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Speaking truth to power: In conversation with Tim Costello

  • 07 October 2022
In his 67 years on the planet, Reverend Timothy Ewen Costello AO has exercised power through a number of avenues. Currently the Director of Ethical Voice Pty Ltd, an Executive Director of Micah Australia, and a Senior Fellow of Centre for Public Christianity, Costello is a nationally recognised media spokesperson.

A social justice advocate, author, commentator and raconteur, there is something of an elder, ‘moral statesman’ mantle cloaking him — an aura of decency. Tim is a Baptist minister who has served congregations in that capacity, as well being a long-term Chief Executive Officer and Chief Advocate of World Vision. His informal status as a nagging conscience to many Australian governments, including the Howard government in which his brother Peter served as federal treasurer, was formally acknowledged when the National Trust of Australia chose him as a ‘National Living Treasure’.

That kind of recognition of Tim’s contribution to Australian life also encompasses his tenure as Mayor of St Kilda (when he often jousted with then-Premier Jeff Kennett, who saw him as a ‘leftist cleric’), his role as an elected delegate at 1998 Australian Constitutional Convention, and his long-term opposition to the ills of the gambling industry and his engagement with other social issues such as gun control, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Barry Gittins from Eureka Street spoke to Tim Costello about the nature and consequences of the use of power, and his perceptions on its place and exercise in public life.

Barry Gittins: The word ‘power’, describing control over others, has its roots in being ‘able’, the ability to act with strength, vigour, might. The Latin term Potis has this notion of being a lord…

Rev Tim Costello: For the churches, it often comes back to the classic argument between John Howard Yoder and Reinhold Niebuhr. Yoder, a Mennonite and US theologian writing from a pacifist, Anabaptist tradition, said we should let the church be the church — as followers of Christ, we don’t exercise power. His contemporary, Niebuhr, said that position was naïve, as we all exercise power.

We have to ask what influences people, be it in armies, departments, governments, megachurches, corporations or educational institutions. Every priest, pastor and clergy member has Alexander the Great on one shoulder, with a passion to conquer and dominate, and Saint Francis of Assisi on the other shoulder, with a desire to love and serve the other. Those two voices on our shoulders, with disparate messages about power; they inform our use and