Yesterday, our village held a public meeting. There is an EU funded initiative which helps rural communities like ours start up, and later implement, a Community Action Plan.
There were some highly articulate and thoughtful children present who flagged a number of important issues. Some of these were specific to their own needs, such as the lack of adequate play areas and of weekend or after school facilities for younger people. They also contributed to discussions pertaining to the needs of the wider community and of the environment. These children were politically aware. It was clear that they came from a home where people encouraged them to have views and they were still young enough, and good enough, not to have become cynical. They cared about their village with a kind of reasoned passion.
Reasoned passion is the nearest approximation I can think of to wisdom, understood in its biblical sense. We need more of this kind of wisdom in politics but we will not get it unless we engage with the political system which we have. The people of Scotland seem to have realised this. The turnout for public meetings called to debate the pros and cons of Scottish independence is unfailingly robust – larger, according to a source cited by the BBC, than it has been for 40 years. All of a sudden, politics mean something to people. This signals something important and positive about our society, that fundamentally people care about what happens to their communities and to their country. It suggests that there is a certain goodness in them which has to do with taking responsibility for what society itself is becoming.
The idea of responsibility suggests dialogue. It is about responding. Ultimately, a person who only has their own interests at heart cannot be truly responsible. That is the kind of selfishness which fragments society and isolates the individual, and the selfish individual always ends up alone with themselves, which is a hell on earth existence. So human beings have to learn, sooner or later, that the way to happiness, and to genuine prosperity, has to do with forgetting about self and being mindful of the needs of others, because the well being of every individual ultimately depends on the well being of others. Similarly, the well being of society depends on the extent to which individuals consider themselves to be part of that society, or of the microcosm of society which is any given community.
Engaging wisely with the politics of the day therefore requires a new way of seeing and thinking about the way society is going, as the two children present at our village meeting were able to do yesterday. They were taking responsibility for themselves, for other children (they had canvassed the opinions of children living within walking distance of where they live) and for the wider community. They saw their own interests as integral to those of the wider community. They gave us a glimpse of good politics.
Good politics depend on all of us because in a democratic society they are an ongoing dialogue between the electorate and those it votes for, so giving politicians a blanket mandate and then forgetting about it until the next election is simply not good enough. It is irresponsible, because political apathy destroys communities and nations. Political apathy creates a moral vacuum into which politicians, supported by the powerful and greedy, can lull us into believing that things would be much better if we trusted them to just get on with the job, or if we reverted to the kind of xenophobic mythical past dreamed of by English politicians of the extreme right. Both are dangerous but easily believed myths.
Resisting political apathy does not require that everyone becomes an expert in the field of economics, politics and all the areas which intersect with them, but it does require what St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, calls ‘politeomai’ or ‘living well for the city’. For Christians, this means engaging with the politics of the day and making the good news of the gospel a reality in one’s own political decision making. In other words, it is the kind of good citizenship which calculates its values according to the slide rule of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of heaven. In the sermon on the mount he shows us that good citizenship is not just a matter of public duty but of reasoned passion, the kind of reasoned passion which connects human beings with the wisdom and love of God. Good citizenship therefore requires that we question and take responsibility for the values of society, as those values are shaped by concern for the weakest and the most vulnerable. Protecting their interests has traditionally been held as the mark of a civilised society.
Political apathy is a sign that such concerns are no longer what matter most. Instead, what matters is meeting the needs of those with the money to pay for them, as well as generating those needs in the minds of us all. As a result, the human person is being reduced to the status of client or, worse still, consumer, and the things which shape civilised life, like education, are becoming a commodity designed to shape more consumers and more providers of commodities. The notion of sociality is beginning to unravel, as we are seeing with the deterioration of public responsibility in the sphere of politics, journalism and banking.