Address to Australian Christian Lobby National Conference

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Address to Australian Christian Lobby National Conference

Address to Australian Christian Lobby National Conference

National Press Club, Barton

23 September 2006

Christ lived his entire life on earth under the Roman Empire. He was crucified by the Romans. Mostly the apostles died at the hands of the political authorities. Both Peter and Paul are believed to have died at the hands of the Romans during the persecutions of Nero.

The early Christians exercised no political power. They were the victims of it. This was the experience of the Church for nearly 300 years. In 312 AD the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and with that conversion Christianity, or least some part of it, transformed from the faith of a reviled minority to the official religion of a powerful state.

As an “official religion” Christianity could be blamed for some of the excesses of the States where it held sway. Even today Muslim critics will cite the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition as failings of Christianity.

But Christ’s purpose was not to found a State or a government, at least not in this world. On trial for his life before the Roman Governor, Pilate, Jesus said:

“My Kingdom is not of this world, if my Kingdom were of this world then would my servants fight.”1

Jesus rejected any opportunity to seize political power. He raised no army, fought no battle, enacted no law, meted out no punishment. When he was asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (the military Emperor occupying Israel at the time) he took a coin with Caesar’s image and replied:

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” 2

In other words there is the realm of the State – tax and coinage and so on – but beyond that there is a spiritual realm: the Kingdom of God. The separation of Church and State – The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world – each with their separate areas of responsibility and each claiming loyalty from the citizen in their areas of jurisdiction – derives from the teaching of Christ himself.

Separating the State from religion allows religious freedom. In Christ’s time it was the freedom of Christians and Jews under the Roman Empire. In our time it is the freedom of all kinds of religion under a secular state prescribed by the Australian Constitution.

Christ’s teaching which separated the spiritual from the political kingdom was, by large measure, lost after the fourth century and for several centuries thereafter. It was recovered in the later part of the 2nd millennium AD. Most spectacularly it was adopted and extended by the framers of the American Constitution and The Bill of Rights.

The Prophet Muhammad was also persecuted for his religious teaching. From Mecca he was put to flight to Medina. There he gathered supporters, formed an army, led it in battle, defeated those that had forced him out, and conquered Mecca. He became Head of State. “As such he governed a place and a people, dispensed justice, collected taxes, commanded armies, waged war and made peace.”3 His teachings cover how and when to fight military battles.

Early Islamic history is quite different from early Christian history. From the outset Islam instituted government. Establishing the rule of Islam in Mecca was seen as the intervention of God. It was a victory won by military force.

This does not mean there is no experience of a secular state separate from the religious domain in the Muslim world. The most outstanding example would be the establishment of modern Turkey out of the old Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Atatrk, well known in Australia as the Commander of the Turkish victory at Gallipoli in 1915 went on to found modern Turkey as a secular state – a path he believed would lead to modernity. In this regard he is one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. He should be held out as a model of leadership for the modern Islamic world.4

The separation of the state from religion liberates both. It preserves freedom for religion. It liberates the church from the baggage of unpopular and difficult political decision making. It liberates the State from the religious dogma which at times, has held back scientific progress.

There are some countries today that still have established churches. But there are no countries in the modern world that claim to be Christian theocratic states. There are countries that claim to be theocratic Islamic States, for example, The Islamic Republic of Iran, The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, The Islamic Republic of Mauritania. There are other countries that enforce religious or Sharia Law – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But for the radical Islamists even this is not enough. They have a vision of a Caliphate stretching across the Middle East toppling what they see as corrupt nation states and enforcing a more “pure” version of Islam. In our own region the ambitions of Jemaah Islamiyah is to create a Pan-Islamic State stretching down and encompassing the southern Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia.

Before his assassination at the hands of another militant, Muslim theologian of the Shiite branch of Islam, Ayatollah Baqer al-Sadr said:

“The world as we know it today is how others shaped it. We have two choices: either to accept it with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct a world as Islam requires.”5

Now I have argued that the separation of Church and State is good for both and, further, that is a Christian teaching. I believe, that a secular national state can be adopted by Muslim societies and, what is more, that doing so will lead to greater technological and economic progress.

I support the concept of a secular state for our country. Does this mean that Christians have no role in setting its policy direction?

Of course not. Like all citizens they are entitled (indeed in our country required) to vote. They will exercise their rights as they are entitled to do in a democratic country in accordance with their Christian conscience. They have a right and a duty to do so. And when they do so they can make a great difference for good.

Two Sundays ago I worshipped at a church service in St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa. It was the Cathedral of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is located across the street from the Parliament precinct of South Africa. During the period of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu gave voice from that Cathedral and the Cathedral gave sanctuary to blacks who were forbidden to assemble or speak against the great wrong of apartheid. His Christian leadership was influential in bringing that rotten system to an end. He led the truth and reconciliation process afterwards.

Archbishop Tutu was standing up for another Christian principle – the dignity of each individual regardless of race or colour or gender:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”6

Much of our system of government has its origin in an idea or teaching from our religious heritage. Here I would widen that heritage to the Judeo-Christian heritage. As you know the Christian faith has adopted, and built on, a great deal of the Jewish faith.

