Prime Ministers and Christianity


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Photo: Courtesy Agence France

In Church this morning, someone thanked God for our new Christian Prime Minister. I felt disappointed by this rush of enthusiasm. Before I lose my readers, let me state that I am very happy that Mr Morrison is a regular church-goer. I rejoice that God calls Christians to the vocation of politics: our country needs them. However, I reject the implied criticism of Mr Turnbull. For Scott Morrison’s faith to be a welcome novelty is simultaneously a judgement that Malcolm Turnbull is not one.

Mr Turnbull converted to Roman Catholicism. He chose not to politicise his faith.  In his recent book God is Good For You, in interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, journalist Greg Sheridan ‘was astonished at the depth of his knowledge of Catholic theology.’ Sheridan comments that Turnbull ‘affirms his belief if asked, nonetheless doesn’t talk publicly about religion all that much, but he very frequently makes reference to love. Perhaps he uses the word ‘love’ more than any previous prime minister.’ (p. 175)

Turnbull’s use of the word ‘love’ is significant as the way he parlayed his faith into the public realm. Even his enemies have noticed this intensely theological language. In fact, one of his detractors mocked his use of ‘love’ in the wake of his defeat.  But Turnbull chose not to use his faith as the public face of his policy making. He believed that arguments in the public sphere must stand on their own merits and not on their theological rationale.

Bill Shorten, too, is a convert, in his case from Catholicism to Anglicanism, the faith of his wife Chloe. Shorten is a product of a Jesuit school. Sheridan, no Labor apologist, is impressed by Mr Shorten’s’ serious knowledge’ of Christianity. Shorten takes into the public realm a quote from the legendary Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, ‘to be men for others’ as a key theological virtue. But like Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten disciplines the boundary between his faith and public life.

The stance of Turnbull and Shorten may even make us question politicians who let their faith be known because it is good politics. It may (or may not) increase Mr Morrison’s vote, but it won’t justify the decisions he makes a Prime Minister.

So, all power to PM ‘ScoMo’. I will pray for him as duty bound, and with added interest because he is a fellow-believer. But I thank God for Mr Turnbull too, and for all who choose to serve the community as politicians. It’s a hard job, and they need all the help they can get.

Warm and helpful apologetics


Greg Sheridan, God is Good For You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017.

$24 paperback (online), $14.85 Kindle Book.

Reviewed by Ted Witham.

Greg Sheridan is a foreign affairs journalist at The Australian. From the few pieces I have read I have the impression that he takes a conservative political line in his journalism and that his style can be heavy-handed.

Sheridan’s new book God is God for You was recommended, and for that reason alone I added it to my Kindle as holiday reading. I was pleasantly surprised in every way.

God is Good for You is certainly, as the sub-title says, a defence of Christianity. It is a well-argued, highly informed piece of apologetics. Sheridan’s voice is quiet, reasonable and forceful. He engages the so-called new atheists with strong evidence that belief is more reasonable than non-belief. He shows that many of the benefits of Western democracy come directly from Christianity, and he invites us to explore Christian responses to evil and suffering.

In Part 2, he interviews Christian politicians and national leaders from the major parties, and insists that many politicians are motivated by their faith. As one politician says, ‘You find more Christians in Parliament than in the general population.’ He explores new expressions of Christianity, including Pentecostal churches like Planetshakers in Melbourne and the counter-cultural movements of traditional and new monasticism.

He confesses himself surprised by the pervasive reach of the Focolare movement and interviews its Australian leader, Lucia Compostella. In Perth, he visits Providence City Church with its steady gaze on the new place of Christianity in Australian society – not persecuted, but a minority in exile from the old paradigm of Christendom.

He critiques limited understandings of leadership in the mainline churches and their weak use of traditional and social media.

I was pleasantly surprised at the catholicity of Sheridan’s gaze across the whole church scene, and at the open tone of his writing. There were points of disagreement for me. While I agreed with his statement that Christian faith makes radical claims of transcendence, he made too easy an equation between transcendence and the supernatural, a concept I wanted him to at least qualify. However, points of disagreement were actually few.

