Mark R Lindsay
4 May 2023
If all politics is local, then all theology is political. By this, I do not mean – as some do – that the gospel is simply social justice dressed up in religious garb. No, what I mean is what I think the Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, meant when he wrote, 45 years ago, that: “theology is ante et retro oculata; it has two eyes. One looks back towards the past, where salvation broke in; the other looks towards the present, where salvation becomes reality here and now.”
What Boff was getting at is that the salvation wrought for us by Jesus on the cross, and which we have so recently celebrated through Eastertide, is neither simply a personal redemption from sin and judgment, nor a wholly eschatological event, for which we continue to wait in anticipation. Of course, salvation is personal, redemptive, and eschatological – but it is also much more than this. It is here and now enacted, as we Christians take up – as Jesus did before us – the way of justice. Or again, as Boff rather provocatively puts it, if our Christian faith is not translated “into meditation, prayer, conversion, the following of Christ, and commitment to our fellow human beings,” then it is a faith built on sand, and has become a religion of “the gods of this world.”
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So yes, theology – and discipleship – are political. In the words of the British Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power.” Grounded in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, our faith – and our way of thinking through our faith – should be engaged not just in the transcendent meditation and worship of the God who has saved us, but in the enactment of a justice that transforms our present in the direction of that God’s shalom. Indeed, as the Blessed Mary sings in her great hymn of praise, worship and justice go hand-in-hand. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she declares; her spirit, she continues, rejoices in her God, precisely because he has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, and overturned the arrogant haughtiness of the powerful elite (Luke 1: 47-55).
So again, yes – while the gospel is much more than social justice, it cannot exclude the seeking of justice within our society. And thus, theology and discipleship are rendered inherently political. Which begs the question: what causes do we, as Christians, champion? With what pleas for rights and freedoms do we, as Christians, stand in solidarity? With what calls for justice do we, precisely because we are Christians, lend our voices? As Anglicans we are, of course, used to navigating differences of opinion and practice. Since Thomas Cranmer danced his nifty two-step between a Book of Common Prayer in 1549 that retained much Catholic sensibility, and his revised BCP of 1552 that was more stridently Protestant, Anglicanism has always existed within the tensions of a broad and varied tradition. And so it is with our differing political commitments, and our various ways of theologically justifying them. While I have my own scripturally and theologically informed views on a whole range of current socio-political issues, I do not necessarily think that you need to share them.
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But – and forgive me if here I become much more sharply partisan than I would normally wish to be – there is, it seems to me, one pressing social concern to which I think there can and ought to be a single Australian Christian response: the proposed Voice to Parliament. And that response, I believe with all my heart, should be a resounding “Yes”.
I will leave it to legal and constitutional experts to show why there are no grounds for fear of what the Voice might lead to, once established. Others far better versed in law than I have already demonstrated that such fears, however sincerely held, are misplaced – I note in particular Katie O’Bryan and Paula Gerber, from Monash University’s Faculty of Law. My concern here is to urge readers to believe that voting “Yes” to the Voice in the forthcoming referendum will not only be a theologically responsible action, but even more so will be – of the two courses open to us at the ballot box – the one best aligned with “the enactment of a justice that transforms our present in the direction of God’s shalom.” There is one overriding theological reason to which I wish to point, that suggests why this is the case.
We are very comfortable with the notion that God is a speaking God. “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” (Genesis 1:3); “The voice of the Lord is powerful [and] majestic, breaking the cedars of Lebanon” (Psalm 29:4-5); “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). The Son of God, who is the exact likeness of the Father’s being “sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:4). And how, asks St Paul rhetorically in Romans 10:14, can anyone believe the gospel if no one first speaks it to them? So centrally important is God’s Word to us that, in some of our worshipping traditions, we have filled every moment with speech – speech to and about God, in the form of lessons, sermons, and prayers. We have become fearful, perhaps, of what might happen if we sit in the silence, simply to … listen.
But God is not so fearful. For God himself is not only a speaking God – he is also a listening God. He is a God who hears. The Scriptures tell us repeatedly that God hears the voices of the marginalised, the oppressed, and the forgotten – from Hagar’s son (Genesis 21), to the Hebrew peoples in Egypt (Exodus 3), to Abraham’s cry for the righteous of Sodom (Genesis 18), to the cry of the poor and needy (Job 34). And Jesus, in this as in all things, does also what his Father does – for he, too, listens and hears. He hears the reports of the death of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:50); he hears of Lazarus’s death (John 11); and he hears of John the Baptist’s execution (Matthew 14:13). In each case, on hearing, Jesus responds with compassion and love. If we believe ourselves to be his disciples, are we not called to do the same? And if we surely are, what might that look like?
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In 2017, at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, from which the Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged, the authors of that text noted that “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.” The word of those Indigenous leaders, who came “from all points of the southern sky”, was that – despite what they described as the “torment of [their] powerlessness” – they had never really been listened to. “We seek,” they said, “to be heard.”
To listen to the cry of the powerless is to imitate the compassionate action of God. To listen – and only then to act. How can we, as Christians, withhold such listening from those among our communities who have been the ones most unheard?
The weight of constitutional legal opinion is that the Voice to Parliament will not lead to parliamentary or judicial chaos, will not enshrine “special rights” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and will not privilege one group of Australians over any others. What it will do, positively, is facilitate a very proper hearing of those who have been for so long silenced. And insofar as our unlistened-to Indigenous sisters and brothers are also the most marginalised, impoverished and forgotten peoples of this nation, we can be sure that their cries are heard by God. So why would we not also want to listen, and say yes to their voices being heard?
Theology and discipleship are political. They call forth from us a response that, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, ‘bends towards justice.’ We have before us this year a momentous political decision, that is also a theological decision. Will we, as God does, listen to, give voice to, those amongst us who have been for so long unheard, for so long silenced? Or will we continue to close our ears?
At this time, in this place, theological existence means – I believe with all my heart – the saying “Yes” to the Voice, because it means saying “Yes” to that act of divine listening.
The Reverend Professor Mark R Lindsay is deputy dean and academic dean at Trinity College Theological School, Parkville.
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