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2018 March 4 - Corruption, Collusion, Cronyism and The Christian Citizen

In the light of the Gospel passage for the day, I am going to address the issue of corruption, collusion, cronyism, and the Christian citizen.

As we returned from a few day’s break at Pacific Palms last Tuesday, we listened to a podcast about the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, the new President of RSA, ending 10 years of rife corruption and cronyism during the Zuma regime. Zuma allowed and enjoyed a level of influence that has nearly bankrupted this once prosperous nation. Many millions of dollars had been siphoned off by corrupt local, state and national officials, the laundered money now safely offshore in havens such as Dubai and India. The abundant poor of this troubled nation have seen nothing for their loyalty to the ANC since the end of the more promising Mandela and Mbeki regimes. Another of Zuma’s tricks was to stack boards of Government enterprises like ESCOM, the national power generator, enabling misappropriation that has nearly bled the country dry. For the media to expose the graft in such circumstances can involve significant risk.

Now that the ANC has taken to Zuma with a whip of cords, there is hope in the more "old-school” Ramaphosa. Corruption is seeing the light of day, a state in which it is less likely to thrive.

That ABC "Rear Vision” report was followed by one about the recent riots in Iran. It seems that this uprising was also about state corruption, especially about the extent of patronage by the Revolutionary Guard, who must be paid off before any business can be done.

Corruption, collusion, cronyism. One might just as well be talking about the system of temple sacrifice in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. The religious pilgrims who flocked to the holy city during Passover would buy their bird or animal for sacrifice at the Temple precinct. The high level of demand versus supply made for highly inelastic prices. Worse than that, one could not pay for one’s bird or beast with Roman currency, because it carried the image of Caesar, therefore forbidden for religions transactions on the grounds of idolatry. So, not only were pilgrims paying top prices; they also had to change their Roman money for the currency of Tyre, at levels that would make the exchange rates at Kingsford Smith Airport look like charity.

It was for this reason that Jesus bursts into the precinct, whip of cords in hand, and causes mayhem among the flocks, herds and traders. He intervenes on behalf of the devout and often poor people being cheated in the process of conducting religious business.

Last week we left Jesus and his disciples in Mark’s Gospel, in dispute over his decision to take the road to Jerusalem. Given Jesus’ proclivity for drastic action on the basis of righteous anger, one can understand the reluctance of the disciples to take this particular road. Had we stayed in Mark, we would eventually have arrived at his cleansing of the temple just a few days before his crucifixion. We have however, jumped into John’s Gospel, where the incident is placed right at the beginning of his ministry.

There are a few possible explanations for the different chronology in John, as compared to Matthew Mark and Luke. One is that John tackles early the question "Who is Jesus?”. One answer is that he is a prophet in the classical tradition of the Hebrew scriptures. As such, he acts with a righteous indignation and courage that springs directly from his love of God and his offence at the corruption of the religious process in order to cheat the devout poor. Beyond that, his divine purpose as crucified and risen saviour is foreshadowed.

In John, it could be thought that Jesus takes offence at the market activity itself. However, in the other three Gospels, the text is quoted "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” It’s is not so much about the buying and selling as the thievery involved.

One might also surmise how this blatant rip-off could have been allowed to continue, when it was obvious what was going on. For corruption to flourish, there needs to be a level of collusion and cronyism. The livestock suppliers and money-changers would have been working together, sharing the spoils. But they needed help at another level, the temple administrators who allowed them to trade in the precinct, and the religious leaders who let the process pass without appropriate moral scrutiny. Then of course, they would have needed the ‘blind eye’ patronage of the Roman authorities. Almost certainly, everyone was getting their cut. And the ordinary people paid through the nose.

It’s called "vested interests”.

So, Jesus’ actions would have upset a whole lot of very powerful people. When you confront corruption, collusion and cronyism, you could get yourself crucified!

What I heard on the Rear Vision podcast about South Africa was not new to me, but it gave a context to my thinking about the Gospel passage. The relevance of the Bible to everyday life is such that if you study a passage on Monday, it can easily lead you somewhere by Tuesday. What I heard again about the corruption there made me feel sad, but I would not say it broke my heart. That is because I brought my heart with me to Australia in 1978. And it is what is happening right here in our homeland that really stirs me, and to which I make the stronger connections with the passage about Jesus cleansing the temple.

Australia has recently slipped to #13 on the list of countries with the least corruption. Overall, this is not bad given the length of the list. To be sure, the collusion, corruption and cronyism going on here is more subtle and better dressed than in some third world or developing nations; yet the themes are identical. Those in power hold the whip hand, and the most vulnerable and less equipped end up paying.

