The church is celebrating the arrival of spring with the Season of Creation during the month of September. Each Sunday a different theme will be explored, focusing the attention of people on the wonders of God’s creation and our responsibility to care for it. See more at https://oceangrove.unitingchurch.org.au/season-of-creation/.
Kurdish refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani says future generations will judge this ‘‘dark period in Australian history’’, after accepting his fourth major literary prize for his insider’s account of detention on Manus Island.
Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains, Writing from Manus Prison, was yesterday awarded the $25,000 National Biography Award, the nation’s richest prize for biographical writing, at the State Library of NSW.
Accepting the prize using WhatsApp, Boochani said the literary community was an important part of Australian civil society and ‘’resistance’’. ‘‘I think it is very valuable, and I do appreciate everyone for recognising my work,’’ he said. ‘‘I think history will judge this generation and will judge all of us in this hard and dark period of Australian history.’’
Boochani’s autobiography tells how the journalist-activist fled Iran in 2013 under fear of persecution and made the journey from Indonesia to Australia by boat, unaware of the Australian government’s decision to deny permanent settlement to any asylum seekers who arrived by boat. Six years later he is still refused entry.
The judges, Margy Burn, Dr Georgina Arnott and Professor Iain McCalman, praised Boochani’s book as an ‘‘astonishing act of witness and testament to the lifesaving power of writing as resistance’’.
Written in Farsi as a series of text messages sent to his translator and friend Omid Tofighian, the book was an ‘‘impassioned letter’’ to the authorities who would define Boochani as MEG45, his number in detention, the judges said.
‘‘Boochani describes life on Manus as only an insider can, recounting the shocking tiny details of cruelty, degradation, humiliation and constant surveillance. He finds beauty in strange flowers and the Manusian moon and draws solace from solitude when it can be found.’’
The writing was poetic and epic and steeped in the tradition of Persian culture and belief systems, the judges said. ‘‘The book is profoundly important, all the more so because of the means of its production, an astonishing act of witness, and testament to the lifesaving power of writing as resistance.’’
Feted by the literary world, No Friend But the Mountains has been honoured by the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and Australian Book Industry Awards.
It is hard not to agree with Boochani’s prediction that history, to our ever-lasting shame, will judge this generation of Australians harshly. Even now, with the exception of the morally bankrupt, Australians experience the shame of having lived and supported a nation that excluded non-white immigrants under the “White Australia” policy, that within most of our lifetimes, denied citizenship to the indigenous peoples of this land and removed children from their families, and that even now, with the permission and (dare I say) the encouragement of people like you and me, indefinitely imprisons men, women and children, and targets them for abuse in off-shore concentration camps.
In addtion to being an obvious sign of the lack of moral development among the Australian population and the government, the case of Boochani and many, many others represents the gross stupidity of the government’s policy, for it is denying Australia the wealth of talent possessed by those who want to live here, but are excluded.
Future generations of Australian will come to know how post-World War II Germans felt about their nation’s crimes.
Bob Thomas, Sept. 2019
In recent weeks, the common lectionary, which we use to set our Bible readings for worship, has drawn our attention to money. On August 4th, the gospel set for the day, Luke 12:13-21, told the story of the rich fool who spent his time and effort organising barns to store his wealth, only to die without having enjoyed it. The next Sunday, we followed on with Jesus’ teaching the people to sell what they have and give it to the poor in order to gain a greater treasure. This reading also gives us a way to evaluate the state of our faith: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.? (Lk.12:34) So the following recent newspaper article was timely:
Rich-poor gap a $247b drag on our wellbeing
Matt Wade, The Age, 22-7-19
The income gap between rich and poor is a bigger drag on the wellbeing of the Australian community than previously estimated, a broad measure of national welfare shows.
The Age-Lateral Economics Wellbeing Index has lifted its estimate of the wellbeing cost of income inequality in 2018 by nearly $8 billion…
Debates about how to respond to economic inequality have emerged in many Western democracies over the past decade amid growing voter concern about the distribution of wealth and income. ( Rich-poor gap a $247b drag on our wellbeing – The AGE, 7:22:2019- Click here to read)
It is heartening to know this is a concern to people generally, as it should be, but what is the Christian response? When the church speaks on such issues it often polarises people, including its own members. Those who lean to the political left decry the inequality in our society, whilst the right-wingers emphasise one’s right to hold on to that for which one has worked hard, and the value of entrepreneurship in the provision of jobs.
One can readily quote biblical guidance on this, for money is one of the common topics in Scripture. It seems that God’s main competition for loyalty in biblical times, as today, was Mammon; hence, much was written about it. St. Luke tells us, in Acts, that the early followers of Jesus shared everything in common and to each was given according to need (Acts 2:44-45).
