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All believers should be in politics

Former adviser to Bill Shorten calls for Christians to be responsible citizens

Max Jeganathan was a policy adviser to Bill Shorten during the Labor leader’s first years in Opposition. The 36-year-old former lawyer is now a full-time speaker about Christianity for the renowned Ravi Zacharias Ministries, as its Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

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Describing himself as a “political junkie”, Jeganathan admits he finds it easy to be into the political process. But he believes all believers also should be.

“If you want to get involved in politics, you are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.” – Max Jeganathan

With the Federal Election only a few weeks away, Jeganathan’s passion for politics and Christian faith add up to a polite campaign you should consider getting behind.

“It think it is very important for us, at very least, to be engaged,” says Jeganathan about Christians and politics. “I think believers also should be prayerful; constantly praying for the political system, especially given how broken it sometimes feels and probably is, in some respects.”

“Being engaged to the extent you are prayerfully able to would be my encouragement to people. And to those who are willing and able to go further, I always encourage Christians to go into politics. I think the world would be a much better place if there were more Christians in politics, basically.”

The son of Sri Lankan refugees who came to Australia when he was one, Jeganathan developed his thirst for political involvement while studying law at Australian National University in Canberra. The drama and theatre of US presidential series The West Wing also lobbied Jeganathan’s imagination.

Running in campus elections as an independent, Jeganathan came to his own political enlightenment during his final terms at ANU. “I was a bit older and more mature and I was less idealistic about politics. I saw ratbags on both sides of politics. I saw good and bad things in both policy platforms. And I saw things that upheld and pretty blatantly violated Christian ethical norms – in both policy platforms.”

“So [for me], it was really just a question of being a grown up and saying: ‘If you want to get involved in politics, you are going to have to swallow some bitter pills, whichever way you go.’”

“Usually, the big broad conclusions we make are inaccurate.” – Max Jeganathan

His observance of, and friendship with, Young Liberals and Young Labor members caused him to realise political ideologies can appear to be shallow or myopic. But getting to know people – and speaking with them – revealed greater nuance and depth to him.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah, the Conservatives hate poor people’ and ‘the Progressives hate rich people’. Those are misleading generalisations – but there is some truth in those things, at some level. But, usually, the big broad conclusions we make are inaccurate.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I could have found good reasons to join either [major] party. But I chose the Labor Party and I feel like that was affirmed.”

Practising law for three years, Jeganathan moved into policy advice for Jenny Macklin, who was Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government. “She did a lot of amazing things while I worked for her, with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, with pension reform and paid parental leave. Lots of stuff. And so that’s when I really got involved with social policy.”

Jeganathan went on to advise Bill Shorten in health policy and social security/family payments. He says he “loved” it, even though Labor was in Opposition and that took some getting used to.

“Working in Opposition is different. It’s far more creative. It’s far less defensive and you get to be far more proactive because, in a practical policy sense, you have very little power. It’s exciting because we were planning some big things for what we believed would serve Australia well for the future.”

What Jeganathan strongly believes would serve Australia’s future well is Christians doing what Jesus calls them to do. Uncomfortably for some, Jeganathan points to politics as an area of life that it is not an option to ignore.

“To [Christians] who struggle with politics, I would say  that – in my view – it’s a bit of an abdication of our responsibility as followers of Jesus, to disengage from any aspect of society.”

“If we say ‘we’re Christians but we’re just not interested in talking to plumbers or carpenters or people that serve food and beverages,’ that is a pretty clear act of disobedience to Jesus’ very clear commands which comes through in the Gospels – ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Make disciples of all nations.’

“He doesn’t say, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, except in spheres of society where you feel uncomfortable.’ There’s no qualification there. No metaphor. No parable. No allegory. He’s very direct and clear.”

“Part of loving your neighbour is understanding what the different political parties are saying.” – Max Jeganathan

Jeganathan didn’t find the political realm to be any more compromised or lacking in integrity than other workplaces. But, still, he quit his high-powered policy role to take the unorthodox career move of explaining how Christianity applies to everyday life.

“I didn’t think the gospel of Jesus Christ was getting a fair run in the public space in Australia,” explains Jeganathan, who felt he had the passion and skills to speak up for what he believes. “I thought that was largely because of, sadly, some Christian leaders and some anti-Christian leaders who were both misrepresenting. There were mistakes being made at both ends.”

As he travels around the Asia-Pacific region trying to represent well Christianity and its leader, Jeganathan also offers practical encouragement for better combining politics and Christian faith.

“Part of loving your neighbour is understanding what the different political parties are saying, how the media is reporting it, and making decisions about things like water, sanitation, health, education, infrastructure, energy and so forth.”

“We don’t have to be experts on these things but, as citizens of the kingdom of God, we do have some responsibilities as citizens of this country.”

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