to democracy.

The most obvious problem of two-party systems, as they have evolved in the U.S. and Australia, is the creation of a confrontational environment of ‘us vs. them’.  This usually results in legislation that, far from being designed to benefit all, has ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Instead of democracy (a government of and for the people, i.e. all of them), we get an oligarchy, which is a government of and for the ‘privileged’.  Even given that the groups who are so privileged change from time to time at elections, there is no way God ever gets a ‘guernsey’ because the two-sides are so busy taking advantage of each other for self-interest’s sake.  Where legislation is decided by simple majorities, the result is a system of tyranny; tyranny against up to 49.99% of the people by as few as 50.01%. 

When this inherent deficiency is exacerbated though lobbying by the wealthy and influential, and made worse by the fact that money can be used to win elections simply through the significant cost of media advertising, it is foolish to believe that the vast majority of people (and through them, God) can have a voice.

There are some easy fixes, but ones that governments will never advocate because, at the very core of their existence, political parties have only one guiding principle: get re-elected. Given this one principle, God can never have any influence, simply because your principles and mine have no power over that one demand placed on politicians: stay in power.

The Uniting Church has provided a model for governance that has been in use for the last 25 years or so: decisions made in the councils of the church require consensus.  Imagine if consensus was required for legislation in Parliament.  “It couldn’t possibly work!” you may declare, but people said the same thing when the Uniting Church was debating the implementation of consensus voting back in the 1990s, and it has been proven a success.  

Why does it work in the church?  Well, at the heart of all decision-making is the question, “What is God’s will?”, and the role of every single one of the representatives on the councils of the church is to seek God’s will.  At least in theory, no one is on any council of the church for the benefit of him/herself or for the benefit of a party or faction; only to discern the working of the Holy Spirit.

This may prove to you, therefore, that consensus cannot possibly work in Parliament, because all people are not there for the same reason, i.e. there is no common guiding principle; they are not there to seek the will of God.  Granted, few politicians would be accused of being agents of God; however, they are all there for the same constitutional reason: TO REPRESENT THE PEOPLE IN THEIR ELECTORATE.  They are not put there to garner power and glory or tenure for themselves or to favour some people over others or to put the party’s interests over the interests of their electorate. Their responsibility is simply to do their best for all the people in their electorate, not only those who voted for them, and this includes making decisions that might not be popular and/or may contravene party policy, but are in the best interests of the people. 

If we take this one step further and imagine that, in general, people want to do what is morally right and loving, and will choose for the well-being of others less fortunate than themselves (I think this has been shown to be the case over and over, whether though bushfire, flood and drought or just normal life), then all MPs and Senators, regardless of party affiliation should be expected to have the same goal. Whether or not you label it as such, it is pretty darn close to what we would include in the will of God: to create a better life for all, to build the community of a nation.

Maybe consensus is too much to ask at first, but even if legislation had to have a two-thirds majority to pass, our representatives would have to talk with other members rather than shout at them across the floor, because no one party could have its own way unless it had an unprecedented majority in both houses .  MPs would have to compromise and reason and listen to each other, and even speak politely to one another, in order to get legislation passed.  The result would inevitably reflect a better path forward for the nation as a whole, in which more of its citizens would benefit.  I dare say it would also result in Australia becoming a better citizen of the world, which it has not always been of late, particularly with regard to climate change or providing a home for refugees.

The raising of the simple majority requirement is workable, but I think there is an even better way, proposed by a number of people, including Alexander Guerrero, an assistant professor of philosophy, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania: get rid of elections. 

“Whoa!” you say.  How can we have a democracy without elections?  Well, face reality; we don’t have democracy with elections  We have a system highly-biased toward those who have money and influence; i.e., an oligarchy, which easily manipulates an unsophisticated electorate by fear or through their ‘hip pocket nerves’.  In other words, elections do not protect democracy; they merely provide the means to manipulate the system.

There is another way that guarantees representative democracy, without making it subject to corruption by the wealthy and powerful.  We have used it for years for selecting juries: by lottery. It’s got a lot going for it and there are few, if any, disadvantages.  The biggest advantage is the avoidance of elections, with their huge cost in terms of money and time, and the immense distraction they pose to the work of governing.  We know well the problems that come from lack of long term planning by governments, for they seem unable to see beyond the horizon of the next election.  Policies are driven less by what is best for the country than what is currently popular among the electorate. Every three years (or fewer), real work is put on hold for months at a time while the parties gear up for the next election. And the make-up of parliament does not even come close to mirroring the people they are supposed to represent. 

“Yes, but!” you will argue, “people chosen by lottery may not be qualified or knowledgable enough.”  They are qualified enough to sit on juries and decide the fate of their fellow citizens who break the law, so why are they not qualified to preside over the making of law?  And are our present MPs any more qualified to lead; any more knowledgeable?  I doubt it.  When a Prime Minister of Australia admits he does not believe in climate change, it is an expression of profound ignorance and lack of qualification to lead. And then there’s Pauline Hanson; need I say more? A parliament selected by lottery will be much more representative of the people of Australia in all sorts of ways, bearing the national average in experience, qualities for leadership, wisdom, knowledge, all the diverse gifts of people, and made up of all the various ethnic groups and cultures.  It will have a gender balance, too, that has been sadly lacking in Australian politics since the beginning.

