This week's edition of #NZCMS is a little longer than normal. But with elections coming up, we thought it'd be worth offering a longer reflection of God and Government.
By Jethro Day.
If you were to compare and contrast the media’s coverage of the upcoming election and Luke 4:14-30 you could be forgiven for thinking Jesus is a contemporary politician at the opening of his campaign trail. Like a politician he starts in his home constituency. He reads from one of the nation’s foundational documents. From this he makes campaign promises to his constituents. He will be the political leader to uphold the values of his nation. He has policies for education, healthcare, economic and penal reform. He will put his nation back on top. The crowd speak well of him. Jesus has got their vote. Yet half way through his opening campaign speech the crowd turns nasty. It is his immigration and foreign policy that has sparked the reaction. Jesus is almost lynched but is saved by his secret service agents…
Alas, Jesus is not a contemporary politician, and he didn’t have bodyguards with dark glasses and walkie-talkies. However, his message is still political, both in 1st century Palestine and in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand. When Jesus stands up and quotes from Isaiah he is setting out the policies of his Kingdom. By reading from Isaiah, Jesus is showing that his political aspirations are the same aspirations as the Father’s. These are the same aspirations that stretch back through the prophets, to the Torah, back to Moses, through to Abraham, all the way to the creation of Heaven and Earth. And through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit they stretch through into the future, our future.
In Luke Jesus begins his ministry with these words, and proceeds to show how he is their fulfilment:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Christians are often tempted to spiritualise Luke 4:18-19, but if we look at the whole story of Scripture, we find that this proclamation is far from being 'spiritual' in the quasi-mystical-dualistic-ethereal sense of the word. Jesus, the Spirit-anointed King, makes a real and concrete change not just in individuals’ lives but the world’s cultures and politics, and Luke 4:18-19 is his manifesto.
This means that Jesus’ manifesto should be the guideline for how we decide who has our vote and how we analyse each party’s policies. With that in mind, let’s have a look at Luke 4 to help us as we make our way to the polling booth.
Good news to the poor…
This statement perhaps sums up the intent of Luke 4 and Jesus’ mission. This is the mission for which God’s Spirit empowers Jesus (and us). So what does it mean to be ‘poor’? And what is the ‘good news’ Jesus has for them? To answer the second question, the simple answer is freedom from poverty. However that still leaves us with the first question. To answer it there are three intertwined ways in which we can think of poverty: economic, cultural and social. Jesus’ mission is to free people from all three.
Economic poverty is what we think it is: a lack of money and material goods. This is a serious issue for Jesus, but Jesus does not seem to be interested in people being rich: in fact, quite the opposite - just look at these examples in Luke, 1:53, 6:24, 8:14, 18:24-25. However, Jesus’ Kingdom is characterised by all people having enough. This can be seen in the way Jesus invites his disciples to give away all they have to those in need and the way in which the early church organised their church structures (Acts 2:44-45). This is indeed good news for those who do not have enough to live on! Therefore, Kingdom policies are those that help provide for those in need regardless of who they are (Luke 6:32-37). Yet God’s economic policy is even more radical than merely giving to those who do not have enough: “o proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” is literally proclaiming the cancellation of debts! In the Torah God makes provisions that periodically all debts be cancelled, all slaves set free, that any land taken off people be returned to them, and even stipulations for farmland to have a rest! This is called the Jubilee year: just check out Leviticus 25. It is God’s economic policy that people be freed from crippling debts.
So when we measure each political party’s economic policies against Jesus’ own policies we should be asking whether there are freeing people from economic poverty, supplying them with all they need and giving provision for the cancellation of debts.
Cultural poverty is the cultural beliefs, attitudes and structures that prevent people from reaching their full potential. It is closely linked with social poverty, which we will look next. Cultural poverty can be easily seen in aspects of our own culture here in Aotearoa New Zealand: often people from a lower socio-economic backgrounds, those from particular ethnicities, those with a lack of education, or those on benefits or in minimum wages jobs, are perceived by society as being lazy or stupid compared with ‘normal’ people. These cultural attitudes can be believed and internalised by these people. They begin to truly believe what society is saying to them - that they are stupid or lazy, incapable of progressing as people - and so it becomes a self-fulfilling-prophecy. These cultural attitudes trap people in self-esteem issues and depression, and exclude people from participation in community and civic life. Therefore it is Jesus’ policy to free people from these cultural bonds and open people’s eyes to the truth that all people are capable of progress and transformation, with God-given gifts and talents.
When you look at each party’s policies ask whether they come from a place that buys into the attitudes that create cultural poverty or whether they accord all people God-given dignity.
Social poverty is the lack of empowering relationships, and exclusion from community and civic life. Social poverty is defined by your choice of friends. “Old boys’” networks, business relationships and political affiliations can be the measure of wealth because of the power and influence such relationships bring. Social poverty is the lack of these relationships, and is often the result of cultural poverty. In Jesus’ time it was the tax collectors, prostitutes and ritually unclean, the ‘sinners’ (Matt 9:11), who were the objects of cultural and social poverty. These people were seen as less than human and were therefore excluded from participation in society. They were excluded from significant social occasions such as Temple worship. The ritually unclean, such as those with skin diseases, would literally have to live outside the towns and villages, completely cut off from family and friends. It is Jesus’ social policy to free these people from social poverty by integrating them back into society. He does this through healing people and eating with them. People who were healed of skin diseases and other illnesses would no longer be excluded from significant social occasions. And by eating with tax collectors, prostitutes and ritually unclean, the ’sinners,’ Jesus confronted cultural attitudes of exclusion that led to social poverty. Jesus’ mission also helped free people from social poverty by bringing into relationship those who had power and those who did not. In Jesus’ own cohort of disciples, ex-prostitutes travelled alongside the wives of royal officials (Luke 8:1-3).
Therefore, when analysing each party’s policies, we should be asking how each party is putting those with the least amount of power in society into relationship with those with the most.
I’ve looked at the different political parties in Aotearoa New Zealand I am confronted with the serious problem that even though there are glimmers of hope, I find myself at a loss as to whom to vote for because each political party seems to almost be in direct opposition to God’s Kingdom. Psalm 146 seems to speak directly to my conundrum with the advice “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (verse 3). We must remember that human institutions cannot bring about the Kingdom; only God can do this. However all people are called to be agents of the Kingdom. We have a responsibility as the people of God to be agents of the Kingdom in everything we do. We should use our vote for the party that we think shows the most characteristics of the Kingdom.
What do you think of this idea of evaluating each political party according to Jesus' policies in Luke 4? What does it mean to be Kingdom people at the polling booth? Are the categories of economic, cultural and social poverty helpful? (And if you're interested in some useful reflection on particular parties in NZ check out Mark Kowen's blog.)
This one's pretty obvious. Do you research. Do your reflection. Spend time in prayer. Then vote accordingly…
Also, why not try the 'vote compass' test with the above in mind?
Jethro is currently studying for a masters in the theology of Christian discipleship formation. He lives in Auckland, studies through Otago, but is from Christchurch. He lives with his wife Jessie, a fairtrade fashion designer, and his cat, Marcel.
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