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Group builds soapbox for Christian left

By Julia Stuart

Born from a caf? conversation in Dunedin less than a year ago, the new church social justice group ‘Focal’ held its first out-of-town event in Wellington at the end of June. Members were agreeably surprised at the level of interest and engagement with its agenda in the capital city.

Focal – the name stands for ‘Forum of the Christian Left’ – popped into the Dunedin public’s view during last year’s general election when co-founders Rev Steve O’Connor took exception to a statement on church involvement in politics by the Baptist church leadership and was extensively quoted.

Focal then stepped out of the public eye and did some local MP lobbying before stepping out beyond its southern borders.

Focal describes its mission as ‘Keeping the Right honest and the Church balanced.’ From its founding four members, participation has increased and its structure was organised enough to run a national Wellington-based conference that attracted a number of MPs.

The Friday night/Saturday gathering, Church and Society after Election ’05, was interesting for its programme but also for who was there – including president of the Methodist Church John Salmon, some well-known church identities from across the denominations, a significant number of young people and two workers from the conservative think-tank the Maxim Institute. It was also notable for its male-dominated speaker line-up – a matter for criticism from the floor and slightly defensive explanations of availability and time constraints from the organizers.

Papers included a provocative look at Jesus and politics by Chris Marshall, an analysis of the fundamentalist agenda by Peter Lineham, James Harding’s examination of politics and the prophets and a talk on just society by Anglican social justice commissioner Anthony Dancer.

Forums gave everybody a chance to have their say. Among them, Focal co-founder Amber Parry Strong commented that ‘the third wave of feminism is possibly religious’ and Vision Network’s Glyn Carpenter suggested that there was increasing church tolerance of the evangelical agenda even if the e-word might have to be abandoned to help move the agenda along.

Focal’s goal is to create a Christian left think-tank that can assess government policies and provide submissions in such areas as race, international relations, economics, health, education, and human rights. It also plans to provide educational material encouraging a ‘balanced view’ of Christian politics, particularly social justice, social policy and the environment.

Their media strategy includes responding to right-wing statements in the media and countering public impressions of Christians as a conservative political force.

Maxim Institute communications manager Amanda McGrail says new voices in the debate on how to make society strong are welcome because they enrich the discussion. “Maxim shares several of Focal’s concerns, including the need for justice and compassion in society. We look forward to dialoguing with Focal, in particular examining the vital role communities and charities play in expressing genuine care to the needy.”

Wellington MP Marion Hobbs urged Focal to “Be yourselves as Christians and don’t get caught up in party politics. I believe there is hope left in the Left. We of the Left are much more open than most political groupings, and Focal offers an opportunity for better debate than we have had.”

Some are not so keen on the ‘Left’ label. Major Harold Hill of the Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues Council said he prefers the term ‘liberal’. “The ‘Left’ is associated with splintering and divided by old agendas.”

Steve O’Connor said he is floating the idea of forming a network of leftist Christians engaged in politics.

“This would include people who are actually doing the stuff, giving us a credible base for comment to media and parliamentary submissions. We don’t have anything like the financial resources of Maxim – we will need to be a grass roots bottom up movement, based around small groups,” Steve says.

I was pleased to have some guests from Maxim with us. I had intended to send an invite but they beat me to it and enrolled two of their staff. It’s an indication of how efficient the Maxim machine is with their seven figure budget and 14 staff.

“We’re not really in opposition to Maxim. Most of what they do is good; but with their self proclaimed conservative stance we see the need to throw our 2 cents worth in to try and restore some balance. Part of our ethos is the strong desire to listen to all sides and be as inclusive as we can, within the limits of conscience.”