Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Australian Christian political lobby comes of age

No. 60 - 22 August 2007

By Rod Benson

On 9 August Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd courted the Christian vote in a two-hour televised event organised by the Australian Christian Lobby. Both leaders made election-style speeches and answered questions from church leaders during a webcast streamed to an estimated 100,000 Christians in churches and church halls around the country. The event, described by one journalist as the unofficial launch of the 2007 election campaign, cements the reputation of the ACL as the nation’s premier religious lobbyist.

After preliminaries, Mr Howard began his speech by appealing to the legacy of William Wilberforce and “the Judeo-Christian ethic,” and derided atheism as “profoundly unhistorical.” He mentioned the parables of the Good Samaritan and the talents as articulating fundamental ethical principles, describing the church as a force for the profound good of the community. He acknowledged the opposition by some Christians to recent federal laws allowing human embryo experimentation and the use of the abortion drug RU486, but addressed social justice issues almost exclusively in a lively 35-minute address.

Mr Howard announced a new initiative to restrict internet pornography, promised support for religious schools and school chaplaincy, and advocated tackling global poverty by reducing corruption and trade barriers. He briefly mentioned a duty of care to Australia’s indigenous peoples, and climate change, and suggested that Australia might embrace nuclear power “if there is economic justification.”

In contrast, Mr Rudd began by drawing attention to his own “garden variety” Christian faith, which he described as his compass point, “shaping the view I bring to the public sphere.” In a speech of equal length, he proposed the need for “hard heads and soft hearts” in public policy, where the “big” issues of economic management and national security did not displace concern for an adequate social safety net, hearing “the voice of the voiceless,” and preserving compassion as “one of the great human strengths.” He promised that, if elected, a family impact statement would accompany every Labor cabinet submission.

Mr Rudd spoke on the erosion of family and leisure time resulting from recent industrial relations reforms, and outlined plans for affordable housing, investment in education, setting ambitious carbon emissions targets, addressing global poverty by working to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, advancing Australia’s place as a middle power diplomacy, dealing compassionately with refugees displaced by war, and implementing longterm measures to address indigenous problems.

Questions from selected church leaders followed the speeches. Mr Howard took 20 minutes to answer five questions while Mr Rudd was limited to four questions and 12 minutes. The ten questions, drawn from a much larger range of questions from interested groups, and vetted by the ACL to encourage fair representation and balance, focused on the following subjects:

1. Personal qualities necessary for authentic leadership, and the place of religious faith in forming these qualities
2. Howard government’s “lack of compassion for vulnerable people in society”
3. Policies to address the growing inequality and lack of work-life balance
4. Retention of only Christian prayers to open Parliament each day
5. Possible increase of aid toward the goal of 0.7 per cent of GNI
6. Defining de facto marriage to include homosexual couples, and parenthood as gender-neutral
7. Processing and welfare of refugees arriving by “irregular means”
8. Protecting religious freedom in the light of a possible Bill of Rights
9. Better health, education, employment, land protection, human rights and safety for Aboriginal people
10. Measures to address global warming and other key environmental matters

In the event, Mr Howard was asked questions 1-5; Mr Rudd was asked questions 1, 6, 7 and 8. Neither leader was asked any question on indigenous issues or on the environment. The omission of the question on indigenous issues was particularly disappointing in the light of the federal government’s “takeover” of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in response to concern over child sexual abuse and neglect. Likewise the fact that no questions were asked of the government’s failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol or commit to binding carbon emission targets, or the alternative government’s policies to address climate change, was regrettable.

It was clear that the key policy issues occupying the minds and hearts of many Australian Christians in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election are reducing global poverty through increased and targeted foreign aid; reducing human-induced climate change by adopting ambitious carbon emission targets and viable alternatives to fossil fuels; developing suitable policy instruments to address the perception of a growing inequality between the rich and poor in Australia; protecting the freedom to practice religion according to conscience amid threats of legislative and punitive measures to curtail religious freedom; and engaging the vigorous debate on Muslim immigration to Australia with reference to what has occurred in western Europe.

