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The 'me first' election

Andrew Hamilton |  13 December 2007

Tally RoomSome theologians claim that all philosophical and political issues are ultimately theological. This is the kind of lavish ambit claim that the powerless of this world, like theologians, often make. But certainly complex theological discussions can sometimes throw light on thoroughly secular questions.

Take elections, for example. In them the people exercise their sovereign choice. In the recent election the people withdrew support from a government whose formulation of national sovereignty had sometimes been brutal. It is caught in Mr Howard's martial policy launch at a previous election, 'We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come here'.

Although you may cynically think that elections and theology have only tedium in common, the theology of election does bear on issues of choice and sovereignty that resonate in political life.

The Christian theology of election has to do with God's choice. It begins with God's choosing the people of Israel from all the nations. It becomes more complicated when it deals with the split of the Christian church from Israel. It must say whether God has cancelled the original choice or has affirmed and refined it.

But for the most part the Christian theology of election has focused, not on the macro level where God chooses nations, but at the micro level where God chooses individuals. St Augustine was insistent that if individuals are saved, it is because God chooses to save them. It is not because they choose to obey God. Augustine's position can be crystallised in the statement that God's choice is sovereign and unconditioned.

The unqualified emphasis on God's choice becomes problematic when we turn our attention to people who are not saved. If those who are saved owe their happiness totally to God's sovereign and unconditioned choice, then logically it would seem that those who are damned must also owe their misery to God's choice.

This conclusion struck many of Augustine's contemporaries, as it might strike us, as unjust. Significantly in his response Augustine felt the need to defend God's justice. In doing so, he conceded that sovereign choice is not simply a matter of the power to do what you like. Even God's choice must be reasonable and just.

In Christian theology God's reason for choosing nations and individuals is love. When we love we respond to the value that we see in other people. Our love is free in the sense that it is not controlled or forced by the person whom we love. We might even speak grandiloquently of our sovereign choice to love. But neither in God nor in human beings is it an arbitrary exercise of power.

And so back to elections. In the election campaign the choice and sovereignty of the people often seemed to be defined simply as an arbitrary power to choose, with self-interest the only motivation. In the first week of the campaign, tax cuts trumped tax cuts. There was little expectation that the sovereign choice would be influenced by reason and value. This is a dispiriting view of choice because even self-interest demands an ordered and predictable world in which we can live profitably. Even pickpockets can't function without crowd control.

The Christian theology of election also intimates that the sovereignty of the people, as exercised in elections, demands a form of love. Individuals must look beyond their narrow interests to those of the nation to which they belong. They must wish their fellow citizens well and take them into account in making their choice. Without some commitment to the common good the sovereign choice of individuals on behalf of the nation could never ground coherent policy.

The same is true of national sovereignty. If it is not governed by reason and by values, but only expresses the power to do as the government wills, then international commitments, respect for the rights of smaller nations and international aid would be vacuous rhetoric. Hitler's invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, for example, would be an unexceptionable exercise of sovereign power. National sovereignty is a dangerous concept unless it is set within a broader vision of a just international order in which all nations have an obligation to the flourishing of humanity.

Election and sovereignty, both divine and national, become monstrous without love.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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