There was much for Christians and non-Christians to learn from the wisdom of an atheist, political leader Dr Russel Norman, writes Ian Harris in the Otago Daily Times.
While the decorations, carols, presents and feasting are behind us, the spirit of Christmas isn’t supposed to peter out with them.
Four days before Christmas, the New Zealand public was reminded of that in a remarkable way and in a most unlikely setting: by an atheist in the address-in-reply debate of our newly elected Parliament.
The atheist, as he described himself, is Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman. Yet unlike many who profess atheism, he was open enough to find much good in Christianity. In fact, his sketch of the Christmas story with its message of new hope for humanity would not have been out of place in any church pulpit.
“What I admire about the Christmas story is that it speaks to values I share, including some that make me a little uneasy in this place of privilege and power,” he said.
“The story of change arriving in the form of a baby has resonance in my life.”
Dr Norman said the hopes and values Jesus articulated helped lay down the essential nature of what it meant to be human and provided a guide for living a good life.
“I identify with the Christianity that teaches love and compassion towards each other, especially the most vulnerable the widows, the orphans, the sick and those in prison,” he said.
“I also identify with the Christianity that demands we live with truth and justice between one another.”
He saw those values expressed when in 1935 Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour Government gave a special Christmas bonus to the unemployed: “Now there was a true moment of Christmas in this Parliament that gave birth to a new hope that our political economy could be bent to protect the vulnerable. That was applied Christianity.”
And he identified with the Christianity that teaches an awe and respect for the natural world, “the Christianity that says tread sacredly through nature because God incarnated himself in the world through the person of Jesus Christ”.
It must be acknowledged, in passing, that the church’s record in keeping these values central is very mixed. But they have never disappeared, and when they are uppermost the practical outcome of Jesus’ teaching is clear for all to see.
Dr Norman told MPs that the values of love, generosity and a reverence for nature should not sound out of place in Parliament.
“But the talk in here is dominated by a different kind of worship one of economic growth at all costs. The Government says a strong economy provides the resources to then protect the vulnerable and the environment.
“But compassion shouldn’t be conditional. The protection of the vulnerable and the environment are necessary preconditions for a successful, fair and sustainable economy.”
Referring to policies announced in the speech from the throne, he said: “The economic and political agenda undermines the values that we celebrate. What’s worse, we still have a virtually universal agreement in this House that mindless economic growth is the overriding purpose of government, if not society.
“There is little discussion about the quality of that growth, its costs, or how we might share the benefits and costs more fairly. There is precious little discussion of how we could possibly have never-ending growth in resource use and pollution on a planet which is ultimately finite. Our current political and business world-view has become so focused on endless growth that it has to conveniently ignore the increasing social and environmental damage that comes from mindless growth without values.”
Unfortunately, most MPs and the media were more interested in how new Labour leader David Shearer and Prime Minister John Key squared up that day. Many left the chamber before Dr Norman spoke, and newspapers either ignored his speech or snidely dismissed it.
He was, however, speaking for many thousands of New Zealanders who long to see politics shaped more by the values he cited rather than by finance, important as that is.
There is always room for a touch of idealism in politics, and accountancy does not provide it.
Love and compassion, truth and justice, respect for the natural world: as Dr Norman said, those hopes and values articulated by Jesus are too important to belong only to Christians “they belong to us all, believers and unbelievers alike.” What a different country we would be if enough of us thought so, too!
Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.