This book could safely be offered to any thinking citizen, Christian or not, for its reasonableness, and to any optimistic Christian for its clear-eyed analysis of where we are in modern society and its remedies for the future.

 

Martyred Christians at Mosul


For the sake of our fellow-Christians in Mosul, we should keep our outrage burning brightly. The thugs of ISIS are murdering Christians by their tens, burning the churches. They mark their houses with “N” (for “Nazarene”) and occupy them for themselves. Some commentators claim this is the worst pogrom since the Nazis put yellow stars on Jews and rounded them up in Germany.

To bring Christianity in Mosul to an end is a tragedy of the worst kind: Christians have been there since just after the time of Christ. They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. ISIS is destroying the community’s ancient irreplaceable texts.

The purpose of ISIS is clear: to wipe our Christianity in Iraq and all historical traces of it. It is shaping up to be a massacre of a people and the death of a culture. As a Christian, I burn with a sad anger to see brothers and sisters in the process of becoming martyrs.

As a teacher of World Religions, I am aware also that for most Muslims, the actions of ISIS is shameful. Their casual cruelty is foreign to Islam, which values human life and respects the People of the Book.

ISIS, like some extreme Christian groups, believes shrines and images lead people away from God. On July 24 this year, for example, the Islamic State levelled the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. This is as incomprehensible to most Muslims as Cromwell’s wanton destruction of English churches during the Revolution is to Christians.

The respected Washington Post, for example, wonders whether the destruction of shrines is to gain media attention. The answer is, I think, only as means to teach Muslims of the perceived dangers of these artefacts. These fundamentalists believe that they deceive people by promising to help them get closer to God, and they are prepared to destroy even the most valuable so that people can have simple direct access to God.

There seems so little that we can do from here in Australia. But I would suggest three actions.

  • Appreciate our freedom to worship. Thank God for it; and, if the occasion arises, express our appreciation to our civic leaders.
  • Stand in solidarity with our fellow-Christians in Mosul. Pray for them and with them. Get on board with the Act for Peace (Christmas Bowl) campaign.
  • Spread the word. Talk about the massacre that is occurring in Mosul with your friends. Re-post this blog, or other blogs about it, or link to it.

 

Ted Witham
26 July 2014

Orationes matutinae – rusty Latin


Morning in the Great Sandy Desert

I have been scraping the rust off my Latin this morning, translating parts of APBA Morning Prayer. My efforts are in bold. If you can suggest any improvements or corrections, I would be grateful.

OPENING PRAYER

The night has passed and the day lies open before us.
Let us pray with one heart and mind.

Silence may be kept.

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence
set our hearts on fire with love for you
now and for ever.

ORATIO ORDIENS

Nox fugata est diesque patet pro nobis.
Oremus unitate cordis mentisque.

Silentium potuit sequi

Cum jubilo nostro in dono huius dieis novi,
lux praesentiae tuae amore corda nostra incendat
Et nunc et semper.

***

AFTER THE READING(S)

 

May Your Word live in us
And bear much fruit to your glory.

 

 SECUNDUS LECTIONES

Verbum Tuum vivet in nobis.
Ferat multum fructum ad gloriam Tuam.

 

Passing on the Faith?


It is a privilege to regularly post on the website of Dunsborough Anglican Church. I have just posted there today on passing on the faith. I’ve based some of the article on the ideas of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave on communities of practice and situated peripheral learning, as I think they have a lot to offer our understandings of faith formation.

Moving Stories


REVIEW:  Robert Béla Wilhelm, Perfect Joy in Holy Week: Walking with St Francis of Assisi in the Footsteps of Our Lord, Storyfest Productions 2013 (Volume 3 of the Collected Works of Robert Béla Wilhelm).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Dr Robert Béla Wilhelm was our keynote presenter in the Third Order Conference in Perth in 2006. People warmed to Bob and his gentle style of telling stories about St Francis.  Quite a few Tertiaries have kept in touch with Bob since then.