Yes, there will be some who are more capable than others and a few who are much more capable, but this the case now. Those who have been selected to serve will recognise those within their ranks who have the abilities and skills to fill the roles of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, etc, just as now, except that it wouldn’t be done on a party basis.  All members will be advised by the very same public servants who advise the current politicians, so the knowledge made available to them to make decisions also will be same.  The advantage  will be decisions made on the basis of this knowledge alone, without interference from poll results, concern for winning the next election, upsetting party donors, making enemies of members of this or that party faction, or pressure from lobbyists. And most importantly, there will be no party loyalty to get in the way of members’ responsibility to the people whom they represent. Finally, this form of government will be much harder to corrupt.  Currently, one only has to influence the ruling party with a big donation to fund election advertising; whereas, in a lottery-chosen parliament, this avenue to buy influence is no longer open (no elections, no need to advertise), and one would have to corrupt members one by one. Such an attempt is highly unlikely to occur unnoticed, and penalties would be severe.

In the worse case scenario, in which the luck of the lottery happens to deliver a  sub-standard government, there is the good news that, at the end of the term, all legislators will be replaced, never to return. However, I think it unlikely that the worst lottery-chosen government would be as inept and immoral as those with which we have been cursed in recent years.

The above alternatives to the present system are not likely to be adopted anytime soon, but they are not beyond the potential of citizens to demand.  Good government may be a dream, but a dream is the first step to real change, just waiting for passionate people to make it happen. God may yet get a vote.

Bob Thomas, May 2019

Give God a Vote

Is preaching the gospel compatible with a discussion of politics?  There are some who think not; indeed, who even get rather worked up about it, especially politicians. However, even a cursory reading of scripture will lead one to understand that one cannot communicate God’s Word without getting tied up in politics.  More than one of God’s prophets, before, after and including Jesus, was killed or imprisoned for ‘stepping on the toes’ of those in power.

Bearers of the Faith, would be less than disciples if they were to ignore the actions of those in power when such actions go against the grain of God’s will, e.g. when the poor suffer at the hands of the rich and powerful, when God’s creation and the well-being of future generations is plundered, when people are denied basic human rights, when the commandment to love is ignored in favour of war, revenge and punishment, when a culture of fear is fostered rather than a culture of faith.  All of the above are happening now.

Common sense will tell you, if the gospel has nothing to say about politics (i.e. the means by which human beings order their societies), it really has little relevance to our lives at all, and we may as well burn our Bibles and close the church.

To believe in one God, and one God only, means patriotism and political partisanship must always take a back seat to discipleship.  As a people guided by God, there is no way that our political views ever can be free of the way of Jesus, nor should they be.  When God’s will and the will of our leaders conflict, there is no doubt where our allegiance must lie.

From time to time over the course of my career, I have preached sermons which were considered too political by some members of my congregations, but is it not the duty of every Christian to call our leaders to account for their actions when we think that they are acting contrary to gospel values?  Are we not called to name evil when it appears and to name its perpetrators?

This is not a question of Labour vs. the Coalition or liberal vs. conservative.  The question is: Is our leadership, whichever party is in power, acting morally?  It is a question that should be asked everyday, and if the answer is ‘no’, then change is in order, and action is called for.

Given that our responsibility in this matter is so blatantly obvious, it must be asked: Why would any Christian complain about bringing religion into politics?  I came up with three possibilities, but there may be others:

  1. The gospel conflicts with what we want, so to side with the gospel against the government would be to threaten the advantages we are getting from current political policies, be it security, money or support for our prejudices, or…
  2. We have a misguided sense of loyalty, mistakenly believing that it would be unpatriotic to criticise the government, even if we don’t agree with their policies, or….
  3. We are among those who are responsible for having cast our vote for the party in power, so it is better to not know about its immorality than to acknowledge we made a mistake.

If a person were to fall in the last category, it would seem that this person would have not only a greater sense of responsibility, but also more motivation to question the existing order.  After all, these are the people who should feel betrayed by the ones to whom they entrusted their power.  This is why we have elections every few years: so that we have a chance to fix our mistakes.

In my years of ministry it has frequently been necessary to speak out against specific policies that were clearly contrary to Christian values.  If I should ever stop doing so, I will have abrogated my responsibility as one who has vowed to spread the gospel.

As issues arise, you will hear politics from the pulpit; there is no other viable moral or theological alternative for a preacher.  It is a question of being faithful to the one God and to the way of Jesus, our teacher.

One church leader said before the American elections: “What would it mean to have a public voice in our community this year around issues that we care about?” she asked. “If God is still speaking, then God doesn’t shut up in the face of potentially controversial issues.”

Let’s ensure God always has a vote.

Bob Thomas

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