Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott Get So Wrong about the 'Judeo-Christian Tradition'

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Melbourne University, May 7th 2018.

Texts: Luke 4: 14-21; 1 Peter 2:4-13
“Australia is a secular nation but it is founded upon the Judeo-Christian tradition and values.”
The claim at once invites some interrogation of what Bernardi means for a nation to be secular but founded around particular religious values.
Setting aside the question of its coherence or historical accuracy it is important to realise that Benardi’s invocation of the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' is part of  larger quest to defend not only so-called Australian values but the values of what he rather loosely calls ‘the West’. So, in his book, The Conservative Revolution, he makes these much more expansive claims:
The framework of our Western moral tradition can be found in the wisdom of the Ten Commandments, and the lessons of Christ and the lives of the Apostles.
All this can be affirmed, he rightly insists, regardless of whether the society at large regards itself as secular.  So he goes on:
Thus, secular or not, our society is based on the principles of religious faith, borne of the natural law that is engraved on our very heart, reflected in our customs and codified in our laws.
In this he has a close ally in his former party leader, or, I should say, the former leader of his former party, namely Tony Abbott.
In his 2015 Thatcher Lecture in London, the former Prime Minister made a quite specific appeal to Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” – the so called Golden Rule. Abbott declared that this “imperative is at the heart of every western polity”. He continued: “It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees.”
Then last year in a much publicised speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, also in London, the former Prime Minister lamented how this particular religious heritage was being set aside by what he described as a new religion – namely the religion of Climate Change.
This is what he said:

