Monday, July 17, 2006

Praying with the Hoff

24 November 2005

by Jarrod McKenna

Australian youth grow up on a steady diet of Americana. The indoctrination in American culture via the media is so strong that even when mocking it we perpetuate it. For example, at the 2005 ARIAs (the Aussie equivalent to the Grammys), the two biggest awards of the night were presented by David Hasselhoff, who was described as a ‘cultural icon’.

I laughed out loud when I heard that. Over the past few years praying with icons has become an increasingly frequent spiritual discipline for me, so the use of the term to describe Hasselhoff seemed even more ridiculous. The “Hoff”, through no fault of his own, has become for us an icon of the ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,’ distracting us from the pain our world is feeling. We fear being overpowered by pain, so we structure society to escape the pain that would transform us if only we would enter into it.

In Australia, on the periphery of the mainstream media radar, is another American I would like to offer as an alternative ‘icon’ for a more fruitful contemplation. This lesser known figure will never be able to generate the kind of frenzied fluff of infotainment which increasingly replaces the art of journalism in this country. His name is Scott Parkin. While respected for his work in the US, he never attracted the national attention he recently received in Australia. What happened to Scott Parkin is of concern to everyone. It offers us a window to see the disturbing trends present in so many Western democracies today.

Scott’s trip to Australia included what most backpacking tourists experience ‘down under’: enjoying the beaches, seeing the sights and learning to surf. However, on 12 September Scott experienced something you will not find in any tourist brochure. In his own words:

"Walking out of a café in Melbourne, I was snatched off the street by four Australian Federal Police and two Immigration Compliant Officers. They informed me I was being placed into 'questioning detention' so that the Department of Immigration could assess if they were going to cancel my tourist visa or not. In truth, 'a competent Australian authority' had already assessed me to be a 'direct or indirect risk to Australian national security,' cancelled my visa and had begun the process of removing me from the country."

Scott isn’t your average tourist. Like the late civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks, Scott was inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, and dedicated his life to teaching nonviolent social change in their tradition. What is the national security risk in that? As Scott shared in his defence to interrogating officials “I’m a nonviolent person, a peace activist. I organise peace events. I do talks.”

These talks had him incarcerated in a high-security prison before his forced deportation. He was not charged with a crime nor was he given any further grounds for his arrest – just a bill for $11,000.

The Scott Parkin situation is a window to the condition of many Western democracies that were part of the 'coalition of the willing' in the war on terror. Increasingly in Australia, the US and the UK, we are seeing legislation that erodes and undermines human rights, riding in on a wave of fear called ‘anti-terrorism’.

The proposed Anti-Terror legislation in Australia, the Patriot Act (I & II) in the US and the Anti-Terrorism laws in the UK all share similar characteristics. None of them address the causes of terrorism. Rather, they serve to silence through intimidation views opposed to those in Government. This dynamic of citizens in democratic countries surrendering their rights due to the fear of terrorism is not new.

As John Croft recently pointed out, these anti-terror laws also share remarkable similarities with something called the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was passed over 70 years ago in response to what was thought to be a terrorist attack on the Reichstag or Parliament. People were fearful of the threat of terrorism, and there was little opposition to the passing of this Act, which altered Germany’s Constitution. After the act was passed, German citizens had little power to oppose the will of the new Chancellor, Adolph Hitler.

Hitler’s right hand man, Hermann Goering, in his war crimes trail explained how easy it was for the Nazi’s to hijack Germany’s democratic government with these words:

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

In responding to the alarming restrictions on our civil liberties, I return to the idea of praying with icons. Fixing our eyes on icons allows them to speak to us, often speaking what we do not wish to hear. I as much as anyone would like to opt out of the darkness of our current situation and instead enjoy mocking some poor guy who made a career of talking to a car named ‘Kit’ and running down Californian beaches in slow motion with unnaturally proportioned part-plastic women.

I hope, however, we will find the courage to “sustain the gaze,” as Joanna Macy puts it, on our own pain and see the current reality as manifest in the icon of Scott Parkin’s experience.

Jarrod McKenna is a nonviolence trainer, educator and activist in Perth, Western Australia, and director of EPYC, a Scripture Union school outreach program.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

The sin of the Archbishop

21 November 2005

by Rod Benson

I hold Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in high esteem as a churchman, intellectual, and compassionate person. I especially admire his commitment to think Christianly, sometimes “outside the box,” and to push the boundaries of received orthodoxy where they encroach on truth and freedom.

But he surely goes too far in condemning the introduction of English hymns and carols to far-flung parts of the world as “sinful.”

Speaking to senior Anglican Church leaders from the “Global South” in Cairo on 5 November, Dr Williams argued that Christian missionaries who taught their converts to sing hymns such as “Jerusalem” and “Hark! The herald angels sing” were guilty of making “cultural captives.” Instead, they should have encouraged local Christians to produce hymns and prayers in their own languages. He especially criticised the ethnocentrism and colonialism of the popular hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1861 and distributed wherever English-speaking missionaries worked.

The sung liturgy of the church certainly shapes Christian theology, as John and Charles Wesley famously recognised. But it also has the potential to shape indigenous culture, and transform – or stifle – indigenous expressions of Christian doctrine and experience. Further, the cultural power of hymns from the centre of empire may be appropriated to strengthen the grip of colonists on local cultures and to serve the interests of those who hold political power. When the state enlists the church in its service, the church ultimately suffers some loss.

