Faith and Politics – some historical thoughts

jim-macaloonJim McAloon’s Presentation at the Napier Conference – for those of you who were not there, and for those who were :)

I want to explore in this talk some of the histories of faith-based political engagement in Aotearoa New Zealand. If my emphasis is on the political sphere and public questions, that is partly reflecting my particular interests and partly because I think it is important for people of progressive faith to know our past.

Why do I say that? Because I think that one unfortunate consequence of the increased strength of conservative forces in many of the Christian churches in the last 30 or so years has been a weakening of the faith-based element in movements for social change, and an almost default setting in the popular media that Christian commitment implies social conservatism (a default setting that many of the leaders of what used to be called mainline denominations encourage, wittingly or otherwise).

The USS Pintado submarine, escorted by the HMNZS Waikato (the same frigate sent to Moruroa test zone in 1973 by the New Zealand Government), is met by the Peace Squadron as it arrives in Waitemata harbour, Auckland in 1978.
The USS Pintado submarine, escorted by the HMNZS Waikato (the same frigate sent to Moruroa test zone in 1973 by the New Zealand Government), is met by the Peace Squadron as it arrives in Waitemata harbour, Auckland in 1978.

Many of you will be well aware that the Auckland Peace Squadron was formed, to protest on the water against the visits of nuclear-capable warships, by George Armstrong, a theologian at St John’s College in Auckland.

Many of you will recall the highly visible role in the 1981 Springbok tour of many in the churches in the campaign against apartheid. And more recently, recall the Hikoi of Hope, which the Anglican church organised in 1998, to highlight the poverty in which many people in New Zealand were living and to call for meaningful action.   I wonder if such a Hikoi could be organised now.  In the themes I look at tonight, though, I’m going to go a bit further back.

The Church was very visible in Anti-Tour Protests.
The Church was very visible in Anti-Tour Protests.

Faith and resistance are complex. On 30 April, there died at the age of 94 the American Jesuit priest and peace campaigner Daniel Berrigan. Berrigan’s approach was fairly uncompromising; like Dorothy Day, who much influenced him, he was not particularly interested in engaging with, or working through, established public institutions (although he remained a lifelong and faithful Jesuit and Catholic priest).

We can appreciate the importance of individual witness, and I want to look at this in our own context, but my own view is that working in community is important too, and so is engagement in the institutions of church and state.

Perhaps what I want to say this evening might be described as an exercise in recovery history – recovery history being a term sometimes used to describe, for instance, some of the earlier efforts in women’s history which sought to recover the lives and experiences of those who were ‘hidden from history’. Sometimes the term has faintly critical connotations, the suggestion being that it is lacking in analytical force. But sometimes recovery history is very important.

Mainstream religious history in New Zealand emphasises, quite understandably, mainstream concerns.   Thus the standard collection of documents on New Zealand religious history deals with denominational growth and structure, tensions within and between denominations, drink, sabbath observance, and education, with some attention to ‘progressive’ challenges from the later 1960s. A recent and very worthwhile study of Christian political action, Shaping Godzone by Laurie Guy, understandably tries to cover a representative sample of issues, and so there is considerable space given to moral conservatives.

Perhaps the most telling example of the importance of ‘recovery history’ in this context was a discussion I had with a student a couple of years ago. This student had grown up in a comfortable, middle class Catholic family in Auckland. After years of Catholic education this student had, until leaving school, absolutely no idea of the Catholic church’s teaching on poverty and economic injustice and peace, and still less that there was any room for debate about issues like marriage equality. It was only when travelling overseas as an exchange student and meeting progressive Christians in the United States that this student realised there were different perspectives on such questions.   I suspect the student’s perspective on the church had been shaped by observations like this:

traditional beliefs and values have been systematically subverted by the derision and hostility towards the whole Judeo-Christian ethic upon which civilisation has been based for the past two Millennia. Relativism and permissiveness have been deliberately prompted, and morality reduced to purely subjective preference.

… the Prostitution Reform Bill show[ed] how meaningless “conscience votes” have become in Parliament. Enough MPs ceded conscience to party pressure to ensure that in New Zealand street-walking is now as respectable as shop-walking. So, too, the definition of marriage has been widened to include all manner of relationships that are anything but marital. For most political parties, crucial issues such as aborting the unborn and physician assisted suicide, speciously termed “the woman’s right to choose” and “death with dignity”, are determined by public polling.[1]

I thought this was rather sad.   I couldn’t help contrasting this with Pope John XXIII’s words when he opened the second Vatican council.

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though [in former times] everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.[2]

History, the teacher of life – so we have to tell our stories.   This is not only to uplift and edify – it is also because I do believe we can learn from history. This means being honest about weaknesses and failings as well as successes.

What I say this evening might in places be a little disjointed, but I’m going to try to bring out a range of stories and situations where people of faith worked for progressive change.

Read the rest of the article (including footnotes) here