When I was a teenager a famous preacher of the day, Dr Gordon Powell, was the minister at St Stephens Presbyterian Church Macquarie Street Sydney. I recall hearing some of his sermons and in particular a sermon from a series of sermons he preached on the “Hard Sayings of Jesus”. He remarked at the beginning of the series that the really hard sayings of Jesus were not those that were complex or oblique. Rather the hardest sayings of Jesus were those whose meaning was all too clear. The difficulty was in how to work out those sayings in everyday life.
Similarly the Prime Minister’s statement on Thursday (10 September) that Australia will take in 12,000 extra refugees who are fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Christians in this country should warmly applaud this surprising but very welcome change of policy by the government.
There are many complexities and concerns in the implications of the Prime Minister’s statement. Already there are questions about priorities in selection of refugees and whether Christians should be given some priority. It is abundantly clear that Christians in eastern Mediterranean countries have been severely persecuted for several decades. There used to be a large Palestinian Christian community but it has been practically obliterated in the last 40 years.
This language about the selection of refugees brought immediate reactions in the media and some declared that if this was to be the pattern then that would be the end of social unity in Australia. This kind of reaction is understandable but the government in its policy statements has not endorsed this kind of selection. Indeed the source of refugees is quite specific. They will come from those fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq. ‘Our focus will be on those most in need – the women, children and families of persecuted minorities who have sought refuge from the conflict in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey’.
But the war in Syria is complicated Ross Burns Australian Ambassador to Syria (1984-87) points out that the
‘Syrian conflict is an increasingly multi-layered scene where violence on all sides has risen to catastrophic proportions. It began as a citizens’ revolt against a brutally repressive government but has since become a multilayered civil war in which a bewildering range of Islamist forces have competed to lead the fight against an oppressive regime. All parties to the conflict have their backers outside Syria with some contributing military resupply, others turning a blind eye to movements into Syria of fighters and arms.’
The first few years of the conflict saw fighting extend principally into Muslim majority areas of the country while many minority groups (among them Christians, Druze and Alawis) found shelter in areas under government control. Many Christians, in particular, became apologists for the regime in its efforts to project abroad its case that it was fighting the threat of ‘Islamic extremists’—a threat which was largely awakened as a result of the regime’s appetite right from the start for violence and repression as the answer to any form of dissent.
However the most important complications in this matter are likely to arise here in Australia in the reception and settling of these refugees. This is not a straightforward matter.
- Not all in Australia support it or will not like some aspect of the way it works out.
- for good practical reasons not all can directly help.
- Some simply don’t want to be involved because they don’t approve of the government decision
- Some are fearful of the effects on their local community. The member for parliament for the seat of Dawson in Queensland, George Christensen, has expressed strong concern on the affect such an influx would have on his electorate where there is already significant unemployment.
- Some point to the many disadvantaged in our community already – will they be neglected? Tony Abbot said these issues will be dealt with in the way the project is handled. That will not be easy.
- There will be some prejudice against Muslim people and opposition to more coming – no doubt we will see religious and ethnic stereotyping as this programme goes forward.
All of these concerns have to be confronted and dealt with both sympathetically and constructively. These concerns cannot be simply brushed aside. They must be recognised and addressed.
How we as a society do this will be vital for the good of those who come and also for those who are the existing Australians.
There is an underlying moral question in all this. Why should we be doing all this anyway? Ought we to not be protecting our way of life as a model to other nations?
For us as Christians and as a Christian community there is however a simple and unavoidable challenge.
Our Archbishop put his finger on it in his excellent article in the SMH last Thursday.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is an incendiary critique of discrimination based on race, ethnicity and religion. Listening to the story for the first time, many would have been incensed that Jesus had used the word “good” to describe a despised Samaritan. Yet it never crosses the Samaritan’s mind in the story to ask about the religion or background of the man he finds beaten and dying on the side of the road. His response is immediate, generous and unquestioning.
Our ability to show love and mercy and provide a warm welcome to anyone in distress, regardless of their faith, must serve as a counterpoint to the brutality of IS. Our response needs to be immediate, generous and unquestioning regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
Three elements collide in the story.
- The context of complacent religion of the lawyer. He keeps the form but lacks the moral substance.
- The ordered complacency of the Levite and the Priest who place observance of religious practices before the moral challenge of their faith.
- The indiscriminate compassion of the despised ethnically offensive half foreigner was indeed the true neighbour:
- Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Extending mercy and compassion to the stranger is clearly central to Jesus’ understanding of how to conduct our lives.
SO WHAT TO DO IN THE PESENT CHALLENGE
Don’t panic – this is going to be a long haul both in Syria and Iraq and in Australia
- We have a record in Australia of adaptation and continuity in our basic values
- Those values are clearly embedded in our constitution, laws, institutions and habits – but we need to be constantly strengthening them, especially when we are confronted with a challenge such as this.
- The meeting with faith community leaders and settlements service providers with the Prime Minister is a good start in coordinating appropriate systems for settlement.
- Our Anglican Church has been on the front foot in this crisis .We should run with our fellow Christians
- The Primate, Archbishop Freier and service organisations of our church have declared their support
- The Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has made public comment and in a letter sent to all parishes given an unprecedented challenge to parishes and organisations in the diocese to be actively involved.
So what about us and our parish?
For the parish as a whole
I believe the Parish Council should lead the way in developing a strategy we can all be involved in according to our circumstances.
For each of us as a base line we could
- Keep informed
- Pray – keep our response to this consciously before God
- Think what you can offer directly or indirectly e.g. help someone else, or some organisation like Anglicare
- Support the Parish Council to keep up to the challenge for the parish as a whole
- Speak up for generosity with your friends. It may well be that generosity will be at a discount in public and private conversation in the months ahead.
- Support our political representatives so that this task stays at the forefront of their attention.
This challenge lies clearly before us. Millions of people are refugees. Our government has laid it open for us as citizens to be involved in a national contribution. Whatever we do we cannot avoid the challenge of compassion that lies before us. We can discuss and debate the means and the details, but as Christian people we have a clear choice in this matter.
We must choose whether we will be complacent religious or Samaritans,
A Sermon preached at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Vaucluse. 13 September 2015 by The Revd. Dr Bruce Kaye AM. He is Adjunct Research Professor, Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University.
 Media Statement by Prime Minister 14 September 2015 http://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-09-09/syrian-and-iraqi-humanitarian-crisis
 Article in Sydney Morning Herald, September 9, 2015. http://www.smh.com.au/comment/open-the-door-widely-to-syrian-refugees-20150909-gjij0h.html