It is easy to imagine how our present capitalist society would be anathema to Jesus and the people of ‘The Way.’ Nevertheless, we live in a very different culture. We are much better off than those living in the Roman empire of New Testament times in so many ways (and perhaps worse off in some), and much of the credit for the improvement in our lot must go to the capitalist economy. We cannot simply import first century wisdom to the 21st century without consideration of the cultural differences.
Nevertheless, one part of the biblical witness that continues to be relevant today and everyday is the command to love God and our neighbour. No matter what arguments are put up about the best ways to run our society, if they do not have love as an essential consideration, they are, in the words of St. Paul, nothing more than a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Indeed, they are worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless.
Of course, everyone is entitled to the fruits of their labours, provided they have not been gained by taking unfair advantage of another person or through cruelty to another creature or have resulted in the depletion of the resources of our environment. It is not ungodly to be rich, and no one should feel guilty about their wealth, unless their wealth came at the expense of others or the earth. If love has been sacrificed for the sake of financial gain, then wealth is indeed something of which to be ashamed.
Given that the readers of this are undoubtedly among the ‘rich’ of this world, and probably among the relatively well-off in our country as well, it will not require much reflection to realise it is highly unlikely that all our wealth has been gained without sacrificing at least some compassion. As a nation, we Australians use about four times our fair share of the earth’s resources, create more greenhouse gases per capita than even the Americans or Chinese, more often than not are guilty of cruelty to animals and depletion of soil and water resources in our patterns of consumption, and we have supported, directly or indirectly, systems that empower the wealthy and are prejudicial to the poor in order to maintain our status. No matter how individually righteous we have tried to be, it seems that we cannot avoid having benefited personally from the unethical, unloving behaviour built into our society.
In addition to the damage that has been done to the health of our society and the strength of the nation, consider the deleterious, putrefying effect it has had on the soul of the individual. In most cases, without knowing, our life styles and our involvement in perpetuating the system have been separating us from God, simply because of the absence of love for others in our eating, buying, driving, voting and in many of our other life choices.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. We live in a democratic society, the shape of which we choose (in theory). The most obvious choice is the way we vote, but our most effective choices are in the way we live, which in turn, affect the choices of those with whom we share this community and nation, and very importantly, affect the way business is done in a capitalist economy.
I could write a book on the beneficial changes people like you and I can make to help restore balance and equality in Australia, but fortunately, someone else has already done it. Damon Gameau’s 2040 (both a documentary film and a book) is intended as a handbook for Australians who want to create a brighter, better nation and world. As a practical path forward for all people, I highly recommend it.
Please note, I am not suggesting the sort of communism practiced by the members of the early church. There is no need to take from the rich and give to the poor, and indeed, this type of arrangement tends to lead to resentment from the ones who have to give something up, as well as feelings of resentment and inadequacy from those who find themselves objects of charity. The most important and necessary change required for a fairer and more compassionate society is to remove the imbalance of opportunity, so that everyone is able reach their potential if they choose to strive for it.
Of course, removing such imbalances is, itself, revolutionary, but following Jesus is to follow a revolutionary path. To have a fair and just society, the role of the luck of one’s birth must be minimised. There is nothing we can do about the genetic attributes with which we are born, but we can make sure there are no social or economic structures that create advantage or disadvantage. For example, in a fair and just society the disparity in the quality of education would be removed; i.e. there would be no elite private schools for the rich, and all government schools would receive adequate funding. University education would be free and available to all. All children would have access to early childhood education, not just those whose parents can afford it. Bad parenting would be moderated by communal child care. All children would have adequate housing and nourishment. Expensive, you say? Not at all, because money spent on such things is an investment that would be paid back through value-adding to people, the greatest resource we have.
I also can imagine that the cost of removing prejudicial structures from society would be largely self-funded, in that one obvious form of imbalance has to do with our flawed and ethically questionable * notion of inheritance as a right. If we really believe in equalising opportunity, then not only should a person not be disadvantaged by the luck of birth, but no one should be greatly advantaged either. Large inheritances, which would usually go to a child born into a wealthy family, can be used to provide funding for the upgrading of education, medical care, housing, etc for all, and thus avoid much of the increase in other taxes that typically are a drag on the economy.
The changes required won’t happen overnight, but they will never happen unless each of us starts now to live differently. Buy wisely and compassionately, live sustainably, and do not support any structure, directly or indirectly, whether it be social, educational, economic or political, that gives more opportunity to some than to others. Yes, it might mean you will have to disadvantage yourself or your loved ones along the way, but “do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
The fifth Common Dreams conference was held in Sydney on 11 – 14 July at Newington College Sydney at which Matthew Fox featured as the distinguished international keynote speaker. Ocean Grove members, Geoff and Carol Naylor, attended, and returned high on the excitement of this triennial gathering of advocates of a more progressive * Christianity in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.