It was also clear that the event attracted a wide cross-section of the Australian Christian churches. Although the Uniting Church delegates withdrew from participation, the presence of several Anglican and Catholic bishops was evident. Catholic involvement was crucial in the ACL’s strategy to build a broad coalition of Christian support. The fact that both Howard and Rudd were seated beside the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson, and that he alone asked questions of both leaders, did not go unnoticed. At least demographically, the participation of large suburban Pentecostal churches was also strategically important for the ACL. Indeed news reports of the event carried images of worshipping crowds at churches such as Hillsong in Sydney, which presumably paused to watch the webcast.

On the following day, the ACL hosted a breakfast for church leaders where Jim Wallace spoke frankly about his strategies for winning the “culture war.” He cast the ACL as a “centrist” lobby in contrast to what he saw as the polarisation of contemporary American Christian political engagement into opposing “Christian Right” and “Christian Left” factions. The phenomenal success of the ACL webcast (not least its technical aspects), and the impressive list of attenders, demonstrates the lobby group’s strong credentials and bodes well for the future.

But the question remains whether the media, and the mainstream churches, will now accept the proposition that the ACL represents a truly broad church whose policy interests span the spectrum of “social justice” and “moral issues.” Another question is whether the ACL can hold the political “centre” together in the face of strong pressures from churches and other groups for whom polarisation is in their best interests.

What is, I think, beyond question is that Christian views, and Christian voters, are being taken seriously by politicians, political parties and the media in Australia. Or, if they are not, as is the case with the Australian Democrats, it is at a high cost to the party’s credibility. Reality belies the caricature of Australia as a secular, post-Christian democracy. Practical spirituality, religious belief, and moral issues shaped by religious commitments all influence Australian political culture and help to determine the orientation of public policy.

The federal election will be fought around policies and ideals shaped by religious communities. The two candidates for Australia’s top political job, both professed Christians with alarmingly different views on the essence of Christianity and how one’s faith plays out in the policy arena, are actively courting Christian voters. The ACL has provided a welcome boost to the credibility of Christians in the public life of the nation, and a potentially united voice for concerned Christian citizens of all persuasions.

That has to be good for our liberal democratic tradition as well as for public Christian morality.

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

Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 words that contribute to analysis and debate on 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.

John and Mal's excellent emergency

No. 59 – 16 August 2007

By Rod Benson

On 21 June Prime Minister John Howard, along with the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, announced that Australia was in the grip of a “national emergency” on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. The crisis was brought to light by the release on 15 June of a report, Little Children Are Sacred, arising from a Northern Territory government Inquiry headed by two eminent Australians, Rex Wild and Pat Anderson. This is the latest in a series of reports documenting horrific and sickening violence and abuse in Australian indigenous communities. [1]

Responding to the present crisis, Mr Howard announced that his government would introduce a raft of strong measures aimed at addressing violence and abuse in NT indigenous communities.

“The duty of care to the young of this country is paramount,” he said, “and nobody who has any acquaintance with that report could be other than appalled by … the cumulative neglect of many over a long period of time and frustrated in the extreme of the inability of governments to come to terms with an effective response to deal with this problem … Without urgent action to restore social order, the nightmare will go on – more grog, more violence, more pornography and more sexual abuse – as the generation we are supposed to save sinks further into the abyss.”

Strong words indeed. And strong legislative measures were to follow. Opponents have accused Howard of racism, paternalism and political opportunism. On the charge of racism, the government’s heavy-handed approach to welfare reforms, scrapping of the permit system, and compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands do suggest a racially (or ethnically) directed reform program. Introducing similar measures to suburban Australia is unimaginable. But one could argue that to do nothing also smacks of racism.

On the matter of paternalism, the ideological tide appears to have turned in favour of drastic and draconian policy solutions, and an embrace of blatantly utilitarian ethics. As Noel Pearson movingly said on ABC radio in June, "Ask the terrified kid huddling in the corner, when there's a binge-drinking party going on down the hall, ask them if they want a bit of paternalism." And as the Australian editorialised at the time, “Those who oppose the supposedly paternalistic intervention of outsiders are condemning many Aboriginal children to a living hell.”