On a personal level, many of us have experienced the strangeness of liturgy that, once embedded in the rhythms of weekly praxis, is both difficult to engage with and difficult to replace. Even Dr Williams’ namesake, Rowan Atkinson, in one of his best-known comedy sketches, has trouble joining his fellow worshippers in singing “All creatures of our God and King”!

But to classify the introduction of English hymns to non-English cultures as “sinful” smacks of abuse of power and sounds very much like a nod of the mitred head to political correctness. Nineteenth-century missionaries possessed rich and diverse resources for worship and discipleship in the hymns and prayers they carried with them to the world. To expect them to leave all that behind and begin afresh with native languages and authors would have been intolerable or impossible for some. To expect them to fully immerse in local culture and language, without recourse to their classic hymns, is to fail to appreciate their humanity.

As a child I lived in Papua New Guinea. My parents were not missionaries, but we associated with a fundamentalist Swiss-based Protestant mission invited in the 1950s by the Australian colonial administrator to help develop the rugged Western highlands. By the 1970s the church I attended in Lae held services in English and Neo-Melanesian Pidgin.

One highlight for me was the regular choir items in indigenous languages (PNG has over 700), sung to tunes utterly unlike the Western music to which we sang our English and Pidgin hymns. Similarly, especially in the villages, preaching was translated into local languages – sometimes from English into Pidgin, and then into a local plestok, which made for very long sermons.

I suspect the choice of Pidgin and English for preaching and singing in PNG was pragmatic, not intended to supplant or stifle indigenous culture and language. People used what was available and accessible, often in the context of very limited resources. Similar choices have been made for the same reason by missionaries everywhere, and probably for as long as the church has sent them out. For most, it was neither a sin of commission nor omission, but a practical necessity.

Now to a related issue that I don’t expect Dr Williams to pronounce as “sinful” any time soon. A mix of creative genius, technical excellence, new technology and marketing expertise is now transforming the hymnody of the entire English-speaking world. Witness the rise and rise of Christian production houses like the Australian-based Hillsong music machine, with its astonishing production values and huge national and international sales. Witness the willingness of thousands of religiously-minded consumers to purchase state-of-the-art DVD players and plasma televisions, and then purchase state-of-the-art worship CDs and music DVDs in the fervent hope that this will deliver a quality “worship experience.” Here, arguably, is cultural imperialism in a new guise, with economies of scale and marketing potential to die for.

What to do in this environment? Encourage diversity and innovation, not least in what makes it into formal church services. Explore “alternative” devotional practices. Rediscover the biblical Psalms in all their breadth and depth. Nurture local music and vocal talent. Write your own worship lyrics, or help good local theologians and Bible scholars to write lyrics. And for the radical believers among us: choose not to purchase or consume the mass-market, dumbed-down product. Jesus and the early church got on quite well without it.

It is not for me, as an Australian Baptist, to offer advice to the Archbishop of Canterbury. But perhaps, rather than pronouncing the export of English hymns to mission fields as “sinful,” something could be said – and done – about the increasingly privatised faith and commercialised liturgy of the church today.

The sin of the Archbishop lies in reinforcing political correctness among senior Anglican clergy at the expense of addressing political reality in the global religious marketplace. And if teaching English hymns to colonial converts was “sinful” on the grounds of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism, what is being said about the global cultural industries and their export of Western television, film, music, books, clothing, hairstyles, cars – not to mention Western medicine, law, politics and education?

Thank God, then, for traditional English hymns identifying us with the God of Abraham, and reminding us that our sins may be forgiven, and enfolding us in a new community of faith, and pointing us toward a future shared equally by people of every nation, tribe, ethnicity and language.

Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, Australia.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

Who would Jesus torture?

16 November 2005

by David Batstone

Christians of strong religious faith and sound moral conscience often end up in disagreement. Human affairs are a messy business, unfortunately, and even at the best of times we only see through a glass, darkly.

It is hard for that reason to call Christians to a universal standard of behaviour. At this moment, however, we cannot afford to dilute the message of Jesus into meaningless ambiguity. There are certain acts that a follower of Jesus simply cannot accept. Here is one: A Christian cannot justify the torture of a human being.

The practice of torture by American soldiers is a hot topic at the Pentagon, in the Congress, and in the White House at the moment. The U.S. Senate already has passed 90-9 a bill that prohibits “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. custody. The lead advocate of the bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was tortured by his captors during the Vietnam War. According to The New York Times, the Pentagon adopted a policy last Thursday to rein in interrogation techniques. The new policy uses much of the same language as the McCain amendment – drawn in large part from the Geneva Convention – to adopt standards for handling terror suspects.

Remarkably, the White House opposes the Pentagon initiative, and threatens to veto any legislation to which the McCain bill gets attached. Vice President Dick Cheney has urged Republican senators to allow CIA counter-terrorism operations internationally to be exempt from the ban on mistreatment of prisoners, major newspapers reported.

On 3 November, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, said during an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that memos from Cheney’s office practically encouraged abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Though in “carefully couched terms” that would allow for deniability, the message from Cheney’s office conveyed the sentiment that interrogations of Iraqi prisoners were not providing the needed intelligence. Wilkerson said soldiers in the field would have concluded that to garner better intelligence they could resort to interrogation techniques that “were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.”

Republican senators are among the strongest voices in the growing chorus of criticism. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said, “I think the administration is making a terrible mistake in opposing John McCain’s amendment on detainees and torture.” And Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and co-sponsor of McCain’s measure, agreed: “I firmly believe that it’s in the best interest of the Department of Defense, the men and women of the United States military that this manual be their guide.”

