The world watches as an extremely distraught Ukrainian man sobs in front of a camera after seeing his daughter and young granddaughter killed in the Russian missile assault on the city of Mauripol, “God, why have you visited this on me?” A good question and tragically ironic!
I am surprised that no commentator has seriously questioned any of the world’s faith leaders, or allegedly pious political leaders, including our Prime Minister, about what God is doing to end the Ukrainian horrors: the murders; the “collateral damage” that every day is resulting in deaths and agonising permanent injuries, as well as the extensive, often forced displacement of men, women and children. For the religious, it shouldn’t be merely a rhetorical question. The texts are clear that God is all-knowing and all-caring, with Jeremiah 29.11 in particular citing His words, “I have] plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Like most conflicts over the centuries, both sides in the Ukraine war claim God is on their side (the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has gone so far as to side with Putin, blaming “Western decadence” for the conflict). I understand the Russian Church leaders in Australia, to their credit, have expressed dismay at the Patriarch’s utterances. So whose side is God really on – if anyone’s?
Some evangelicals claim that God isn’t involved at all; that it’s all Satan’s work. If true, then surely it follows that God is either neglectful of his “plans” to protect humanity or Satan is actually more powerful and is free to go his own way without redress. We should note that Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal Church is one that believes in a “real” Satan, but it too, side-steps the paradox of an omnipotent God seemingly unable to rein in the “the evil one”. All God could do it seems, was to banish Satan from Heaven, whereupon he took up residence in Hell, forever free to wreak his miseries on humankind. God, meanwhile, offers redemption but even the most devout still become victims of catastrophes.
Besides, when the end comes, it’s only a select “us” who will be saved. Everyone else, whatever their faith, or no faith at all, are destined to suffer eternal torment. Pentecostals in particular are certain they are not only Heaven bound but they’ll be especially privileged by taking part in the “Rapture”; that is, looking on as Jesus personally gathers up every non-Pentecostal and prepares them for their pre-ordained fate. Presumably, that is part of God’s plan as well? While Pentecostals are divided over the precise details of how final judgment will unfold, they will still be the favoured ones.
Despite this, I’m supportive of the people of all faiths who live their lives according to the positive tenets of their beliefs: good people who “love their neighbours” and act out the example of the Good Samaritan every day, helping those in need. I respect them, even if they act through an ingrained belief that their deeds will bring them eternal salvation (I would love to be able to think that my “soul” could enjoy everlasting serenity). But, in reality there are many who do good works without a religion-based foundation; just as there are many who claim faith while using it to rationalise their wrong-doing (I suspect Putin might currently be to the forefront of this group).
Nevertheless, everyone will attract some form of damnation if they are not one of the “us” – for Morrison, “us” means Pentecostals only. So, logically, the unfortunates must perforce include those poor Ukrainians enduring earthly suffering right now, who, while devoutly believing that God is on their side, are not among the “us” unless they are Pentecostal. It’s a convenient but totally contradictory self-selection process in which members of each faith (or offshoot) sign up to, at the exclusion of everyone but themselves. Morrison and his fellow Pentecostals further rationalise their particular exclusivity because only they have “experienced” the Holy Spirit, just like the apostles did on the first Pentecost.
And so we come directly to our Prime Minister. He tells us his life is centred around his long-held Pentecostalism, but that’s about as far as he will go. Were he an ordinary citizen his faith would be his own business because it would be unlikely to affect many others. He is, however, our current political leader and the first to follow an evangelical-style Christianity which sets itself apart from the mainstream world-wide Catholic and Protestant communities. Are we not therefore entitled to know how our Prime Minister’s particular beliefs inform his political decisions; decisions that may impact every one of us? This, however, is where Morrison seems to be on permanent holiday. When asked about his faith by Guardian Australia in May, 2021, he responded with a brusque, “It’s personal and no matter what I say it will be misinterpreted”.
Yet occasionally, we get a glimpse of the religion behind the man: his “I’ve always believed in miracles” statement, the laying on of hands as a divinely inspired healing process for bushfire victims, his serious references to “the evil one”, interpreting a picture of an eagle as a personal message from God and the long delay before he admitted that climate change was real (not that he’s yet taken real action to help reduce global warming). Does he believe at heart that a warming climate may be a pre-curser to Armageddon so there’s no real point in trying to genuinely reduce emissions? To be fair, he hasn’t accepted the Bible’s OK to handle deadly snakes, like a US Pentecostal sect once tried to its cost. As a fully committed Pentecostal, however, surely he believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, that is, the text is without error ( which includes support for the idea that that seeking wealth in the Lord’s name is desirable (Jesus’ parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, is one such rationale). As to Morrison speaking in tongues, I leave it up to readers to judge.
There is another possibility. That is, Morrison isn’t really committed to the Pentecostal brand. Instead, it’s just another patch on his marketing coat of many colours designed to promote his “every-day, blokey” image. But that would mean he is simply an opportunist, with a shallow veneer of religiosity to help him appear something he is not.
Either way, it is important that Morrison be open and honest about how his beliefs might inform his secular decisions. Who knows, he might even be able to reassure us that God really is on his side.
Eric Hunter is a former ABC journalist and program manager. He also has extensive experience as a communications manager in the public service and private sector and as a lecturer in journalism and marketing at the University of Canberra. He does not regard himself as an atheist but as a religion sceptic.