More recently, Mal Brough has worn the paternalism label, and the charge of utilitarianism, as a badge of honour. Asked in a Lateline interview if his government was instituting “a new paternalism,” Brough claimed it was outcomes that mattered, and he had no qualms about being labelled paternalistic. This suggests that paternalistic indigenous policies seeking to deliver “positive” outcomes in remote communities are likely to receive widespread support among white Australian voters. There are parallels with last year’s stem cell debate, where “therapeutic” outcomes were all that mattered. The expert knows best. The end justifies the means. End of debate.

As for political opportunism, that is the nature of professional politics. Mr Howard has made an art of it during his eleven years as Prime Minister, although as Hugh Mackay pointed out this week, a case can be made that he is resorting to increasingly desperate measures in a bid to keep ahead of his political rivals.

We are now at the pointy end of the government’s emergency response. Earlier this week the House of Representatives passed five bills which the Senate will rubber-stamp. These included measures for alcohol restriction; computer auditing to detect prohibited pornographic material; better management of community stores to deliver healthier and more affordable food; five-year leases on some communities to enable better management of investments and improved living conditions; land tenure changes for town camps; and removal of customary law as a relevant mitigating factor for bail and sentencing conditions.

Passage through Parliament of such wide-ranging legislation is a significant achievement. No wonder Mal Brough said last week that it was the most important moment of his political life. All he needs to do now is put it all in place, and come away with positive outcomes.

What have the churches been saying about the “national emergency”? There has been cautious support but also strong criticism from leaders of the mainstream churches (e.g. here and here and here).

A large group of Australians, among them various Christian leaders, including myself, signed an open letter to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs on 26 June, welcoming the government’s commitment to tackling violence and abuse in indigenous communities, but indicating areas of grave concern with the substance and process of the planned reforms. The letter emphasised the need for sustainable solutions and long-term planning, the importance of developing programs that will strengthen families and communities and empower them to confront problems (rather than an over-reliance on top-down and punitive measures), and the need for adequate consultation with indigenous communities and the NT government.

The NSW Council of Churches (here I need to disclose that I serve as the Council’s Public Affairs Director) issued a statement on 28 June welcoming the federal initiatives in the Northern Territory, but noting that the problem was a national one, that non-indigenous people were responsible for some of the violence and abuse documented in the Wild-Anderson Report, and that legislative and punitive measures alone could not be expected to deliver morality in accordance with acceptable community standards. The Council also urged careful consultation with local communities and community leaders.

The Baptist Union of Australia, along with its mission agency Global Interaction, issued a statement lamenting the fact that “well-intentioned and well-funded programs by governments of different persuasions have done little to reverse the difficulties in the past,” cautioning that “by their nature, government programs tend to be strongly bureaucratic and to provide formulated, one-size-fits-all services,” and claiming “there is little evidence that child sexual abuse is worse in Indigenous communities than in other Australian communities.”

Most recently, the Social Issues Executive of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney released a fine discussion paper outlining the main criticisms and arguments in support of the federal intervention, noting four process issues of concern (geographic specificity, means versus ends, use of state force, and lack of consultation), and offering a series of questions to be asked of the government and, importantly, its opponents. The paper concludes: “Perhaps we should imagine the recent Federal Government intervention as a form of ‘emergency field surgery’—a rapid response, with limited instruments, to save a patient. But it is a blunt instrument, and the ultimate solution will be complex and multi-faceted.”

Clearly the Howard government has a long way to go in progressing this initiative. I suspect a federal Labor government would have done much the same in similar circumstances. There is a great deal more of value still to be said on the new legislation, its implementation in the diverse communities affected, and the responses by those communities.

Careful attention also needs to be paid to the degree to which these policies actually resolve problems of child abuse and neglect; the ways in which alcohol and drug abuse, petrol sniffing and access to pornography increase the risk of abuse and neglect; and the extent to which the problems extend beyond remote indigenous communities into thousands of supposedly “safer” Australian suburbs, homes and families.

