On the side of the underdog

“If you’re not angry you aren’t paying attention” is Heathmont Minister Brendan Byrne’s rallying cry against social inequality.

By Andrew Humphries

The day I sit down to chat with Heathmont Minister Brendan Byrne on Zoom, I’m quite intrigued by the T-shirt he is wearing.

It carries a short but sharp message which, as I discover during our conversation, says much about Brendan’s values and how they drive much of his attitude to life.

“If you’re not angry you aren’t paying attention”, is the simple but effective message on his shirt.

A request for Brendan to expand on that theme leads to a fascinating 30-minute chat about being on the side of the underdog in the fight we call life, and why social injustice and inequality should be making us all angry.

It’s that sense of injustice and inequality that drives so much of what this man of many hats is about.

Aside from his day job as a Minister, Brendan is also chair of the union which represents faith workers, a podcaster, and social commentator in general.

I kick off our chat by asking him what, in particular, should be forcing us to storm the barricades?

“Oh, quite a few things actually,” is his quick reply.

“Generally speaking, the structural issues that contribute to injustice, and yet which are assumed to be, not just inevitable, but in fact necessary for the proper running of things, and the proper ordering of human life, but which contribute to everything from climate change to economic inequality.”

Brendan’s anger stems from the belief that countries such as ours have been co-opted by an approach to economics which, rather than placing human dignity at the heart of social policy, has instead led to a deepening of divisions and inequalities.

On the night he became Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese promised that “no one would be left behind”.

If that’s going to be the case, Brendan says, there is a ton of work to be done to fix a broken system.

“The issues that we’re facing today are the inevitable outcome of what some observers call the neo-liberal ascendancy, the fact that since the late 1970s, early 1980s, economic thinking around the world has been dominated by neo-liberal economic ideology,” he says.

“That ideology has emphasised the freedom of markets, which effectively translates to the freedom of the powerful and the wealthy, particularly as manifested in the corporation as an institutional form, to do as they like, and to act as they like, with very little restraint from government, and very little regard for the welfare of the community, or the environment, or anything that might be seen as limiting their capacity to generate profit.”

Poverty’s impact on human dignity, something he observed as both a child and Uniting Church Minister, drives Brendan’s attempts to make a difference.

Brendan’s outlook is also born from a lived experience that makes him acutely aware of what being part of an underclass feels like.

A Melbourne boy, he grew up in Glen Waverley as part of a Catholic family who knew what tough times meant.

“I grew up in a working class family, and kids are acutely conscious of the realities of economic difference,” he says.

“And growing up, my siblings and I were very aware of the economic differences between us and many of our peers, and so it was imprinted on me from a very early age that there are some people who are disadvantaged and even discriminated against, right from the outset, through no fault of their own.

“For some people it’s a matter of race, for some it’s a matter of gender; for others it’s a matter of class and socio-economic status.

“My parents worked every hour that God sent just to keep a roof over our heads, and to pay off a mortgage that wouldn’t even qualify as a deposit these days, but which still consumed over 60 per cent of their income.

“I can certainly recall as a kid my parents being terrified that the next knock on the door would be the sheriffs come to evict us because they were behind on their mortgage repayments.”

It’s poverty’s impact on human dignity, something that he has observed as both a child and Uniting Church Minister, that drives Brendan’s attempts to want to make a difference.

“It’s not simply a matter of access to material resources, or access to cultural resources, or educational resources, economic disadvantage and inequality is one of the most powerful detriments to human dignity,” he says.

“One of my saddest encounters as a Minster involved a pastoral conversation with a young working-class woman some years ago, in which she spelled out the daily pain and humiliation that she experienced because of her low socio-economic background.

“She knew she was poor, and she knew that she looked poor, and she knew that her appearance automatically became the basis of assumptions about her that other people made.

“They assumed that she was lazy and that she abused her kids, and that she did drugs and was a bad parent, simply because she was poor and she looked poor.

“And I think that stripping of human dignity on a daily basis is deeply embedded in economic injustice.

