Is politics distasteful or a noble calling?

The big news last week was of course Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential elections and the Malaysian government’s tabling of a budget under controversial circumstances. Trump’s loss marks the end of four tumultuous years that divided America.

Nov 15, 2020

By Anil Netto
The big news last week was of course Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential elections and the Malaysian government’s tabling of a budget under controversial circumstances. Trump’s loss marks the end of four tumultuous years that divided America.

Locally, we have witnessed a year of political opportunism, defections, and scrambling for positions of power. These have left many disillusioned with politics and politicians. Many politicians around the world have used race and religion to rally support from their base. Some have dished out handouts to cement their positions in power.

Trust in institutions of government has declined, while politics has received a bad name.

But far from politics being distasteful, the Bishop of Rome sees it as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity” – if its goal is the common good.

This is the thrust of Francis’ message in Chapter Five of his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All). Here, he takes the Good Samaritan’s act of neighbourly love to a new level as he shows what “A Better Kind of Politics” can achieve through political love and charity.

Francis warns against unhealthy ‘populism’ when “individuals are able to politically exploit a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power”.

At other times, individuals may try to boost their popularity “by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population”.This becomes even more serious when it leads to the usurpation or erosion of institutions and laws. If we really want to help the people, the biggest issue is employment, Francis writes.

“The truly ‘popular’ thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to provide everyone with the  opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our innate resources. This is the finest help we can give to the poor, the best path to a life of dignity.”

Providing handouts or financial aid is only a “provisional solution in the face of pressing needs”. The main goal should always be to allow people to live a life of dignity through work.

Francis blasts neoliberal ideology – the belief that unregulated free markets would produce wealth that would trickle down to the people.

“There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society.” Instead, the Bishop of Rome says we must have a proactive economic policy aimed at “promoting an economy that favours productive diversity and business creativity”. This must create more jobs, not slash them.

Francis warns that financial speculation aimed at making quick profits continues to wreak havoc.

He proposes a model of “social, political and economic participation that can include popular movements and invigorate local, national and international governing structures”. Including the excluded in building a common destiny would unleash a “torrent of moral energy”. We must ensure that the experiences of solidarity that grow from below, can come together, be more coordinated and keep on meeting one another, he adds.

What we need is “a new economy, more atten tive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth”.

Neighbourly love should not be confined to individual acts of charity, but should cover social and political charity. This should be based on effective political love and the exercise of that love.

Political charity entails “working for a social and political order whose soul is social charity”. This charity, which lies at the heart of politics, is always “a preferential love shown to those in greatest need; it undergirds everything we do on their behalf”.

So what kind of politics do we need? We need healthy politics capable of “reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia.”

The mark of true statecraft can be seen when, even in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good, Francis writes.

But this sort of nation-building is easier said than done. Often, political powers think of the short term, instead of leaving a meaningful legacy for future generations. Real justice demands that we think of future generations, even if they cannot vote now. We must plants seeds of goodness by starting processes whose fruit will be reaped by others.

The bishops of Portugal have taught that the earth “is lent to each generation, to be handed on to the generation that follows”.

Good politics also seeks to build communities  at every level of social life to reorient globalisation and thus avoid its disruptive effects. Some conspiracy theorists think the Church is pushing for a “one world government” as a kind of sinister force. But what Francis is advocating is a reform of the UN to promote development and the rule of law “based on the realisation that justice is an essential condition for achieving the ideal of universal fraternity”.

Why? Because there are so many problems today that require a global response beyond the capacity of any one country. Think of climate change, the nuclear threat, global hunger and human trafficking...

Far from pushing for an all-powerful global government, Francis says civil society groups can “compensate for the shortcomings of the international community” — especially its lack of coordination in complex situations, its lack of attention to fundamental human rights and to the critical needs of certain groups. He commends them for their “true heroism” at times, in difficult situations.

Real politics should be an act of love to organise and structure society so that our neighbours will not find themselves in poverty. Sure, it is an act of charity to assist someone suffering. But “it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering.”

This is what good politics is all about: it “combines love with hope and with confidence in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts”. Francis leaves us with some searching questions on politics:

How much love did I put into my work?

What did I do for the progress of our people?

What mark did I leave on the life of society?

What real bonds did I create?

What positive forces did I unleash?

How much social peace did I sow?

What good did I achieve in the position that was entrusted to me?

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