Saturday 9 August 2008

Reflections (in the Australian context) on the challenge of integrity: reconciling one's faith and values -- with politics!


I challenged myself to articulate a respectful, cogent response to a very politically conservative Christian friend of my deceased father. I never really met this fellow personally. I began to get a stream of his group email, when he added me to his list after seeing some things I put together on another blog in my father's honor. I decided the communication should stop being one way
when he proliferated another batch of political "slander" against Barack Obama - about him being, in essence, a Muslim spy - and approached "__x__" about it, deciding I just couldn't let it slide. Yep, I stepped into it!

What you'll read below represents my attempt to reconcile a robust faith and solidly Christian values with what many conservative evangelicals in the States have deemed to be theologically unacceptable support of certain "liberal" politicians - like Barack Obama. Though I don't imagine I will be "successful" I want to help folks like "x" reflect a bit on realities, possibilities and implications from an international perspective - and, specifically, to open a window on how Christians with considerable integrity are working at applying these issues in my new Australian political context. I closed with a few reflections on realities in my own professional context, as a hospital chaplain.

I asked a couple friends back in Indiana if anyone among them would be willing to meet and talk with this "friend" of mine in person, after pondering my own unfruitful "conversation" in the electronic medium, since I think these sorts of discussions are best held face-to-face where the non-verbal/visual cues are so crucial, and better communication can ensue. But no one was. (Perhaps someone reading this will!)

In any case, I'm hoping some of my friends back home in America might share some of their own insights and experience in facilitating fruitful discussion in that current highly-politicized climate. And I would be very glad for some feedback on what I've shared below, as I figure out how to best engage with such folk - without allowing it to "suck up" one's spare time and energy!

-Clair Hochstetler

(This comes after some previous email "exchange")

Sent: Saturday, August 09, 2008 12:47 AM
Subject: Not much integrity...

Hey there, __x__, my key question in all this is: how can you justify support for someone like John McCain who is often so disingenuous? At least Barack Obama maintains integrity.

This sample (on "Windpower Puffery") and others like it, come from a proven bipartisan, objective source, well-researched - from an organization that works hard to keep both sides honest.

This bit on "YouTube" is also very discouraging, in my view, and this just
really takes the cake!

So, now - what do you make of John McCain's capabilities and leadership potential?

Response from "x", same day:

Clair, I watched one of your websites which was nearly all CNN. I never watch CNN because it is very misleading. In my opinion, McCain has much more integrity than Obama. You got it all backwards. As I said in the other response, McCain is not my first pick but I have much more confidence in him than Obama. BTW, I am a listener to Rush Limbaugh, the truth detector and a reader of World Net Daily and other conservative sources I consider reliable.



Dear __x__,

CNN is only one of many, many sources of information I glean from; in fact, most of my sources are actually international. I think it's very hard to find an unbiased source of news in the US anymore that doesn't filter out some of what's really going on - because the media giants there are ALL owned and heavily accountable to politically-aligned corporate interests, including your favorite conservative sources: Rush Limbaugh, and the World Net Daily.

Obviously, it's fruitless for one of us to assume the other is going to successfully change the other's political perspective. But I do hope that what you are about to read will clearly communicate why it won't do to assume that someone who has decided to vote for a Democratic Party candidate (or become a candidate themselves) is a weak, or uninformed, or unfaithful Christian, willing to compromise basic tenets of the faith. Faithful dedicated Christians are found on all sides of the political spectrum.

I hope neither of us forgets that, __x___, as we sort through all the political stuff and make decisions about what emails to forward.

To illustrate, here in Australia the Labor Party has come into power within this past year. (Labor is viewed as more progressive, politically, in contrast to the Liberal Party, which is actually conservative - but that is Aussie politics!) My friends in the US have much to gain by carefully observing what is going on in "Oz", known to be a very secular country. It's one of the reasons I wanted to move here, at a time when many people of faith, including the evangelicals and Pentecostals, are quite excited by what is going on politically, as well as from a religious/spiritual point of view.

We who are chaplains and pastors in this city tend to talk about such matters and I have already have a couple of friends who are a part of the same Anglican congregation that the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, regularly attends here in Canberra. To be specific, here is some good stuff to chew on from Thursday's column in the "God's Politics" blog - containing some very interesting and accurate analysis:

"One of the stories I first heard on my recent visit to Australia was about what helped swing the vote last November to Kevin Rudd, the new Labor prime minister. I read some new political data by veteran pollster and researcher John Black, who is respected across Australia's political spectrum. Black reported that the pivotal swing vote to Labor this time was among evangelicals and Pentecostals, especially in some key seats in the states of Queensland and South Australia. That was especially surprising and significant in a very secular country. The Labor Party here, like parties of the left elsewhere, has not been known as "religion friendly," and the Liberal Party (the conservatives in Australia) has had much of the religious vote by tradition and default. But this time was different for a number of reasons.

First, Kevin Rudd was a new kind of Labor candidate who speaks openly and comfortably about his faith. Rudd -- a Catholic who attends an Anglican church -- is theologically articulate, and even likes to write articles about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[Clair's note: What most draws Rudd to Bonhoeffer he shares in one article he wrote about DB, still online here, was Bonhoeffer's insistence that the vocation of the church is to be "a voice for the voiceless" and "to speak truth to power" - a very apt description of a key role the church has in our world!]

