The disconnect between political piety and bush fire reality

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Scott Morrison has faced a lot of criticism for his religious beliefs, but as Dr Ray Barraclough explains, not all religious Australians are as irrational.

RECENTLY, the spirited and heartfelt protest by Melinda Plesman revealed a serious disconnect in the Australian political and physical landscape.

As SBS News reported:

Melinda Plesman wanted Prime Minister Scott Morrison to see what she says is the result of his government’s inaction on climate change. So she carted the charred remains of her family home of 35 years from Nymboida, 45 kilometres south-west of Grafton, to Parliament House in Canberra. 


Ms Plesman’s home was one of over 600 properties burnt down in bushfires that raged across NSW and Queensland last month.

Written on a blackened sheet of corrugated iron was her message: ‘Morrison, your climate crisis destroyed my home’. She commented that the Prime Minister’s talk of prayers “was the last straw”.

The religious Right has been quick to interpret the meaning of the fires ravaging eastern Australia. Most notorious is Israel Folau’s claim that the fires were God’s punishment on Australians for voting for equality in marriage.

But there are Australian Christians who stand alongside Melinda in regarding the fires as not being due to supernatural intervention, but to natural and human-made causes. As regards the latter, such Christians share Melinda’s belief that the extensive and extending droughts, the drying up of top soil and its nutrients, the parching of trees and grassland and the increased temperature levels in both our winters and our summers are in significant measure related to and caused by human activity. It is the inexorable consequence of climate change.

When there is a serious disconnect between piety and reality, hypocrisy is close at hand. That factor possibly explains Melinda’s anguished rejection of the Prime Minister’s pious line. If prayer is the solution, why haven’t the prayers for rain over the past (and current) years of the drought been answered?

Turning to the Bible can heighten the dislocation. A passage that distinctly addresses this issue occurs in the letter of James. There readers are told that pious Elijah prayed that it would not rain for three-and-a-half years (5:17). So which pious Australians have been praying that there be no rain?

And if, to quote a current mantra of piety, namely “the power of prayer”, why have the prayers of the pious for rain not been answered in current drought-ravaged Australia? Why have the prayers been so powerless?

Given the Prime Minister’s readiness to claim to his fellow Australians that his God performed a personal “miracle” for him to be re-elected, he surely owes it to his fellow Australians to explain why his God has either caused the drought (through withholding rain) or has ignored for several years earnest prayers for drought-breaking rain.

There are varied streams of Christianity in Australia. Some are not only simplistic but callous.

Callous explanations for natural destructive events (such as floods and fires) as being inflicted by God continue to be propagated in some fundamentalist oriented churches.

In contrast, Progressive Christianity is open to new understandings of  and explanations for, events in nature and in our world. Such Christians are prepared to incorporate and face contemporary understanding of the causes of human responsibility for such phenomena as fires and drought.

When progressive Christians are challenged to pray, they hear that as a primary a call to humane action. In times like this, they hear the call not only to help neighbours in danger, but to recommit more fully to caring for the Earth and healing the damage wrought by human-induced climate change.

This is not some irrelevant academic matter. Human lives (and peoples’ very homes) are at risk. We are witnessing this in current-day Australia.

Nor is this understanding confined to Australia’s environment. This is a global issue.

People on the receiving end of these destructive forces are right to call out the pious (whether they be a Prime Minister or a prelate or a pastor) on the disconnect between a piety that takes no responsibility and the current reality which calls for our urgent and ongoing response.

Dr Ray Barraclough is a member of the Management Committee of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc.

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