April 2013

Changing our national conversation

Have you found the meanness, fearfulness and negativity of our national political discourse soul-destroying, asks Sandie Cornish.

BY Sandie Cornish

Have you found the meanness, fearfulness and negativity of our national political discourse soul-destroying? I think we need to refocus our national conversation on fostering the common good – which is the purpose of the State. To do this we need to nurture a socially engaged spirituality.

According to theologian, Philip Sheldrake, spirituality refers to the way in which our values, lifestyles and spiritual practices reflect understandings of God, what it is to be human, and the material world. It is something lived by a person or community in a specific, concrete historical and social context. It seems to me that how we participate in the national conversation is an expression of our spirituality – it is informed by our understandings of God, of what it is to be human, and of the material world. Our spirituality, then, can be a catalyst for change in the political discourse.

What’s God got to do with it?

If we believe in a God who became human, we will take everything human very seriously. We will engage with social issues in a person-centred way. We will want to vote for people and parties whose policies we believe will foster human flourishing.

If we believe that every person was created in the image and likeness of God, we will want to reverence every human person and uphold their dignity. We will recognise each other as sisters and brothers, children of the one God. Respect for human dignity will lead us to foster and defend human rights.

If we understand God as a trinity of persons, who is and who makes community, we too will want to foster community. We will be concerned about social inclusion. We will seek policies that protect and care for the most vulnerable members of the human family and which enable every person to participate in economic, social and cultural life. We will want to close the gap between the economic and health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those of other Australians.

If we understand ourselves to be social by our very nature – persons in community not just individuals – we will want to be in solidarity with others. We will feel that we belong to one another, are responsible for one another, and that our relationships help us to grow and to achieve our potential.

If this is how we understand what it is to be human, self-interest will not determine how we cast our vote. We will want to build up the good of all – the common good:

“Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is liked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of ‘all of us’, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society… To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the polis, or ‘city’.” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, n.7)

We will seek a national conversation that encourages every group in society to take into account the rights and legitimate aspirations of other groups, as well as the well-being of the whole human family.

Already in 1965, the Second Vatican Council had a global vision of the common good:

“the common good… today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the entire human family.” (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, n.26)

If we believe that to be human means being in a family relationship with every other human being, we will support policies that focus on the needs of humanity rather than being narrowly focussed on our own nation. We will want to talk about how we might best help people fleeing violence and injustice, dehumanising poverty and environmental disasters, rather than talking about boats or legal status.

Our understanding of the material world will also guide the way in which we engage in the shared life of our society. If we believe that the material world is God’s creation, entrusted to our stewardship, we will seek to care for the material world and to respect its integrity. We will look for policies that promote sustainability, protect sites of cultural and environmental importance, and foster reverence for the beauty of God’s world.

If our national discourse has become dispiriting, we need to inject a bit of soul by the way in which we engage, and through the understandings of God, of being human, and of the material world that we bring to the conversation. These things should be reflected not only in our spiritual practices, but also in our values, lifestyles – and votes. We need to change the national conversation through our words and through our actions. Pope Francis is showing us the way.

Sandie Cornish

Sandie Cornish is a practitioner in the field of Catholic Social Teaching and has worked in faith-based social justice and human rights organisations at the diocesan, national and Asia-Pacific levels. She is currently Province Director of Mission for the Society of the Sacred Heart in Australia and New Zealand, and is a doctoral candidate in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University. Sandie blogs at www.social-spirituality.net She is also on Facebook and you can follow her on Twitter @SandieCornish.

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