Student Showcase 2: Politics, Prophets, and Jacindamania

Today’s student offering comes from Mathew Sherlock. Mathew hails from Devonport in Auckland and is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws conjoint, majoring in Spanish. He hopes to work in politics some time in the future. Mathew took our Bible in Popular Culture class because religion and the Bible were completely new subjects for him – thankfully, he found the course very interesting, especially our discussions around contemporary prophetic figures and the American Monomyth, or ‘supersaviour’ in pop culture.

Mathew’s essay was incredibly timely in its focus on the rise of Labour Party politician Jacinda Ardern, who stood as the party’s leader during the 2017 General Election. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the incumbent National Party having an adequate majority to form a government. After a nail-biting few weeks, on October 19th, New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters declared he was prepared to form a coalition government with Labour. So, exactly one day after Mathew submitted this essay, Jacinda was declared NZ’s new Prime Minister. Serendipity. To learn more about her impressive rise to power, read on and enjoy this most fabulous essay.

Jacindamania herald
Image from New Zealand Herald 3 August 2017

Jacindamania: Analysing the Election of Biblical Proportions

Mathew Sherlock

The General Election of 2017 seemed to be a guaranteed victory for the National Party. Until Jacinda Ardern entered the picture. After her appointment as leader of the Labour Party, Ardern swept the nation, in a craze nicknamed “Jacindamania” (Kwai 2017). Marcus Borg identifies that biblical prophets disturb our sense of normalcy, possess a passion for social justice, and bring hope to the oppressed (2001, pp.111-44). Through analysing Ardern’s views and her corresponding policies proposed throughout the election, we can see that she matches these requirements. Comparing Ardern’s actions with biblical prophets Amos and Deutero-Isaiah will reach the conclusion that Ardern can be regarded a contemporary biblical prophet.

labour-billboard-2017-andrew-little-jacinda
Election billboard with Jacinda Ardern and former Labour leader, Andrew Little. newstalkzb.co.nz

Borg (2001) identifies that a biblical prophet disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges dominant discourses within society. Ardern certainly disturbed the political normalcy of the 2017 election, which seemed to be a landslide victory for the National Party with an anticipated fourth term in government. Under previous Labour leader Andrew Little’s reign, the main party in opposition was polling at 24%, its lowest point since the 1990s (Trevett 2017). There was no foreseeable chance of a non-National victory. However, after assuming leadership, Ardern drastically increased the party’s polling percentage, peaking at 44% at one point during the election (Small and Walters 2017). This unprecedented twenty-point advancement for Labour in the electoral race changed the course of what seemed to be an obvious continuation of the National-led government, into the most enthralling election campaign in recent New Zealand history (Du Fresne 2017). Throughout the campaign, Ardern challenged New Zealand: choose between risk and hope (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). There is risk attached to sticking to the status quo, whereas hope can make change for the better (ibid.). New Zealand’s sense of normalcy was greatly disturbed; placed at a political crossroad between stagnancy and change.

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Dunedin artist Sam Sharpe with his Jacinda Ardern-inspired artwork. Stuff.co.nz

Ardern challenged the dominant neoliberal discourse shaped by the National Party’s nine years in government. Neoliberalism’s key features promote the value of the free market and individual choice in addressing inequalities (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Their main election promise was a tax-cut, reducing the responsibility on the state for poverty and other social injustices (“Tax and Finances 2017” 2017). Ardern’s social democratic views contrast greatly from this, which promote legislation to redress inequalities and oppose tax cuts when other pressing social issues are present (Heywood 2012). Ardern challenged National’s policies that sought to benefit the wealthy, as child poverty had not decreased significantly over National’s term in government “Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Ardern’s view on societal issues were seen through her proposed policies, reinvigorating the discourse on how to address social inequalities. Examples of this were her free tertiary education policy, Maori-centred attainment standards, and stricter rules on land ownership to promote more first home buyers (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). These challenged the discourse shaped over the past nine years which placed individual responsibility on solutions. Despite this, they were generally well received by the New Zealand public, as reflected in Labours large increase in polling.

