The word ‘politics’ derives from the Greek ‘politikos’—“of, for, or relating to citizens.” Its etymology reminds us that politics is actually about us, citizens. You can nearly hear Tony Blair whisper, ‘the people’s politics.’ Politics is also practiced by us all. It’s too serious a matter to be left to the politicians, as the former French president Charles de Gaulle said. So, politics is left to filmmakers, poets, philosophers, teachers, community organizers, pastors, and pensioners. And, crucially, politics should be for us. The French philosopher Alain Badiou considers the goal of politics is to discover what the collective is capable of. Is it capable of achieving equality? Transparency? Are we?
What the co-operative enterprise or collective is capable of is probably most easily recognized in local politics that fosters a common life and pursues a common good—politics with a small ‘p’, if you wish. It’s community activism that recognizes the fractures and flaws in society and their detrimental effect on its citizens. Rooted in locality, it provides a lens to focus our reading of the effect of injustice in the community; its challenge to the system is like catching a ray of sunlight in a magnifying lens, generating a focal point to ignite a fire.
Rolando Pérez, Coordinator of Advocacy and Communication at Paz y Esperanza (‘Peace and Hope’) a Christian group in Peru, tells of citizens building a coalition in a city where child sex abuse was very high and, in raw contrast, the rate of criminal conviction was abominably low. The local campaign against the corruption that permeated the local judicial system developed into a national advocacy campaign jointly facilitated by several civil society organizations. It resulted in the removal of bad judges who had defended the perpetrators instead of sentencing them. Such civic action against corruption in the institutional systems and wider culture destabilizes unjust alliances and helps foster stronger, more just ones.
Pérez considers education key to mobilizing whole communities and generating the confidence to stand up for their rights: “First of all, we need to create a consciousness—not just among authorities and political leaders but also in the citizens, the community, and wider society. So, education is a significant part of our fight against corruption and in the establishing of a new common practice in different areas of society.”
The Roman writer, philosopher and politician Cicero, who appealed for just trials in his era, poignantly stated, “Within the character of the citizen lies the welfare of the nation.” Our Peruvian friends show that not only within the character of the judge lies the welfare of the nation, but also within the character of its citizens who stood against corruption.
Cicero significantly interlocks the personal and political. It’s the corrosion of the heart that creates a corrupt justice system. The reverberations of a thoroughly corrosive banking culture are still felt far and wide. If we’d measure the ‘corrosion footprint’ of this industry similarly to the way we track the carbon footprint in the environmental arena, it would show the effects on households, businesses, international development, and beyond. Ditto for the culture of corporate tax evasion. In the documentary The UK Gold, Father William Taylor sheds light on Britain’s offshore tax havens. The filmmaker lifts the veil on the British financial sector that relies on unfair play for profit and is hugely influential in shaping corporate tax policy. The film concludes that politics can’t be left to parliamentarians and CEOs.
As the cultivating of a new culture begins in the heart, so also does the stand against corruption. In his multifaceted life as journalist, theologian, politician, prime minister, and founder of the Free University in Amsterdam, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) expressed, “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”
Barney Jones, the former Google employee who blew the whistle by giving crucial evidence to the Public Accounts Committee into the search engine’s tax affairs in the UK, explained that his decision to speak out was rooted in his Christian faith. After reading what appeared to be misleading evidence from a senior Google executive, he felt prompted to give his account of what he considered an “immoral” company tax scheme.
The welfare of our nation lies in the hearts and hands of us all. Whistleblowers, filmmakers, community activists—they all contribute to a crucial conscientization as the insights we gain cause the blurry multiple impressions of dysfunction to come more sharply into focus. The myriad of wrongdoing also leads us to examine the human condition, in all its human fallibility: whether corrupt, fearful, complicit, complacent, and/or greedy. The more focus and clarity we achieve then undergirds and sparks effective action for justice for the victims of crime; for hungry children who cannot concentrate in school; for mothers who can’t access good maternal care; and for all who suffer a shortage of medication and food.
Finally, uncovering amoral practices is also the business of politicians. The recent open letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron written by Dar es Salaam Shadow Minister for Finance, Zitto Kabwe, called for action on offshore accounts, some of them in British Overseas Territories, where Tanzanians have stashed dubiously acquired billions in foreign banks. International financial secrecy laws hinder the national fight against those who siphon off huge amounts of a nation’s tax revenue that could be spent on development. Moreover, some of the leaks actually concern development aid grants. The recent historic EU vote on transparency and the G8 discussion on tax justice and transparency are crucial to a more just politics that is ‘of, for and relating to citizens’.
We must all combat ‘the rot’, countering the corrosion of character and the erosion of community life. For corruption displays poor values as well as abject relational poverty. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth: the opposite of both poverty and wealth is community, for in community we shall be rich…”
Marijike Hoek is a theologian and the co-editor of Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor (Paternoster, 2008), which includes contributions from Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis. This essay was first published at Micah Challenge.