Even more important, the evangelical/Pentecostal swing vote was due to how the agenda is changing in those faith communities. In the past, as in the U.S., issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and cloning seemed to be the primary concerns among the religious. But now the "religious agenda" includes global poverty, climate change, and the rights of Aboriginal people, especially among a new generation of Australian believers.

Christian organizations, such as World Vision, are among the leading voices on poverty, the environment, and the trafficking of women and children in economic and sexual slavery. The university events at which I spoke last week were led by "Vision Generation," a youth movement sparked by World Vision that is leading a campaign to challenge the chocolate industry's use of child workers in West Africa, where 70 percent of the world's cocoa is harvested. The venues were packed. And everywhere I went, the protection of the earth and the threat of global warming was front and center.

Rudd's clear Christian faith and his embrace of the new agenda of social justice and environmental stewardship seemed to be the big reasons why the evangelical and Pentecostal vote shifted this time. And that swing made a crucial electoral difference.

As I reported in my last post, I met with Kevin Rudd [Clair's note -- that column is also very worth reading] over dinner one night and had a long conversation about all these issues. But I also met with the leading Independent senator, Nick Xenophon, who may represent the balance of power in the new political configuration. He is from the Greek Orthodox Church and is also an articulate Christian on social justice. And on my last day in the country, I was also able to chat briefly with the opposition conservative leader, Brendan Nelson, who told me he meets regularly with faith leaders in Australia, and has also read my books.

All the media interviews I did during the week were eager to explore the issues of faith and politics, both in the U.S. and in Australia. For a "secular" country, the social and political impact of faith seems to have become a hot topic.

[End quoting Jim Wallis - and here is the source]

I hope you, too, __x__, will dip into the "God's Politics" blog once in a while - it tends to help get one's head "out of the box."

And I want to encourage you to subscribe to email updates from as I think it does a good job of cutting through the denial and keeps the politicians honest - from all sides of the American political spectrum.

One's faith, values, and politics are not easily separated, nor do they necessarily need to be. I agree with our pastor at Canberra Baptist Church who said last Sunday that true spirituality is all about what you
do with what you most value in life - whether you faithfully order your life and relationships according to those values and convictions about what God desires. I think that is what God most honors. And I hope we'll both be able to honor that in each other.

I am currently in the midst of planning a funeral for a 24 year-old young man who shot himself in the head, after going off the deep end -- a rare event since guns are banned here. His parents have no pastoral support or faith connections - but they wanted me to pray for them and him when he was laying there brain dead, about to donate his organs to give six or seven others the gift of life.

That young man's father knew he needed assessment and heavy duty mental health treatment, and took him there for help, but when no one showed up they finally had to leave - there weren't enough mental health persons on duty -- the government's mental health system is overstretched. Two weeks later he's dead. Whose fault is it? I want what I share on Wednesday to offer some comfort, hope, and real spiritual care in the midst of this conflicted family's intense grief and anger at "the system."

I also need to tend to an aging woman - a lifelong faithful Christian here in the hospital, hours from her home area, who was convinced to undergo a complicated surgery two weeks ago but is now tired of fighting, and wants to die. She told me she is not afraid to do so. However, her husband doesn't want that to happen at all, and overrode her own decision yesterday to forego going back on the vent in ICU. So there she is. The son supports his father. So do the leaders of their congregation, who have been praying for her recovery and keeping in touch by phone with her husband. To my thinking, these represent major ethical/spiritual issues, which if not resolved soon might need to be referred for an ethics committee consult.

I'm functioning as their primary source of spiritual support here, since everyone they know is so far away. How do I pray with her as she struggles with his decision, conscious but unable to talk? And do I take the side of the patient, protect her rights and help "release" valuable tied-up medical resources in ICU and link them to palliative care, or do I condone and encourage her husband and honor his sense of commitment to a 55-year marriage? The docs are happy to do whatever it takes. What is my responsibility as a chaplain and a counselor, to her - to her husband - to "the system"?

Just a couple of samples from situations and challenges - along with the joys of leading a diverse team of spiritual caregivers at the hospital - that tend to occupy my time and attention on a daily basis. (No, not the interminable American political campaign which has preoccupied so many for so long.)
This is what really gives my own life meaning and purpose: tending to what God has called me to do, while being very aware that how I exercise my faith, bring my values to bear on such situations, and occasionally "speak truth to power" does, at least in some cases, have "political" implications as well. The more I get accustomed to that reality the freer I am - to simply be myself and act - as a flawed yet deeply loved child of God - in spite of the risks involved.

The reality I'm trying to elevate in this discussion - a very deep belief of mine - is that people can have very different political leanings and still be very faithful in the way I described above: living out their lives with integrity according to their God-given sense of call - addressing the needs of people around them and the perceived "key issues" in their world. Undeniably, from my perspective, that means that both you and Barack Obama are part of God's family of faith. I admit, it's a real stretch for me to consider that John McCain is, too - but I'll try to get used to it.

And though my own vote will undoubtedly be for Obama, I won't hold it against anyone who feels God is asking them to just sit it out this time around - and not vote for either one!

Clair Hochstetler

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