Australia has been known around the world for many years now as the rich, empty, selfish country that turns away boatloads of asylum seekers, pays people smugglers to take their human cargo elsewhere, incarcerates children and enacts other appalling human rights abuses.
How has it come to this?
Australia is now being reported widely as the country that produced the monster who perpetrated one of the world’s deadliest attacks targeting a religious group and an elected senator who bizarrely blamed the Islamic victims.
How has it come to this? Australia should be a nation that celebrates the virtues of acceptance and peace, welcomes refugees from war-torn countries and cares for the disadvantaged. Those are central values of all the major religious faiths.
Australia has never before had four consecutive prime ministers who have sincerely professed strong, personal, Christian commitment.
Kevin Rudd has declared his admiration for the teachings of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and U.S. radical Christian leader Jim Wallis. Rudd frequently writes and speaks about his faith.
Tony Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, has been arguably the most prominent Catholic in contemporary politics, earning the moniker "Captain Catholic" some years ago. At least eight of Abbott's first 19 cabinet ministers were Catholics — almost double the proportion in the general population.
Current PM Scott Morrison has proclaimed many times his personal charismatic Christian faith and membership of the Pentecostal Horizon Church.
Malcolm Turnbull has been less overt in expressing his religious beliefs, but still quite open about his adult conversion to Catholicism and his trust in God.
Both sides of federal politics have Jews active in their faith communities as well as Christians.
When Josh Frydenberg became Deputy Liberal Party Leader last August, the Jewish community congratulated him and welcomed the prospect,
‘in the fullness of time, of Australia’s first Jewish Prime Minister.’
During the Labor years, the Jewish community also honoured Member for Isaacs, Mark Dreyfus, when he became Australia’s second Jewish Attorney General.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten grew up in a devout Catholic family and has acknowledged the influence of the Jesuits. He converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism in 2009.
This suggests that if strong personal belief actually impels people to advance their values, then Australia should now be closer than ever before to "God’s will" being done on Earth.
Instead, Australia is now condemned worldwide for its bigotry and white supremacy. Senator Fraser Anning’s callous statement, last week, has been reported with dismay and disgust in Germany, France, Spain, China, Japan, Bulgaria, Iran, India, Croatia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Denmark, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Thailand, Singapore, South Africa, Finland, Turkey, Portugal and Czechia — not to mention New Zealand.
Most of the world’s major journals and networks reported Anning’s malevolent sentiments, including Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Times of London, the BBC, The Straits Times, Slate, The New York Times and – hilariously – John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.
So what are the questions for the faith communities arising from the reality that Australia is now perceived worldwide as intolerant, unwelcoming, xenophobic and racist?
There are at least five. First, have Australian Christians and Jews in public life so compartmentalised their faith that it doesn’t impact their professional lives? If so, this is not what Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison promised us. All four quoted the Bible and pledged commitment to Christian doctrines in their Parliamentary maiden speeches.
Secondly, has what was once a selfless God-focused faith gradually been subverted into a self-serving praxis? More bluntly, has Australian Christendom descended into Pharisaism — a destructive corruption of biblical faith?
Those familiar with the New Testament texts will know this was taught to the early Christians as an ever-present peril:
'"Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that [Jesus] was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
~ Matthew 16, 11-12
Pharisees were devout, scholastic, meticulous, politically-engaged and passionately evangelistic. They were also the sworn enemies of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, how would Australia be different if every church, every synagogue, every mosque, citadel and temple displayed signs with timely messages, as does the Gosford Anglican Church?
The fourth issue relates to the role of the leaders of Australia’s faith communities. Have they been sufficiently diligent in defending the tenets of their faith? Have they actively guided and disciplined those of their flock who have strayed?
Many church leaders were vocal and visible during the debate on same-sex marriage. Some were quite willing to use their office to try to influence the vote in the Parliament.
Certainly, on refugees, the major churches and Jewish councils have issued statements from time to time. Some responded rapidly to the Christchurch terrorist attack. But these seldom make the mainstream media or have much public impact.
Imagine if Australia’s Catholic bishops declared that they intended to defend those parts of the Catechism concerning racism and refugees:
The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to provide for the different needs of men; this will involve ... alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families.
So, to the final questions. What would happen if the rabbis, bishops, moderators, presidents and other faith leaders specifically called prominent members of their communities by name to obedience? What would happen if they excommunicated those who refused to live according to the central teachings? Would this advance the mission of the faiths? Most critically, would this contribute to a healthier community, one less likely to spawn racist mass murderers?
Those central teachings are actually pretty clear:
‘For the Lord your God is God of gods ... He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.’
~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19
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