In the Sunday Age essay today, do check out the links as well!
When the news broke of the latest push by the Federal Government to drug test people on Newstart, a neighbour sent me a link to comedian Sammy J posing as a Canberra-based urine-collector––“taking the piss”. It was great for a laugh but the news itself disturbed me with the implied blame and suspicion. Soon after, another friend put me onto an article by Alison Ritter, a professor and drug policy expert at the University of NSW. Ritter suggests that policy advocates now need to tackle the issue on moral grounds that sit beneath the arguments. Scott Morrison and his assistant minister, Ben Morton, appear to have arrived at this policy based on Morton’s family history. Evidence-based reasoning does not stick to their Teflon surety. Ignoring bag loads of evidence and research, Morrison and Morton are shrugging off criticism and staying with their faith-based, morally positioned cornerstones. This kind of self-evident Christian moral certainty makes me recoil.
I apparently share a faith tradition with Scott Morrison, but I am astonished by his claims and evasions on this front. I know I am not alone in this[JP1] . I don’t imagine Alison Ritter had a theological analysis in mind when she made her video call-out, but I think it forms a piece of the ethical analysis. Curiously, a critique of the underlying assumptions of Morrison’s stance is exactly what I heard early in August. I heard this in a sermon when I took my 94-year-old mother to a church she had never been to before.
When we’d parked in the street my mother had checked, “Is this a church?” Outside on the wrought iron fence a large banner declared “Church but not as you know it”. Against the black background of the banner, rainbow coloured threads spanned out from the eye of a needle. As I watched Mum manage a couple of steps at the entry, I wondered if she would register the messages.
We were late and the children’s address was already in progress. When Mum sat down and stowed her walker, we were in the middle of a church with a high and beautiful ceiling. From our pew we had a good line of sight to where the minister, Rev. Dr Sally Douglas, was kneeling on the floor with the children. A tall woman, Douglas was wearing a long white robe and coloured stole; she had an air of calm intention even from her position perched on the mat. The school-aged children sat cross-legged, leaning in and responding to the story with questions and comments. A toddler snuggled against his mother and wriggled and watched by turns.
In the middle of the mat at the centre of the church was a low round table covered in a green cloth. In this story it was to represent a field. Douglas swept the circumference with her hand as she described an ancient Jewish law. The law was about crops and harvesting and leaving a margin at the edges for the people who did not have enough. Her hand indicated the height of the crop remaining at the rim after the harvest. The edges were left ready for people when they did not have their own land or crops. The freedom to pick up this surplus was called ‘gleaning’––a gift so everyone could have enough.
Gleaning. The word came back from my churched childhood with startling clarity. The story of Ruth in the Old Testament, an impoverished widow gleaning in the fields. Back when I heard that story my Dad was so sick that my mother was almost widowed; I imagine ‘gleaning’ freighted a comfort when it lodged in my childhood vocabulary. There are people who still practice gleaning on a small scale in Melbourne.
After a hymn, Mum tilted her head to one side and listened intently during the Gospel reading and the sermon. She’d got a bit rattled when I’d told her about the minister who is also a biblical scholar regarding wisdom traditions. My mother was worried Douglas might not be “well-balanced.” But now her gaze was still and attentive. No fidgeting in her handbag for lost glasses or tissues or anxiously fingered cash to place in the offering bowl. Something had settled in her.
The Gospel story was a parable Jesus is recorded as tellingabout a rich farmer. This man had a great harvest due to the good soil of his land. The minister paused over this piece of information. The man was rich because his soil was rich––this was not his own doing, it was a gift of the earth. The rich man in the story began with a question ‘What shall I do with this great harvest?’ “So far so good”, said Dr Douglas.
But things went pear-shaped after that. The farmer had forgotten the rule about leaving the harvest at the edge of the fields and sharing the plenty. All he did was build bigger barns to store his crops. He was pleased with himself, he thought he’d take it easy on the morrow. But that very night he died and he never did get to enjoy the plenty. Neither did he get to enjoy sharing the abundance.