The churches and relevant parachurch agencies need to contribute more to the debate, and – where possible – to the solutions. And the people directly affected, all of them Australian citizens with their own hopes and fears and aspirations and perspectives, need our ongoing prayers and our genuine care. They too are our neighbours.

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

1. For example, Boni Robertson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, May 2000 [1.4Mb]; Sue Gordon, Putting the Picture Together, Western Australian Government, 2002 [4Mb]; and Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2005, released 12 July 2005 by the Productivity Commission [full report 2.1Mb].

Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 words that contribute to analysis and debate on 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.

Cluster bombs and Australia's national interest

No. 58 – 5 June 2007

By Rod Benson

At the same time as the Australian government is engaged in international talks aimed at securing a global treaty banning cluster bombs, the Defence Department has claimed that limitations on the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to acquire the weapons would be “detrimental to our national interest.”

Cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, are a kind of artillery shell or rocket dropped from the air or launched from the ground. Before reaching its target the shell opens and ejects multiple smaller munitions (bomblets). Cluster bombs are used primarily to kill enemy infantry, but versions are also used to start fires, pierce the armour of tanks and other armoured vehicles, disable runways, disperse mines, deliver chemical weapons and even disrupt electrical power transmission.

Like land mines, cluster bombs pose an immediate and long-term threat to civilians. They typically affect a wide area, sometimes as much as several football fields, increasing the potential for civilian casualties. Further, multiple unexploded bomblets may lie dormant for some time. The Australian Red Cross estimates that typically between seven and 30 per cent, but up to 40 per cent in some cases, of cluster bomblets fail to detonate on impact but may explode if disturbed. According to Handicap International, 98 per cent of its registered cluster munitions casualties are civilians. Many of these are children. In addition to the tragedy of civilian casualties, unexploded ordnance of cluster bomblets can create long-term social and economic problems for countries attempting to recover from war. Countries significantly affected include Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam and Laos.

Australia possessed limited stocks of cluster munitions between 1970 and 1990 but these were destroyed, and Australia has until now undertaken not to use cluster bombs in armed conflict. On 8 May 2007 Robert Tickner, former federal Aboriginal Affairs minister and now chief executive of the Australian Red Cross, urged the Australian government to consider the role it might play in supporting a ban on cluster munitions, based in part on his personal experience of the devastation caused by them:

I saw the effects of unexploded cluster munitions while visiting Lebanon in February, and they are truly devastating, and alarmingly random. Sub-munitions were found in houses, backyards, in trees, in orchards and many other places. In one street near a hospital, 800 sub-munitions were found.

I met a farm worker who had been working in a field on September 9, about a month after the conflict had ended. He was leaving the field after work and did not notice the unexploded sub-munition that was hidden under some fallen leaves. The munition exploded, severely damaging his foot and leg, resulting in partial amputation. He did not believe he could return to work as a labourer again, and I can only imagine the fear he must feel knowing that almost anywhere in the fields he once worked could be another remnant of the conflict waiting to release its potentially lethal payload …

To support a ban on the use of these inaccurate, unreliable weapons of conflict would send a clear message to the rest of the world and be a significant step towards ridding it of a weapon that goes on destroying lives long after the fighting forces have packed up and gone home.

But Australian politicians and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are instead moving in the opposite direction. Australian Democrats leader, Senator Lyn Allison, introduced a private members bill into federal parliament on 5 December 2006, titled the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill 2006, to prohibit the use, manufacture and possession of cluster munitions. The bill triggered an inquiry by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which tabled recommendations in Parliament on 31 May. According to Senator Allison, the Senate Standing Committee selectively ignored 80 per cent of submissions which supported a total ban or far more stringent regulation of the use of cluster munitions, and effectively “gave the cluster bombs the green light.”

