Towards a New Model of Political Engagement

With the upcoming council and European elections I've been reflecting lately on the nature of Christian citizenship insofar as it applies to this corner of this island. My thinking is partly shaped by a series of Bible studies I'm leading at church based around the 25 year old, yet still painfully relevant, ECONI document, 'For God and His Glory Alone', partly by reading I've done around a sermon for this Sunday on what we mean when we pray 'your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven', partly by some of the ideas in my ''banned'' Thought for the Day and partly in response to the attacks on the Alliance Party Offices in East Belfast on Tuesday night, and again last night.
Whilst I do not believe that democracy, as we know it, is especially endorsed by God - indeed the Bible has nothing specific to say on the matter, I am worried by any state where it seems to be acceptable that the offices of a democratic party, and a relatively centrist one at that, are consistently attacked. It is good that the leaders of other parties have come out to condemn this attack, without any politicking about the Alliance party's position on the flag on Belfast City Hall, but condemnation is not enough. Here in Northern Ireland we need our politicians to start to model a form of engagement that shows others how to disagree without being disagreeable and collaborate to further the common good, regardless of party political differences and constitutional aspirations. This is especially important in the light of upcoming elections, and the marching season that will follow hot on their heels.

In the wake of the Haass debacle I've been working with a group of Christians from across the denominational spectrum looking at what would be a set of key principles we would like to see underpinning political engagement and wider citizenship in this society... I've been involved in this process before, and some of the same ideas keep recurring again and again, back to the days of 'For God and His Glory Alone' and before. But ultimately we long for politicians of all parties to take seriously in their electioneering and ongoing political activity their responsibility as leaders striving for genuine progress towards a stable and inclusive society where:
  • Peace is nurtured and genuine reconciliation facilitated, so that all can live free from violence and the threat of violence;
  • Truthfulness is encouraged, fostering trust and forming the basis for dealing with the pain of the past, engaging with present problems and forging a more hopeful future for all.
  • Diversity is celebrated and our interdependence is recognised whilst sectarianism, racism and other prejudices that create a climate of fear and division are rejected.
  • Democracy is cherished and fully participative, the rule of law is respected and all communities are liberated from the oppressive grip of organised criminality and paramilitary activity.
  • Justice is treasured, and all citizens are treated equally under the law while victims are treated with compassion, and social wrongs being set right, so that all might enjoy personal dignity and equality of opportunity.
  • Rights are valued, and mutually respected within a context where people also recognise their mutual responsibilities and relationships.
  • Hope and imagination are fostered, thus transforming the dynamic of public life and raising personal aspirations.
Such commitments should shape all aspects of public life, including education, health, arts and leisure, economic and environmental policy, parading, policing and the courts.

They should also affect how we practice our faith, and certainly, as Churches we have not always done all that we might have done to foster the society described above. Where that is the case we need to humbly ask forgiveness for what lies in the past, commit ourselves to acting and speaking differently in the present, in order that we may help shape a more hopeful future.

And as we prepare to exercise our hard-won votes we need to compare the various manifestos that are stuffed through our letterboxes with the Biblical principles outlined above, and in turn compare the words of the candidates on their electoral leaflets with their actions in the past, and having done so we need to challenge them about their commitment to work constructively with all members of society to address the issues which perpetuate strife and division and are holding this society back from being all that it might be. George Jean Nathan once said:

"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."

I would go further than that in saying that bad officials are also elected by good citizens who vote along narrow partisan lines. And once the officials (bad or good) the role of the good citizen is to hold them to account, and to play their own part at a local level in forging a more healthy society.

Condemning the acts of others is not enough, whatever those acts and whoever those others are. And criticizing those in positions of political power is not enough either. We all need to treasure and play our parts in the democratic process for the benefit of all our fellow citizens, whatever their political allegiances.


ps. If you want a ("slightly" partisan but very funny) guide to the electoral process here, check out WhyNotSmile's recent post...


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