I came across a speech by Peter Garrett, shadow minister for the environment, that I thought deserved some wider circulation within the Christian community in Australia, and amongst the evangelical left in particular.
It concerns the continuing war in Iraq and the shape of Christian politics in Australia and is just as relevant for today as when it was first spoken six months ago.
In it, Peter Garrett states:
I should take this opportunity to speak on the values debate at this point, which has been in the news of late, in relation to three contemporary elements of the involvement of Christianity in politics.
First, there is a fair amount of fuzziness about where the line of demarcation between church and state, that is the separation of church and state, lies.
This separation is a principle I firmly believe in, while also believing that someone’s personal values should and do inform one’s day to day thought processes and decision-making.
But there is way too much selective following of the rule nowadays by this government. It invokes the authority and wisdom and so-called legitimate involvement of the church in politics and policy-making when that involvement is pro-government policy.
And the Howard Government directly uses various congregations and speeches to them to promote government policies; but when the church points out human rights and humanitarian values “shortcomings” and “failures” of the government, for example in relation to refugee policy, then the church is loudly deemed to have no place in such discussions and told, often not so politely, to go away quietly.
Second, it is very much “do as I say, not as I do” with this government.
It falsely promotes itself as having a monopoly on “Christian” values and upholding a set of ethics and principles which are in strict keeping with those values – yet its actions do not accord with them.
What is ‘Christian’ about the treatment of David Hicks? What is ‘Christian’ about the treatment of asylum-seekers? What is ‘Christian’ about believing that sleep deprivation and other harsh treatment of arrestees is not torture?
Finally, let’s by all means have a discussion about personal values, and Christian values, and humanitarian values, without the strong suggestion that there is only one correct set of them – the set the government claims sole ownership of – and anyone of any other religion, opinion or general set of beliefs is sidelined, or, at best, “tolerated”, but certainly not respected or accepted.
The spectre of the West being involved in or effecting the use of torture, the forced removal of suspected terrorists to countries not connected with the war to enable interrogation outside the legal systems of Western countries, and the imprisonment of alleged terrorists without proper legal process is troubling many lawyers, church leaders and members of the public.
So what should the Christian response be in these circumstances?
In the first instance to oppose these practices. To say loudly and clearly that actions of this kind are contrary to the political traditions, including those that derive from Christian values, that make up our democratic system.
My reading of Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek, is that not only is it a clear rebuttal of the literalness of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but it is also a practical insight into how arguments that justify the use of violence on the grounds that violence has already occurred can be countered.
It is a fact that it is that much harder to break a cycle of violence, once retribution has started.
The injunction to love your neighbours and pray for those who persecute you meant the early Christian writers, in the main, were clear that violence and war making was unchristian.
Christian doctrine is not comfortably numb to the scenario of unmitigated, unlawful aggression.
Unilateral pre-emption throws off the bounds of containment within which any nation operates in relation to others, and which is implicit in the Sermon on the Mount message; namely do unto others as you would have them do unto you (not before they do it to you) and explicit in the accepted rules of international law.
The rule breaking that defines Christ’s mission as recorded in the gospels is the ushering in of an age where peace is pre-eminent, not one where war is justified.
As I read this six months after it’s initial delivery, the war in Iraq continues, David Hicks is still in custody in Guantanamo Bay without any formal charges having been laid against him, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, continues to cynically manipulate mainline Christianity with his dog-whistle politics of ‘family values’ as if Christian values could be reduced to that.
And only yesterday my wife told me of the latest Christian Democrat ploy to demonize the Green Party as Pagan, consequently deligitimizing environmental concern in the eyes of many Christians. Jesus weeps.
[A note for my American friends. Yes, this is the same Peter Garrett who for many years fronted that quintessentially Aussie band Midnight Oil. He is now the environmental minister for the Australian Labour Party, your equivalent of the Democrats].