JERRY ROBERTS Politics and Religion

Fraser Anning has given us the most spectacular take on The White Australia Policy since Labor legend Arthur Calwell’s 1947 quip: “Two Wongs don’t make a White.”  Calwell later explained that he was making a joke at the expense of the member for Balaclava, T.W. White.  I accept his explanation just as I accept Senator Anning’s statement that he did not know the dark Nazi use of the words, “final solution.”

A walk through any shopping centre will confirm the death of The White Australia Policy.  Just about every colour and creed on earth has made a home in Australia and that will not change if immigration ceases tomorrow.  My impression is that we have a tolerant society and we are enjoying our diversity.  Whether immigrants speak English is irrelevant. A smile speaks all languages.

That does not alter the fact that there is widespread concern in Australia about Muslims.  I share these concerns and they will multiply when the news from Indonesia sinks in. (Tim Lindsey Pearls and Irritations 17 August)

If a religion is to survive it has to be about beauty.  A devout Muslim from Zanzibar once told me that Islam was “a beautiful religion.”  He was contemptuously and bitterly angry with what the Saudi Arabians have done to his religion. There is nothing beautiful about chopping off hands and heads or slitting throats on prime-time television.  Australia’s Muslims cannot wash their hands of deeds done by their co-religionists in the name of their God and Prophet.  They have their heads in the sand if they ignore Australian concerns about their faith.

As for Christianity, there was nothing beautiful about a rugby player described as a devout Christian spewing out a load of mediaeval superstitious garbage about people burning in hell.  The gender marriage issue brought out the worst in Churchy people.  We even had some Christians arguing for a Bill of Rights to protect religious freedom when we had five years of a Royal Commission telling us it was the public who needed protection from the Church.

Freedom of and from religion is guaranteed by Section 116 of the Australian Constitution.  If I may paraphrase Section 116, Australians are free to worship their Gods.  They are also free to mind their own business.  The government has no interest in religion and atheists have exactly the same rights as religious adherents.

The beauty of the Christian story is understood by the architects, painters, sculptors, poets and musicians.  If you go to England be sure to visit Ely Cathedral, not that far out of London.  You will never forget it.  If you can spare three minutes to take a trip to heaven listen to the Gratias agimus tibi chorus in Bach’s B Minor Mass.  Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. Literally, thanks let us give to thee because of great glory thine.  Bach, the devout German Lutheran, wrote the great Latin Mass.  Even by Bach’s standards, the chorus is out of this world.

A couple of months ago I drove a busload of 16-year-old Roman Catholic schoolgirls through the outback North-West.  It’s OK.  I have a licence for this sort of thing.  Because their Mother Superior was on another bus I seized the opportunity to give these privileged kids from Sydney a lecture drawing parallels between the Christian concept of the eternal kingdom and the song lines of the Aboriginal dreaming that have given us Australia’s beautiful Old Testament.When lecturing congregations on that most perfectly composed document of them all, the Nicene Creed, I use the Latin because the Creed is a structured document and Latin is a structured language.  Besides, it sounds pretty and I don’t know Greek.

The fourth century scholars who composed the Creed inserted the idea of the second coming and the eternal kingdom immediately after their brief summary of the Passion (Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato…)  It is a beautiful sentence and a beautiful idea:  Iterum venturus est cum gloria iudicare vivos et mortuos, cuius regni non erit finis. Again he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, he of whose kingdom there will be no end.  The fourth century scholars wrote this sentence because they understood fundamental human needs.  Without the assistance of opinion polls and super computers to analyse data they understood the needs for a sense of belonging, of security, of connection with the ancestors and the environment.

Thousands and thousands of years before Jesus, thousands of years before the Romans, Greeks and  Vikings and all their Gods, the Australian Aboriginal nomadic hunter-gatherers on their isolated continent had the same fundamental human needs to connect with their forebears, with the land and the rivers and the sky and the stars and they dealt with them in a manner similar to the fourth century scholars who gave us cuius regni non erit finis.

They passed on stories about the journeys of their ancestors through the generations over the centuries and related these song lines to features of the landscape.  When they explain these stories to you on site and show you the features of the land and the waterways they are indeed beautiful and they make so much sense.  This is Australia’s Old Testament.

As readers may have noticed, my main interest in life is politics and the political writer who draws the above ideas together in a classic book called The Great Transformation is Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian intellectual with a superb command of the English language.

For if one conclusion stands out more clearly than another from the recent study of early societies it is the changelessness of man as a social being.  His natural endowments reappear with a remarkable constancy in societies of all times and places and the necessary preconditions for the survival of human society appear to be immutably the same.

My true-blue mate Ian Tarrant gives us the ultimate interpretation of these matters in his book Under the Carlie Tree.  Well, he’s a Kiwi but he is a true-blue mate.   Ian draws on his experience teaching at Lake Nash in the Northern Territory with the Alyawarra people and his academic research in anthropology of the Kung bushmen of the Kalahari.  He contrasts the “human survival values” of the hunter-gatherers with the “exploitative syndrome” of today’s commercial world.

The holistic world view of the hunter-gatherers, the last people to retain survival values, is clearly the epitome of our humanity.  Although our technical advances have been astounding, it is these old values, or the core of them at least, on which our survival depends.

If the world’s religions, including Islam and Christianity, can focus on the common threads that connect our humanity and do so in language and music that is beautiful and peaceful they may be of some use.  It is not entirely fanciful to think that such religions could even prove beneficial to our politics, although that is drawing a long bow.

Jerry Roberts is a music lover whose Desert Island Discs include Bach’s B Minor Mass and Cherubini’s C Minor Requiem that was performed at Beethoven’s funeral.  They join Beethoven’s Opus numbers 109, 110 and 111, often recorded on the same disc. If he can sneak in a fourth it is the serene recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto played by Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung, accompanied to perfection by Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.  That is heaven on earth.

 

 

 

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2 Responses to JERRY ROBERTS Politics and Religion

  1. Joan Seymour says:

    Section 116 of the Australian Constitution doesn’t provide nearly enough protection for religious freedom. It provides only for the workings of the Federal Parliament, and has nothing to say about what any individual State may legislate. For example, it’s theoretically possible for a State to promote one religion at the expense of others, imposing a ‘state’ religion in that State. Religious freedom can mean freedom from religion, as well as freedoms for religions. It’s an essential bulwark of democracy. It’s a great pity that we haven’t challenged the now-prevalent view that the Federal Government is trying to promote the religious rights of the churches against the rights of individual Australians. Nothing of the sort!

  2. Kim Wingerei says:

    “A smile speaks all languages.” What a lovely turn of phrase!
    I reside in Ubud, Bali part time and am embarrassed daily by not yet having learnt the language of my hosts. So I smile a lot and try to match the humility of the locals, it’s amazing how it enables connection across the language barrier.

    More importantly, loved this piece and would also like to draw you attention to sharingstories.org – a charity that endeavours to preserve and communicate Indigenous stories, song-lines and culture.

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