When the existence of secret CIA detention centers became public this week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called for investigations – not about whether they violate laws governing human rights – but about how the information was leaked. But members of their own party are keeping the focus where it belongs. The Washington Post quoted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) as saying, “Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails.”

Admittedly, Christians of good faith part paths when political conflict leads us to consider what constitutes a just and righteous war – or if any war can be just. Though we may not consent on the means, we do consent on the need to confront the spread of evil in the world. Yet we can all affirm scripture when it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17, 21). When we confront evil with its own means, those means mark our own character.

In that regard, the practice of torture so fully embraces evil that it dehumanises both the torturer and the victim. No just cause can be won if it relies on torture to succeed. Democracy and freedom cannot result from a war fueled by torture, which is why so many Americans were shocked and angered by the disturbing incidents that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

All the more so, Christians must oppose torture under any circumstances. Consider this: Who would Jesus torture? I cannot imagine Jesus finding a single “exemption” that would justify such an abuse of any individual made in God’s image.

Though I bristle whenever I hear someone refer to the United States as a Christian nation – it is such a loaded phrase - many in the Muslim world see us as such. How tragic it would be for Muslims to identify the message and mission of Jesus with torture and terror. We must not allow that to happen.

David Batstone edits Sojourners’ free weekly e-zine, SojoMail. This article appeared in SojoMail ( on 9 November. Used by permission.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

God who sees our need

14 November 2005

by Kristine Morrison

Last month Sydney’s Plunkett Centre for Ethics hosted a symposium on the theme Helping the Needy Stranger, at which Raimond Gaita (University of London and Australian Catholic University) John Quilter (ACU) and Warren Reich (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.) presented papers.

Prof Reich argued that the story of the Good Samaritan provides the preeminent narrative of care that informs and illustrates the Western tradition of care for the needy stranger.

He made a compelling argument for links between seeing someone in need and acting compassionately toward that person. He noted that, when the Samaritan saw the injured traveller, he was “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). Similarly, in another Lucan parable, when the father of the prodigal son saw his son still some way in the distance he was “moved with compassion and ran to him and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Prof Reich acknowledged that to see someone in need is not all that is needed to motivate a compassionate act. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite saw the injured traveller but did not stop to help. When we are able to see ourselves in the situation of need, we are free to act compassionately toward a needy person because that person is no longer strange to us. Caring for a needy stranger becomes an act of self-completion as one finds in the other some element of the self.

While some may gain profound satisfaction in caring for the needy, we find no hint in the story that the Samaritan recognised something familiar in the injured traveller and responded to him on that basis. Moreover a notion of care dependent on self-recognition in the face of a stranger flounders if one cannot imagine oneself in the stranger’s circumstances. In failing to make an empathetic connection with the person in need, one is free to ignore the stranger’s needs – as did the Pharisee and the Priest.

Who then do we see when we care for the needy stranger? As a young student nurse I was told by a mildly eccentric and supremely devoted older nurse to “care for people as though I were caring for my mother”. She told me it was not enough to care for people as I would want to be cared for. As she sweetly expressed it, “You would accept second best for yourself, but not for your mother”. Seeing the image of someone we love in the face of a needy person can be a powerful motivation to offer practical care.

There are, however, limits to this idea as a model for care. Prof Reich recounted an instance when he visited a Paediatric Oncology Unit in his professional capacity. He was so overwhelmed by the sight of a young patient who was much like his own young son that he had to leave. If compassionate care for the needy stranger requires us to identify someone we love in the face of a stranger our ability to care for them is at risk of being paralysed if we over-identify with the needy person.

Traditionally, Christian care for the needy stranger has been sustained by the conviction that we are serving Christ when we serve those who are needy. Christ himself said that when we feed the hungry and care for the sick and visit those in prison we are offering service to him. However, in challenging us to care for the needy as though we were caring for Christ, did he ask us to supplant a vision of himself in the faces of the needy? Did he ask us to “see Jesus in the faces of the needy and the suffering,” as Christians often express it?

These questions bring to mind the older biblical narrative of an encounter between God and Hagar in the desert after Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:1-19). Hagar is in desperate need. She is alone and in peril but God sees her and comes to her rescue. Whom did God see when looking at Hagar? Was it an image of God’s own face that moved God to act compassionately towards her? The story does not seem to indicate that.

Did God see Jesus, the Son who would later suffer for humankind and therefore relieve Hagar’s need in his name? There is no reference to Jesus here. Did God see Abraham, or the face of another beloved creature, or perhaps an angel whom God deeply loved? It does not appear so.

What the text suggests is that God saw Hagar. Hagar gives God the name El-roi, “the God who sees,” and calls the place of her encounter “the well of the Living One who sees me”. In the words of the Michael Card song El Shaddai, “To the outcast on her knees, you were the God who really sees”. God did not regard the difference between creature and creator as so vast that he was immune to her sufferings. Nor did he insert a more favourable or worthy face on the suffering Hagar to make assistance to her more palatable. God saw Hagar and responded to her with compassion and mercy.

Prof Reich is right to claim that the story of the Good Samaritan is the archetypal story for the compassionate care of the needy stranger. Its appeal and application are universal. The story speaks to all cultures, all religions and all eras because it models care for the needy on the basis of need alone and, on the part of the one who is caring, some capacity to alleviate that need.

Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.

