Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Christian Heritage?

I actually think that, you know, the ethos of our community, the guiding principles of our law, are based and built around Christianity. Now, you don't have to be a Christian to recognise there are inherent benefits to that. I support the Federal Government's chaplaincy program. ...  
Yeah, it's not about proselytising, but it’s about informing students and providing pastoral care within, I think, a moral framework, that is consistent with our laws and expectations.  (Cory Bernardi, Q&A, June 2, 2014)

To my mind it's a rather tedious debate, but it reared its head again on this week's Q&A. Senator Cory Bernardi defended government funding of chaplains on the basis of Australia having a Christian heritage. There were several layers of confusion between the question asked of Bernardi and his answer, but that's not my concern.

I personally have no investment in claiming, defending, or even disputing Australia's Christian heritage. It would seem pointless to deny that Christianity has exercised various influences on this nation's history and identity. But it would be just as pointless - perhaps even more so - to deny the irreducible and unavoidable ambiguity of that influence. The treatment of Australia's First Peoples, the White Australia policy, the present refugee policy of detaining children - all these sit uneasily with a Christian 'ethos' that Bernardi claims.

More troubling for me is that there are those who want to argue from their understanding of a Christian heritage towards proposals for minimising the diversity of contemporary Australia. This is coupled to a further argument about giving Christianity and its representatives a privileged role in defining the nation's present and in shaping its future. What I find most unsettling about this claim is that it involves proposing a role somehow earned by the past and not by the validity or authenticity of the contemporary Christian presence.

It is perfectly proper to have a serious discussion of the Christian influence on this nation's history. It is an appropriate issue of scholarly debate and cultural analysis. In such debates contemporary Christians might be both inspired and disappointed by what our forebears have done in and for this country. Equally, some non-Christians might be confirmed but also challenged in their assessments of the Christian influence.

I believe that as Christians we need to sit very loosely to the issue of this nation's 'Christian heritage' and not just because of its ambiguous character. It's also because attempts by Christians to claim it simply fall on deaf or rightly-suspicious ears in our pluralist, multi-faith context. Neither the heritage nor the contemporary realities of the Christian presence in Australia warrant Christianity being given a privileged place.

Yet none of this is to say that as Christians we should not seek with, as much energy as we can, to influence our nation - but it will need to be an influence exercised through love and service. Nor it is to suggest that Christians should be coy about projecting their voice into debates about Australia's institutions, politics and future - but our voice needs to be as self-critical, even repentant, as it is confident. The shape of any influence of such contributions is likely to be very different from what was familiar to the mainline churches of late Christendom.

One striking element in much of this debate is the typical absence of references to living Christian communities. The 'Christian heritage' so vigorously defended is often very abstract - a phenomenon which, it is said, provides principles and frameworks. But the cultivation of any ethos requires a people to practice it. Perhaps the future and present shape of Christianity's influence won't be measured by its scale. It might, instead, be measured by its capacity to form people and communities who practice the way of Jesus as a loving if disturbing presence in a society that is supported by many frameworks.

In fact the best examples of how to participate in this unfamiliar context might come from the Churches in those countries where there is no 'Christian heritage'. I'm sure we have much to learn from the witness of churches in, for example, India, Pakistan and China, who against all odds and from numerically, religiously and culturally marginal positions bear witness to Christ. We might need to let go of the modern theories of Church and State, sit loosely to debates about the nation's Christian heritage, and discover something entirely new. And something authentically Christian.