Further, the ADF is reported to be acquiring high-precision and self-destructing cluster bombs for use against armoured vehicles. The preferred supplier of the bombs, Israel Military Industries, claimed that they were “safer than others” and had been used to the “utmost satisfaction of its users.” The ADF opposes legislation to ban cluster munitions on the basis that such a ban could leave Australian troops open to prosecution while serving with allies who have used the bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This action by the ADF may appear to contradict the government’s support in Lima last week for a new international treaty to ban cluster munitions. But as Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Greg Hunt, explained, “We make no apologies for wanting to maintain a capability to adequately and safely protect our defence forces.” In addition, the Defence Department claimed the Allison Bill would have “put Australia at a serious military disadvantage in future conflicts, which would be detrimental to our national interest.”

The international response to this growing threat to civilian life has been somewhat disappointing. Although many individuals and agencies including the Red Cross and the United Nations oppose the use of cluster bombs, no international legal instrument specifically covers them. Belgium alone has issued a comprehensive ban on the use of cluster munitions. Several other countries, including Australia, have engaged in parliamentary discussions with a view to a moratorium or ban. An international conference in Oslo in February 2007 led to 46 of the 68 participating nations backing a Norwegian push for a new international treaty by 2008 that would ban “cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” What constitutes “unacceptable harm” is ambiguous and disputed.

Australia was not represented at the Oslo talks, but did send officials to a second round of talks involving 70 countries in Lima, Peru, from 23 to 25 May 2007, aimed at a global treaty banning cluster munitions. Australia’s contribution to the latest round of talks was to call for an exclusion of weapons with a self-destruct mechanism in an apparent attempt to protect the interests of the ADF. Dr Mark Zirnsak, National Coordinator of the Australian Network to Ban Landmines, described this as “a deadly and disastrous decision by the Australian Government as the self-destruct mechanism has repeatedly been proven not to protect civilians from the indiscriminate explosions.”

Handicap International asked whether the Government had actually studied the humanitarian risks of the cluster bombs it wanted to acquire:

As with landmines, cluster munitions pose a serious threat to civilians during and after the conflicts. Australia should also be setting an example based on its commitment to humanitarian law that weapons that are indiscriminate should not be used.

Perhaps the mantra of “the national interest” has itself become a handicap to the advocacy of reasonable notions of justice and compassion in Australia. Indeed, it is debatable whether there is any contested area of Australian public life in which the national interest could not be invoked by political pragmatists, or economic fundamentalists, to justify what a majority of the population regards as injustice.

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

Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 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 or affiliated agencies.

An election, a million marchers and a mass murder

No. 57 – 1 May 2007

By Rod Benson

Events in the Republic of Turkey have attracted recent media attention. Three events raise important questions for Turkey’s political future, for the small minority of Christians who live and work there, and for every community threatened by radical Islam.

First, Turkey is in the midst of Presidential elections. The nation has been a secular democratic republic since its establishment in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk following the fall of the Ottoman empire. In recent years Turkey has sought increasing political integration with Western Europe while remaining socially and culturally Islamic. According to government statistics, over 99 per cent of the 70 million people living in Turkey today identify as Muslim, and less than one per cent as Christian. Officially Turkey is a secular state, but Islam retains strong popular support, and that support may be taking a radical turn.

In the first round of Presidential elections on Friday, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a “former Islamist” from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), narrowly missed being elected to the top job. The AKP dominates the 550-seat parliament but lacks the required two-thirds majority it needs to elect Gul. The opposition boycotted the parliamentary vote on the basis of Gul’s Islamist past.

The Islamist AKP won elections in 2002, but a previous Islamist government was removed by the military in 1997. Following Friday’s vote, the army – always a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics – issued a statement saying it was determined to protect Turkey’s secular political culture and would “take action” if the need arose.

The prospect of Mr Gul becoming head of state has alarmed Turkish secularists who fear the erosion of the strict separation of state and religion, and the creeping of radical Islam into all fields of Turkish life.

Second, The Australian reports that, in response to the political uncertainty, more than a million Turks took part in a mass rally in Istanbul on Sunday in support of secularism and democracy. The demonstration followed a similar march in the capital, Ankara, on 14 April that attracted up to 1.5 million people. This is a sign of a healthy political culture in Turkey. The aim was not to banish religious views from political discourse but to uphold the formal separation of state and religion introduced by Atatürk in the 1920s.

