Putting the protest into Protestant

Politics and religionThe old saying states that neither religion nor politics should be discussed in polite company. So what happens when you combine the two? This month we speak with those from the Church whose views would more closely align with the words of Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”

At Crosslight we regularly receive comments from readers questioning the relevance of politics and social justice being discussed in a church publication. We are ever mindful that some in the church community see the primary role of the church as nurturing the spiritual/theological life of members.

Such criticism is also found in the secular media. Conservative commentators have questioned the Uniting Church’s political activism with statements such as: “…more as a kind of Green party than a church”; “…it’s a turning from the religious to the secular. Why doesn’t the (UCA) priest just enter politics instead?” and  “A church is not meant to get involved in politics.”

Rodney Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Writing in An Informed Faith: The Uniting Church at the beginning of the 21st Century (see review page 18), Prof Smith is unequivocal about the role the Church plays in Australian politics.

He states: “The Uniting Church is inevitably political” and lists a variety of issues where the Church has sought political influence. These include climate change, refugees and Indigenous people’s rights.

“These different types of interests … explain why the Uniting Church necessarily engages with politics in Australia,” Prof Smith writes.

In recent times, the Uniting Church has been particularly active in supporting the rights of asylum seekers. With both of the major political parties adopting a hard-line, punitive approach towards refugees, protests from within the UCA have appealed for a more humane, Christian response.

Just last month, Uniting Church ministers took part in simultaneous sit-in prayer vigils at the Sydney office of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Melbourne office of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Protesters were calling for the release of the 1023 children currently held in asylum seeker detention centres.

Two Catholic priests, a nun, two Baptist pastors, an Anglican Priest, five Uniting Church ministers, and a number of lay church leaders were among those who participated in the ecumenical protest.

Among the 13 participants who were eventually arrested in Melbourne was past-president of the UCA and current minister at Wesley UC, Rev Alistair Macrae.

“Through our peaceful direct action we sought to challenge the government’s cruel approach to the treatment of asylum seekers,” Mr Macrae said.

“We hope to encourage Australians to embrace a more welcoming response to those who seek asylum here.”

Moderator of the Vic/Tas synod, Dan Wootton, supported the actions of the protesters. He explained that although the Uniting Church’s Code of Ethics states that it is unethical for ministers to deliberately break the law or encourage others to do so, an exception is made in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience (section 6 of the Code).

“The willingness of Uniting Church ministers to participate in an act of civil disobedience reinforces the deep concern that is felt for children in detention,” Mr Wootton said.

“I commend them for their courage and join their calls in asking for a bipartisan commitment to get all children out of detention centres with their families.”

Protest sculpture

Rev Tansey at work

A barbed comment

The treatment of asylum seekers also prompted the Uniting Church’s John Tansey to devote hours of his time to make a very public protest.

Rev Tansey is the minister at St Kilda Parish Mission. Just before Easter this year, he installed sculptures depicting three asylum seekers (man, pregnant woman and child) made from barbed wire hung on crucifixes on the grounds of the church.

The sculptures resulted from the fact that Mr Tansey, and his congregation, were literally at a loss for words to express their feelings on the issue of asylum seekers.

“We were trying to find a way to give voice to what, not only our congregation, but a lot of people are feeling,” Mr Tansey said.

“I call it preaching in the public square. Presenting the gospel in a way people don’t often see it; the prophetic edge of the gospel I guess.”

Although he doesn’t have any artistic training, Mr Tansey decided to build the sculpture himself.  He ordered 800 metres of barbed wire which he set about moulding into life-sized figures. Three weeks and four sets of leather gloves later, the sculpture was ready to be displayed.  Mr Tansey said that although some people had complained, the majority of feedback has been positive.

He said the church has a clear role to play in the politics of the nation and hopes the artwork at St Kilda will encourage more people to question government policies.

“The lack of morality on both sides of government on this issue is unbelievable,” he said. “You would have thought 20 years ago this could never happen in this country, yet here we are.

“I see the church has a real role in this. If the gospel isn’t about being prophetic in the public space then what is it about? That really was core to Jesus’ ministry and certainly core to the Jewish Hebrew tradition.

“So when there’s criticism about us giving voice and being prophetic, I just think people don’t understand what the gospel is about.

“If ever there was a time when the voice of the church was needed it’s now.”

postcard protest

JIM unit postcard actions

Faith in action

When it comes to Church involvement in politics, few have more experience than Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit director Dr Mark Zirnsak.

Commenting on the need for Christians to be engaged in political issues, Dr Zirnsak is quick to point out the underlying Christian message of ‘love thy neighbour’.

“That doesn’t end with simply going to church or local acts of charity,” he said.

“It extends to creating the kind of society we want to be and the kind of community we want to be – therefore the church has a role to be shaping the kind of community that we to be.”

Discussing the ways in which church groups have indeed shaped societies, Dr Zirnsak highlights the shift in faith-based activism from simply acting as a moral pronouncement into professional advocacy on a breadth of issues.