Ardern’s actions can be compared with biblical prophet Amos. Amos became prominent in the northern kingdom of Israel, a society where the rich were living extravagant lives while the poor were suffering (Thompson 1992, p.72). Amos disturbed their sense of normalcy, condemning the severe social and economic disparity (Bergant 2006, p.94). Amos challenged that the rich “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). This critique of the wealthy citizens of Israel challenged the discourse surrounding the gap between the poor and rich. Both Ardern and Amos disturbed a society where the ruling class had failed to identify social and economic disparities, challenging the way they should be addressed. Thus, Ardern fulfils this requirement of a biblical prophet.

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Jacinda Ardern with Kelvin Davis, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a passion for social justice (2001, p.118). Ardern’s passion is seen through her views and policies proposed during the election. Ardern centred her campaign around her social democratic beliefs; emphasising equal opportunity, communal responsibility, and the power of effective social justice (Murphy 2017). Ardern’s social justice focuses on the marginalised and disadvantaged groups in New Zealand, aiming for a more equal society. One example of this is the implementation of Maori education programmes that emphasise Maori learning methods and measures of success (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). This redresses the disadvantage Maori students face in the current education system, possessing a disappointing 50.6% secondary school retention rate as opposed to 75.4% of non-Maori (Marriot and Sim 2015, p.5).

lets do this
Ardern on the campaign trail. Stuff.co.nz

From her social democratic viewpoint, systemic inequalities and disadvantages are argued to be a result of colonisation and ongoing disregard to differing values between cultures (Humpage 2015, p.450). As such, the implementation of such targeted policy helps distribute justice and equal opportunities to the groups that need it most (ibid.). Another example is Ardern’s assertion to reduce child poverty, claiming it was the initial reason for her interest in entering politics (“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.”). Borg suggests that biblical prophets understand that sin comprises primarily as injustices, therefore placing such great emphasis on addressing social inequalities (2001, p.120). This is reflected in Ardern’s focus on marginalised groups in New Zealand society whom are impacted by such disadvantages. Reducing injustice is a key feature of a biblical prophet, and a characteristic that is prevalent in Ardern’s views and policies.

Jacinda foghorn 2
Ardern visits the University of Auckland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ardern’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophet Amos. Amos viewed injustices not as crimes of warfare, but social issues (Borg 2001, p.118). His passion for social justice emerged through his indictment of the wealthy for exploiting the poor (ibid.). Amos saw a large class disparity, where the rich were gaining influence, while the poor became disempowered (Bergant 2006, p.91). This disparity eroded communal responsibility for societal problems within Israel (ibid.). Like Ardern, Amos’ focus on communal responsibility emerged through his passion for social justice. The wealthy had an obligation to help address injustices face by the peasantry that had become disenfranchised (ibid.). Amos brought these issues to light after first increasing his following through announcing God’s judgement against Israel’s neighbouring enemies (Borg 2001, p.118). Then, Amos took advantage of his growing audience to turn and indict Israel itself for its social and economic inequalities (ibid.). Amos deplored the economic differences solely benefitting the wealthy while disadvantaging the poor (Bergant 2006, p.91). Amos thus increased the power of his message and following through addressing social issues that stemmed from the economic class gap present in Israel. Although Ardern did not come from a religious perspective in her campaign, nor used God as a justification for her passion for social justice, she used similar techniques to Amos. Criticising National’s apathy to address social issues, notably income inequality and rising house prices in New Zealand helped increase voter support for the Labour Party, and Ardern’s electoral campaign (“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1” 2017). Framing the social inequalities as the result of nine years of inaction from the National government similarly identifies Nationals “sins” as social injustices, as Amos did to the wealthy people of Israel.

