Facing an election from a Biblical perspective

By Father Neil Vaney

Very soon we face a general election.

As committed Christians, we may be confused for whom and for what we should vote. Or even gripped by a certain cynicism whether it is worth voting at all, given the reprehensible behaviour and mental states of some members of parliament.

The good news is that there are still solidly Christian MP’s and others, more grounded in humanism, who still hope and work for a more just and caring New Zealand. Various parties and interest groups will propose differing policies and structures to achieve such goals. It is not my role to comment on these. What I put forward are various values and principles drawn from our common biblical heritage against which such strategies and goals may be assessed.

Jesus and Politics

In a strange way we can approach this exercise in the same way that Jesus did when he was confronted with the hot political question whether good Jews should pay the hated Roman tax to Caesar. (Mt 22.21) His famous reply, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” stood in sharp contrast to what various Jewish factions proposed. For while the Pharisees preached that total obedience to the least command of Jewish law and tradition would bring about God’s intervention to bring down the Romans, the zealots proposed armed resistance to bring this about. Jesus himself spoke constantly of the coming of ‘the kingdom of God” (mentioned more than a hundred times in the four gospels). His vision, however, was utterly different. This kingdom was something that grew within (or among) people; it could be reached only by the spirit within, and by accepting the will of God like a little child, even to the extent of being born again (cf. Mk 10.15, 12.34, Lk 17.20-21, Mt 7.21). Such a group living in this way would undermine Roman domination, not by violence but by love.

Our common law heritage still shows clear indebtedness to its Christian roots and values, though these are facing much dilution and even direct attack by some groups. We who are Christian have every right and even duty to call our representatives back to these values but like the early Christians it may well be that the peace, generosity and model of family unity that we can offer are the best advertisements for our beliefs.

Some Reflections from the New Testament

Jesus was a devout and observant Jew. Because of his unique relationship to his Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, he saw the Torah through different lenses. Much of it he followed; some he clearly abrogated; for other parts he demanded a much greater and deeper observance. We see this reflected in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5.1-7.28). Many authors have attempted to translate Jesus’ teaching to our affluent and secular society. I have chosen three New Testament passages to show Jesus’ application of Jewish law to his time with the aim of helping readers to do this in our New Zealand context as we come up to our general election. The passages are: the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Lk 16.19-31); the final judgment (Mt 25.31-46); and Paul’s exhortation to the rich about the dangers of greed (1 Tim 6.6-19).

There are some striking points about Luke’s parable. The first is that there is no indication that the rich man does anything evil; he does not harm Lazarus in any way. Nor does Lazarus do anything particularly good; it is if they live in separate worlds – and that is what Jesus condemns. This separation is so all pervasive that it cannot be reversed in the next world despite the pleas of the rich man (16.24). The last verse is particularly chilling: that the rich will not be converted and change their ways no matter what testimony is provided for them. (16.31)

The fascinating aspect of Matthew’s account of the final judgment comes when we place it beside Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in 5.1-7.28. The latter covers a huge array of moral issues: anger, adultery, prayer and fasting, and many others. Yet when the critical moment of judgment comes there is no mention of religious or cultural laws. All that counts in the end is what has been labelled ‘the corporal works of mercy’: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Highlighting the importance that Matthew gives to this account is where he places it. He makes it Jesus’ last formal teaching before the steps leading to his arrest and death are rolled out – so is of vital importance.

The significance of the passage in Paul’s letter to Timothy is that he is addressing a young new leader, giving him advice on his personal life but also what he is to teach. Paul does not condemn riches as such but is adamant about the evil that the longing for money can bring. “But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Tim 6.9-10)

Making This Practical

What connections do these insights have with our upcoming election? In the light of Jesus’ vision of a loving and just society, these are some questions that could be put before hopeful M.P’s and/or their manifestos. You might be able to think of even better questions.

  1. Do you see those yet to be born as having any dignity and rights?
  2. Much of the Western world is facing dramatic falls in the number of children being born. Do you see the government as having any responsibility in supporting marriages and a more welcoming world for children?
  3. Given that our wage rates are low compared to other OECD nations should we move progressively towards a living wage for all employees?
  4. Recently a hundred of the world’s richest men, including two New Zealanders, wrote an open letter stating that their level of taxation was far too low given the amount of their assets. How would you react to that?
  5. With the expected surge in retirees over the next decade should the government be doing more to encourage charitable and independent groups to provide for this need?
  6. What care and provision will you be making for the land, forests and wildlife of our country?

Neil Vaney is a Marist priest ordained in 1969. After teaching in schools and working as a university chaplain in Christchurch he went to Rome to study moral theology. On his return he lectured at the Marist seminary and at Good Shepherd College in Auckland. During this time he completed his doctorate at Otago university in the field of environmental ethics and the theology of nature. In 2004 he published his book Christ in a Grain of Sand which has sold over 9000 copies around the world. After being the first principal of the Catholic Discipleship College, he is now the pastoral director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Wellington.

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