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Is Political Leadership only for Bastards?


All politicians talk of ethical leadership
Until realpolitik takes over.
Could true blue Christianity ever work?

by Peter Fleming

Did Jesus Christ have what it takes to make a good political leader of a nation?

The criticism has often been made that Jesus did not live long enough, and nor did He show an inclination to arrive at the level of "manager"; He didn't get as far as even a Robert Kennedy; He never had to make realpolitik decisions. Would He have tempered his "Love thine enemy" stance if he once had to defend a nation's borders, or even had to distribute limited national resources amongst competing factions? Would the Sermon on the Mount have been accepted as an effective political speech in a modern - or even ancient - election campaign? In other words, can Christianity be applied at anything more complex than a person-to-person level? Is it a philosophy for government?

"Nations are merely individuals in slow motion," wrote Oscar Wilde. True. National insecurity breeds aggression just as personal insecurity does; national overconfidence leads to overspending as does individual overconfidence; crowds take on a collective personality; and the word "economy", nowadays used almost exclusively at the level of the state, originally just referred to a private "household."

And so the question arises: if it is right to turn the other cheek in interpersonal conflicts, what should one do if your country is invaded? If, when someone takes your cloak, you are obliged as an individual to give him also your tunic, should we have given Brisbane if the Japanese had actually taken Darwin? What would happen to international conflict if the fundamental moral teachings of Christ were followed at the level of government?

Many a politician has rationalised away his or her Christian convictions under the pressures of party loyalty and the duty to represent the will of those who elected him or her. Shane Stone, in the Northern Territory, said that while as a Christian he opposed euthanasia, as Chief Minister he had a duty to defend Northern Territory's right to make its own legislation when confronted by Kevin Andrews' moves to overrule the local law at Federal level.

As a contrast, one is reminded of a similar dilemma articulated by one of the chief characters in the eloquent and unique Broadway musical 1776, which concerned the debate which took place among Congressional representatives prior to the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in that fateful eponymous year.

In history, Doctor Lyman Hall was the representative of the state of Georgia, sent to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia after war had broken out between the thirteen American colonies and the motherland, England, in 1775.

In the musical, during an early voting session - on the preliminary question of whether or not the Congress should even debate the possibility of becoming independent of King George III - Hall, who is both a doctor of medicine and theology as well as being in the current circumstances a politician, is asked to vote yea or nay to the proposition at hand.

His reply is intriguing:

Mister Secretary, Georgia seems to be split right down the middle on this issue. The people are against it - and I'm for it. But I'm afraid I'm not yet certain whether representing the people means relying on their judgement or on my own.

(Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards,1776, Penguin Books)

Initially, Hall sides with the people he represents and opposes talk of independence.

It is worth keeping in mind that these Congressmen were all, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian believers, and prior to the writing of the Declaration, the dominant force of thought was that the power of a king came from above and that to be subject of the monarch was to be subject of God's will. (This thinking was, of course, a matter of major philosophical debate throughout this era, and the Declaration itself articulated an opposing view: "...all men are created equal...") So the matter was as much a religious question as it was political. Christian conscience and principle had to be taken into account to resolve it. And in the play, Hall finally arrives at an illumination which many a poll-driven hack of our own era might find disquietingly principled:

In trying to resolve my dilemma I remembered something I'd once read - "that a representative owes the People not only his industry but his judgement, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion." It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament.

Indeed, following this idea, John Howard may have gained the respect even of his opponents on the Iraq war - he certainly ignored the will of the people! - if only he hadn't practised to deceive the nation about why and when his decisions on the matter were made.

What would happen if the politicians who claim to be Christian actually practised their Christianity in their political work? What if they were to argue, after a terrorist outrage, that no retribution would be sought against the perpetrators? What if they sorted out differences with terrorist suspects "on the way to court" - in other words, without intent to exact a punishment? What if they advocated prayer for enemies on a national scale, rather than invested in bigger and better (and sometimes worse) submarines, helicopters and fighter jets?

Aggression and fear look the same in practice; if Christian politicians trusted to the teaching of Jesus, what harm could enemies really do to them, or to the nation? Rob us? Raid us? Kill us? Should nations as well as persons "take up (their) cross and follow Me?" Would opposing nations use force if they did not fear we would respond in kind?

When international prisoners are set free, when justice - as opposed to revenge or the survival instinct - reigns, shouldn't our politicians rejoice, rather than impose more and more "security measures"?

Has the alternative ever made a better world?

Lest this sound like quietism - and after all, who would want us to stand by in the face of another Holocaust? - it is worth remembering that Christ himself took action against the tables and benches of the moneychangers and sellers. He made a whip of cords, but seems to have used it only against the sheep and cattle being sold there; He stopped short of physical violence to persons.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated that passive resistance can work within national borders; could it work beyond them? The legacy of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev "the Great" suggests it might.

Catholics in particular will be interested to see if the doctrinally severe Pope Benedict XVI, who holds a position arguably as powerful now as that of the President of the United States, (and through the Vatican City State is also a secular political leader) employs his philosophical powers to help bring gospel illumination to the resolution of the international conflicts plaguing the world right now.

The last American president to ask, in an international crisis, "Would we have to kill anyone on the other side?" was Jimmy Carter, prior to the (failed) raid to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, and he was virtually laughed out of office. But which modern American president has been more respected after office, for putting his Christian beliefs into Christian practice?

Has God made a world where "effective" political leadership is really only fit for hypocritical bastards? Well?


Peter Fleming graduated from the University of Sydney. He worked as a teacher, and later lectured in theatre history. Peter won an Australian Writers Guild award for his play about Stephen Hawking, which was produced by the ABC.





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