Bob’s style of story-telling moves me, sometimes to tears. I sometimes find them hard to read to others without tearing up. His story-telling evokes an emotional depth to help the listener connect with the richness of his stories.

Perfect Joy in Holy Week is a series of six stories about St Francis for the six days of Holy Week. Each story has a short version and a long version, and each story is introduced by the Scripture readings set for the Eucharist of the day and concluded with provocative reflections.  These stories are accessible to anyone and speak strongly into anyone’s life.

The stories can be used in worship, particularly at an appropriate Eucharist, at an Area/Region meeting or in your private devotions. You can read or tell the story yourself, or, in the iBook version, hear Dr Wilhelm himself bringing these stories to life.

Bob is also an icon writer. Perfect Joy includes traditional icons and paintings as well as some of Bob’s own. So prayerfully are they written I find I have to look carefully to see which are the traditional icons and which are Bob’s.

The attention to detail in this book is obvious. He includes not only the lections for his home Roman Catholic tradition, but also the Anglican and ecumenical lections where they differ. Design values are high even in the E-book versions. The pages were lightly textured and the layout easy to use, colourful and easy on the eye.

While they follow the great events of Holy Week, the stories and reflections can still be enjoyed at any time of the year. Rae and I didn’t get around (typically) to using these stories until Easter week, but we still found them to be fresh, inspiring and encouraging.

The easiest way to obtain either a print or electronic book is by visiting the Storyfest bookstore at http://www.sacredstorytelling.org.

***

Review first published in the Pentecost 2013 Newsletter of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, Australian Provinnce.

Christians and Malaysia


The London based weekly journal The Economist has called the recent victory of the ruling party in Malaysia “a tawdry victory”. There is no doubt that the elections were not completely free and fair. After 50 years in power, the Barisan Nasional has engineered a strong gerrymander. There were serious allegations of vote-buying and irregularities like the permanent ink used to mark the fingers of those who have voted being easily washed off.

 

In addition Government policies favour ethnic Malays and, in Borneo, other indigenous groups.  People of Chinese and Indian origin are not so favoured. A strong whiff of racism pervades politics in Malaysia.

 

The disquiet of Malaysian Christians goes beyond the immediate problems of the election. They are concerned for example about non-Muslims being banned from using the word “Allah” to describe God. This controversy has been alive since at least 2007 when Christians were banned from using “Allah” in any publication, including the Bible. Catholic Christians took the Government to court, but failed to overturn the ban.

 

A fatwa issued in 2010 confirmed the ban and in January this year the Sultan of the State of Selangor strengthened it with threats of legal action against anyone who defied it or spoke out against it. Prime Minister Najid Abdul Razak supported the Sultan saying that their viewpoint protects harmony in a country with many religions.

 

Christians and Hindus in Malaysia argue that the word “Allah” does not belong just to Muslims. It is the normal Arab word for God, and Arab-speaking Christians in the Middle East have been using it probably for 1900 years. “Allah” entered Bahasa (the language spoken by Indonesians and Malays) more recently with both Christians and Muslims using it freely – until the last few years.

 

This ban, in a country with a secular constitution, obviously discriminates against non-Muslims, but it also restricts Christians in theological discussion about God.

 

Muslims appeal to Christians to use only the word “Tuhan” (which means “Master” or “Lord”) when speaking of God.

 

Bible translators, for example, are faced with two different words for God in the Old Testament: “Elohim” and “YHWH” (The Lord). In the New Testament “kyrios” and “theos” both refer to God. To be consistent in Malay Bibles, translators need two words to distinguish “God” and “Lord”.

 

The Malaysian Christians I know are not anti-Muslim, but they are worried by the way that this and other religious issues are used as a wedge between Muslims and Christians. They want rather to foster dialogue between the two faith communities.

 

Because of possible legal consequences, Christians in Malaysia are restrained in discussing these issues openly. Praise God that in Australia we have no such restriction. We can help our sisters and brothers by praying, and by expressing our opinions when we have the opportunity. If you know Malaysian Christians, you could tell them of your support and solidarity. They will value it.

 

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!