ethics times four

Political elections are in the air. Both in the USA & here in NZ. I am wrestling with what I always wrestle in these seasons. Ethics. Neither the Right nor the Left is ever totally compelling for me. This is frustrating. Four documents are open in front of me to help guide me.

(a) One is the perennial best-seller from John Stott entitled Issues Facing Christians Today. There have been editions from 1984, 1990, 1999 - and now 2006. [NB - While I have this latest edition, I regret getting rid of the earlier editions as a study of the changes and revisions over the years would be fascinating.]
Here are the topics listed in the 2006 Table of Contents:
GLOBAL: War and Peace; Caring for Creation; Living with Global Poverty; Human Rights.
SOCIAL: the World of Work; Business Relationships; Celebrating Ethnic Diversity; Simplicity-Generosity-Contentment.
PERSONAL: Women, Men and God; Marriage, Cohabitation and Divorce; Abortion and Euthanasia; the New Biotechnology; Same-Sex Relationships.

(b) Then there is Samuel Waje Kunhiyop's African Christian Ethics (Hippo/Zondervan, 2008). As we might expect, the Table of Contents changes a little bit!
POLITICAL: Church and State, War and Violence, Strikes.
FINANCIAL: Poverty; Corruption; Fund-raising
MARRIAGE & FAMILY: Procreation and Infertility; Reproductive Technologies; Contraception; Polygamy; Domestic Violence; Divorce and Remarriage; Widows and Orphans.
SEXUAL: Rape; Incest; Prostitution and Sex-Trafficking; Female Circumcision; Homosexuality.
MEDICAL: HIV/Aids; Abortion; Euthanasia and Infanticide; Strikes and Medical Services; Drugs and Alcohol Abuse.
RELIGIOUS: Witchcraft

(c) Then there is just the Table of Contents of a book I saw over the weekend. I've read some reviews and it is climbing my 'must-read' list very quickly. Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths (IVP, 2008).
While maybe not a book directly on ethics, the Table of Contents does raise ethical issues:
Terrorism, Religious Violence, Human Rights, Multi-culturalism, Science, Post-colonialism.

(d) Then I turn my attention to a document produced by FamilyFirst(NZ) which reveals how every current NZ parliamentarian has voted on a range of family-related ethical issues. I congratulate them on doing some homework and putting a document like this into the public domain. For the record, their 'table of contents' (sort of?!) looks like this:
The Pro-Family Vote opposes recent legislation/policy on Prostitution, Civil Unions, Relationships Bill, Euthanasia Bill, Care of Children Act, Anti-Smacking Law.
The Pro-Family Vote supports recent legislation/policy on Parental Notification, Marriage Ammendment Bill, Drinking Age (raising it).

As I try to vote sensibly, let me try and articulate my frustrations (and leave you the opportunity to add yours).

1. I do not respond well to being told what the Pro-Family vote looks like.

2. While the word 'Christian' is absent from the document, for the vast majority of NZers this document will be perceived to be the Christian perspective. We must acknowldege this. Even though I myself am sympathetic to most of their positions on things, the disturbing conclusion to draw is that to be Pro-Family is to be right-of-centre politically (with very little exception). Really?!

3. So my biggest frustration is not with what is here, but with what isn't here. That is why I listed the other books first. For example, why are money-related issues not mentioned in this FamilyFirst document? Surely a big part of being pro-family in today's world is related to the use and abuse of money? Just look at the greed at work behind the current global financial meltdown. Is that not an ethical issue of equal concern to families?
Then what about issues related to the environment? The most compelling billboards here in NZ are those from the Green Party where across photos of the earth (and also little children!) are written the words 'vote for me'. Is this not a pro-family approach?

4. I do not think God looks down from his heaven and pays much attention to nation-states and the boundary lines that separate one from the other. His heart is for all the peoples of the world and mine should be the same. Somehow ... somewhere ... sometime ... the policies we advocate should put families first not just in NZ but in the countries of Africa (as one example) and this means taking their ethical issues more seriously.