Confessing Christ in a world of violence

8 November 2005

by Doug Hynd

In 2004, Christian activists and theologians in the United States issued a statement on confessing Christ in the context of debates over the Iraq war. The following statement draws heavily upon that confession in challenging the church in Australia to consider what it means to confess Christ in the light of current political events.

The Statement Our world is wracked with violence and war. But Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Innocent people, at home and abroad, are increasingly threatened by terrorist attacks. But Jesus said: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). These words, which have never been easy, seem all the more difficult today.

Nevertheless, a time comes when silence is betrayal. Where is the serious debate about what it means to confess Christ in a world of violence? Does Christian “realism” mean resigning ourselves to an endless future of “pre-emptive wars”? Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment? Does it mean accepting without query a political idolatry in which significantly unaccountable power of state control and surveillance is surrendered to national government under cover of a politics of fear?

Faithfully confessing Christ is the church’s task, and the need is never more urgent than when its confession is silenced by an assumption that the claims of nationalism override that task. Confessing Christ is made more difficult, but also more necessary because of the co-option of Christianity by nationalism and militarism in the United States. Such co-option is witnessed by a “theology of war” emanating from the highest circles of the US government; increasing use of the language of “righteous empire”; and talk of an American “mission” and “divine appointment” to “rid the world of evil,” confusing the roles of God, church and nation.

In this time of crisis, we need a new confession of Christ.

1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity. Whenever Christianity compromises with empire, his gospel is discredited.

We reject the false teaching that any nation-state can ever be described with the words, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” These words, used in scripture, apply only to Christ. No political leader has the right to twist them in the service of war.

2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.

We reject the false teaching that a war on terrorism takes precedence over ethical and legal norms. Some things ought never be done – torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction – regardless of the consequences.

3. Christ commands us to see not only the splinter in our adversary’s eye, but also the beam in our own. Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that the distinction between good and evil does not run between one nation and another, or one group and another. It runs straight through every human heart.

We reject the false teaching that America, Australia or another nations are “Christian,” representing only virtue, and beyond criticism, while its adversaries are nothing but vicious and evil. We reject the belief that these countries have nothing to repent of, even as we reject any account that they represents most of the world’s evil. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and to the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonise any human being created in God’s image.

We reject the false teaching that any human being can be defined as outside the law’s protection. We reject the demonization of perceived enemies, which only paves the way to abuse; and we reject the mistreatment of prisoners, regardless of supposed benefits to their captors.

5. Christ teaches us that humility is the virtue befitting forgiven sinners. It tempers all political disagreements, and it allows that our own political perceptions, in a complex world, may be wrong.

We reject the false teaching that those who are not for our nation politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question Australia and American policies must be with the “evil-doers.” Such crude distinctions, especially when used by Christians, are expressions of the Manichaean heresy, in which the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

6. Christ calls us to exercise our freedom from the powers – whether political, economic or social – that claim to control our conscience and action. We are called to freedom, not as individualistic licence to do what feels good, but to serve the neighbour even if they are under arrest or subject to detention without trial.

The Lord Jesus Christ is either authoritative for Christians in their living and dying, or he is not. The Church dare not set aside his authority at the bidding of any earthly authority or power, or teach its members to do so. No nation-state may usurp the place of God.

Acknowledging and living out this confession is indispensable for followers of Christ. As disciples we need to be shaped by this confession in making our decisions as citizens. Peacemaking is central to our vocation as Christians and is central to our confessing Christ in a world of violence.

Doug Hynd is a sessional lecturer in theology and a federal public servant in Canberra.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.

Worries about workplace reform

25 October 2005

by Rod Benson

What are Australian church leaders saying about WorkChoices, the draft federal workplace reforms? Three initial observations. First, church leaders across the theological spectrum are saying quite a lot, and the national media are reporting it – in some cases, I suspect, with glee.

Second, it is all negative: unless I’m reading all the wrong papers, not one church or parachurch agency spokesperson has spoken publicly in favour of the reforms. Talk about separation of church and state!

Third, the comments do not support the notion of a division of the church into “Christian Right” and “Christian Left” factions – a notion that journalists, politicians and academics love to advance. Conservative and liberal Christian leaders alike question the wisdom of the government’s reforms. The relations between faith and politics are complex and nuanced, as the key players are well aware.

Now to the specifics: as one might expect, the churches have raised concerns about justice for the vulnerable and erosion of leisure time under the new structures. Here are some examples.

Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations executive officer, John Ryan, said the proposed system did not appear to address fundamental concerns about “fairness and balance,” and claimed the system provided safeguards to workers only “after the fact.” Ryan expressed concern that “the changes appear to leave us without any future means of maintaining a fair safety net of award conditions for those who cannot bargain effectively.”

Frank Quinlan, director of Catholic Welfare Australia, suggested the basis of the government’s reforms was the notion that employment was merely a commercial contract – a view that would lead to a “sense of alienation between a worker and his or her labour.” Is that pontifical authority or political economy I hear?

Anglicare’s Victorian chief executive, Ray Cleary, argued that, in contrast to the present collective bargaining system, the new system of negotiating individual contracts for pay and conditions would severely disadvantage low-skilled workers, young people and workers of non-English speaking backgrounds.

Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Peter Watson weighed in, saying that “there are some issues which stir the soul … about which Christian leaders cannot remain silent.” Chief among these, for him, was preservation of weekends and leisure time for the wellbeing of individuals, families, community, and “ultimately, the health of the economy.” Hmmm.