After worship on the 28th, Geoff and Carol, spoke to the congregation of their experiences. Here is a summary of their presentation:
At the recent Common Dreams conference in Sydney, we were called to stewardship of the earth as well as other issues of social justice. The Common Dreams website
has extensive information about the conference program and speakers and also the music, art, drama and poetry.
The primary overseas keynote speaker, Matthew Fox focused on eco-theology. His thesis is that the earth is sacred and is as important a neighbour as our fellow humans. His challenge to us all is to love and care for ‘Mother Earth’ which is currently crying out for help. Matthew Fox explores this and other reflections in his blog: dailymeditationswithmatthewfox.org.
Interestingly, the challenges Fox presented have been independently echoed in the press in the last few days. For example, Gareth O’Reilly says in The Age on Monday, 29 July, that as individuals or organisations we should ask ourselves two key questions. ‘Do I operate within one-planet constraints’? And ‘Do my actions help move us out of ecological overshoot’? (On Monday it was World Overshoot Day when ‘we will have consumed more resources than our planet has the capacity to regenerate over an entire calendar year’).
For me, the creative activities that were interspersed and available throughout the conference acted as a bridge between the positive and the negative. A highlight was the performance poetry of two young poets, Joel McKerrow and Roje Ndayambaje. Joel, who has performed at the Sacred Edge Festivals at Queenscliff, covered topics spanning despair and depression, but also the hope and joy that his two young children bring to his life.
Roje, a young African refugee from the Rwandan wars spoke movingly in rap style about his nightly prayer as a child which was that when someone came to kill him in the night that it would be by gunshot and not by machete. He also writes of his hope to be a Dad one day, given that his Dad died (was killed?) when he was a child. His courage and optimism and strong faith were incredible – and we were told at some earlier point in the conference that in African languages there is no word for loneliness. I have been puzzling over that statement, and perhaps it means the possibility of Hope prevailing over Despair. Roje’s story and his optimism have become a personal touch stone for me.
I encourage anyone who is interested to read some more, and think of small and large ways that our Congregation can act for the universe. In all of this we were encouraged to adhere to beauty, awe, wonder, joy, delight, gratitude, reverence and to look, and laugh with astonishment – to share astonishment!
One of the speakers was the Fr. Rod Bower, an Anglican Priest in Gosford, NSW, who gained the attention of the wider public with his church signage. If you would like to see some of his work, visit the Facebook page of the Gosford Anglican Church Sign Appreciation Society.
* “Progressive” is perhaps not the best term to describe the movement. Perhaps ‘genetic’ is more accurate, for this movement is an attempt to return to the beginning; to the teachings of Jesus, freeing them of all the religiosity and superstition that has grown up around them over the centuries, and clouded their truths.
Neither is the progressive movement particularly new, for ‘progressive’ voices have never been completely silent throughout the history of Christianity, although the church has often done its best to ensure they were not widely heard.
Borrowing from the website of Progressive Christianity, we can affirm that…
- following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
- the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
- our community is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to: conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities and those of all classes and abilities;
- the way we behave toward one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
- grace is found in the search for understanding, and there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
- we strive for peace and justice among all people;
- we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;
- we commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
Since articles of faith are, by definition, unable to be proven, we cannot say anything is correct or incorrect; we can only judge them as helpful or unhelpful. If a belief leads to a more compassionate, loving, open, aware, just, fair and free individual and society, then we can support it, even if it is not a belief we share. If, however, a belief brings disharmony, hatred, prejudice, violence, repression, injustice and evil into the world and into individual lives, then it must be questioned and challenged, and it is our responsibility to do so. Over the centuries, the church has harboured both helpful and unhelpful beliefs.
After Sunday worship on the last day of National Refugee Week (June 23rd), the Justice and Mission group of the Ocean Grove congregation hosted a panel discussion on the experience of migration. The panel was moderated by Yvonne Hargrave, and included Shokoofeh Azar, Iranian journalist, artist, author and refugee; Nell Brethouwer, an immigrant from the Netherlands 64 years ago; Rev. Bob Thomas, an American who made Australia home in 1971, and a young Chinese person, whose identity will remain confidential, lest the person’s safety is compromised.
Very appropriately, the occasion coincided with a celebration of the birthday of the Uniting Church in Australia (the anniversary of Union, June 22, 1977), itself a celebration of bringing together different traditions, and from them, forming a united body, with the theme, unity in diversity.
As with the church, so too the nation; forged from the union of many cultures over many generations. Australia often has been the distant horizon for people of other nations, beyond which is imagined new opportunities, new challenges and, for refugees, the hope of a haven from oppression, poverty, abuse, disaster, hunger and war.