Not far into the sermon the minister stated her bewilderment that we have an Australian Prime Minister who prides himself on his Christian faith but refuses to share the nation’s wealth by raising the Newstart payment above the poverty line. He claims that to do so would be “unfunded empathy”. Rev Dr Douglas wondered aloud, “What kind of construction of the gospel would allow Scott Morrison and so many others to believe that this was alright?”
The sermon asked questions that were not just rhetorical. People made brief comments into it, later there would be time for longer responses. “Why are people poor?” asked Douglas. A voice immediately rose from the pews with unmissable irony––“Because they haven’t worked hard enough!” This was an echo of Morrison’s oft repeated mantra––“If you’ll have a go, you’ll get a go.”
The minister wanted to unpack the thinking and theology that sat behind this saying and it’s pernicious counterpart that “good things happen to good people”. She said it turned God into a kind of Santa Claus. Douglas called it “the Santa-fication of God” and sang a little catch of Santa Claus is coming to town–– translating it to “Be good, get good stuff!” Apparently the mantras of the ‘self-made men’ who equate pulling themselves up by the bootstraps with trusting in the Lord, are not in fact tenets of Christian faith. “Be good, get good stuff” is the mantra behind the rewarding of the already wealthy––Dick Smith points out the absurdity of his $500,000 reward from the Federal Government.
Speaking from the lecturn, the minister maintained that this common parlance pop-wisdom was frequently mistaken for Christian faith. “There is no such theory in the gospels of good things happening to good people. The kind of religiosity that enables us to think of certain people as deserving or undeserving, is not aligned with the Jesus of the Gospels.”
And there was the issue of bad things happening to good people. “Have you noticed,” asked Douglas, “What happened to Jesus? He was betrayed, lied about, given a false trial and executed by the government of the day.”
She quoted more of the sayings from the paternalistic world of worthiness. “What do you think ‘every cloud a silver lining’ suggests?” “Get over it!” responds a congregation member. Indeed, “Don’t burden me with your sorrows,” says another. Douglas also unpicked the old assumption that keeping yourself nice was next to godliness; reminding us that Jesus deliberately sought out the people who had been shunned and rejected. He let diseased people touch him and he did not flinch.
At the end of the sermon there was a to-and-fro when the congregation were invited to make their own comments in response. Someone attempted to align the views of Christian faith with a complete verdict on party politics. “We are not here to take sides,” Dr Douglas gently chided. “We are here to remember and meet with story of Jesus and his call to us. That will mean different things at different times about how we vote.” She reminded people of the call to pray for the country’s leaders, including those they did not agree with.
In the pews people were mostly spaced in a way that indicated they had come solo: church was a choice. In the last five years the congregation had doubled. In addition to the children, there were young adults, students, people in their middle years, a few people with grey hair or bright white hair like my mother’s.
It’s been said that when the centre will not hold people flee to the edges of tribalism, vitriol and blame. On that Sunday in that moment, it felt like there was a way the centre might hold again. At the round table with the green cloth there was a still point and a surplus left for people on the edges. The children and adults gathered there had recalled a kinder world, a world they wanted to inhabit and to call on their leaders to re-imagine.
If Morrison and Morton want to call their thinking Christian, they’ll need to bear in mind that the politics of worthiness are not the politics of Jesus of Nazareth. And should the Prime Minister prefer a Pentecostal preacher from the USA, he might listen to William Barber II. This African American preacher repudiates the blatant injustice of politicians who say “I love Jesus” in one breath and then vote against policies that would help the poor. William Barber II reminds his listeners in New York City’s Cathedral of St John the Divine, that there are over 2000 texts in the bible that talk about the poor, the immigrant, those left out in the cold.
After the service my mother sat back in the pew finishing a cup of tea someone had brought over. Her eyes were bright and she looked around––still curious. “What did you think Mum?” I asked. “I am glad we came,” she nodded. “That was very good.”