Earlier this year the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, gave a speech to an Australian Christian Lobby event. His speech was an encouragement to the public benefit churches provide and relevant to the challenges in Australia.
When I was a little boy I asked my Father which party he voted for. ‘I vote Liberal’, he told me, ‘because I own and run my own business.’ So he did. It was a two-man printing business in Bondi Junction. And he was President of his local branch of the Liberal Party at one time.
At the same time, his cousin Harry Jensen, belonged to the Labor Party and was a long term member of the Legislative Assembly, Lord Mayor and a Minister of the Crown. I never asked Harry why he was in the Labor party, but my guess is that it was his early days as a union member and official which was decisive. He was Roman Catholic; my father was Anglican.
Both men lost their fathers when they were very young and both belonged to large families which had to struggle, not least in the Depression. But I know how much they admired each other and I know how proud my father was that Harry was his cousin.
I may be romanticising, but perhaps you could say that Harry represented that central Labor instinct in which people bonded together in order to help each other. And you could say that my father was giving voice to that central Liberal instinct in which the sturdy individual took responsibility for himself and for others. Both were men of the community; both were men who served; both were men of integrity; both were churchmen.
And it was all a very long time ago, in a different world.
I do not say that these central moral tenets of either party are dead and buried. Not so. Sometimes they are twisted and corrupted and exploited. Sometimes it is possible to look back and find deep fault with the way they were acted on. But the principles of both parties can be found in some at least of those who serve and have a vision for the Australian community which is built on truth, justice and compassion.
But there is another impetus in public life which transcends party and calls itself progressive. This, too, at its best, is deeply moral, although whether it has the same commitment to community and the same values, is a different matter. The prevailing impetus of so-called progressive thought is individual autonomy, demanding equality as the touchstone of public policy and discrimination as the sin to be fought to the end. It is secularist in temper. It may be an entirely unintended consequence that when the progressive voice is given weight, denominational churches for whom the individualist philosophy is anathema, feel beleaguered and threatened, as though the intention is to purge the nation of many of the moral positions which have stemmed by tradition from the teaching of the Bible and the churches. It is as though such progressives are still fighting the French Revolution.
The evils to be addressed are prohibitions on sexual behaviour, euthanasia, abortion, pornography, Sunday trading and the like and the freedoms to be defended are those such as divorce, gambling and alcohol distribution. In the hands of the socialist progressives, the paradox is that voluntary societies are strangled with red tape. In the hands of the capitalist progressives, choice and freedom is paradoxically granted in ways which burden families and inhibit community.
The Marxist vision is the collective; the progressivist vision is of the autonomous self-directed individual; the Christian vision is of the individual in community. Human identity and purpose is found in relationships with others; pre-eminently in stable and loving family life. As a Christian, I have always instinctively been committed to the idea that our nation will best be served, not by government moving into the space left by the shrinking and disintegrating family, let alone by redefining the family, but by supporting families and providing whatever context they can best prosper. It is the mediating institutions such as the family, but also voluntary organisations, professional associations, clubs, schools, hospitals and the like which best safeguard our liberties and enrich our lives. True community is set of many interconnecting relationships of which one is government, not a simple entity ruled by an over-mighty state.
That, of course is not our current situation, although the decline in volunteerism, the assault on marriage and the revolution in communication technology may be opening us to that possibility. It is not our current situation very much because the denominational churches have been so active, and continue to be, in massive educational and charitable good works. The schools, universities, aged care facilities, hospitals, advocacy and other charitable works done by the churches are part of the very sinews of our society. Australia would be unimaginable and unmanageable without all that the denominations have done and are doing. Christianity is not a scratch on the surface soil of Australian history – it is ploughed into the very ground itself.
Please notice the following key points:
First, all this is inspired by Jesus Christ in foundation and in delivery. It is done in his name and in accord with his teaching, death and resurrection.
Second, the manner in which this work is done – and its cost - is not easily replicable by state organisations. These are works which stem from faith, hope and love and inspire faith, hope and love.
Third, all this yields much of the indispensable social capital which makes for community and creates the nation of which we are part.
Fourth, the suburban local churches themselves play a key role in providing this social capital. On the whole, Christians are outstandingly generous with time and money; they care for one another; they care for others outside their own ranks; they work together to do good works and to do them in a compassionate way.
Fifth, the teaching of the Bible as disseminated by the churches gives faith, hope and love and it goes towards sustaining the family life which every wise person knows is essential to the well being of humans, communities and nations. The Christian teaching on repentance and forgiveness, for example helps provide the healthy heart of family. The current spurious plea for so-called marriage equality is an assault on the family and needs to be resisted, as the Bible teaches us.
The State has always recognised and embraced the work of charities and religion. I believe that many members of parliament know that the local churches in their electorate are vital to social health and social capital. I believe that they also know that other agencies which deliver that capital – sporting clubs, interest groups, even branches of the political parties – are struggling to sustain community. I also believe that many of them value the faithful prayer support they receive from local churches and where appropriate the pastoral care shown to them by ministers and people. The job of a parliamentarian is lonely, difficult and demanding. Christians should believe in its importance, offer to do it themselves, honour those who fulfil the role, expect the highest standards from them and minister the gospel of God’s grace when they fail.
I define advocacy by using the Biblical phrase, ‘speaking the truth in love’.
I was taught by two cousins, Harry and Arthur Jensen, men who were on different sides of politics, that public service was an authentic act of love for neighbour, stemming from a desire to see community flourish. I do not think that the vision and impetus which inspired them has died, but I think it is threatened.
The noise created by those who so threaten is formidable. Many Christians feel intimidated by it, or simply feel that we have no right to take part in the debates which people label secular. It has been put to me that our current attempts to take part in debates about marriage for example are negative rather than positive and doing damage to the gospel for which we stand. It is suggested by some that it is only the gospel which we should be speaking about and that we have no place in speaking publicly or privately to the community as a whole and our elected representatives in particular. They also think that we are wrong to defend the traditional rights we have enjoyed, rights such as who we employ and what we say.
I understand this point of view. Certainly Christian advocates should delineate the connection between what we are saying and the Christian gospel. But I also believe that Biblical teaching makes sense of the reality of the world and will be found to work. Certainly, too, we should speak to the positive, although it is difficult to attack social evils such as gambling and abortion in the positive. I have never known the media to do it, for example. In the end, we have to see however that the Christian gospel is itself transformative because it is both positive and negative and that when we affirm it is only of value because we also deny. The Christian message is not for private and personal consumption only. It has radical social implications arising from its insistence on faith, hope and love and we fail our community and ourselves if we draw back into the ghetto of privatised religion. Silence is not love of neighbour.
Australia is a big country, the churches get on with their local business, people feel intimidated when they wish to advocate and impotent when they see cherished and fruitful Christian values under attack. The censorship exhibited by libertarians is frightful to behold. Yet, the Christian message matters. Let us defend it and promote it; let us defend our right to promote it, as for the good in public life.
I believe that the next decade will see the contest quicken. It will be between an enthusiastic secularism, activated by a wowseristic morality, narrowly based on individualism and over excited by a false idea of equality, and Christian community virtues and values. We will continue to see attacks on the teaching of the churches and some of the community rights which we enjoy now.
Silence, passivity and inactivity are not options.