The concept of the rule of law derives from Moses and the 10 Commandments which gives us the concept of property rights and respect for the family. I believe you cannot fully understand the importance of all these ideas without appreciating where they originated and, in their context, why they developed.

So if the Australian Christian Lobby is set upon defending the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage that underpin our system of Government (including the establishment of a secular state with freedom of religion for all) then I am all for it.

There are obvious Christian values on racial equality, gender equality, property rights and the family. But in Caesar’s realm of “coinage and taxes” finding the “true” or “right” “Christian” position is a little less clear. This does not stop different people claiming to know it. They should be careful. I am still amazed that, during the GST debate, there were many Christian leaders so confident of the true “moral” or “Christian” policy on tax. It is hard to find much support for a direct tax system over an indirect tax system in the Bible. Yet some Christian leaders were able to give very definite views, confidently predicting the disastrous consequences that would flow from the reform. Plainly that has not turned out to be the case. Plainly they were wrong.

On some issues it pays to be a little more reflective.

For any citizen, Christian or not, who wants to engage in public debate it is important to do the work, understand the issues, argue the case, but respect the views of others. It would no doubt help if the media showed careful respect for all views. Once you engage in a political discussion you will notice that the media is much more respectful of a Church leader on the left than a church leader on the right of the spectrum. This doesn’t make conservative Church leaders wrong. It just makes them less popular to today’s modern press.

If you have not already done so I would recommend reading the lecture of Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006. It is on faith and reason. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God” concludes His Holiness enlarging on a quote from a Byzantine Emperor:-Manuel II.

Unfortunately initial reporting of his speech focussed on a preceding sentence where the Pope quoted Manuel talking to a Persian interlocutor. I will not repeat the sentence because it would thoroughly detract from what I have to say. But it was said 700 years ago. And the Pope was not endorsing it. He was merely recounting the way in which the conversation and the quotation arose.

Read the speech and wonder at the reaction. In response, we are told, seven churches were set on fire on the West Bank and Gaza, and effigies of the Pope were hung and burned in Pakistan.

In London notorious extremist Anjem Choudary told a demonstration:

“Whoever insults the message of Mohammed is going to be subject to capital punishment” 7

And Reuters reported from Dubai:

An Iraqi militant group led by al Qaeda vowed a war against the “worshippers of the cross” in response to a recent speech by Pope Benedict on Islam that sparked anger across the Muslim world.

“We tell the worshipper of the cross (the Pope) that you and the West will be defeated, as is the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya,” said an Internet statement by the Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella group led by Iraq’s branch of al Qaeda.

“We shall break the cross and spill the wine…God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome…God enable us to slit their throats, and make their money and descendants the bounty of the mujahideen,”said the statement.8

How can one religion exercise the freedom to speak on its values, its faith, without prompting a violent response from other religions? It can only happen where we all accept a set of rules – the right to freedom of speech without receiving violence in return, with rights respected and enforced by a State, neutral as between the claims of the various schools. At the international level it can only occur where the international order is observed by a series of nation states who recognise each other and respect these rights internationally.

These are critical values. Within these values we can have robust disagreements. For people who refuse to observe these values, we have no useful discussion. Their refusal to accept these rules threatens the freedom of all.

This is the position of al Qaeda. This is the position of the terrorist. It is also the position of religious extremists who refuse to recognise the nation state. They are outside the international consensus and as such they threaten it. They are a threat to the international order.

No doubt the fire bombers on the West Bank and the demonstrators in Pakistan would claim that their actions were incited by the “insult” of the Pope’s speech. But one can’t help thinking that there are some people who love to find an insult and have no concept of proportionality when they do so. We are moved to think that there are other agendas here. And one of those agendas is to stifle free speech and legitimate open inquiry.

I believe that a strong consensus on individual respect, lawful peaceful behaviour in a secular state which holds the ring free for all religion, is the best guarantee of freedom. These are values that derive from the Christian tradition but I think they can be more universal than that. They can be, and are, embraced by other traditions as well. There are extremists who do not embrace them and aspire to change the whole international order as we know it. We will have to defend ourselves against them. But articulating these values over and over again is important to stop those who would destroy these freedoms from appealing to the next generation.

All over the world there are Muslims who are seeking to emigrate to, and live, in peace in western societies established in the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is no evidence that there is significant Christian emigration to Islamic societies. In fact, there is evidence that in some Islamic countries Christians and Jews are doing their best to get out. These are societies still coming to grips with diversity and religious freedom. As I have said the secular state is the best mechanism to handle this. The example of, and the success of, Turkey is very important here.

Our society is not perfect. We have failings. The influence of well-intentioned, well thought out, Christian citizens will help address them. But our society is founded on a great bedrock of values and heritage. I have no doubt that if we build on this rock our house will withstand the rain and the flood and wind that is thrown against it.

1 John 19:36

2 Mark 12:17

3 The Crisis In Islam, Bernard Lewis, Weidenfeld & Nelson, 2003, page 5

4 I am not endorsing all of Ataturk’s record. I am merely holding him out as a model on securalism.

5 Christianity Today, Sept 17, 2001

6 Galatians 3:28

7 Evening Standard, Sept 18, 2006

8 Reuters, Sept 17, 2006