Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Last year he wrote an essay on Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, the German priest and resistance leader who was murdered on Hitler's orders in the dying days of the Nazi regime.
The essay is here.
In the essay he presents his views on the role of Christianity in politics. I find these views rather reassuring.
"If these are the contours of classical Christian engagement with the state, the modern forms of political engagement are in the main much cruder. Below I list five of them, of which only the fifth bears any real resemblance to Bonhoeffer's position.
1. Vote for me because I'm a Christian. This is the model that is most repugnant. It is the model which says that, simply on the basis of my external profession of the Christian faith, those of similar persuasion should vote for me. This is about as intelligent as saying that because I am a Sydney Swans supporter, all other Swans supporters should vote for me, because we ostensibly adhere to the same belief system. This model is alive and well in the US. Thankfully, it is much less alive and much less well in Australia, although there are some dangerous signs that for certain Christian constituencies here, it represents an increasingly appealing message. It is a model for which there is no underpinning scriptural, doctrinal or theological authority.
2. Vote for me because I'm Christian, and because I have a defined set of views on a narrowly defined set of questions concerning sexual morality. Regrettably, this model has an increasing number of supporters within the broader Christian community. Such supporters tend to read down, rather than read up, the ethical teachings of the New Testament, producing a narrow tick-the-box approach to passing a so-called Christian morals test. These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.
3. Vote for me because I am a Christian, vote for me because I have a defined set of views on questions of private sexual morality, and vote for me also because I chant the political mantra of "family values". That is, take models number one and two and add to them the tag of "family values". Regrettably, that term has become one of the most used and abused terms in the Australian political lexicon. The concept of "family values" it involves is invariably a narrow one, and invariably leaves to one side the ability of working families to survive financially.
4. Apply models one, two and three above, and then add the following offensive play. Unleash a political fusillade against anyone who dares suggest that Christianity might have something concrete to say about the broader political, economic and social questions, and justify this fusillade with that hardy perennial, "Religion should be kept out of politics." This is a view which says that should anyone seek to articulate from a Christian perspective a view on the Iraq war, on poverty in the world, on asylum seekers, on indigenous Australians, or on workplace relations, then judgement may be rained down upon them from the heavens above, as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bonhoeffer's critique of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was, of course, a response to this.
5. In the fifth approach, the Gospel is both a spiritual Gospel and a social Gospel, and if it is a social Gospel then it is in part a political Gospel, because politics is the means by which society chooses to exercise its collective power. In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state's power. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells humankind that they must be born again is the same Gospel which says that at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation to social action. Does this mean that the fundamental ethical principles provide us with an automatic mathematical formula for determining every item of social, economic, environmental, national-security and international-relations policy before government? Of course not. What it means is that these matters should be debated by Christians within an informed Christian ethical framework. It also means that we should repudiate the proposition that such policy debates are somehow simply "the practical matters of the state" which should be left to "practical" politicians rather than to "impractical" pastors, preachers and theologians. This approach is very much in Bonhoeffer's tradition.A Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not prevail. It must nonetheless be argued. And once heard, it must be weighed, together with other arguments from different philosophical traditions, in a fully contestable secular polity. A Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition, should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere. If the churches are barred from participating in the great debates about the values that ultimately underpin our society, our economy and our polity, then we have reached a very strange place indeed."