The panelists shared their experiences of moving from their homelands, the difficulty of leaving behind family, friends, jobs, customs and culture to move to what can seem like a strange land. Rev. Bob found the transition easier than the others because Australia is so similar to the United States where he grew up. The others all had to learn a new language, adjust to new customs, learn to eat different foods, etc., and there are aspects of culture that are still missed.
Except for Bob, the panelists did not make a totally free choice to come to Australia. For Ms. Azar, a journalist who had criticised the government, it was either leave Iran or face the direst of consequences. The other two panelists were driven by love, but none regrets living here now.
Bob raised the question of racism, recognising that his easy assimilation into Australian life might have been made more difficult had he been from Africa, the Middle East or Asia. The Chinese member of the panel reported such difficulties, but Ms. Azar has found ready acceptance by people; however, she thought this may have been because she lived and worked among writers, artists and other university educated people.
Mrs. Hargrave thanked the panel and all who came to listen, and then pointed out that Ms. Azar had written a historical novel set in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and copies were available to be purchased. Not just any book, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the Stella Prize last year and was a finalist in the Queensland Literary Awards. (In addition to availability from bookshops and online booksellers, an e-book version is readily available from Wild Dingo Press: www.wilddingopress.com.au)
Ms. Azar is only one out of many, many gifted, talented, hard-working, educated people who have come to Australia from overseas, and helped to build this nation. Unfortunately, there are many – far too many – people here who would deny to people in need the hope for a better life in Australia, especially to those who are not caucasian. It is not that such people are bad or uncaring, but they are fearful of what they might lose, and fear of the ‘other’ is the engine of racism. Such fears are exacerbated by the government and the media, and one very visible result is the indefinite incarceration of many refugees, including children, in concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island.
From a Christian perspective, any racism, and particularly Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is indefensible.* One of the major themes of Scripture is the hospitality of God’s people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/hospitality/). Of particular note, people often misunderstand the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to be God’s punishment of homosexuals; however, in fact, it was retribution for the radical inhospitality of the populace toward God’s messengers, compared to the hospitality offered by Lot and his family. When faced with Australia’s radical inhospitality toward asylum seekers, what defence can be offered in light of our offence against Scripture’s demand for hospitality?
One doesn’t have to be a Christian, or even a believer, to appreciate our guilt. From a common-sense justice perspective, how can anyone in Australia, except members of the indigenous population, dare deny entry to anyone else? Each one of us has either come to this country as an immigrant or is descended from someone who has immigrated. Furthermore, this land was stolen from the aboriginal population by the British, so how can any non-aboriginee, with any sense of morality, justice and fairness, try to exclude anyone else from coming here?
Those who approve of the government’s handling of ‘boat people’ cite the fact that this category of refugee is ‘illegal’, i.e. they are people who haven’t gone through proper channels, but it begs the question of who has authority to make the ‘proper channels’? The descendants of those who invaded the land in the first place?! Those who make the immigration laws are, for the most part, in this country only through the dumb luck of their birth. They did nothing to earn their Australian citizenship, so it is patently absurd for them to claim the authority to determine who will or will not be admitted to these shores.
Refugee opponents refer to the problems posed by unlimited immigration, such as stress on infrastructure or the cost of supporting new immigrants. Certainly, there are costs involved, and no one likes to pay higher taxes, but this is just a fact of life, and as we live in rich country, we can well afford it. However, the argument is ultimately irrelevant, because every economic analysis I have seen has demonstrated that, in the long run, immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take from it.
So-called ‘nationalists’ complain the Australian culture and way of life is threatened by immigration, but there has never been a static ‘Australian’ culture; rather, a continuously evolving one as new peoples have been added to the fold through immigration. The new arrivals bring their own customs, language, food, religion, music, etc. to be assimilated, continuously forming a new culture.
Of course, the government is fond of inciting fear of terrorists and unwanted criminals, but when one looks at the facts and figures *, one notices the migrant population (migrants plus their Australian born progeny) has a lower crime rate than that of the wider Australian population and, for all of the millions of recent immigrants and their progeny in this country, we haven’t found many to be terrorists. In fact, the worst acts of terrorism committed in this part of the world have been by white, anglo-Aussies, so it seems that one way to lower the overall crime rate quickly is to increase immigration.
* Aussie/New Zealand 63.29% of population, 73.43% of the criminal population
Other Ethnicities 36.71% of population 26.57% of the criminal population
I can imagine a table listing people in order of their ‘right’ to be here, and near the bottom of the list are those non-aboriginal people, making up two-thirds of the population, who have been born here. They have not chosen to be here. They didn’t make the courageous effort that immigrants have to make to give up their families, cultures and countries of origin, and actually choose to go to Australia.