Enuf - far too much, in fact - from me



Anonymous said…
To be honest, I think this says it just about as well as it can be said. Perhaps it is hard for a lobby group to look beyond a small range of issues, but sometimes the range covered seems "teribly" small. I like the Micah challenge phrase of "Vote all your values" (although I imagine they could be criticised for having a rather narrow focus as well!)
Andrew Butcher said…
An excellent post Paul. Your point about the Family First insert in the recent Baptist magazine caused some discussion around here - not least that it appeared to be a political endorsement by the Baptist magazine and if they had supplied an insert by either Labour or National there would have been a great outcry I'm sure...
Rhett said…
Great thoughts Paul. I look across the spectrum of political parties in NZ and think that one could find a valid "Christian" reason to vote for any one of them, and yet still remain completely unsatisfied on many issues. That's how I'm feeling.

Ever though of getting into politics?

David said…
I think that those groups that seek to paint Christianity as the political centre-right (Family First, Maxim etc.) do us a grave disservice.

"It is hard because so many people cannot be brought to realise that when B is better than C, A may be even better than B. They like thinking in terms of good and bad, not of good, better, and best, or bad, worse and worst." - C. S. Lewis.

For me, that Lewis quote sums up my frustration with the political conversation here. Looking at that list I can see "better" arguments for almost every issue.

Abortion is bad.
But then, professional abortion is better than a back alley one.

Prostitution is bad.
but then, A prostitute is rights and recourse against her pimp is better off than one without such rights and recourse.

There are similar arguments that could be made for almost every one of those bullet headers in the family first flyer.

Christians - tasked to love their enemies, the poor, the sick, the lonely, to give to anyone who asks - should be the first citizens in any society to marry the conservative morality of the right, with the social pragmatism of the left.
Richard said…
I'm baffled as to why the Baptist allowed family first to advertise in their magazine. I find them an embarrasment to the church, particularly the way they are clearly a New Right Christian lobby group, yet they utilise a dog-whistle esque politics which dishonestly fails to mention who they really are. Go to there website and you will find no mention of their Christian personel or backing. I suspect this is so they can avoid critique not only from the secular lobby, but also from other christians who think they have a poorly thought out attitude to both the family and to politics.

The idea of "family first" itself really annoys me. Christian should be putting "kingdom first" or 'God first", then working out the place of the family within that structure. If we don't start with a wider vision that places God's intention for creation, his action in history through Israel and Jesus, and his plan for the world first, we potentially allow something like the "family" to become an object of sentimental idolatry. Family first seems to me to be a typical Christian reaction to our problem that we are no longer in control of society, and that people no longer share our values. Our main response is a kind of self defence mechanism designed to protect us from the world and reassert control, rather than thoughtful, biblical, gospel centered speech and action that will engage, critique, confront and yet provide creativity and hope for the world.

One of the things James Skillen, founding member of the US run centre for public justice, said quite brilliantly when he was over here was that if there is a "family party" or "family lobby" he'd want to know what their environmental policy was, and their attitude towards wider issues. Coming from a sphere sovereignty/reformational perspective his point is that things far beyond the "family" effect the family, and the family effects things far beyond itself.

In general, how many of these "christian" political parties and "family" lobby groups actually read any decent public theology, or christian reflection on public policy. New Zealander's suffer from being overly pragmatic and unreflective and willing to think over and talk about political issues and perhaps we suffer from the same problem in church.

I also think its a problem that the discussion about how christians should be involved in political life revolves around voting. We don't really talk about politics between elections nearly as much as we should. Sure, it is good for us to vote, and we should do it responsibly, but isn't there more Churches and Christians could be doing politically beyond that? 1vote is going to do little to address some of the key ethical dilemnas and problems the world faces.
Nige said…
Yes. I found the debate between Helen & John interesting last week. Apart from issues of sustainability (that really weren't explained very well and we were left wondering what it all means and where the 2 parties differ), most of the other questions were all about ME ie. who will tax me less, make my life more comfortable and safer. Sure, we are in a global recession, but we are still far better off than most of the world eg. 18% struggle to live on less than US$1 a day. I have yet to see a party come out and say how we will be "world leaders" in helping with this imbalance. I would like to know what party will do about our commitment to the UN millenium development goals (see In particular overseas aid. NZ has promised to give at least 0.7% of our gross national income to fight poverty worldwide. At the moment we’re barely giving half of that and are one of the meanest countries in the OECD.