“What makes it worse is that our economic orthodoxy is reframed as a meritocracy, so that if you are wealthy and successful and can access material, cultural and educational resources, it’s because you deserve to, because you are a morally decent and upright person.

“And it’s an economic orthodoxy that also wrongly suggests if you are unemployed, if you are poor, if you don’t have access to those resources, it’s because you’re lazy and spend your money on alcohol, or gambling, or whatever, and you effectively deserve, not just to be poor, but to be punished for being poor.”

The Uniting Church needs to become more engaged with class as a social justice issue, says Brendan Byrne.

While Brendan is a Minister within a Church that quite rightly, in so many ways, considers itself progressive on matters of social justice, he says it is missing one big trick.

He believes that, like much of the wider progressive movement, the Uniting Church is insufficiently engaged with class as a social justice issue.

“People who identify as progressive, and who identify as being concerned with social justice, have to understand that class is a social justice issue as well,” he says.

“Part of the problem lies in the fact that, with the advent of a globally dominant neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, class has been abandoned as a justice issue because people concerned with social justice also want to be seen as economic ‘realists’. Likewise, too many people have bought into this idea that we live in a classless society, that we have an aspirational meritocracy instead.

“And in order to product differentiate itself from the right, the progressive left has focused on the justice claims that are based on gender and race and identity, but have forgotten class, or abandoned class as a justice issue.”

There are two problems with that oversight, Brendan says.

“Firstly, it has alienated the working class and made them hostile to justice claims based on gender and race and identity, when in fact the working class, through their own lived experience of injustice, ought to be the natural allies of those justice claims,” he says.

“The second problem is that it has allowed the neo-liberal right to co-opt the working class by appealing to their sense of abandonment in order to pursue their own anti-progressive agenda.

“If we want to reverse this, progressive people, those who are concerned with social justice, have to recognise that class is a justice issue that goes alongside all the other justice issues.”

While he might be happily ensconced within its walls as a Minister, Brendan isn’t afraid to critique the Uniting Church in relation to issues of class and justice.

“Unfortunately, within the Uniting Church, and within wider society, my observation is that the operating assumption is that the working class are the source and sustainers of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny, when in fact they are the victims of a profound socio-economic injustice that enables those prejudices to exist,” he says.

“The upshot is that while the Uniting Church sees itself as a social justice church, along with the broader progressive movement, it doesn’t, as a rule, see class as a justice issue.

“This is made worse by the fact that, like the other mainstream churches, the Uniting Church, over the course of the last 40 years, has largely abandoned the world of work and the world of waged labour.

“Like all the other mainstream churches, it is almost entirely absent from that world, which is the primary social and economic reality of modernity. And yet we do all this talk about ministry and mission, about building new faith communities and renewing the church, as though our absence from that reality will have no impact upon our attempts at a church renewal.

“And I find it astonishing that the Church engages in this conversation while completely ignoring that reality, as well as the world of human harm, and the world of human suffering, that is hiding in plain sight right in front of us.”

Brendan’s podcast Ergasia has shone a light on issues of work, faith, theology and economics, but has been placed on the backburner while a new podcast, created with colleague John Bottomley, takes shape.

“Working the Lectionary is intended to be a resource to enable worship leaders and others who want to think about the connection between the world of work and the life of faith, to think about how texts from scripture actually speak into the world of work,” he says.

“So we’re going to take readings from each week of the lectionary and reflect on those readings, and discuss how they relate to our lived experience of work.”

It might not make him the most popular Minister going around, but Brendan plans to continue arguing for class to be taken seriously as a justice issue, believing to do otherwise would be a dereliction of his duty as a follower of Jesus.

“In terms of ministry I recognise that I’m a working-class guy in a predominately middle-class church, and I have a sense of justice that is deeply grounded in the realities of class struggle and economic injustice,” he says.

“And I recognise that there are people within the Uniting Church for whom that is deeply uncomfortable, but I’m not going to stop articulating that sense of what justice looks like, precisely because I think it lies very close to the heart of Jesus’s ministry, and his concern for the poor and for the economically disenfranchised.

“And I think it lies close to the call of the Gospel, for the world to be reorientated towards God’s peaceable kingdom.”

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