Ian Harris Otago Daily Times October 10, 2014
As a shambolic election campaign fades mercifully into history, voters are left mulling over what might have been, whether for better or for worse. In the major league National’s victory was stunning, Labour’s loss gutting. And nearly one in four of us didn’t bother to vote.
A democracy waxes and wanes according to how society as a whole engages with it, so something is obviously lacking. Was this campaign so drab and dirty that many people didn’t want a bar of it? Or was there something missing in all the public debate: namely, a clear vision of what kind of people, in what kind of society, New Zealanders might aspire to be? For as the proverb warns, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
Sure, there was plenty of pragmatic detail around what should or shouldn’t be done to broaden the tax system, clean up our rivers, help or deter developers, tweak education, ensure children’s futures are not stunted by poverty. Most politicians presumably want to do good rather than bad, within the parameters of whatever political, economic or social ideology drives them. But parameters can turn out to be blinkers, and ideology is not vision.
At their best, politics and religion do share a common impulse. Each in its own way envisions a re-ordering of the world – not usually the whole world, but certainly the world of a particular place and time. Sometimes, though, it is the whole world. Communism had such a vision. Capitalism still does, especially multinational mega-capitalism. Europe’s imperial powers re-ordered the world by carving it up and imposing their rule.
In World War 2, Germany and Japan set out to re-order vast portions of the globe for their own aggrandisement.
Hence every grand cause needs to be tested: What are its guiding values? How will the vision be pursued? Who stands to benefit?
At the heart of both Christianity and Islam lie visions of re-ordering the world – and the long history of both religions illustrate the perils of imposing their vision top-down through becoming politically dominant, rather than growing it from the ground up in freedom of choice.
In Muslim thought, the religious and political orders are two sides of the same coin. In the great age of Islam 1000 years ago the religion of a compassionate God and caring community produced in some regions a flowering of learning, tolerance, respect and humanity.
In marked contrast is the fanatical savagery of today’s Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose followers slaughter, kidnap and oppress at the point of the sword. They envision a very different society, misusing Islam to fuel a political messianism of domination and intolerance.
Medieval Christendom went through a similar phase in its murderous crusades to restore the Holy Land to Christian rule, and in the political power exercised by popes, bishops and priests to control thought and curb freedom. Just as the barbarism of an Islamist fringe is a perversion of the teaching of Mohammed, so was Christian brutality a negation of the spirit of Jesus.
Jesus certainly envisioned a re-ordering of the world. His central image was of earth as God’s kingdom – not a kingdom to be imposed by coercive political power, but one where people who caught his vision, and then lived it into reality, could transform whole communities.
The kingdoms of Jesus’ image are not the norm any more, and for many the theistic God it assumes has faded out of consciousness, taking with it any notion of God’s kingdom on earth. Nature abhors a vacuum, so in its place have arisen the modern gods of individualism, neo-liberal economics, and the multinational corporates. Some insist these promote and expand human freedom, but they are actually the gods of the “haves” – who are past-masters at enlisting politicians to put their interests first.
Serving those gods has ensured that far from trickling down, wealth gushes upwards, widening the gap between the richest quintile of society and the rest. Faith in those gods lay behind the recent global financial crisis, and will trigger another. Central to the Christian vision of the kingdom of God, by contrast, is a sense of worth, belonging and justice as all contribute according to their strengths to the common good. It is not a political manifesto, though politicians can either build on its values or actively undermine them.
Voters need not wait on them, however, to make the vision real in their own lives and communities. It will always trump any party platform.