What I know about Christianity and the State

Kevin Rudd

The following is a Parliamentary Reflection delivered by Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesperson Kevin Rudd MP during this year’s national prayer breakfast. It was delivered under the title of ‘Christianity and the State’

When I was asked some time ago to present this year's Parliamentary Reflection on personal faith and public life I must admit, in the great tradition of St Thomas, to having great doubts about doing so.

Doubt number one: Always be sceptical when you hear politicians quoting scriptures.

Doubt number two: Be doubly sceptical when you hear politicians quoting the scriptures that make themselves look good and the other mob look like the first cousins of the anti-Christ - just in case said politicians may have a passing interest in using faith to advance their political interests.

And doubt number three: Be trebly sceptical when you hear politicians inferring that God is on their side. It's always sobering to recall that while we were fighting for "God, King and Empire", the Germans in the trenches opposite had emblazoned on their belts "Gott mitt uns" " ie God is with us. Confusing for God, perhaps. A disastrous advertisement for the faith, definitely.

It is against a background of these not unreasonable doubts, and as one who readily admits to being as flawed and failed as the rest of humanity represented in this place, that I offer this simple, personal reflection today.


In case you hadn't noticed, recently there was a minor political event in this great country of ours " otherwise called an election.

And just in case you hadn't noticed, we on our side of the political divide have had yet another character-building experience.

In fact, we have been richly blessed with a number of such character-building experiences in recent years.

At election time, whether those of us in the political profession care to admit it or not, we do give the odd passing thought to the baubles of high political office. Well at any rate, I certainly have.

But this election and its result have been a little different for me. The reason is entirely personal. The day before the election, my mother died.

Grief over the loss of a family member is something we all experience. And my grief therefore is no different to that experienced by many in this room - and many, many more across the communities from which we come. Brendan Nelson, for example, a member of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, recently lost his father.

However, when these things happen, the truth is we become again as little children. It tends to put all things into context: causing us to reflect afresh on that which is enduring and important; and that which is transient and unimportant.

And that lies very much at the heart of today's gospel reading that will be read to us presently by the Prime Minister.

St Luke records for us Jesus' parable about the rich man who stored up treasures on earth " but who neglected to store up similar treasures in the things that really matter in the full sweep of human history and eternity.

So the question for us today as Christians in politics is: What are these things that really matter?

To begin with: Does Christianity and the Christian church have any proper role in contemporary politics? Or are they separate domains " one dealing with the spiritual, the other the practical or the physical? This is a debate that has raged since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in AD312.

But my simple answer is: yes the church does have a role in society and therefore in political debates about society's future. One of my great heroes in life is Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German pastor, theologian and martyr who led the dissenting German church and took up arms against the Nazi state. For Bonhoeffer, there was no alternative but to be engaged. For him it was part of the cost of discipleship.

Our circumstances today are not as dramatic as Bonhoeffer's time " but ask the church in the Sudan today and they may have a different view.

I see the gospel as being both spiritual and social " and if social, then also at one level, political.

The gospel records Jesus as saying to Zaccheus that he must be born again if he was to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But the gospels also record the same Jesus as saying that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we will be asked not how pious we have been, but whether we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked.

So if Christianity is not just about self but equally about society, what are the moral concerns of our contemporary circumstances which we in politics must address?

Family breakdown is a moral concern.

The impact of family breakdown on children is a moral concern.

Violence, virtual or physical, is a moral concern.

But equally, a family's ability to put bread on the table is a moral concern.

So too is a family's ability to afford decent health care and a decent education for its children.

As is our treatment of those who cannot readily fend for themselves " including those who come to us to seek refuge from other lands as well as the 1.5 billion of our brothers and sisters from the wider human family who wake this morning in abject poverty. Remembering always Wesley's great injunction: "The world is my parish".

And then there is our custodianship of the planet itself.

These are all legitimate moral concerns, although there are some we are more comfortable dealing with in the marketplace of national politics than others.

 

So if Christianity and the Church do have a role in our national social (and therefore political) life, and the moral terrain of its engagement is broad, rather than narrow " what voice should Christians and the church bring to bear?

Sometimes we complicate this unnecessarily.

Jesus gave as the Great Commandment us our guide " to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself.

In other words, to put others first and ourselves last (something that does not necessarily come naturally to those of us who inhabit this building).

This I think is the revolutionary message of Christian politics.

Does this provide us with a neat, mathematical formula for the purposes of informing public policy? Of course not.

But the principle at stake here is that Christians and the church should seek to promote ethical standards based on this core Christian teaching, maintain a healthy distance from the state, and provide a cogent critique where necessary when governments simply stray too far. Something Oppositions generally love. And governments generally hate. I should know. I've been in both.

None of this is easy.

And none of it is possible unless we as Christians have confidence that the Great Commandment is not just good philosophy " but essential theology if in fact we believe that Jesus is the pioneer and the perfector of our faith.

Kant, the father of modern western philosophy, put it differently " a god whose existence rests on both the starry skies above but equally the moral law within.

If I may conclude where I began " on a very personal note. My mother was a woman of strong faith and compassion. Her favourite passage was from John's Gospel: "I am the vine, you are the branches".

May we as Christians in this place, whatever our political affiliation, become his branches in giving life, force and effect to the Great Commandment given to us by the Jesus of history " and the Christ of eternity.

My prayer today is that drawing on God's love, may we in this country become God's love to our neighbours and to the world in practical the things that matter.


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