I would put this group, which includes my children and grandchildren, next to last, because the only ones less deserving of a place in Australia are those that never wanted to come in the first place; English and Irish people who stole a loaf of bread or insulted a magistrate’s wife, and for their trouble, were sentenced to transportation to the antipodes. But as there haven’t been any of this category for a long, long time, the bottom belongs to those who have been born here.
Just above native-born Aussies are the so-called 10-pound Poms and other assisted migrants; the people who were invited by the government with offers of paid passage plus accomodation when they arrived. These people chose to accept a generous offer, and good on them, but it was not a great hardship to do so.
Then, at the next level, come people like this writer, who took a gamble, paid their way, and found the rewards they sought in the new land. In this group are the thousands and thousands of Greeks, Italians, and other European and American migrants who imagined a better life over the horizon, and made the effort to seek their fortune overseas.
We are getting close to the top of the list now, adding the people who spent all or most of their wealth, leaving everything behind, to dare the unknowns of a new culture, new language, etc, and risk their lives to get to Australia by any means possible; people seeking refuge from poverty, disease, war, oppression, abuse, famine, climate catastrophes, ethnic cleansing, et al. There are untold millions of such people in the world, but only the ones who have the requisite resources, courage and determination actually set off for Australia. Are not these the sort of qualities Australia wants and needs among it population? Surely, these are the ones who most deserve a place here. They’ve struggled for it; earned it.
On top of the list, of course, are the indigenous peoples of Australia, making up the oldest continuous culture in the world. They are the ones for whom the land has been part of their souls for 60,000 years. The rest of us are interlopers, and the vast majority of us are well down the list.
Of course, the above talk of ‘deserving’ a place in Australia is done with my ‘tongue’ firmly in my ‘cheek’, though not without moral foundation. The notion of ‘deserving’ is based on a flawed preconception. Human beings are all part of the same family, all of whom share the basic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, irrespective of where one happens to be born. The earth is our home, and each one of us should have the right to choose where we live on this planet, as long as we respect the basic rights of everyone else. National boundaries are the constructs of those who would deny this right for their own self-focussed purposes, and the existence of such artificial barriers is merely an example of the primitive state of human evolution. Surely, we can be better than this.
Bob Thomas, June 2019
- * There will be those who will argue that the internment of refugees is not racist, but a matter of ‘border protection’ or ‘national security’ or to ‘stop people smugglers’. Really? Can you imagine ‘boat people’ being sent to offshore concentration camps indefinitely had they been, say, white American refugees from Trumpland or Anglo-British people fleeing ‘Brexit’?
A recent issue of The Age (June 12), included an article entitled “Church rejects idea of gender fluidity”
Let me declare at the outset, I have nothing against Roman Catholicism; however, I have a big problem with some in the Church (of any denomination) who sully Jesus’ (and the Church’s) image with gross religiosity. (See “Religion/Theology” in the “Words of the Word” section of this website).
When the church makes proclamations that fly in the face of the good news of Jesus’ message, it goes a long way to explaining why the church is dying in western civilisation. How dare a group of privileged men, a world away from normal real life relationships, often out of touch with their own sexuality, criticise those who have to deal with gender identification issues that the church elite cannot even imagine!
Consider how Jesus, who had compassion for everyone, especially for those who were outside ‘respectable’ society, would treat people finding it difficult to fit into their own bodies or into socially prescribed gender images. It certainly would not begin with condemnation, telling them they were making a choice to “annihilate nature.”
There is nothing in the gospel to suggest Jesus had any problem with those who were not included among the average person’s perception of the sexual norm, so why has the Catholic Church made it a concern? It scares them, just as it frightens so many people who have a hard time with things they don’t understand. And to the extent that their fear leads to actions that hurt innocent people, it brands them as seriously short on faith, hardly the kind of leadership the church needs.
That said, this is probably another example of a group making a decision that many, indeed probably most, of the members of the group would not make if they were engaged in a one-to-one pastoral relationship with a person to whom this statement of the Vatican applies.
Bob Thomas, June 2019
One of the characteristics of the tryannical dictatorship that provided the setting for George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was the official transformation of language so that, through “Newspeak,” common words came to mean the opposite of their traditional meaning (Oldspeak). This abuse of language by the government served to mask the truth and mislead the public.
Orwell demonstrates how language can be used politically to deceive and manipulate people, leading to a society in which the people unquestioningly obey their government and mindlessly accept all propaganda as reality. Used in this way, language becomes a mind-control tool, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of will and imagination. As John Wain says in his essay, “Orwell’s vision of 1984 does not include extinction weapons . . . He is not interested in extinction weapons because, fundamentally, they do not frighten him as much as spiritual ones.”