kiwi dream
Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland, 2016. Wikimedia Commons

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a vision, a dream that brings hope to the oppressed (2001, p.130). Prophets may engage in prophetic energising, which values the use of language to create hope and bring forth a bright future (ibid.). Ardern’s incredible achievements in the 2017 General Election in seven weeks of her campaign brought hope to many New Zealanders that the government can strive to do better. New Zealand could be greater than what it already was. Ardern made use of prophetic energising in her speeches and debates, using almost poetic language to inspire voters. An example of this was her response to claims that her effect on the election polls was vapid; she was merely stardust that would soon settle and fade. Ardern responded elegantly that “this stardust won’t settle”, because New Zealand should not have to settle with what the current government was providing (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Bringing forth a prophetic message that New Zealand could do better, Ardern provided hope to the large portion of the public that had felt left out during the nine years of a National-led government (ibid.). She made use of this energising effect, imploring voters to choose change, and a better New Zealand.

Jacinda portrait
Ardern being sworn in as PM. Governer General NZ

Ardern’s energising prophetic vision draws parallels to Deutero-Isaiah, an unnamed prophet in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah (Borg 2001, p.131). Deutero-Isaiah brought hope to a large group of Jewish exiles, using similar prophetic energising methods to mitigate the widespread panic and despair (ibid.). He energises the disenfranchised Jewish exiles, all survivors of the deadly Babylon conquest by reaffirming their love through God’s sight (ibid.). Deutero-Isaiah used language to promote a sense of hope in the exiles, assuring them in God’s vision that they should “not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand,” (Isaiah 41:10). Deutero-Isaiah and Ardern both spoke to a group that felt denied of rights and freedoms in their society, and used prophetic language to bring forth a brighter future inspired by their vision.

Ardern can be considered a contemporary biblical prophet. Although she does not come from the traditionally religious foundations of traditional biblical prophets such as Amos and Deutero-Isaiah, she matches many of the key requirements proposed by Borg. Ardern disrupted the normalcy of the New Zealand General Election, challenged dominant discourses with a promotion of social justice, and used prophetic energising methods to bring hope to many New Zealanders looking for a better future. Negating any successes or defeats for her and the Labour Party, she is an inspiration for New Zealand.

lovely pic of Jacinda

 Bibliography

All references to the Bible are from the NRSV

Bergant, Dianne. Israel’s Story, Part 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2006

Borg, Marcus. “Reading the prophets again.” In Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. 1st edition, pp. 111-144. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.

Du Fresne, Karl. “The political drama is real this time as National faces stiff challenge for power.” Stuff. August 23, 2017.
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/96012551/the-political-drama-is-real-this-time-as-national-faces-stiff-challenge-for-power

Heywood, Andrew. Political ideologies: an introduction (5th edition). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Humpage, Louise. “The Treaty and Social Policy.” In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Janine Hayward, 6th edition, pp. 449-459. Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kwai, Isabella. “New Zealand’s Election Had Been Predictable. Then ‘Jacindamania’ Hit.” The New York Times. September 4, 2017.

“Labour’s Plan.” Labour Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.labour.org.nz/policy

Marriot, Lisa. Sim, Dalice. “Indicators of inequality for Maori and Pacific people.” Journal of New Zealand Studies, no. 20 (2015) pp.1-30.

Milne, Jonathan. “The last pitch: Labour leader Jacinda Ardern answers tough questions from Bill English, voters.” Stuff. September 17, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96867354/The-last-pitch-Labour-leader-Jacinda-Ardern-answers-tough-questions-from-Bill-English-voters

Mirowski, Philip., Plhewe, Dieter. The road from Mont Pèlerin: the making of the neoliberal thought collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Tim. “What Jacinda Ardern wants.” Newsroom August 1, 2017. https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/07/31/40717/what-jacinda-wants

“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.” Newshub. YouTube video. 1:38:02. Posted 4 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20KBI7vV_-U

