Australia21 is in the business of researching the public policy settings that would help to make the world a better place. So it’s timely to offer a few observations, in a week when the 61 percent of Australians who identified as Christian at the last census should have just renewed their faith.
For many Australians, the focus was on making the most of an unusually long weekend, free of work responsibilities – and free of religious obligation. Peter Broelman’s iconic cartoon from several years ago illustrates the point.
But Christianity has at its centre the story of Jesus being persecuted, suffering, making the ultimate self-sacrifice and being given a new life. Most Christians (though not followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church) believe the Last Supper, held the night before Jesus was tortured and executed, was a celebration of the Jewish passover that commemorates the liberation from slavery in Egypt and the exodus to freedom under the leadership of Moses (a story also told in the Qur’an and central to Islamic faith). Both offer messages of hope for oppressed people.
The parallels with modern refugee stories are obvious. They bring to mind the stream of nativity memes that hit social media platforms around Christmas time, in case anyone has missed the point (see right, and below for more).
A conservative-progressive paradox highlighted by rallies for refugees
So it’s not surprising that Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Holy Week that leads up to Easter, has become a day marked by rallies for refugees.
Christians and non-Christians concerned about social justice protested again this year, in cities and towns around Australia. Among them were members of many secular community organisations, including the Refugee Action Coalition, Mums 4 Refugees, Doctors for Refugees and various trade unions.
In Sydney, the opening speech was given by Samuel Pho, who came to Australia as a Vietnamese ‘boat person’ and is now the National Secretary of the Salvation Army. Other speakers included Dr Sue Wareham from the Medical Association for Prevention of War and Joumana Harris who is President of the Muslim Women’s Association.
In Canberra, the rally prompted an interesting response by John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University. He reflected on the place of Christians in Australian society, in a newspaper comment headlined Australia’s Christians form a broader political church that most realise.
‘The nation has become more secular than it has ever been, though church attendance on special occasions like Easter – close to four million people, according to one analysis – shows that Christian roots in the community should not be underestimated. That makes Easter an appropriate time for a stocktake of Christian political participation just as the political year gets seriously under way at budget time. The first thing that must never be forgotten about Christianity in Australia is that it is amazingly diverse. No one can ever claim to speak on its behalf.’
Warhurst noted the paradox often confronting Christians themselves.
‘No church or faith-based organisation is… wholly conservative or progressive but can hold varying positions across issues and policies, a picture which is often at odds with media representations and the left-right adversarial games of the main political parties. It is rarely recognised that, outside sexual-morality conservatism, the Christian churches are often more progressive than society at large.’
Warhurst pointed out that Christian advocacy is often falsely presumed to be predominantly right-wing because prime ministers and premiers are more likely to engage with the conservative, faith-based figures, particularly those from the evangelical Australian Christian Lobby and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which have been at the forefront of the fight against same-sex marriage. But he noted those conservatives do not hold all the power.