We have seen ‘Newspeak’ at work in recent years in Australia. You will note the government never speaks of “refugees” in the context of their incarceration on Manus Island and Nauru. They are always “asylum seekers” (as though asylum seekers and refugees are not the same) or “boat people,” a term that has been intentionally and repeatedly associated with the terms “queue jumper”, “illegal”, “terrorist” and even “baby killer” (Remember the Tampa?). Why? Because the good people of Australia would not accept such harsh treatment of “refugees.” Furthermore, such draconian treatment of innocent people, including children, was declared necessary to “protect” them from the predations of “people smugglers.” Lest anyone get the idea that such extreme measures were inhumane, Australian’s were told this was all a necessary part of “border protection,” but without any indication of a threat to our borders from which they need protection. And it worked!
Having discovered the effectiveness of ‘newspeak’ with regard to refugees, the government has begun to redefine “religious freedom,” a ‘motherhood’ term, enshrined in the Australian constitution. In ‘Oldspeak’, religious freedom is designed to protect religious belief from the government, i.e. the government cannot pass any legislation that prevents you or me from following any recognised religious belief. In ‘newspeak’? This letter to the editor in the June 1st edition of The Age describes it well:
Religious freedom in Australia is more about making it easier for people to be as bigoted and hateful as they want. It makes a mockery of what religious freedom means for people who are genuinely persecuted for their faith and are imprisoned, or worse. (Sophie Treloar )
It’s a “new dawn” for religious freedom, proclaimed Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells this week. She wants the Morrison government to enshrine freedom of religion as a positive right rather than leave it sheltering under the legislative umbrella of freedom from discrimination.
Barnaby Joyce wants laws exempting religious beliefs from employment contracts to stop future Israel Folaus being martyred for condemning gay people and fornicators like himself to hell.
We are to infer from the government’s ‘newspeak’ definition of religious freedom that, not only are we free to believe anything we want, but we are free to insist that others believe it, too, even to the extent of taking away their legal protection against discrimination and/or defamation. In the ‘newspeak’ of the government, religious freedom becomes the term for religious domination; in particular, domination and oppression by the extreme Christian right. If you want to see how this evolves in practice, have a look at the oppression by the Islamic fundamentalists of the Islamic State in Syria or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Any notion of religious freedom that results in any kind of bigotry or discrimination is anathema to the way of Jesus. Let’s be clear about out this: there is nothing in the gospel that allows for judgmental attitudes, acts of unkindness or inhospitality. We are taught unconditionally to love our neighbours as we love God and ourselves. “Who is my neighbour?” the lawyer asked Jesus, trying to avoid loving those he didn’t like or approve of (Lk.10:29). Jesus’ response was uncomplicated and unambiguous: everyone is your neighbour. Everyone is a child of God and, therefore, is to be loved as brother or sister. Israel Folau take note: while walking with Jesus, there is no excuse for anything but love for everyone. If only everything could be so simple!
Bob Thomas, June 2019
Having encouraged people to make sure God got a vote in the election, I then looked at the results and realised that God didn’t get many votes. How do I know this? When people vote according to self-interest and/or avoid voting for candidates who, though highly capable and driven by the right ideals, do not belong to a party, God doesn’t stand a chance. So I have been reflecting on what could be changed in order for there to be the kind of democracy in which ‘God’ actually can be elected.
It is essential to realise that God works through individual people. This is possible because people have ‘souls’ connected to God. However, it is impossible for God to communicate through institutions such as political parties, for institutions (even churches) have no soul, no conscience, no compassion, no connection with the divine. When MPs can only function through a party, and not independently through their own connections with God and the people of their electorates, the results are typically unholy.
Currently, we have the combination of a system of government in which ruling parties seem unable to sacrifice themselves for the good of the people, and a relatively unsophisticated electorate that does not understand how to make the system work for it.
For a start, too many people, like first century Jews, live in hope of a Messiah who will save and deliver prosperity to them, and so they make their voting choices according to their assessment of the major party leaders. The media follow the lead of their readers and give the leaders plenty of press, and in turn, the leaders soak it up, declaring “I will do” this or that or bragging about what “I” have done. It seems as though all Australia, including just about every politician, fails to understand that there is no elected executive branch of government included in the Constitution. The Prime Minister, merely the manager of his party, has no more or less constitutional authority than any other MP and, as we have seen proven on several occasions in recent years, can be easily replaced with no reference to the electorate and little or no effect on the governance of the nation.
A far worse impediment to democracy, much less theocracy, has been the development of political parties. Having grown up in the U.S., I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Australian Constitution, but those who wrote the American Constitution did not imagine the evolution of political parties into an essentially two-party system. George Washington even warned his fellow Americans to beware of political parties as anathema to democracy.