Uniting Church President Dean Drayton criticised the government’s plans to replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new Fair Pay Commission, saying its mandate would be to keep wages low rather than assess what workers needed to live a decent life. He viewed this as “incompatible with Christianity,” since “Christians are called to challenge systems and structures that breed hate, greed, oppression, poverty, injustice and fear.” Indeed we are.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen observed that, under the new regime, families would spend less time together. He feared the reforms risked turning workers into robots, and voiced concern over the need for preserving shared time for children, families and relationships: “That’s what life is about, not merely the economy.” Jensen is right, but he could have mounted a more substantial biblical-economic critique.

Ironically, Australian Greens senator Bob Brown – no friend of the churches – applauded Jensen for having “hit the nail on the head.” Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison agreed with the stance taken by the churches. The Labor Party opposes anything the Howard government proposes – except, of course, anti-terrorism legislation.

Then there’s Brian Houston, national president of the Assemblies of God and senior pastor of Sydney’s Hillsong church, officially opened by John Howard in 2002. Houston made no comment on economic or justice issues, but said he felt “relaxed” about the impact of WorkChoices on worship attendance, pointing out the need to make church services relevant enough for people to make them a priority. If I were unaware of Houston’s strong commitment to the poor, I’d say that sounded almost like tacit approval for WorkChoices.

And what are we to make of the Prime Minister’s appointment of Ian Harper, a “dry” economist and evangelical Christian, to chair the new Fair Pay Commission? Harper, currently executive director of the Centre for Business and Public Policy at the Melbourne Business School, grew up nominally Anglican but embraced an evangelical faith in the late 1980s.

He is not coy about his Christian convictions, citing “strong religious convictions” as a chief reason for accepting the job. Those convictions appear to shape his worldview and influence his perspective on economic policy. He claimed his acceptance of the new job was consistent with his Christian duty, “concerned with the circumstances of the less well-off and vulnerable rather than the top end of town.” Interviewed on ABC radio on 14 October, he said he was particularly interested in hearing from the unemployed and low-paid. He claimed to live by values that addressed the best interests of the poor and the vulnerable, adding, “That’s what Jesus Christ stood for.”

Harper presented the 2003 Acton Lecture titled, “Christian morality and market capitalism: Friends or foes?” for the Centre for Independent Studies, in which he acknowledged the difficulty of working as a Christian and an economist. Christians, he said, “often find it hard to accept that someone who claims to follow the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount could also follow the teacher of the doctrine of ‘the invisible hand’” while for his professional colleagues, “the rationality of economics reigns supreme, sweeping all forms of non-rational enquiry – including superstition and religious dogma – before it.” His response was “to have an appropriately modest view of the realm of the market within the sphere of our lives. The trouble starts when one begins to treat market capitalism itself as religion.” Amen to that.

What the mainstream churches and their lobbyists will make of Harper’s appointment is unclear. Perhaps they will view it as an opportunity to kill two birds (economic rationalist and evangelical Christian) with one stone. Already Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church leaders have criticised the appointment – though I suspect Ian Harper is adept at dodging missiles lobbed by meddlesome priests.

Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, Australia.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.

A middle way on stem cells

19 October 2005

by Alan Nichols

In eight weeks, the panel advising the Federal Government on embryo research and therapeutic cloning will submit its report. From the public airing of the issues, you would swear that there were only two sides – churches and right-to-life groups who totally oppose all embryo research, and scientists and “liberals” who support it, and would go further and endorse therapeutic cloning.

But there is a middle way – to support the status quo, which would allow further research on embryo stem cells to see what benefit it can bring, but continue the legislative ban on therapeutic cloning because the arguments to lift the ban are not conclusive. The effect of this would be to simply extend the two pieces of legislation, and insert another sunset clause three or five years hence.

It’s not just an esoteric debate among conservatives and progressives in society, like the old abortion debates. The essential problem about ethical debates in Australia is that ethics time always lags behind science time, as Margaret Somerville, an Australian professor who teaches ethics and philosophy in Canada, has observed.

In the public hearings last month in Sydney and Melbourne for church and community groups, it became clear that some churches have become more conservative in their views on these questions. At the Melbourne hearing, the Uniting Church representative strongly opposed embryo research, but the church used to support it, and it may be that Uniting Church views are mixed. The Anglican Church in Sydney opposed it as well, but used to support in vitro fertilisation and associated research.

The Lockhart panel knows that the views of religious people are more mixed than that. There are many who would support a middle way - continuing the approval for embryo research, but also continuing the ban on therapeutic cloning.

What are the arguments for the middle way? First, adult stem cell research has already proved effective. For decades skin damage from severe burns has been repaired by stem cell work. More recently, brain stem cells removed from patients with Parkinson’s disease have been genetically manipulated and reinserted. This has slowed the onset of Parkinson’s.

Then research on animals using stem cells from umbilical cord blood and foetal tissues has been very promising, but only the first results from international studies on humans are coming through. It’s early days.

This takes us to embryo stem cells. Since the legislation came into effect in 2002, only a handful of research projects have been approved - only three at the Australian Stem Cell Centre. But this remains promising, especially for inherited diseases such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

So why not give the scientists more time to prove the value of embryo research, at least to the point of promising results from animal research if it doesn’t get to the point of trials on human subjects. Therefore extend the legislative approval for a few more years.

But therapeutic cloning crosses a significant threshold. Like many other Australians, I don’t like the idea of deliberately creating embryos for destructive research. This is not because I regard every embryo as a whole human person who needs state protection. It’s still a pro-life position to regard syngamy as the important moment, when 14 days after egg and sperm come together the first features of spine, limbs and brain start to reveal themselves. In this period, the natural process aborts about 25 per cent of pregnancies. An embryo is simply not inviolate in the natural process.

