He’s worked as a lawyer, a Baptist Church minister, a city council mayor, Chief Executive Officer of World Vision Australia – one of Australia’s largest charitable agencies, a spokesperson on a variety of social and justice issues, and continues to be one of the nation’s highest profile Christian voices, but Tim Costello admits it is not a career path he could have plotted or even imagined. In his recent memoir—A Lot With a Little—he reflects that “this is an ethical journey, not a career plan”.
He explains that when younger people ask him for career advice, he experiences a momentary panic. Except for his first job as an articled clerk in a suburban Melbourne law firm, he says he has never applied for a job. “There was certainly no linear plan,” he reflects. “The light I have got has only ever been enough for the next step—and then taking that next step. But the ethical pivot at each point has been, ‘Is this the right step?’”
Having grown up in a committed church family, Costello’s early focus was on becoming an evangelist. “Even as a 21-year-old university student, I had been doing open-air preaching,” he recalls, “and I saw the task very firmly as getting as many people to heaven, saving as many souls as possible.” But, as president of a Christian student club at Monash University, he hosted a visiting preacher from South Africa who caught young Tim’s attention by pointing out that “the people who devised apartheid and maintain apartheid [at that time] are church-attending, Bible-reading, prayerful Christians.”
“I can’t tell you how much that shocked me,” says Costello, “because I had always assumed that if we could get enough people saved, justice and other problems in the world will sort themselves out because Christians would do the right thing. This began me on a journey that eventually took me to theological college.” He arrived at the conclusion that structures, systems and cultures in our world also need to be redeemed.
“Caught in those structures, systems and cultures, even good Christian hearts—as in apartheid in South Africa— can do the wrong thing.”
With this now-matured understanding, Costello insists that faith-based voices can still be an important conscience in a largely secular society. He argues that many of the virtues that are still valued in our society are derived from Christian virtues, so “even when secular Australia is judging the church, the fascinating thing is that they are judging the church on Christian criteria—mercy, forgiveness, humility and justice”.
When asked specifically about social justice issues, Costello returns to the Bible and specifically to the story of Jesus, identifying the Bible’s twin terms of righteousness and justice as relating to both personal and social good, representing what the world would be like if God’s will was done—as Jesus prayed. “So justice has both left and right dimensions to it,” he explains. “On the left side, it’s care for the environment, for refugees, for equality and for the poor. On the right side, it is family, marriage and low enough taxes so there is an incentive to work hard. And I often say to Christians that I can’t see the point of voting for the same political party all your life. It’s a waste of democracy. I’m a swinging voter because sometimes we need to support the left side of justice, sometimes we need to support the right. Given our understanding of sin and our understanding that power corrupts, it is fantastic to be able to vote governments out, allow them time to reflect and then bring them back.”
But beyond serving as the last mayor of inner Melbourne local council St Kilda—it was later amalgamated by the state government— Costello has resisted invitations to run for political office. He explains that Christianity has been “small-p political” from its earliest assertion that “Jesus is Lord” as an alternative to the dominant culture’s assumption that Caesar was lord. “I think it is great that Christians might also choose to be ‘capital-p Political’ as members of the Liberal, Labor, Greens or whatever,” he says. “But faced with offers to go into parliament, I have turned them down. My calling is to be small-p political.”
Costello explains this—again, in biblical terms—as a prophetic role among the legitimate ministries of the church. He admits that this can be difficult to do, without sounding arrogant, self-righteous or lecturing. “We need to have proximity to power, but without being in the pocket of power, in order to speak truth in love to power,” he reflects.
He references the work of Micah Australia—a coalition of Christian justice and development agencies, of which Costello is executive director—describing their approach to politics as “relational advocacy”.
“The power of it is that we aren’t advocating for ourselves,” he explains. “We are advocating for the world’s poor. This surprises politicians: Most lobbyists want something for themselves, from us or from our budget—they say—but you want something for people who will never vote for us?
“I think that’s prophetic. Because we believe God is sovereign, we believe all power is delegated and we will hold you accountable for the use of that power. The mark of Christianity is that we exist for others, so we will ask ‘how is power being used for others?’”
In this sense, Costello believes public and political engagement should draw on the earliest centuries in the history of the church. “The story from the first 300 years, when Christianity was exploding in its growth, was that Christians didn’t have power,” says Costello. “They actually loved, served, opened the first hospitals, they preached the gospel and they healed. They had the sense that they could take risks now in serving—even in plagues, healing the sick—because they believed in the resurrection. That means they did not have to fit everything into this life and take no risks.”
Throughout our conversation, Costello continually brings his work, public engagement and political advocacy back to its grounding in the Christian faith. This belief also informs the nature and method of this work. “I think Christians are the purveyors of hope because of the resurrection [of Jesus],” he urges. “At the heart of our faith, we have this hope that death is defeated. The greatest fear we all have is that life is meaningless, and that death proves how meaningless life is. In the gospel, that great fear is addressed, and evil is addressed.”
“When it comes then to politics, it does not mean that politicians can institute the kingdom of God, but they can have policies that are closer to or further away from the kingdom of God.”
Speaking up on issues including global poverty, Australian aid, gambling reform and refugees is not necessarily a path to popularity—or even success. “I have been tempted at times to cynicism,” Costello muses. “For 25 years, banging my head against the brick wall of gambling—my kids saying to me, ‘Dad, is there any campaign you have ever won?’
“But I have always been very clear that I am not the messiah and that this is God’s world. Because I believe God is engaged with this world, it invites me to do my little bit. And I need to be faithful, whatever the results.”
Nathan Brown is a book editor at Signs Publishing Company. You can follow Tim Costello’s work with Micah Australia at micahaustralia.org. This article was adapted from an ADRA Australia masterclass between Nathan Brown and Tim Costello.