“Churches have been able to engage in a much more sophisticated way. They have certainly developed better skills in terms of their engagement and there have been really positive outcomes in some areas.”

Dr Zirnsak stresses that much of the successful advocacy from faith-based groups stems from this more professional approach.

“To be taken seriously within society there is an expectation that we will have thought through the issues. The danger is the church can just end up being a critic,” he said.

“We need to be offering some concrete solutions, ways forward, we need to think things through. When we’re making those moral pronouncements, what are some of the difficulties that need to be overcome?

“What are some of the legitimate concerns? How do we make sure that we get a really good outcome?”

Dr Zirnsak notes church involvement in the reconciliation movement, gambling reform and laws dealing with human trafficking and forced labour as significant key wins in large-scale advocacy.

Although often, initiatives such as a recent postcard campaign remain effective grassroots campaigns advocated by local congregations.

Representatives of local churches recently met with local MP Kelly O’Dwyer urging the Australian Government to take greater steps to stop money stolen from developing countries being shifted into Australia. The representatives presented more than a thousand postcards signed by local people in support of the government crackdown.

“The event was great because we met with a Member of Parliament whose values seem to very much align with our stance,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“We didn’t have to have a debate on the values – it became more about the practicalities.

“We are asking that the Australian Government tightens up its laws around money laundering to ensure that stolen funds are turned away or are seized,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“We are also asking that Australia follow the examples of the UK and the US and have a specialist police unit that tracks down and seizes assets stolen from developing countries.”

It seems reasonable to suggest that if such faith-based advocacy is to continue, incremental change will likely go on and continue to combat political policies that marginalise the vulnerable.

“I think the Churches have shaped the nature of Australian society. I think that we do have a society that has a certain level of care and concern for vulnerable people both within Australia and overseas being helped shaped by the Churches in those areas.

“Most change happens incrementally and gradually, not often do you get the revolutionary radical change overnight.”

Church sign used as a political protest

Mountview Uniting Church sign used as a political protest

Sign of the times

Rev Brendan Byrne is the minister at Mountview Uniting Church in Mitcham, south east of Melbourne.  One of the ministers arrested at last month’s sit in, his church has been very public in its condemnation of political decisions that affect the most vulnerable in society. We spoke to Mr Byrne about the use of the church sign as a political protest.

What is the theological basis of using the church sign for political criticism/comment?
The theological basis is firmly grounded in the Christian understanding of God as Triune – as a relational unity of love who both invites us into that unity and calls us to make it available to others.  In other words, the God who offers us relationship and commands us to live relationally with one another. The explicitly inclusive and unconditional nature of both invitation and command demands of us not only that we embody this reality – the reality of the Kingdom of God – in our dealings with the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of society, but that we act against those manifestations of society which undermine relational existence.  It is upon this basis that the Gospel both stands over/against, and critiques, the claims made by every social-political system, as well as the policies adopted by specific governments and parties.

What backlash/criticism have you received regarding messages on the sign?
There has been some concern expressed from within the church that the messages should not become politically partisan, or descend into personality politics.  I value this feedback, as it points to the fine line I have to negotiate every time I use the church sign for critical purposes.

Externally, the only negative response has come from a Queensland ‘shock jock’, who took exception to a recent sign linking the death of Reza Barrati to the government’s asylum seeker policy.  But this was strictly a storm in a teacup affair, and quickly evaporated.
More generally, the response both internally and externally has been extraordinarily supportive.  For example, the aforementioned sign that so offended the shock jock was shared over 600 times and ‘liked’ more than 3000 times on Facebook.   Other signs have elicited similar responses, and social media has been critical in spreading the message of Mountview’s roadside pulpit from a local to a wider audience.

What’s been the process for deciding what messages to put on the sign?
I don’t have a process as such.  I’m simply determined to avoid the trite or preachy messages that adorn far too many church signboards.  Nor do I merely want happy or positive messages on the (in my view, mistaken) assumption this will somehow attract people to church or portray the Church in a good light. Rather, I want the messages on the Mountview sign to be relevant, to the point and in some way speak into God’s solidarity with suffering and broken humanity.  In essence, I want the messages to convey God’s prophetic word of truth – truth to power, to society, to the Church itself. Of course, people will have different views about the extent to which the Mountview messages achieve this purpose.

Do you have ideas on other issues that might be addressed in future using the church’s sign?
The issue with any signboard is strictly limited space/word-count.  And not every issue lends itself to a short, punchy message that gets the point across in a way passers-by (or viewers online) will immediately grasp.  The asylum seeker issue seems to lend itself to this kind of message.  Of course, during and immediately after the last federal election, the signboard carried some pointed messages (“Rudd: 0, Abbott: 1, The Poor: Still Waiting”), and issues of social justice and equality, especially economic equality, are always in the forefront of my mind.  But I would prefer not to try and articulate a pre-determined agenda; rather, I want to stay alert to issues as they develop and comment on these if relevant and possible.

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