Recently someone shared with me that one of the biggest problems of the Church at this time was that we were getting too involved in politics. The latest example, they reminded me, was that the Church was supporting a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum. My friend was fully supportive of the Church running schools for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, running health clinics and drop in centres and that Church organisations like the St Vincent de Paul Society did a wonderful job. “Help them, but don’t get involved in politics!”
The former Archbishop of Recife in Brazil was Dom Helda Camara. Dom Helda is famously quoted as saying, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask ‘Why are they poor?’ They call me a communist!”
That quotation sums up one of the biggest challenges that the Catholic Church and all institutional religion have faced and are facing. At the core of the Christian tradition is the person of Jesus and his Gospel. Our choice here is starkly obvious.
Do we believe in a pious Jesus with a halo around his head whose main preoccupation was the number and size of the candles on the high altar? Do we believe in a walking on water Jesus who will respond to the number of votive candles lit before his statue? Do we believe in a Jesus who approves of the Eucharist more if it is celebrated in Latin with the back of the priest to the people? Do we believe in a high altar Jesus? Do we believe in a Jesus who sides with the rich and especially if they are ‘nice’ to the poor? Do we believe in a Jesus who is at home in vestments and liturgy, incense and chants, bowing and mitres, long processions of celibate men and ornate and grandiose Churches and Cathedrals?
The Jesus that I believe in – and I’m quoting HIS words, not mine said, “Forgive your brother and sister seventy times seven, and do so from the heart!” “Take the lowest place at the table!” “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full!” “I have come among you as one who serves!” “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, sick and in prison and you came to visit me …..!” I could go on and on and on.
And it wasn’t just what he said – it was what he did. Jesus got up from table and washed the feet of his chosen twelve. He picked up a whip and drove the money changers out of the temple because it was supposed to be a place of prayer and not commerce. He allowed a ‘sinful’ woman to wash his feet and he courageously stepped into a circle of hate and condemnation of men about to stone a “woman caught in the very act of committing adultery” and he challenged their hypocrisy and hardened hearts. He took children into his arms and reached out to embrace the leper. He, on every page of the Scriptures goes to the liminal space, against the religious and social norms of his time, he goes to the edge, to the poor, the powerless and the oppressed. Again, I could go on and on and on.
Scripture scholars would suggest there are a couple of seminal Scriptures that give us a privileged insight into the person of Jesus. One of the passages is found early in Luke’s Gospel:
“He came to Nazara, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lords’ year of favour.
He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Luke 4: 16-19
The other is found in Matthew’s Gospel (also in Luke) and we have come to know it as the Beatitudes.
“How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Happy the gentle: they shall the the earth for their heritage. Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted. Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied. Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them. Happy the pure of heart: they shall see God. Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons and daughters of God. Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5: 3-10
The central symbol of Christianity is the Cross. The Cross is not nice. It is not convenient. It is not a ‘feel good’ story. The cross is not about hugging teddy bears and pious platitudes, ornate liturgy and structures of power and privilege. The cross is all about radical love. The cross is all about radical forgiveness. The cross is all about radical servanthood and radical hospitality. These are the things that led Jesus to be crucified on a cross. No choirs, no incense, no vestments, no dogma or dogmatic theology just pain, agonising pain, alone, abandoned, afraid and yet trusting in love, the greatest love.
So back to where I began this blog. Any faith tradition must be about politics for politics is about people and justice and fairness and the quality of life – life to the full. Jesus went to the Cross for this type of politics. What our faith traditions must NOT be about is party politics – for we all know only too well that party politics of its very nature is compromised. I have an old boy who sits in Federal Parliament for the Liberal Party. I have a friend who met his wife on an Edmund Rice Camp and he sits in the Senate for the National Party. I have an old boy who until recently was a Labour Premier’s speech writer.
As you well know, I love movies and I love history. One powerful scene in ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ (the story of St Francis of Assisi) shows the parish church in Assisi on a medieval Sunday. Up at the front of the Church, immediately in front of the altar, sitting in ornate chairs are the wealthy and well heeled of Assisi. Dressed in the finest cloths and fashion they are oblivious to the huddled peasants and paupers who crowd just inside the back door of the Church. The image says it all.
Another scene is from the beautiful movie, “Of Gods and men” which tells the story of a community of Cistercian monks in Algeria during that nations Civil War. The monks know their lives are in danger from Muslim fundamentalists and yet they continue to teach, offer medical services and serve the poor local Muslim population right up until the time they are kidnapped and seven of the nine are killed. Heroic living of the Gospel!
The history of most religious traditions has been littered with examples where the followers of Jesus or Mohammed or the Buddha lost their way celebrating the superficial and outside and losing sight of the core and the inside. In France just prior to the French Revolution the rich ‘Catholic’ elite got richer and richer on the backs of the poor. This sad story has been too often repeated and the Church is poorer and compromised for it. At the height of the Refugee and Asylum Seeker crises many of Tony Abbot’s cabinet were past students of Jesuit schools as they strenuously ‘turned back the boats’ against the protocols of the UN Charter that we were a signatory to.
One of my favourite posters has the words on it, “If you were on trial for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Not evidence of how expensive your surplice is, how many times you bow before the Blessed Sacrament or how exact your Latin is but rather the evidence that goes directly back to the person of Jesus, his Gospel and his belief in the need to bring about the Kingdom of God.
Vestments, incense, rites and rituals, dogma and theology, icons and ornate places of worship all have value – but only if they help us to fall in love with a simple carpenter who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa out of his radical love for human kind and his Abba Father!
If you have been patient enough to read to the end of this please don’t label me neither saint nor communist. The referendum on October 14th is not a question of either / or but both and. It is not about whether we offer quality educational, health and other social services to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters or not. Yes, we should – but we should also invite them to a seat at the table so that their voice can be heard in the matters that directly effect them.
It is also a simple matter of naming and recognising that long before European settlement – Australia was not Terra Nullius – but a continent covered in tribal and language groups that danced and shared story, celebrated and grieved and stewarded mother Earth for all. This needs to be named and celebrated in our founding document – the Constitution. That naming and that celebrating will honour and give dignity to us all: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander – anyone, all of us, who still call Australia home!