By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Prior to the 2013 Australian Federal Election, a number of professionals in the field of television marketing were given the task to create a commercial that would highlight to Australians the need to vote. One commercial was particularly interesting, as it simply placed white words on a black background; but these words spoke volumes: “All Politicians tell the truth!” Politicians never promise more than they can deliver!” “Politicians care about you!” As these sentences came up on the screen, the audience laughed. That was of course the exact response that the designer of the advert wanted. But a punchy conclusion followed soon after. “If you just laughed – Make your vote count!”
In 1988, Pope John Paul II released an encyclical, Christifideles Laici. In this encyclical the Pope wanted to present a new perspective on public service and the role of the politician. He wrote: “Charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that are oftentimes directed at persons in government, parliaments, the ruling classes, or political parties, as well as the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger, does not in the least justify either scepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life. On the contrary, the Second Vatican Council’s words are particularly significant: “The Church regards as worthy of praise and consideration the work of those who, as a service to others, dedicate themselves to the public good of the state and undertake the burdens of this task.“
The history of humanity is punctuated by a virtual menagerie of men and women who have led the world exceptionally well or poorly in public life, be they elected civic leaders, or not. Every age it would seem produces its own geniuses as well as its demons. The common folk too often are those who are faced with bearing this consequence; the ramifications of a blind double-edged sword of Providence; especially so if they live in a political system far from being democratic. One need only mention, men and women such as Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., when at the mention of those names, we have conversely the names of others such as Adolf Hitler, or Josef Stalin, following close behind. That the world still exists in at least a semblance of harmony, is testament to the fact that on the progressive historical balance sheet, good men and women must exceed in a cumulative fashion, the evil that some conspire to do, and actuate.
In the great hindsight of history it would appear that for every leader who attempts evil, there exists another leader who seeks to combat the former’s influence and vice-versa. Thus Edmund Burke’s well-known maxim, that all it takes for evil to succeed is that a good man does nothing, may indeed be well true, but so too the converse of Burke’s maxim, that all it takes for good to succeed is that evil men do nothing. For our political system to bear the marques of goodness – good men and women must act; must counteract those who seek to do evil.
To the theologian, the tensions that exist in the political field have a deeper spiritual meaning – reflective of the personal spiritual battles that the individual wages on a day to day basis. St. Paul would write on this point: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6: 10 – 12, RSV). Goodness comes from within – so too does evil; what lies within, is the spirit – therefore, politics reflects a spiritual struggle.
Edmund Morris in his third and concluding volume to the life of Theodore Roosevelt, entitled Colonel Roosevelt (2010), writes that prior to Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term of Presidential Office, Roosevelt began seeing the political life, as a struggle for the Kingdom of God, a struggle for justice and for good over evil. Morris quotes Roosevelt: “Surely we must all recognize the search for truth as an imperative duty; and we ought all of us likewise to recognize that this search for truth should be carried on, not only fearlessly, but also with reverence, with humility of spirit, and with full recognition of our own limitations both of the mind and the soul. … To those who deny the ethical obligation implied in such a faith we who acknowledge the obligation are aliens; and we are brothers to all those who do acknowledge it, whatever their creed or system of philosophy.” (Morris, 2010, p. 157). Thus to Roosevelt, a belief in Truth, required the socially aware individual to do his or her best in order to promulgate and preserve this Truth, through society, by way of exercising one’s political duty. Thus politics became not a profession for Roosevelt – but a vocation, a giving of self to others; a service that should be far from the cynical.
The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, once noted that nothing tests the character of the individual as much as the political life; for one not only has to deal with difficult issues publically, to which one is scrutinised mercilessly, but one’s private life is also scrutinised, so that at every living moment one is tested. For this reason many of our nation’s potentially greatest leaders have evaded politics, for business or law, where the financial rewards are vastly greater, and the scrutiny the less. One need only think of which men and women in our nation would make a better Treasurer, reflecting on our business leaders, to see how the public is short-changed, by such obvious talent not seeing the import of the political life. We can only vote from those who are prepared to offer their talents in the first place; and short of those who are obviously self-serving, or devious, we should at least give our politicians the respect they warrant not only because of their position – but for having the courage to see themselves perhaps ridiculed on the public stage and by history. If we are not prepared to stand up on such a stage – we should rest part of our criticism for them, on ourselves. Some further words from Theodore Roosevelt may teach us a lesson or two about the call to public action, and the indolence most of us have when it comes to participating in the political life of our society: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” (Morris, 2010, p. 47).
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