It is almost unthinkable that any politically-motivated crisis would draw such numbers in Australia. What this suggests about the current health of Australia’s political culture is discomforting. It is testament to the current strength of democracy and freedom in Turkey that, despite being an overwhelmingly Muslim country, anti-Islamist demonstrations of such huge size can be held at short notice – and remain peaceful.

One wonders, though, whether the apparent popular support for Western ideals will be sufficient to maintain Turkey’s traditional secularism without military intervention. There have been four military coups in Turkey since 1960. One also wonders how long Turkey’s intellectual leadership will retain its independence in the face of growing pressure from international Islamic interests. Mr Gul remains a devout Muslim, and at the same time a strong advocate of Turkish membership in the decidedly non-religious European Union. Perhaps he and his backers have continental ambitions.

The third Turkey-related event would probably have passed unnoticed unless a friend had sent me an email the other day, drawing attention to the alleged horrific, religiously-based torture and murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey, on 18 April (reported here and elsewhere). The report possessed some of the characteristics of an internet hoax, but its essence appears genuine. The news of the killings was carried (albeit far more briefly) by the BBC, The Australian, and other media agencies. Ironically, Malatya is the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in May 1981.

The taking of innocent life can never be justified or condoned. But we know the tragic reality of our world. These three murders – premeditated, sadistic and barbaric though they were – pale into statistical and moral insignificance in the face of the mounting death toll from war in Iraq (more than 3,300 combatants and at least tens of thousands of civilians, according to Reuters news agency), the estimated 200,000 dead in Darfur, or the 30,000 children who die every day as a result of extreme poverty.

Yet the tragedy in Malatya highlights the dangerous and unpredictable environment in which many Christian missionaries work today. And the gracious response of the bereaved families serves as a reminder of the radical difference, in practice, between a faith based on love and a religion based on law.

True, there are fundamentalists on both sides of the divide, and there is the historical embarrassment of the Crusades and other low points of Christian history. But I cannot imagine that a genuine, sane follower of Jesus would ever be driven to killing strangers in cold blood on the basis of religious convictions.

At its heart Islam is ambivalent about the advocacy of violence toward “infidels.” And there is the disputed matter of the Muslim doctrine of abrogation, whereby early pacifist passages in the Koran, written while Mohammed lived in Mecca, are nullified or reinterpreted by later passages advocating violence, written during his residency in Medina. Scholars and others selectively apply abrogation to suit their audience and politics.

When Islamists gain political power in the West, and incrementalism and abrogation are no longer necessary, it will be too late: everyone loses – especially Christians and women, but also capitalism, democracy, justice and peace.

What then can we do? Review our own spiritual convictions and confessions. Develop a more informed interest in the wider world, especially geography and politics (for example, try this or this). Take a more activist role in our own political institutions. Talk to Muslims in our workplace and community. Be alert to the danger of creeping Islamism. And pray for the people of Turkey.

Reviewing the fate of the church in Turkey in 2004 for Christianity Today, Collin Hansen concluded:

The state of the contemporary church in Turkey, home to so many seminal moments in Christian history, looks bleak for now. Perhaps integration into the European Union will galvanize the small Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul and allow the Turkish government to honestly examine the grizzly fate of the Armenians. Hopefully the spread of religious freedom there will ease hostility toward missionaries and converts from Islam to Christianity. Regardless, we should heed the warnings of history—beware the dangers of political infighting between Christians with earthly interests at heart, and never underestimate the seriousness of Islamic jihad.

Time will tell what political and religious changes sweep through Turkey. Recent events are alarming and the immediate future does look potentially bleak. Still, on the whole, Turkey has for many years managed to forge a workable partnership between Western-style democracy and Islamic culture, and the rest of the world can learn much from that achievement.

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 up to 1200 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.

Prayer for rain and the Prime Minister

No. 56 – 30 April 2007

By Kristine Morrison

On 20 April The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported the Australian Prime Minister’s call to pray for rain in response to the dire state of the Murray-Darling Basin. This call was endorsed in a media release by Rev Dr Ross Clifford, President of the Baptist Union of Australia. Among other things, Dr Clifford encouraged church leaders around Australia to ensure that time was set aside for prayer each Sunday until the drought was broken, and asked the churches to pray for families severely affected by the drought.