To create a human embryo simply to destroy it in the research process reminds me of the Nazi experiments – it hints at eugenics, creating a flawless master race by genetic experiment. This is a threshold I cannot cross.

Could my mind be changed? Possibly, but it would take some persuasion. First, evidence would have to be offered that the present embryo research is actually producing results. Then the question would have to be answered: have the 70,000 surplus embryos in IVF clinics all been used? As well, an argument would have to be mounted that research with umbilical cord blood and foetal tissue would not accomplish the same research results.

As it happens, public opinion in Australia agrees with me. A May 2005 poll by Market Attitude Research Services for Biotechnology Australia showed that 65 per cent of Australians approve of human stem cells being derived from embryos, and opinion is mixed on therapeutic cloning – depending whether it’s for reducing a person’s chance of getting breast cancer (high approval), or increasing a child’s intelligence above normal (very low approval). The Australian public on most ethical issues is cautiously progressive, and they always want safeguards put in place. Ethics time lags behind science time.

I readily concede that other Christians, even other Anglicans, start with the same biblical pro-life position as me and come to different conclusions on such precise subjects as embryo research or therapeutic cloning.

The position I have outlined here is a kind of “middle way” – which is often where the Anglican church has positioned itself on complex public issues. We support medical research to achieve public good, but allow us time for our understanding and ethics to catch up.

And please don’t commodify embryos by saying that Victoria will lose out economically if we don’t approve of everything the scientists or entrepreneurs want to do. They said that about the slave trade.

Rev Alan Nichols is Director of the Centre for Applied Christian Ethics at Ridley College, University of Melbourne. The article first appeared in The Age on 17 October 2005. Copyright The Age Company Ltd, 2005. Used by permission.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.

Globalisation and the Ten Commandments

14 October 2005

by John McKinnon

With widening inequalities and 20 per cent of the world in extreme poverty, it is worth re-examining whether globalisation and free-market capitalism are in tune with Biblical ethics.

The eighth Commandment

Perhaps because of the ideological battles of the twentieth century, or a belief in individual freedom and reward for effort, capitalism has assumed the mantle of the “Christian” economic system. In looking to the Bible for ethical guidelines, the Ten Commandments are a natural starting point. The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15), is widely accepted as providing foundational property rights.

In his essay, “Property and possession in the light of the Ten Commandments,” in Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life (edited by William Schweiker and Charles Mathewes; Eerdmans, 2004, 17-51), Patrick Miller demonstrates that the commandment has a complex trajectory through the Old Testament and contains a deeper principle than simple property rights. In fact, this commandment raises significant ethical implications for today’s economic debate.

First, Miller looks at the prohibitions against stealing people, Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. The Deuteronomy passage specifically refers to slave labour or sale for gain. People are not goods to be bought and sold or used for economic exploitation. This point is furthered in some of the Sabbath regulations. Slaves are not only to be released every seven years but this freedom must be accompanied with liberal economic benefit (Deut. 15). Thus, while the commandments acknowledge that humans become caught in economic bondage, this must never become permanent; people must have an opportunity for a fresh start.

Second, Miller examines what he calls the legal trajectory of the eighth commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 22:1-15 contains a set of laws relating to theft and restitution. In most cases, the theft relates to those objects that are means of livelihood and production. The emphasis is not on property rights as such but rather that people have access to the means of providing life’s necessities. In verses 10-13, the concern is to provide protection in the case where someone has lent property or provided safekeeping for property. It appears that God wished to ensure that these social virtues are not endangered by concern about the liability or risks taken on. Exodus 23:4-5 even requires one to look after the property of an enemy.

Deuteronomy 22:1-4 elaborates this command and makes it clear that there is a positive responsibility to care for our neighbour’s economic wellbeing. As Miller states: “The divine instruction about loving one’s enemy thus begins not in the New Testament but in the moral dynamic effected by the eighth commandment.” Indebtedness is addressed in Deuteronomy 24:10-13. The creditor is not permitted to use his economic advantage to deprive others of basic necessities. Chapter 24 discusses fair payment of wages and a process whereby the poor can have access to agricultural produce.

The property laws were not about protection of property of the rich from the poor but about ensuring that the poor had access to basic needs. For Miller, “the trajectory of the eighth commandment explicitly opens up from a narrow reading of the commandment as a guard of private property to a positive inducement to generosity.”

Globalisation and trade

Economic globalisation involves increasing international trade in goods, services and capital, leading to diminished national sovereignty in exchange for increased power for the owners of capital. As this power has become increasingly concentrated, breaches of the ethical principles derived from the eighth commandment become apparent.

Debt is a major cause of poverty in the world today. Debt servicing far exceeds aid payments and has resulted in a decline in many essential services such as health and education. Debt restructurings usually involve the privatisation of utilities, reductions in government spending and the introduction of user pays principles. This is in contrast to the Pentateuchal principle that debt, no matter how incurred, should not deprive debtors of basic necessities or economic well-being.

Market power has become concentrated and a few multinational companies now dominate markets for several commodities predominantly produced by poorer countries. Prices received by the producers has remained low and a tiny fraction of the price of the final product as sold in the US or Europe. In many cases these “cash” crops have replaced subsistence food crops, rendering the producers totally dependent on the global markets. Once again, we must consider this in the light of the commandment’s insistence on economic well-being and fair wages.

