A Prime Minister's Preferential Option for the Poor, and the Planet

By Jim Wallis 08-04-2008

Last weekend in Australia, I had the opportunity to have a four-hour dinner conversation with Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister. I have written about Kevin as a new-style Labor political leader who talks openly about his faith in a secular country.

I asked him about the "apology" he made to the Aboriginal people of Australia as his first act of government. "It is the thing I am most proud of," he told me. Just days before, the newspapers all carried a front-page picture of Rudd and his cabinet ministers lined up on chairs in a meeting with Aboriginal elders at an Indigenous community in the Northern Territory (the heart of the Aboriginal homeland). They were there to discuss how to narrow the gap between the health and life expectancy, education, income, and a whole range of other key indicators between the white and Aboriginal populations of Australia.

During the day we met for dinner, Rudd had been on the Great Barrier Reef, inspecting the "bleaching" of the spectacular Australian treasure due to global warming. He told me that environmental protection and climate change were issues on which he wanted Australia to lead.

Rudd is a Catholic and the first time we had dinner a couple of years ago, he told me he had been a longtime reader of Sojourners and my books. He is indeed well-read theologically, and we had a very good discussion of Catholic social teaching, church history, spirituality, faith, and politics in both the U.S. and Australia, and the power of revival to spark social change -- the theme of my latest book.

He has a special fascination for and attraction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who helped lead the "confessing churches'" resistance to Hitler. I must confess how unusual and enjoyable it is to discuss Bonhoeffer with a prime minister; he has even written about the theologian in one of Australia's leading magazines -- an article that could easily have been in Sojourners. What most draws Rudd to Bonhoeffer, he writes in the article, was his insistence that the vocation of the church is to be "a voice for the voiceless" and "to speak truth to power." I've always thought there was no better description of the role of the church in the world.

I encouraged the young prime minister not to underestimate the influence of middle-sized countries, like Australia, in providing global leadership on some of the most important issues of our time. I heard Rudd's assessment of his first G8 meeting this spring, of the U.S. image in the world, of our presidential candidates whom he is eager to get to know better. Rudd is very committed to addressing global poverty and climate change, and to making Australia a leader on both.

We sat for several hours at a lovely outdoor restaurant up in Cairns, the tropical northeast corner of the country. Security was certainly much lighter than a similar meeting with a U.S. president is, and I enjoyed how ordinary people would come up with their children to meet the prime minister. Every time, the Australian head of state would extend his hand and a warm smile to say "Hi, I'm Kevin." Very nice indeed.

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