Is ARRCC too 'political'?

A Christian perspective, by Byron Smith & Thea Ormerod 

What does it mean to be ‘political’? Different people mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, saying that something is political is a way of saying that it is partisan, that it implicitly favours or is explicitly biased towards one political party over others. Sometimes, it’s a way of saying that an issue is controversial or contested, whether in broader society or within a given religious tradition. Sometimes, it’s a way of trying to demarcate boundaries between different spheres of life (such as ‘religion’ vs ‘politics’) that are allegedly not meant to mix. Sometimes, calling something ‘political’ is simply a way of saying it involves accusatory critique of those with whom you disagree. Let’s take each of these four meanings in turn. 

Is ARRCC partisan?

ARRCC does not promote or endorse specific candidates or parties, nor are we funded by, or a donor to, any political parties or candidates. As part of our shared pursuit of climate justice, ARRCC does sometimes advocate for or against certain policies that might help or hinder that justice. This means that sometimes, ARRCC promotes climate policies that align more closely with some parties than others. But such advocacy is not a statement about the entire policy platform or parliamentary performance of any party. If being ‘political’ means seeking to influence public policies in order to address injustice, then it is possible to be political without necessarily being partisan. 

Shouldn’t a life of religious faith primarily be about living an ethical and spiritually good life, and not pointing the finger at others’ failures - as happens in political debate?

Political debate in contemporary society can too often be unnecessarily nasty, personal, petty, vindictive or disingenuous. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The religious values and commitments of our members find common ground in cherishing human dignity in its diversity. Therefore, ARRCC seeks to raise the quality of public discourse, even as we recognise the importance of participating in discussions that affect the health, flourishing and well-being of all.

Withdrawing from those discussions to avoid the ungraciousness exhibited by some of the participants is to abrogate our responsibility as citizens. Instead, ARRCC is committed to advocacy with and for the most vulnerable, those whose voices most often get ignored or suppressed, those whose interests and needs get pushed to the margins. Many religious traditions teach that it is not possible to live an ethically and spiritually good life that doesn’t involve listening to, caring for and working with those whom society values least.

Should religion and politics ever mix?

This is a complex topic, with different members within ARRCC likely reaching different conclusions. If by politics, we mean the public policies and legislation implemented by governments and if by religion we mean the personal spiritual beliefs and way of life of individuals and local faith communities, then some would argue that the latter ought to be kept entirely out of any deliberations over the former. That is, when debating a piece of legislation or public policy, it is sometimes claimed that the arguments used must be based on assumptions and evidence that more or less everyone in society can agree with. Since the claims of any given religion may not be accepted by large numbers of citizens, many conclude that therefore specifically religious arguments ought not be used in debates over public policy.

However, we as people of faith are guided by the values grounded in their traditions, and these can legitimately guide and motivate us in how we contribute to public debates.

ARRCC does not promote the specific agenda of any one religious tradition. We are a diverse group with members from many traditions and perspectives, but who all have found compelling reasons within our own faith and practice to take seriously the urgent need for climate justice. These reasons may differ from tradition to tradition. But the impulse towards caring for our common home is shared by all of us. And so, knowing that sometimes it is possible to achieve certain outcomes by working together that would be more difficult or impossible working individually, people from many traditions have come together under the banner of ARRCC to pursue a more just, prudent and life-affirming path together on our warming world.

Is ARRCC’s work related to public policies too divisive?

Injustice is the true cause of division. Climate policies that prioritise the profits of the polluters over the wellbeing of people and planet are incredibly divisive, pitting the desires of the very few for more money against the needs of the many for a habitable planet. To oppose such injustice is not divisive. It is to speak the truth about the divisiveness of injustice.

To take no public stand on the harms done by the destabilisation of the climate is to turn a blind eye to the incalculable suffering already unfolding, and which will continue worsening so long as such unjust policies remain in operation. When people join together to oppose an injustice, they are often labelled divisive by those who currently benefit from the injustice. But it is the actions of the latter that prevent peaceful coexistence.

So ARRCC’s work in public advocacy sometimes requires disagreeing with the agenda of powerful organisations who benefit (at least in the short term) from the status quo, because the status quo is an extractive and exploitative system that is causing irreversible global harm. But this is done with respect for human dignity, and in pursuit of the wellbeing of everyone.

