Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Let's get political.

A fuzzy photo of my wife catching up with our Waiheke Island grandchildren. What kind of NZ will we leave them?
Jesus - political disturber.
I have been reading scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan about Jesus and his passions. I realise more than I have ever before that Jesus was a political person. He had a vision of the Kingdom Of God – NOT “heaven” but life in the here and now which expresses God’s justice, compassion and a “fair sharing of resources” for everyone.  Looking back on my ministries, I think that while I sought to emphasis the need for servant hood and compassion, I did not emphasise enough the political activism of Jesus (or the Old Testament prophets). His parables, his actions and his teachings all bristled with political agitation against the domination system of his day – the Romans and the Jewish elite collaborators.  They, the top ten percent, had a system that ripped off the peasant class of people.  Jesus was crucified because his teachings and actions criticised the status quo, disturbed their system and questioned the way they used their religion to prop it all up.  While he advocated non-violent resistance, he none-the-less was a political agitator and was killed as a political agitator. With an election looming I am becoming more agitated myself. As well as regretting the fact that I have not been as politically active as I ought to have been, I am convinced the present government and politicians in all parties need to hear some of the “Kingdom” values and could do with a good shake up.  The lack of integrity is astounding.  Long term thinking about directions, consequences and values is non-existent.
“Left” and “Right” options…
We voters are faced with choosing between the various parties. In NZ we have Mixed Member Proportional representation, which means that while we have two main “left and right” parties, there are other more minor parties who get a proportion of seats in parliament according to their “Party Vote”.  What do we mean by “left” and “right”?  I pass on the way Marcus Borg described the two alternatives and their basic ideology in his most recent book “Convictions”.  
Political Ideology of Individualism – “ the belief that how our lives turn out is largely the result of our efforts as individuals. Individualism emphasises what used to be called ‘the self-made man.’  If our lives turned out well, it is because we have worked hard and deserve to keep what we have made. It favours ‘the gifted’ – whether gifted by a genetic inheritance of good health and intelligence, family values that emphasise education and hard work, the economic class into which we are born, inherited wealth, and so forth.  It has a cruel corollary: if our lives have not turned out well, it is largely our own fault because we failed to make use of our opportunities.”  - (The “Right wing” political stance.)
The common Good – “The alternative – or necessary complement – to the ideology of individualism is a politics that takes seriously ‘the common good.’
It is grounded in a number of realisations. None of us is self-made, however disciplined and responsible we may have been. We benefited from what previous generations did for ‘the common good,’ including universal education, civil rights, gender equality, government-created infrastructure, and so forth. Moreover, the common good should concern all of us, not only for moral but also for pragmatic self-interest reasons. Countries that take seriously the well-being of all are safer and healthier: they experience less crime and mental illness, lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, less desperation, and so forth.” –(“Left wing” stance)
Of course this is not a dispassionate description. There are people on the right who believe passionately that their view is for the “Common good.”  Traditionally in NZ the National Party would be the “right” and the Labour party on the “left”. I would have to say that the current Labour party tends to be more to the centre with the “Greens” expressing more left wing principles. The parties these days do not seem to be so clearly defined.  Both the left and right do the pragmatic things to retain power and in attempting to attain power, and are not so clearly “ideology” directed. They will do whatever they think will be popular.
Where do I stand?
My father came from a family of railway workers, was a tradesman and in his own understanding of the Christian values, was left wing and an ardent Labour supporter.  In conversation he would outline his reasons and stance in a very rational way. He had experienced the Depression and its hardships and was proud of New Zealand’s “cradle to the grave” Social Security system, the free education we had then and the health care we used to have. It was all part of a great egalitarian vision.  I loved him and still appreciate the values he lived by.  As a teenager when I went working with him, I often looked through his lunchtime reading books that he stashed in his van glove box.  They were often books related to political movements, philosophies and identities.  He told me once that he would have loved to have studied at university, but during the depression his family needed another wage earner, even if it was just a plumbing apprentice’s wages.  As a boy growing up, I used to spend a lot of holiday time on a farm with my Uncle George and Aunty Bessie, and loved the farm life.  At lunchtimes they tuned into the National Radio Program news and news comment. We children had to sit quietly while they did so.  To my horror it became evident that they were ardent National Party supporters, as many farmers are.  Aunty Bessie could be quite caustic in her retorts about Labour politicians, and Uncle George would grumble about Labour’s politics.  This was disturbing for me, because, to my parents, these politicians were heroes. How could two couples who were friends, (while we called them Uncle and Aunty they were not related but close friends of my parents) have such different political leanings?  I grew up to be a Labour Party voter, and have always voted for the local Labour candidate, though lately I shared my “Party vote” with the Greens as they have become a much more credible force for good.  I must admit that sometimes I sympathise with right wing theory. I have often thought that some of the poor I have dealt with, could do with a good kick up the backside and made to suffer the consequences of stupid life choices. Life is not as black and white as political theorists seem to assume. But overall I realise we are in the journey of life together and must express that connection in our economic and civil systems.  Individualism is a false understanding of the human predicament.
Recently we have had exposed the sort of “dirty politics” politicians have been involved in to retain power. I suspect the things exposed are just the tip of the iceberg and also that no party is particularly clean.  It is a sad bad picture of the quality of our leadership. Today I read in the paper of one of our rich men owning a leisure yacht worth $80 million dollars. Added to that there are the ongoing running costs, which he must finance.  As chairman of the Night Shelter Trust in Dunedin, we are trying to raise $650,000 to purchase buildings and we are always chasing desperately for funding to run the shelter. Rich people have often challenged me saying, “It is a lot of money to ask for?”  It is chicken feed for the wealthy at the top! The owner of the yacht would hardly notice it is missing.  If I was in government I would feel it necessary to provide the buildings for local night shelters, though let local community groups run them.  Recently a homeless man, once employed as a miner in Australia, now unemployed back in New Zealand, in anger and frustration shot three employees of the local benefit office, killing two of them.  There is no justification for what he has done. It is very sad, but it is a measure of the frustration and anger many at the bottom of the heap in New Zealand feel.  The shot workers may have paid dearly for the beneficiary bashing pronouncements, legislation and attitudes within our present government!  On a bus ride to Hadrian’s Wall the bus driver talked with pride about Scotland.  “Our people can go to the Doctor for free. We think the health of families is important. We do not want anyone to not be able to access needed health care.  - Our children know that whatever the economic circumstance of their parents, they can get a university education for free. We think it is important for the future of our nation.”  I envied him. We used to be able to be proud of New Zealand systems, but this is no longer true. I encounter an underbelly of poverty and of families,  - many with motivation, education and skills - struggling to get ahead. Let’s get political; let’s take the state of our politics seriously.  Anyway, this is just the start of my political “thinking out loud”.

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