So when I ask myself the question I always ask when addressing the gospel theme, "How does this apply to us”, I find myself looking down the barrel of a political system that, for the most part, has served most of the people of Australia well over the years. More recently however, the democratic checks and balances that keep corruption at bay are showing worrying signs of wear and tear.

Some areas of concern are: politicians rorting travel expenses and housing allowances; awarding of jobs and lucrative contracts to friends and party donors without due process; stacking of boards like the ABC and the Fair Work Commission with ideological bedfellows; abuse of processes such as Royal Commissions as witch-hunts against political opponents; and a lack of transparency, especially in areas such as offshore detention centre and border protection. Then there are the really big questions, like, who must the Federal Government consult before lending up to $2.5 trillion of Australians’ superannuation savings to the USA for private infrastructure projects, and who are the winners in the Liquid Natural Gas market when price levels make no sense to the average person?

If ever a system is crying out for a whip of cords, it is ours. A Federal ICAC, and an Independent Speaker in Parliament during Question Time would be a great start. Accountability to the electorate is a key plank of democracy.

You may or may not agree this analysis. My point today is, "What is the responsibility of the Christian citizen in the face of corruption, collusion and cronyism amongst the "powers that be”? Is it part of our Christian responsibility to know what is going on, and if so, who will take a whip of cords and stand up for the weak and vulnerable in driving corruption and collusion from the temple of state?

In many churches, the answer to that question would be; "Speaking truth to power is not part of our mission”. They will quote an obscure text from Romans 13 about governments being God-ordained. This supposedly entitles them to be immune from scrutiny, unless of course they are among our enemies. The fact is that the Hebrew prophets thundered about little else than ruling authorities, secular and religious, enriching themselves and ripping off the poor. Jesus is clearly in this zealous prophetic line, and his action at the temple is seen by all the Gospel writers as arising from his sense of spirituality and social justice. John is telling us that this is WHO JESUS IS! If so, his actions must present a challenge about the nature and calling of his church; which is supposedly following in his way.

The Uniting Church accepts the social responsibility to scrutinise the halls of power, and, where necessary, to speak up for those who have little or no power by calling the big end of town to account. Our inaugural statement says: "Finally, we affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is to God, under whose judgement that policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of the day.” At our best, we hold our spirituality and social justice together well. We do not excuse ourselves from this commitment and responsibility. We resist the temptation to quote isolated texts of scripture to get ourselves off the hook.

What then is our responsibility in this regard?

1. To care enough to be awake to what is going on. The fact that you came here today to this church, that you have listened thus far, happily or otherwise, means that you have let yourselves hear things that you may now choose to reflect on. In the Matthew, Mark and Luke accounts of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus went to the temple precinct to have a look. He then went away, no doubt reflected on what he saw, and came back the next day with his informed fury and his whip.

We need to know, and if we don’t know, to find out. Given the near media monopoly of the Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, and the recent cut in funding to and government influence on the National Broadcaster, the Main Stream Media is not as trustworthy as it once was. In this climate, Social Media has become increasingly important for information-sharing. For example, the story of the standing aside and investigation of Roman Quaedvlieg, head of Border Force, was supposedly "broken’ in the Daily Telegraph last Thursday, having been the subject of questions in Senate Estimates Committee. However, the story of how he allegedly engaged in inappropriate conduct with a junior female staffer, and how he has been stood aside on full pay for last 9 months, earning about $500 000 in that time, has been shared on Twitter for months. I also found out on twitter about the government’s surreptitious $34 million gift to Foxtel to promote minority sports, a grant of taxpayer’s money that surely should have gone to the National Broadcaster. Most of what I know about what is going in the political arena on I find out from twitter. It is also important to follow at least one of the new independent publications like The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, or perhaps, the Guardian, which is an international publication, therefore not restricted by domestic pressure.

2. If the first responsibility of the Christian citizen is to scrutinise the ethics of the public sphere, the second is to make it known. Spread the word. Be part of the informed debate, be a part of the process. Shine a light into dark corners. Do it for your own sake, but more so, do it for those who cannot speak or for whatever reason, do not have the skills or the access that most of us have.

3. Finally, keep shining a light within. The more careful we are to ensure our own moral integrity and ethical action, the more likely we are to be on the money when we take a stand against corruption, collusion and cronyism. People might sneer about the "high moral ground”, but the view is more revealing from there than from the gutter.

The painting on the screen is a modern interpretation of Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple. It reminds us that prophetic action is not just a concern of bible times. The stakes are now far higher than they were back then. The whip of cords may have become a more damaging truncheon, but, as you can see, the weapons of entrenched power are infinitely more potent and destructive. The followers of the Prince of Peace must reconsider the non-biblical image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, and hear again the strident righteous voice calling out to the corrupt, the colluders of his day: HOW DARE YOU!

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