While trade can lead to prosperity, “free” trade has often eroded the ability of national governments to protect citizens against foreign exploitation. High agricultural subsidies in the West not only lock out imports from the poorer countries but also encourage significant over-production. This surplus gets dumped on poorer countries thus further damaging the market of local producers. Such “theft” of markets denies these producers the means of economic livelihood and surely comes within the moral ambit of the eighth commandment.

Similarly, intellectual property and patent rules protect rich country corporations and effectively lock poor countries out of the market for life-saving medicine and technological advancements. Patent protection for seeds and fertilizers directly impinges upon the productive capabilities of third world farmers. Again, the basic needs of the poor are subjected to the profitability of the assets of the rich, in contravention of the eighth commandment.

Cases of multinational corporations moving factories into poorer countries to exploit low wages bring to mind the commandment’s applications to slavery. This exploitation, which often involves very low wages and appalling conditions, is usually the only possible employment to which workers have access. They therefore have no option but to remain in exploitative situations.

The commandment against stealing is more than a simple protection of private property. It is a positive encouragement to generosity and a set of principles for caring for the poorer members of society. Global capitalism exhibits much that contravenes the eighth commandment, leading to the conclusion that a significant amount of global economic activity is stealing.

John McKinnon is NSW State Coordinator for Tear Australia (

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.

Cracking down on terror in Canberra

by Rod Benson

7 October 2005

State premiers and chief ministers met the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, on 27 September and endorsed a raft of unprecedented anti-terrorism measures. In doing so they undermine fundamental human rights – rights we often take for granted, but rights that help to define Australian society and for which our soldiers fought and died.

Howard knew none of the state and territory leaders would dissent. They had no choice. Islamist terrorism is a serious problem, and they have a responsibility to address it. Failure to agree to the changes would leave them looking indirectly responsible for successful terrorist attacks should they occur in Australia, and no politician will risk that. Of course, it helped that ASIO had just let slip the unsubstantiated claim that there were 800 would-be suicide bombers living in Australia.

Howard needed the blessing of the states because the Australian Constitution, notoriously silent on human rights, does offer citizens the fundamental protection that only the courts can administer punishment. As Attorney-General Philip Ruddock explained a couple of weeks ago on the ABC’s Insiders, “the fact that a period of detention … might be seen to be punitive means that it’s not something you can impose administratively.”[i] So Howard had to obtain the states’ agreement.

Described by Queensland premier Peter Beattie as “draconian but necessary,” the new laws will allow preventive detention without charge for up to 14 days, control orders including house arrest for up to 12 months, electronic tagging and tracking of suspects, and wide search and seizure powers. Federal police will have to persuade a judge that a control order is “reasonably necessary and reasonably appropriate and adopted for the purpose of protecting the public from a terrorist act.” Such an order will be granted on “the balance of probabilities,” not on the basis of proof beyond reasonable doubt. The one major concession Howard made was the addition of a 10-year sunset clause on the new laws – unless they are extended by future parliaments.

Broadly, the new laws are more than a knee-jerk reaction on Howard’s part to the London bombings earlier this year, or simply a desire to copy what Tony Blair is doing in Britain – where he recently introduced a bill to extend his current 14-days without trial to three months. The laws signal a clash between liberty and security, between individual rights and the “national interest,” and arguably between citizens’ interests and commercial interests.

We are being asked, implicitly, whether we want to be free or safe. There is no third option. And who of us does not want to be safe? Except that no amount of anti-terrorist legislation will by itself actually prevent terrorists from carrying out their despicable acts. What it does is provide a semblance of protection, while eroding civil liberties and tilting us a little more toward totalitarian rule.

At his first press conference after being re-elected on 4 November 2004, George W. Bush, a close friend of John Howard, pointed out that “if we are interested in protecting our country in the long term, the best way to do so is to promote freedom and democracy.” While Bush goes about doing so, or appearing to do so, in Iraq and other far-off places, it seems Blair and Howard are busy curbing their own citizens’ freedom and dismantling liberal democracy. Or perhaps, for neo-cons, freedom and democracy are code-words for something else. If so, be alert and be alarmed.

“Of all tyrannies,” C.S. Lewis observed, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” If two recent online polls conducted by The Sydney Morning Herald are any indication, some of the victims certainly feel oppressed. Asked on 27 September if they were for or against a sunset clause, 84 per cent of respondents said yes. Asked the following day to “rate the new anti-terrorism powers,” and given three options, 19 per cent thought them “excellent,” 14 per cent indicated they were “acceptable,” and a whopping 67 per cent described them as “over the top.”

Among those who might view the new laws as “over the top” are Australian Muslims. It is not hard to see how they could interpret the laws – which come in the wake of already tough anti-terrorism laws introduced after September 11, 2001 – as an attack on Muslims and Muslim faith. Islamic community leader Keysar Trad claimed the new laws would “cause greater antagonism among Muslims and ironically could be used to justify a terror act.” Isn’t that what the new laws are supposed to prevent? And if it is Muslims today, who knows who it will be tomorrow?

While I’m in favour of reducing by reasonable means the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Australian cities and innocent people, I view with alarm the ease with which the Howard government has been able to secure these far-reaching changes to Australian law. Four years ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, such sweeping powers would have been out of the question. These new developments say much about Howard’s political mastery, but do nothing for the longterm strength and stability of Australian society.