The most obvious problem of two-party systems, as they have evolved in the U.S. and Australia, is the creation of a confrontational environment of ‘us vs. them’. This usually results in legislation that, far from being designed to benefit all, has ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Instead of democracy (a government of and for the people, i.e. all of them), we get an oligarchy, which is a government of and for the ‘privileged’. Even given that the groups who are so privileged change from time to time at elections, there is no way God ever gets a ‘guernsey’ because the two-sides are so busy taking advantage of each other for self-interest’s sake. Where legislation is decided by simple majorities, the result is a system of tyranny; tyranny against up to 49.99% of the people by as few as 50.01%.
When this inherent deficiency is exacerbated though lobbying by the wealthy and influential, and made worse by the fact that money can be used to win elections simply through the significant cost of media advertising, it is foolish to believe that the vast majority of people (and through them, God) can have a voice.
There are some easy fixes, but ones that governments will never advocate because, at the very core of their existence, political parties have only one guiding principle: get re-elected. Given this one principle, God can never have any influence, simply because your principles and mine have no power over that one demand placed on politicians: stay in power.
The Uniting Church has provided a model for governance that has been in use for the last 25 years or so: decisions made in the councils of the church require consensus. Imagine if consensus was required for legislation in Parliament. “It couldn’t possibly work!” you may declare, but people said the same thing when the Uniting Church was debating the implementation of consensus voting back in the 1990s, and it has been proven a success.
Why does it work in the church? Well, at the heart of all decision-making is the question, “What is God’s will?”, and the role of every single one of the representatives on the councils of the church is to seek God’s will. At least in theory, no one is on any council of the church for the benefit of him/herself or for the benefit of a party or faction; only to discern the working of the Holy Spirit.
This may prove to you, therefore, that consensus cannot possibly work in Parliament, because all people are not there for the same reason, i.e. there is no common guiding principle; they are not there to seek the will of God. Granted, few politicians would be accused of being agents of God; however, they are all there for the same constitutional reason: TO REPRESENT THE PEOPLE IN THEIR ELECTORATE. They are not put there to garner power and glory or tenure for themselves or to favour some people over others or to put the party’s interests over the interests of their electorate. Their responsibility is simply to do their best for all the people in their electorate, not only those who voted for them, and this includes making decisions that might not be popular and/or may contravene party policy, but are in the best interests of the people.
If we take this one step further and imagine that, in general, people want to do what is morally right and loving, and will choose for the well-being of others less fortunate than themselves (I think this has been shown to be the case over and over, whether though bushfire, flood and drought or just normal life), then all MPs and Senators, regardless of party affiliation should be expected to have the same goal. Whether or not you label it as such, it is pretty darn close to what we would include in the will of God: to create a better life for all, to build the community of a nation.
Maybe consensus is too much to ask at first, but even if legislation had to have a two-thirds majority to pass, our representatives would have to talk with other members rather than shout at them across the floor, because no one party could have its own way unless it had an unprecedented majority in both houses . MPs would have to compromise and reason and listen to each other, and even speak politely to one another, in order to get legislation passed. The result would inevitably reflect a better path forward for the nation as a whole, in which more of its citizens would benefit. I dare say it would also result in Australia becoming a better citizen of the world, which it has not always been of late, particularly with regard to climate change or providing a home for refugees.
The raising of the simple majority requirement is workable, but I think there is an even better way, proposed by a number of people, including Alexander Guerrero, an assistant professor of philosophy, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania: get rid of elections.
“Whoa!” you say. How can we have a democracy without elections? Well, face reality; we don’t have democracy with elections We have a system highly-biased toward those who have money and influence; i.e., an oligarchy, which easily manipulates an unsophisticated electorate by fear or through their ‘hip pocket nerves’. In other words, elections do not protect democracy; they merely provide the means to manipulate the system.
There is another way that guarantees representative democracy, without making it subject to corruption by the wealthy and powerful. We have used it for years for selecting juries: by lottery. It’s got a lot going for it and there are few, if any, disadvantages. The biggest advantage is the avoidance of elections, with their huge cost in terms of money and time, and the immense distraction they pose to the work of governing. We know well the problems that come from lack of long term planning by governments, for they seem unable to see beyond the horizon of the next election. Policies are driven less by what is best for the country than what is currently popular among the electorate. Every three years (or fewer), real work is put on hold for months at a time while the parties gear up for the next election. And the make-up of parliament does not even come close to mirroring the people they are supposed to represent.
“Yes, but!” you will argue, “people chosen by lottery may not be qualified or knowledgable enough.” They are qualified enough to sit on juries and decide the fate of their fellow citizens who break the law, so why are they not qualified to preside over the making of law? And are our present MPs any more qualified to lead; any more knowledgeable? I doubt it. When a Prime Minister of Australia admits he does not believe in climate change, it is an expression of profound ignorance and lack of qualification to lead. And then there’s Pauline Hanson; need I say more? A parliament selected by lottery will be much more representative of the people of Australia in all sorts of ways, bearing the national average in experience, qualities for leadership, wisdom, knowledge, all the diverse gifts of people, and made up of all the various ethnic groups and cultures. It will have a gender balance, too, that has been sadly lacking in Australian politics since the beginning.
