A Christian view of budgets and burqas


1st of May & anti-IMF demonstration; Thessaloniki, Greece, Flickr image by apαsThis week's headlines have been about elections (in Britain and the Philippines), the economy (in Greece and Australia), justice and law (banning the burqa and monstering asylum seekers).

Elections, the economy, justice and law are also central themes of Christian theology. It can be illuminating to compare the popular understandings with the theological ones.

In the popular understanding elections are the place where we define ourselves as citizens. We choose our rulers and the policies by which we shall be governed. Those vying for election try to persuade us that they are worthy and that they will have our interests in mind. We weigh their merits and make our choice. Often ungraciously.

The popular image of the economy is of an impersonal machine with its own laws and disciplines. It does not care for people. If we trust the market, we shall make, spend and accumulate wealth freely. If we scorn it, as did Greece, the result is impoverishment. People who fiddle with the machinery of the market make it less efficient.

Laws are popularly understood as a constraint, desirable or undesirable, on the liberty of the individual. They are made to prohibit practices that society considers prejudicial, and are sanctioned by punishment. If burqas are considered undesirable today, as Catholic religious dress was in earlier centuries in England, or people facing death keep arriving on our shores, we make laws to stop them.

Justice is understood primarily as ensuring that those who break laws are punished adequately. It only secondarily concerned with seeing that those who are punished are punished fairly.

The understanding of election, economy, justice and law in Christian theology belong to another world. Each of these words is used to describe God's relationship with the world. Election has to do with God's choice of human beings, not people's choice of God. God chose to make the world, chose the people of Israel, chose to share the human condition in Jesus Christ, chose to save all human beings through his death and rising. The doctrine of election says that God chooses us not because we are not worthy, but out of love. It is a matter of grace, of gift.

Economy, a word which referred to the management of the household, refers to the way in which God relates to the world in making it, choosing the people of Israel, sharing our humanity and saving us. God's economy expresses a relationship based in love. It is personal, and ultimately about giving.

Within this framework justice has a distinctive and paradoxical meaning. It is not about God punishing lawbreakers, but about putting them right with God. Justice takes the form of standing alongside wrongdoers and forgiving them. It has to do with restoration and not with retribution.

If justice is turned on its head, law is too. Laws are important because they make us realise that there is more to life than obeying the law. Their purpose is not to penalise activities we do not approve of, nor to ensure that wrongdoers are punished, but to open wrongdoers to the possibility of transformation. Law is a tin hare that allows us to be caught by grace.

Election, the economy, justice and law are understood in very different ways in popular understanding and in theology. It is particularly striking that grace is central within theology, but totally absent in the popular understanding. In the popular understanding, the human relationships involved in these things are seen in mechanical and impersonal ways, leaving no room for love, altruism, forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation and freedom, and no space for grace. It is not surprising then that they are oppressive and depressing. 

The consequences of this can be seen in an economic system that in Greece has rewarded the rich and now will punish the poor, in the Australian budget that sacrifices social inclusion to a reduced surplus, and in the competition to see which Party can treat asylum seekers in the most abusive ways.  

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

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Elections, economy, justice, law, greece, uk, elections, gordon brown, nick clegg, grace



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Existing comments

Andrew Hamilton is sadly mistaken to think that banning the burqa has anything to do with rights. As Elizabeth Farrelly says it is an affront to women to condone their 'exile' behind a tent in society. Just because such 'exile' of women was customary in Saudi Arabia does not mean we have to agree with it and condone it here. Read what Elizabth Farrelly says:


The burqa takes women back to before medieval times. Only an unthinking patriarchal mindset could support that.

Skye | 13 May 2010  

Andrew, I think you have the Greek thing pretty completely wrong! The place has been ruined by widespread internal social corruption and neglegence of social responsibilities...`entitled` middle-class take and little give.It is precisely the poor and the unconnected in society that have lost out most.

But from the ashes may rise a socially just society where everyone gets an equitable fair go;where jobs that are needed (rather than created as favours) go to the best qualified and the better off pay their taxes!!

eugene | 13 May 2010  

Laws are designed to protect the rights of the individual. The burqa deprives women of the right to equality. If the fundamentalist Muslims are not bridled in this country we will have the same problems now being experienced in Europe. Take off your rose coloured glasses Andrew, this is the thin end of the wedge.

Dennis | 13 May 2010  

I agree with what you say, but want to amend your statement that God "chose to save all human beings through his death and rising" that God "made it possible for human beings to be saved through his death and rising, that possibility being realised by those who chose to accept this gracious gift and come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ".

The way the statement currently stands could be read as universalism.

Andrea | 13 May 2010  

On a simplistic level this is what you get when you try and run a society on purely ethical or rational grounds. As Paul said, 'Without love we are nothing'.

Jorie Ryan | 13 May 2010  

"Laws are popularly understood as a constraint, desirable or undesirable, on the liberty of the individual. They are made to prohibit practices that society considers prejudicial, and are sanctioned by punishment."

And it's sometimes useful to remember that sentencing
should get the balance right between
Protection (of both the community and the

Geoff | 13 May 2010  

I must argue with Andrew when he compares the burqa to Catholic religious dress.Religious dress never covered the entire face thus destroying the woman's identity. I think it should not be allowed, and this stated clearly when migrants enter the country.

Maureen Keady | 13 May 2010  

Andrew, your view on asylum seekers is completely wrong. Asylum seekers are very well looked after in Australia. Better than thousands of Australian born homeless people looking for food and accommodation.

Ron Cini | 13 May 2010  

Now Evans claims they are going to lock up anyone who gives refugees a ride out of danger and will even spend millions sending Afghans home and keeping them prisoners in their own country.

He has gone barking mad.

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 May 2010  

Ron, they are in jail without trial or charge, with less legal rights than mass murderers.

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 May 2010  

<<<It is particularly striking that grace is central within theology, but totally absent in the popular understanding.>>>

This is true - perhaps because people are so hung up on "rights". If we have rights, we don't need grace; but what to do in a world where people cannot be expected to do the right thing by each other.

Nice to read your view, Andrew.

Nathan Socci | 15 May 2010  

Well, as clothing, the burqa is pretty sun smart and good for keeping dust and smog at bay, however, I would be worried about the eyesight of those who wear the full facial covering. The ones that leave the face or eyes to be seen sort of look like a pretend beard to me. Honestly, it is probably preferable to be wearing a burqa than dressing up like western icons like Lady Gaga. I am really concerned about the way we let young girls dress up as what looks to me like they could be paedaphiles' fantasies. Does that sound too old fashioned and morally rigid? Guess I am getting old!

Anne P | 15 May 2010  

Great stuff. Something to annoy almost everyone, even though the article does not aim at this. Very much counter to the spirit of our times whish is based on the individual and greed.

AJM | 17 May 2010  

I heartily support admission of refugees to this country. However, I cannot support the wearing of the burqa in Australia. It will only take a person wearing a burqa to walk in to a crowded place with a bomb concealed therein and Andrew then you will wake up to the real world and goodbye Pollyanna!

Phil Smith | 18 May 2010  

i think that um like the umm economy um is like poo

alota package | 20 August 2010  


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