Climate Change is by no means the sole or even the most significant symptom of the changing interests and values of the west. Still, only societies with high levels of cultural amnesia – that have forgotten the scriptures about man created “in the image and likeness of God” and charged with “subduing the earth and all its creatures” – could have made such a religion out of it.
What is going on here? It is partly nostalgia, or at least it trades on a certain kind of cultural nostalgia. It is partly a reflection of their own faith convictions. It is partly a perfectly reasonable reminder of positive influence of the Christian faith in shaping Western Culture. It is also partly, indeed, in very large part, a conservative political strategy.  
And this political dimension is Bernardi’s appeal to the 'Judeo-Christian' tradition is perfectly logical. We need, he writes, “traditionally minded governments” because only such  governments “can appreciate the importance and need of these principles.”
According to Bernardi, to honour this culture’s religious traditions and the culture on which is it founded is a political responsibility and the responsibility of politicians.
Again to quote from The Conservative Revolution:
I believe by stripping God and religious principles from our culture and our politics we have become a nation which does not know what port it is sailing to. Without the notion of the transcendent in our daily and public lives, we will undoubtedly lose a sense of the profound. Such a loss is like killing off the spirit of civilisation.
Perhaps he’s right. The values of the dignity of all people, a concern for the rights and welfare of the poor, and the orientation to heal rather than ignore or stigmatise the sick are not self-evident values. That they became common moral assumptions in the West was largely a consequence of Christian and Jewish ideas about these matters taking hold in Europe in the centuries following Christ, however imperfectly those commitments were enacted.
Yet, as a Christian, I’m very uneasy about what’s going on here.
I’m not uneasy because I want to deny the impact of Christianity on the formation of Western culture. Far from it. There is a forgetfulness, indeed often an ideologically driven denial, of  how Christianity has positively shaped the West.
But I am uneasy that the Christian heritage is presented in such idealised form. Christian faith demands honesty. And honestly, Christianity has been complicit in much that has been destructive. We must confront the ambiguity of the Christian heritage even whilst honouring and defending some aspects of the societies it has helped to generate.
I’m also uneasy because I think the political use of Christianity prevents any serious or wider engagement with the purpose of Christianity – at least as those purposes have some grounding in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Indeed, the use of the term 'Judeo-Christian' itself heavy with political intent. And this is not confined to Australian conservatives.
In October lastyear, Donald Trump declared: “We are stopping cold the attacks onJudeo-Christian values…We’re saying Merry Christmas again.” Seemingly unaware that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, Trump was clumsily, but no doubt very effectively, playing to his conservative Christian base and its acute sense of loss of power and influence.
In 2014, an Australian scholar, Chole Patton, wrote that the very term, Judeo Christian tradition, first appears in Australian literature in 1974.  There is then a sudden peak after September 11, 2001. She writes: until 9/11, “it appears Australians didn’t give a fig about Judeo-Christian values”. A similar pattern is evident in America where the term first appears in the 1930s and again experiences a peak post- 9/11. Then it becomes a something of a rhetorical strategy of resistance to the influence of Islam.
And once again Christian honesty must be insisted upon here. For it is also the case that the Christian tradition has for long enough not only not cared about the Jewish roots of its own tradition, but maligned and persecuted the community out of which its own founder came.
This particular political appeal to the so-called 'Judeo-Christian tradition' also feeds into the persecution that many Australian Christians feel (wrongly in my view) as they find themselves challenged by the shift of the culture at large away from deference to the church and Christian values (broadly understood). This rhetoric about defending the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' too often becomes a tool for defending the rights of Christians. Yet to the extent that we can talk historically about the ‘Christian tradition’ and its involvement in politics, it has been more about Christians defending the rights of others and seeking the welfare of all rather Christians defending themselves.
So, ambiguity must attend any evaluation of the impact of the so-called 'Judeo-Christian tradition'. But this provides an opportunity to ask a deeper question: Just what is Christianity for?
Our gospel reading gives us some insight into at least how Jesus' followers remembered his own self-understanding of his mission.
Sometimes labelled the Nazareth Manifesto, the text from Luke records a highly-charged moment.
Famous local boy returns home. He attends the synagogue. He reads a heavily-freighted text, bristling with messianic, even revolutionary, rhetoric.
And then Jesus essentially rebuffs the good will shown to him by his own townsfolk. He tells them quite bluntly that they don’t have a clue who he is or what the text was about. So incensed is the synagogue congregation that they drag him to a nearby cliff intending to throw him off it and do him in.  It all went pear-shaped very quickly.
So what was the text he had read?  Let’s read that section again:
The scroll is handed to Jesus. He unrolls it to a passage from the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 61:1-2)   to be exact):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
Certainly we see here some of the themes that have come to be accepted as normative in the West. And, yes, it is from a Jewish prophet, or at least a tradition of prophecy associated with Isaiah of Jerusalem who lived in the 8th century before the Common Era. And it is read and endorsed by Jesus Christ. So, perhaps we do see here the foundation of 'Judeo-Christian' values.
Yet despite the fact that is labelled a manifesto – that is, as a charter for future action – Jesus turns all the attention to the present and, indeed, to himself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.
How, exactly, we might well ask?
You see, this text and this incident in Jesus’ ministry is not a manifesto for forming a new culture. It is actually about Jesus himself and his status. He is announcing that he will fulfill these hopes.
And it was the conviction of the first Christians that he had done so, but not through providing the template for the future culture of Europe, let alone 'the West.'
They believed he fulfilled these hopes in a way that was confusing, cryptic, and ambiguous. They found their hope not in the way he changed society – something he singularly failed to do in his lifetime - but through the whole drama of his life, death and resurrection. And rather than see that as transforming the wider culture, at least some of them they saw themselves as a counter culture.
We get a small insight into that perspective from the second of our readings. The document we know as 1 Peter was written to various small Christian communities scattered across Asia Minor around the end of the first century of the  Common Era.
Did you hear how the readers were addressed? “Aliens and strangers”. Their vocation was not to lay down the law for the surrounding world; it was instead “to lives honourably” amongst their neighbours that even the neighbours might glorify God.
And at the outset of the letter ( a section we didn’t read) they were addressed as "exiles". Their identity and their hope was grounded in “the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
They are not instructed to take over the culture and politics of the day. There was no summons to a 'conservative revolution.' They were told to “honour everyone.” and even to “honour the emperor” of an empire that was by no means favourably disposed to this novel form of life called Christianity.
Now of course, this once exiled, persecuted, minority community scattered across Palestine, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean did become powerful. Over time it acquired and was given political power and cultural control.
But was this the founder’s intention?
That good flowed from this development, was perhaps providential. Perhaps it was an accident of history.
But  Christianity cannot claim that historical development as the mandate for preserving a 'Judeo-Christian' tradition or defending that tradition for for the sake of Christians having and retaining rights.
If we take the example of Jesus and the self-understanding of the first Christians as being in any way normative, the Christian posture towards the world should be characterised by a sense of modesty, a degree of humility, many acts of contrition, and constantly-nurtured orientation to serve the world.
Yes, it should also be characterised by a deeply-rooted confidence that the ways of life to which it is called are worthwhile, that they have something to contribute to the wider world, that they do point to the ways of  God and God’s purposes for the world.
So, can I encourage you, if you needed any encouragement, to treat with some skepticism the calls to defend the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' when it is made for political purposes.
Can I also encourage you to look at the history of Christianity and its formative impact on the West with your eyes wide open. You will have no difficulty seeing where that history has failed its own identity and calling.
But be willing also to recognize that the values of human dignity, care for the poor, attention to the ill, didn’t come to pass automatically. They are hard-won values and they are worth preserving.
And as a Christian disciple, as a teacher of Christian theology, can I also invite you to look behind the Christian tradition to the one from whom it takes its inspiration.  An ambiguous, cryptic, confusing Jewish rabbi, obsessed with what he called the 'kingdom of God,' and who through his life, death and resurrection brought something genuinely new to the world.
Looking at him, listening to his teaching, tracing the patterns of his behaviour, and wrestling with his unusual end, there could well be times when like the congregation at  Nazareth you might want to push him away – even off a cliff.
But there might also be times when engaging his teaching and tracing the patterns of his behaviour, and wrestling with his unusual and violent end, you find yourself drawn into the very depths of reality – your own and that of the cosmos. That has been the experience of Christian faith across diverse cultures, well beyond the 'Judeo-Christian' culture of the West which Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott champion.

Christian faith is not about preserving a culture. It is about engaging Jesus Christ and serving and shaping many cultures. And that is what we are all invited to do in this place and every place.  Amen.

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