Yes, there will be some who are more capable than others and a few who are much more capable, but this the case now. Those who have been selected to serve will recognise those within their ranks who have the abilities and skills to fill the roles of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, etc, just as now, except that it wouldn’t be done on a party basis. All members will be advised by the very same public servants who advise the current politicians, so the knowledge made available to them to make decisions also will be same. The advantage will be decisions made on the basis of this knowledge alone, without interference from poll results, concern for winning the next election, upsetting party donors, making enemies of members of this or that party faction, or pressure from lobbyists. And most importantly, there will be no party loyalty to get in the way of members’ responsibility to the people whom they represent. Finally, this form of government will be much harder to corrupt. Currently, one only has to influence the ruling party with a big donation to fund election advertising; whereas, in a lottery-chosen parliament, this avenue to buy influence is no longer open (no elections, no need to advertise), and one would have to corrupt members one by one. Such an attempt is highly unlikely to occur unnoticed, and penalties would be severe.
In the worse case scenario, in which the luck of the lottery happens to deliver a sub-standard government, there is the good news that, at the end of the term, all legislators will be replaced, never to return. However, I think it unlikely that the worst lottery-chosen government would be as inept and immoral as those with which we have been cursed in recent years.
The above alternatives to the present system are not likely to be adopted anytime soon, but they are not beyond the potential of citizens to demand. Good government may be a dream, but a dream is the first step to real change, just waiting for passionate people to make it happen. God may yet get a vote.
Bob Thomas, May 2019
Is preaching the gospel compatible with a discussion of politics? There are some who think not; indeed, who even get rather worked up about it, especially politicians. However, even a cursory reading of scripture will lead one to understand that one cannot communicate God’s Word without getting tied up in politics. More than one of God’s prophets, before, after and including Jesus, was killed or imprisoned for ‘stepping on the toes’ of those in power.
Bearers of the Faith, would be less than disciples if they were to ignore the actions of those in power when such actions go against the grain of God’s will, e.g. when the poor suffer at the hands of the rich and powerful, when God’s creation and the well-being of future generations is plundered, when people are denied basic human rights, when the commandment to love is ignored in favour of war, revenge and punishment, when a culture of fear is fostered rather than a culture of faith. All of the above are happening now.
Common sense will tell you, if the gospel has nothing to say about politics (i.e. the means by which human beings order their societies), it really has little relevance to our lives at all, and we may as well burn our Bibles and close the church.
To believe in one God, and one God only, means patriotism and political partisanship must always take a back seat to discipleship. As a people guided by God, there is no way that our political views ever can be free of the way of Jesus, nor should they be. When God’s will and the will of our leaders conflict, there is no doubt where our allegiance must lie.
From time to time over the course of my career, I have preached sermons which were considered too political by some members of my congregations, but is it not the duty of every Christian to call our leaders to account for their actions when we think that they are acting contrary to gospel values? Are we not called to name evil when it appears and to name its perpetrators?
This is not a question of Labour vs. the Coalition or liberal vs. conservative. The question is: Is our leadership, whichever party is in power, acting morally? It is a question that should be asked everyday, and if the answer is ‘no’, then change is in order, and action is called for.
Given that our responsibility in this matter is so blatantly obvious, it must be asked: Why would any Christian complain about bringing religion into politics? I came up with three possibilities, but there may be others:
- The gospel conflicts with what we want, so to side with the gospel against the government would be to threaten the advantages we are getting from current political policies, be it security, money or support for our prejudices, or…
- We have a misguided sense of loyalty, mistakenly believing that it would be unpatriotic to criticise the government, even if we don’t agree with their policies, or….
- We are among those who are responsible for having cast our vote for the party in power, so it is better to not know about its immorality than to acknowledge we made a mistake.
If a person were to fall in the last category, it would seem that this person would have not only a greater sense of responsibility, but also more motivation to question the existing order. After all, these are the people who should feel betrayed by the ones to whom they entrusted their power. This is why we have elections every few years: so that we have a chance to fix our mistakes.
In my years of ministry it has frequently been necessary to speak out against specific policies that were clearly contrary to Christian values. If I should ever stop doing so, I will have abrogated my responsibility as one who has vowed to spread the gospel.
As issues arise, you will hear politics from the pulpit; there is no other viable moral or theological alternative for a preacher. It is a question of being faithful to the one God and to the way of Jesus, our teacher.
One church leader said before the American elections: “What would it mean to have a public voice in our community this year around issues that we care about?” she asked. “If God is still speaking, then God doesn’t shut up in the face of potentially controversial issues.”
Let’s ensure God always has a vote.