What about the divisions within religious communities? It is true that different adherents of the same faith draw different conclusions regarding how their religious commitments might translate into public policies. ARRCC does not claim or seek a comprehensive platform of complete agreement, either between religious traditions or within them. We are a group who have found compelling reasons within our respective understandings and practices to want to work together with others of good will towards shared goals of justice and peace in the face of worsening climate disruption. This doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but we do agree that working on certain objectives will create a safer and more stable planetary home, and so are worth pursuing together.

Far from being divisive, the experience of many people within ARRCC is that shared efforts towards climate justice have resulted in discovering unexpected harmonies and gaining fresh respectful understanding of those with whom we differ.


One Buddhist’s perspective

Should politics and religion mix? Shouldn’t we work on ourselves rather than pointing to the faults of others? How can anyone practise the Buddhist ethic of non-harm while engaging in the whole business of power and what it’s used for? Isn’t the whole world of climate politics fraught with anger and blame? In short, can you be a Buddhist and a political activist?

These are the reflections of one Buddhist - me: ARRCC community organiser and member of the Triratna Buddhist Order Tejopala Rawls. Other Buddhists may well disagree with much of what I have to say. Others still may agree with some of the principles I suggest but could be in quite different life circumstances and choose to apply some of them differently. These are just what I’ve come up with after roughly six years of working for ARRCC.

Should politics and religion mix? 

Buddhism is aimed at the transformation of human consciousness. Not only that, but the tradition has always emphasised that effort in this direction can only ever be made by each individual and no one can do it for anyone else. This starting point seems a long way from political action. That said, Buddhism also teaches that all things arise in dependence on conditions, and clearly we need stable and positive enough conditions in which to work on our minds. It would be very hard to do so in a world of catastrophic climate breakdown.

More basically though, the wellbeing of others and that of oneself are inseparable. If part of the progress and even the point of Buddhist practice is compassion - even compassion for all beings - it’s arguably hard to see how one can mean that and do nothing at all to prevent climate breakdown.

It’s also clear that the most effective way to act to prevent such breakdown is by working together with others to change the way governments and businesses operate, i.e., to get political. In the end though, changing society in this way is just one practice towards a more radical end - progress towards Enlightenment, and a world where there are whole communities trying to move in that direction having and influencing others in the process. It’s just that those of us who want to make that come about can’t neatly bypass this little thing called the climate crisis along the way.

Shouldn’t we work on ourselves rather than pointing to the faults of others? And isn’t the whole world of climate politics fraught with anger and blame?

Anger is definitely a problem, from a Buddhist point of view. It may be understandable, it may even at times be temporarily unavoidable, but it needs to be worked on. Anger reinforces the tendency to bifurcate our experience into a harder sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’, which is one way of describing the heart of our existential suffering. So Buddhism has no place for righteous indignation. The Buddha made this clear in his Parable of the Saw, in which he said to a group of his disciples that if a hand of highway robbers should waylay them and cut off their limbs with a saw, if one thought of hate should arise in their minds, they would not be true to his teaching. Not easy.

At the same time anger contains a lot of energy, much of which can be redirected towards something positive. The energy itself is not a problem at all. It just needs to be transformed into a purer form. This is much easier said than done. I remember being part of a three-person delegation that met with the executive team of Adani Australia about their proposed coal mine. The meeting was two hours long. Inside the first few minutes I was boiling inside with anger. I came away from that meeting thinking I may or may not have succeeded as an activist but full of remorse as a Buddhist. 

None of this means, though, that we only need to work on ourselves. That would be too simplistic a conclusion. The world urgently needs to be changed. I believe though that it’s only possible to change it for the better if our words and actions come from love rather than blame or anger. I try to bear in mind these days that those who are actively promoting the burning of fossil fuels are only acting to reinforce their own suffering, through such ego-driven and selfish behaviour. 

How can anyone practise the Buddhist principle of non-harm while engaging in the whole business of the use of power?

Sometimes it’s not only unavoidable but morally essential to use force. If a toddler runs onto a road there may not be time to call out and persuade them to come to you. You might have to forcibly pick them up, even kicking and screaming. What matters is ultimately the state of mind (or heart) that is driving us. Is it awareness of others, or selfish greed or even hatred? Engaging in political action out of hate is definitely a problem. There will be bad consequences, at least eventually. It’s a very easy trap to fall into, too. You need enough self-awareness and honesty to know whether that’s what you’re doing or not. A tall order, but it’s the challenge we’ve got. 

22 June, 2023