To me that is more important than which parties have more MPs who voted for the anti-smacking or civil unions legislation.
Nige said…
Interesting opinion piece in the nz herald topday:
Tapu Misa: Dangers of playing the God card
Mark Maffey said…
I wonder if we as Christians can get up in the moral dilemma of endeavouring to make the right choice but perhaps getting caught up with what the crowd is saying and don't want to go against the flow. I wonder if at times we aren't a little like Pontius Pilate when he faced the crowd, In Matthew 27 (NIV)we read

23"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

It is our responsibility to have our say, to cast our vote. Most parties in the political spectrum has "Christian" MP's, each has differing policies and I am struggling over whether I can support parties whose voting in the past few years have unavowedly being anti-Christian.

I keep going back to the Sermon on the Mount as being a place where i can see God's viewpoint, and desire to Seek first his Kingdom, and his righteousness that he might give clarity about how I place my vote, may I do it judiciously.
Pritika said…
For those of you who can make it:(sorry I only just read the post now) there's a debate relevant to the issues mentioned above, on tonight - see details below...
October 21, 7:00 - 8:00 pm, Auckland "Ending Global Poverty and Building a Safer World"
Confirmed speakers include: Minister Phil Goff (Labour), Keith Locke (Greens), Kath McCabe (ACT), National Party representative TBC
Venue: Lecture room WA 220, WA building AUT ,Wellesley St East
Paul said…
This discussion reminds me of why I like blogging and why there is real value in it. Thanks! A few further comments...

One of the problems with 'family first' may well be that they have what we call the nuclear family in mind. I wonder if the biblical priority is more with the 'household' - or what Maori call the whanau. The advantage here is that this draws in those people who are alone for whatever reason and who are in less-than-functional situations. They easily get left behind and left out in all the talk about 'family first'.

Politically I still wish there was a Party that could somehow embrace the ethical priorities of both the Left and the Right. To me United Future seems to have the most potential to do so and will probably get my Party Vote for this reason.

I know that issues of the economy and issues of justice are closely related. However there has been a shift in emphasis and balance. I always thought that the essence of good governance was to ensure justice in society ... it seems to me that this priority has been trumped by a greater one - ensuring that the economy thrives so that (some)people become more prosperous.

I do keep asking myself 'what would Amos say?' if he did a roadtrip through the USA or NZ during this election season...

I still maintain that the local church rightly understood and lived is what carries the hope of the hope of the world - and not political lobby groups. Local communities of God's people gathering for worship and ministry and scattering for work and mission ... As we approximate this being done distinctively and with distinction then we are on to something!

Miriam J said…
Thanks for this Paul - I too got totally frustrated with the Family First document's unilateral decisions as to what constitutes "pro-family" voting. As statistical representations go, this is misleading and requires a double level of decoding to figure out what the ticks and crosses mean - confusing even for an ex-mathematician! A much more useful document would have been to show simply whether members voted FOR or AGAINST the various items of legislation. Then people could decide for themselves what the "family friendly" vote was, and see who voted that way. But of course, thinking for yourself was clearly not the intention of this particular publication! ;-)

May I suggest another resource for informing your vote. Amnesty international has posed a number of human rights questions to candidates and has collated their answers by party here:

Questions include human rights issues in NZ, Asia Pacific, China, violence against women, arms trade and other global issues. Rather than making judgement calls as to which answers are "right" or even "pro-human rights", the responses are simply collated for your perusal. Food for thought.
Christina said…
Thanks for your comments on the household vs. the family Paul. By coincidence I was exploring that very issue for my hospitality (in ecclesiology) assignment. I have also just read an article about the church being the body of Christ. The article concludes that if the church is the body of Christ on earth then the body of Christ has HIV/AIDS, I found it very moving and challenging. If we are truly the body of Christ we should have a deeper sense of care and concern for those issues that are top of the list for people in the majority world. I was challenged to wonder why if we are unified in Christ do the issues concerning Samuel Waje Kunhiyop in his African Christian Ethics read so differently to those that concern us here is the West.
Blair D said…
Thanks Paul to you and all your readers. Each of you has expressed so well the challenge I feel as I consider who to vote for. The points you have all made have been helpful for me as I consider the issues: the points about Family First in particular because, as I reflect on them, it seems to me that they appeal to ones selfishness. A friend visited a church recently that had the banners, "100% Kingdom" "100% Commitment" not Family First or any other issue! He was so impressed with this as the consistent call before the people. I need to keep these in mind as I decide who to give my vote to not me or my family.
Madeleine said…
My biggest problem with the family vote flier is how 'ends' focussed it is, it totally misses the means.

I believe the best approach to voting is to nut out the correct role of the state and then use that as a lense through which to measure up the parties on offer and go with the best fit.


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