As NSW Bar Association President Ian Harrison, SC, said, “These provisions have the potential to subvert entirely the conventional protections and established civil rights that our system of justice has put in place over the last 200 years.”[ii] That, putting it bluntly, is the price Howard and the state and territory leaders are willing to pay for electoral success. And if one of the aims of terrorism is to subvert our way of life, then Howard has conceded a victory to the terrorists.

Still, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The laws allow those detained for up to 14 days to telephone their employer “for the purpose of letting them know they are safe but are not able to be contacted for the time being.” Anyone for a holiday? Just pick up the phone and call your boss.

Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia.



Girl-time at the High Court, but not in the church

by Rod Benson

21 Sep 2005

We learned yesterday that a new judge was on its way to the High Court. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced the appointment of Victorian judge Justice Susan Crennan to replace retiring judge Michael McHugh in November.

This is the fifth Howard government appointment to the Court’s seven-member bench, and – according to most pundits – ensures a conservative High Court well into the future. And the government’s political influence on the High Court will continue, with three more vacancies due in the next four years as judges attain the compulsory retirement age of 70.

Girl-time in the judiciary

Justice Crennan, 60, is the 45th appointment to the nation’s highest court in its 102-year history, and only the second woman appointment. The first was Mary Gaudron, who served from 1987 to 2003. Crennan began her legal career at the NSW bar in 1979 after a first career as a teacher of English literature. In what was seen as a very rapid elevation, she was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1989. She chaired the Victorian Bar Council in 1993 and was the first woman President of the Australian Bar Association from 1994-1995.

Last month Justice McHugh challenged the Howard government to appoint a woman to replace him when he reached retirement age on 1 November. But despite a long campaign by female lawyers to appoint a female judge to the nation’s highest court, Ruddock’s decision was made, he said, “on merit alone and not because of any pressure to appoint a woman.”

Nor would Crennan herself want you to imagine that her appointment was a win for feminists, for gender equality, or indeed for women. Earlier she rejected suggestions that her remarkable career success was a victory for feminism, saying it merely reflected the “increased numbers of women working in the profession.” When she chaired the Victorian bar, Crennan insisted on being referred to as “chairman,” not chair, chairwoman or chairperson, apparently regarding the term “simply as a title, not a gender-positive appellation.”

Victorian barrister Kate McMillan, SC, said Justice Crennan was “a beacon for the modern woman who wanted to have it all, but not for those advocating affirmative action.” When first touted for judicial office a decade ago, Crennan said the feminist argument about the paucity of women in the professions was wrong. They wanted to play a blame game, she said, when the real reasons for gender-imbalance in professions such as law and medicine were “biological imperatives” and the overwhelming demands on those who chose to combine career and family.

In my view, the appointment of Justice Crennan augurs well for the High Court, the Australian judiciary and the nation. I’m pleased the Attorney-General made the call on the basis of merit alone. I’m also pleased that the Howard government happened to appoint a woman to a bench that currently seats seven men. Even two out of 45 appointments is better than one – or none.

Girl-time in the church?

So it is girl-time, of a sort, at the High Court. But all the media talk today about affirmative action (or its lack) leads me to ponder the state of women’s leadership in the church, and in Australian Baptist churches in particular. In NSW, the state with which I am most familiar, local churches may ordain women and, since 1999, the denomination has accredited women as professional ministers. Even in a denomination that is predominantly conservative and evangelical, the critical theological and cultural battles, it appears, are over.

Yet while the number of women graduating from evangelical theological colleges is significant and on the increase, to my knowledge the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT have only one female lead pastor, and very few female pastors in pastoral teams. There is arguably a “blokey” church culture; women find it difficult to join (and remain on) denominational committees and taskforces; women “of child-bearing age” find it almost impossible to secure full-time pastoral positions; and those women who do succeed in gaining employment as a pastor rarely succeed in moving from that role to a similar role in a second church. These features are common to Baptist churches across Australia.

If you thought the gender issue was pertinent to the senior judiciary, it is at least as pressing in Australian Baptist churches. In the light of this situation, I was pleased to note the arrival last week of a new publication from Morling Press, Leadership and Baptist Church Governance, edited by Dr Graeme Chatfield, which features a chapter on women’s leadership written by Rev Belinda Groves and Kristine Morrison.

The whole chapter is an illuminating and disturbing read, but I want to highlight what they suggest as the way ahead for Australian Baptists: (1) revisit what it means to be Baptist (a reference to the cardinal Baptist principal of religious liberty); (2) celebrate female Baptist leaders of the past, and ensure better recognition of the contributions of women to Australian Baptist work in future histories; (3) rejuvenate and transform the culture of committees and meeting practice; and (4) actively seek out women to serve in key leadership roles. The authors boldly add that, “in order to establish a gender balance, a woman may have to be given preference over a man” (p. 132).

Will we see a sea change in gender-based attitudes and practices among Baptists in Australia? I doubt that it will occur in my lifetime. The most important change that needs to occur, if women are to be accorded equality with men as pastors in our churches, is for local churches to view women and men as God views them. A majority of members in Australian Baptist churches today, and almost all the opinion-makers and gatekeepers, are cultural conservatives who are tacitly opposed to women in lead roles.

The church of Jesus Christ once led the community in facilitating social change – I think of slavery, trade unions, civil rights. I look forward to the day when the church once again takes the lead. In the meantime, thank you, Mr Ruddock, for appointing a woman to the bench of the High Court, even if her gender is irrelevant to both her and you.

Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College. He lives in federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s electorate.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Please direct all enquiries, comments and submissions to