The Herald’s Letters to the Editor section of the 23 April devoted significant space to responses to the Prime Minister’s call to prayer. In contrast to Dr Clifford, respondents were unenthusiastic, derisive and scathing.

Does this diversity of opinions represent a simple divide between secular people, who do not believe that there is a place for prayer in everyday life, and people of faith? Or are there genuine problems with a broadly stated call to prayer from a political leader in a liberal democracy such as Australia?

It is difficult for Christians to voice reservations about a public call to prayer for drought-breaking rain. However, there are some aspects of this call to payer that will trouble praying believers.

Christians are wary of having their prayer life co-opted for the advancement of a particular political agenda. Whilst they may pray and indeed be happy to pray for rain, they may not wish to have their prayer life conscripted for the furtherance of the Prime Minister’s ambition. There are also conditions of prayer and limits to the kinds of things that may be requested in prayer that need to be considered when approaching the Almighty.

Even though Dr Clifford’s statement appears to support the Prime Minister’s call, there are elements in his statement that qualify the endorsement. Dr Clifford reminds us that Christians, particularly those in rural areas, have been praying for rain for many months if not years. Rural communities appreciate – far more acutely than city dwellers – our intimate dependence on the cycles of nature. There is an implicit, if gentle, rebuke for our Prime Minister in the words of our President that is worth noting.

Dr Clifford also suggests that we need to pray for wisdom in the management and restoration of our water resources. It is perhaps this apparent lack of wisdom, revealed by our Prime Minister, that so infuriated the writers to the Herald’s letters page.

They point out that in the past decade of prosperity the government has not seriously addressed water management issues. John Howard is accused of failing to listen to scientific advice about water management and being without an alternative water management plan. His plea for prayer is reckoned by one correspondent to be reasonable only in comparison to being asked to slaughter a chicken.

Though secularists, these writers have proved alert to some of the dilemmas facing those who pray. Is it reasonable to pray to avoid the consequences of something that those who pray may have contributed to? Our squandering of water and our failure to be active in prompting our government to take water management practices seriously does compromise our approach to God.

One writer to the Herald, clearly not a secularist, made a compelling link between the need for repentance and effective prayer. He advocated a day of repentance where the nation could acknowledge both God as the giver of rain and our dependence on the generosity of God to provide for all our needs to accompany our requests for rain. Many of us have prayed to escape the consequences of our actions. However, we can only do this when we express contrition and repentance for such actions. This important and significant aspect of prayer was omitted in our Prime Minister’s call to prayer.

The knowledge of the cyclic nature of rain patterns presents another difficulty for those who pray for rain. We know that higher rainfall in one part of Australia (or the world) usually means less rain in some other part of the continent (or the world). Is it right for us to pray for more natural abundance in our part of the world when other places, already suffering resource depletion, may receive less rain as a result?

Writers to the Herald were also annoyed by our Prime Minister’s apparent lack of cultural sensitivity. Which God was he suggesting that we pray to? Yahweh? The Christian God? Allah? Christians may assume that Mr Howard was referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but that may not be clear to all members of our community.

If Mr Howard was only calling Christians to prayer, he was ignoring the religious convictions of many in our community. But if he was making a universalist call to prayer, he ran the risk of insulting Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike by flattening the diverse meanings of prayer to a one-note refrain. As a missionary people, aware of cultural sensitivities and the challenges of religious pluralism, Australian Baptists might have hoped that our national leader could provide spiritual direction without alienating significant sections of our community.

Public prayer is not a concept that can be conscripted for political gain. Nor, as Mr Howard has perhaps discovered, is it a motherhood issue that will unite everyone in a surge of good feeling. As Florence Allshorn observed, “the primary object of prayer is to know God better; we and our needs should come second.”

It is too much to expect our political leaders to encapsulate such a profound appreciation of prayer in public statements, but we can wish that they might avoid reducing public calls to prayer to a glib sound bite.

Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a member of the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 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.