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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Howls of rage

(18th AUGUST) 2013

Readings:        Isaiah 5.1-7
                        Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19
                        Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2
                        Luke 12.49-59

This time last week I was in Melbourne, back in the cathedral in which I was ordained a quarter of a century ago. Hanging on the external wall of that cathedral is a seven metre banner, towering over Melbourne’s busiest intersection: “Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees.” It was hung last week, but was ordered long before Messrs Rudd and Abbott set about out-toughing each other over the question of refugees. As it happens inside the cathedral the words of the preacher, Professor Andrew McGowan, were hanging with equal poignancy, as he drew inescapable likenesses between the refugee status of the Holy Family following the birth of Jesus, and the continuing plight of those risking death to reach these shores.

Before we say any more, let me reiterate that, 1) it is not illegal to seek asylum, under international law, and 2) of the boat people who have reached Australian shores more than 90% have been found to be genuine refugees, and certainly not economic opportunists. These are facts that are conveniently dropping out of the discourse of our leaders, as they use blatant fear tactics and echo the worst of the Asian Invasion and White Australia rhetoric of bygone days in attempts to get elected. An outstanding cartoon at portrayed it well, with the two leaders declaring, amongst other inanities, “We are going to resettle all boat people on the planet Mercury. We are declaring war on Sri Lanka and Iran. We will move Australia to the other side of New Zealand and we are going to make everybody under 60 to join the army which will report to this pencil”.

In my days as a Pentecostal Christian it was not uncommon to hear stirring prophesies, so-called, about the wrath of God that was being poured out upon the God-abandoning nations. Such rants usually focussed on sexual issues, and issued the threat of earthquakes, tsunamis or the like that would be visited by God upon peoples and societies daring to hold views other than the preachers’. It always occurred to me that it was a no-brainer to prophesy mighty earthquakes in the shaky isles in which I was living, but, be that as it may, these charlatan practices still continue. There will be, this very weekend, preachers declaring that the earthquakes currently shaking my home region of New Zealand are a direct result of that country’s liberalisation of marriage laws to include homosexual couples, while in the States each new hurricane or earthquake is accompanied by a howl of declarations that that these natural phenomena are a direct result of electing a black president, or permitting gays to serve in the armed forces, or the infamous Roe v Wade decision.

Yet the howl of rage that runs through the prophets – in today’s case the prophet Isaiah – has very little to do with the personal codes of holiness and inhibited sexuality so easily championed by the kind of preachers I am alluding to. While there are the occasional references to sexual mores in the Scriptures of our faith, there is almost infinitely more rage against leaders who exploit the vulnerable. Isaiah’s famous lament of the vineyard is among the most manifest: we can run from God’s wrath, but we cannot hide, Isaiah suggests:
                         I will tell you
                         what I will do to my vineyard.
                         I will remove its hedge,
                         and it shall be devoured;
                         I will break down its wall,
                         and it shall be trampled down.

Might it not be that these words are directed at us, as a nation or perhaps just as a people of God, precisely because at least since the time of Pauline Hanson we have allowed the politics of hatred and exclusion to dominate our discourse? We conveniently forget that, our aboriginal sisters and brothers aside, we are all immigrants (and they are too – though that is perhaps an impossible timespan to consider). This land with its wealth for toil and golden soil has always been a land, in all its harshness, in which fugitives and refugees, the hunted and the hated have built new lives of hope. We may build narratives of subversion around lawless larrikins like Ned Kelly, it seems, but only if the heroes of the narratives have white skin and blue eyes, and wear tin helmets, not burqas.
As the leaders of our two major political forces jostle to find more and more frightening ways to exclude what Bruce Springsteen calls “the hungry and the hunted”, we are in fact seeing the wrath of God, not because we have liberal sexual mores, but because we have frightening unjust social mores. Analysts are reporting that this election, now the deck-chair shifting of Labor Leadership is over, is generating the greatest yawn in decades, and we can be assured that when, on September 8th, we waken to the government we deserve, we will have strayed still further from the compassionate and welcoming love that should be the hallmark of a people made in the image of God.

I am not advocating open slather on the high seas: an open door to immigration stopped once the European expansionists had decided we had grabbed all we could for ourselves, and while our history is dark, there cannot really be an utterly open door. Fr Frank Brennan, in a stunning address at my alma mater this week past, observed  with characteristic sageness

If shock and awe measures are to be adopted by our elected leaders, they should put to rest their differences over means, and they should adopt shock and awe measures only once they have done their homework, minimising the prospect of damage and always maintaining responsibility for unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable persons who have reached Australia.

I fear, whatever happens on September 7th – and I have long since surrendered hope that any political party will embody decency – that we will have a government that symbolizes the fear and greed that are “a”, if not “the” dominant story of our time. We as a Christian community are, I believe, seeing the signs of the times. Prophets like Brennan or McGowan, or the banner-hangers of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne aside, we are generally snoozing in our comfort zones – and I speak of myself as well. Liberal theologians do not often speak of the wrath of God, but I suspect we are seeing it emblazoned across our current era, as our churches close and dioceses shrink. Nevertheless, despite the pain that lay ahead, even the prophet Isaiah saw that the future is God’s, and that one day, long after the trampling of the hedges, a new time of God’s compassion would come. It will be so again – in God’s time. The bearers of hope may even wear burqas and be “of a middle eastern appearance”. Like Jesus.

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