Small, Vernon., Walters, Laura. “Labour leaps into the lead in new poll, as leaders prepare for first debate.” Stuff. August 31, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96370074/labour-leaps-into-the-lead-in-new-poll-as-leaders-prepare-for-first-debate  

“Stuff Leader’s Debate.” Stuff.co.nz. YouTube video. 3:08:59. Posted 7 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2dZ42gx1qI

“Tax and Finances.” National Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.national.org.nz/tax_finances

Thompson, Michael. “Amos – A Prophet of Hope?” The Expository Times 104, no.3 (1992): pp.71-76.

Trevett, Claire. “Labour leader Andrew Little says he considered stepping down in face of bad polling.” The New Zealand Herald. July 30, 2017. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11896970

“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1.” TVNZ. Video. 45:05. Posted 31 August 2017. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/vote-2017/debates/s1-e1

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Aspiring David to take on popularity-giant John Key

In the wake of NZ’s general election, the defeated Labour party are reorganizing and in the process of electing a new leader. To the excitement of biblical enthusiasts, the contest for leader is between a number of “David’s” (there were originally three David’s, but now there are two: David Cunliffe & David Shearer). Just prior to the election we paused to consider the political merits and demerits of one of Israel’s most memorable leader, King Solomon. It seems rather appropriate then, to turn our attention briefly to his father, David, especially given this distinctly ‘Davidic’-themed competition.

The young biblical David’s path to kingship was certainly memorable, starting with his infamous encounter with Goliath and reaching its most dizzying heights with the divine promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty that would rule over all Israel. To be sure, before he became king, David was a bit of a hot-headed youth, prone to childish, dangerous japes (e.g. I Samuel 24) and quick to take offence (e.g. I Samuel 25.1-13). He was, however, also rather brave and quick-witted, showing himself as being as adept at getting out of a tight corner when the need arose (e.g. I Samuel 21) as he was at succeeding on the battlefield (e.g. I Samuel 18.20-30). Moreover, once he was crowned king, David appeared to be an adept ruler over his new kingdom, basking as he was in the ever-present glow of divine favour.

It didn’t take that long, however, before things started to go seriously downhill for the house of David. Like his son Solomon, David’s failures as king are attributed more to his personal character weaknesses than to any explicitly acknowledged political limitations on his part. Just as Solomon is said to be led into apostasy by his predilection for foreign wives, so too does David’s royal kudos ultimately start to disintegrate when he indulges his penchant for the ‘wrong’ woman (II Samuel 11-12).

Moreover, it is interesting to note that David’s impressive ability to think on his feet and get himself out of hot water during the years prior to his ascension to the throne seems to have abandoned him once the royal crown was placed on his head. A quick look at his ‘rap sheet’ and we can see at a glance that things seemed to go from bad to worse as David staggered from one disastrously bad decision to another: adultery, conspiracy to murder, failure to keep his own house in order, and finally, that catastrophic census. While his kingship did survive these crises, both his family and his kingdom were subsequently pummelled, punished, and rent apart by the fruits of his wrongdoings. As Joseph Heller has David say in his ‘biographical’ novel based on the king’s life, God Knows, ‘Who would have thought I had dissatisfied so many?’

So, what, if any, advice can this David give to his two hopeful namesakes, vying for their own leadership role? Is he a good model for them to emulate? Well, I’d say not – adultery, murder, and family scandal didn’t go down too well in biblical Israel and they certainly don’t seem to enhance the political careers of those in government today. Perhaps if David Cunliffe and David Shearer are to look to this biblical figure for any inspiration, they would be better learning some lessons from the young David, before the royal crown dulled his judgment: don’t be afraid to stand up to the big guy (I Samuel 17), always appreciate the value of backing down and admitting you were wrong (I Samuel 25.23-44), and always, always remember the loyalty of your friends (I Samuel 18-20, II Samuel 1.17-27).