Originally published in The Age (Melbourne), Opinion, September 4, 2003
by Rowan Forster and Rowland Croucher
The comments by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer about clergy ‘rushing for cheap headlines’ by getting involved in political statements, and the subsequent debate got us thinking…
Barney Zwartz, in his article on meddlesome priests (The Age, Opinion, 2/9), notes that the Judeo-Christian faith is not only about personal piety, but also social justice. Interfering clerics and prophets have, for 3000 years, been the bane of those who benefit from an unjust political system.
Take for instance that troublesome Baptist minister, Martin Luther King. He really should have kept his nose out of political issues, and kept his dream to himself. The duly elected Governors of Alabama and Mississippi were doing just fine until he came along. Why is religion getting mixed up with human rights?
Then there were those interfering archbishops, like Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Janani Luwum in Idi Amin’s Uganda. They should have left their political leaders alone, to govern as they saw fit. Same goes for Cardinal Jaime Sin in the Philippines under the enlightened rule of Ferdinand Marcos, and church leaders who opposed Pol Pot in Cambodia.
And what about Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador? If only he’d kept his mouth shut, he might still be alive. As for the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller in Nazi Germany, they should have stayed inside church cloisters instead of blundering into political activism.
Closer to home, meddlesome clerics like Tim Costello and Ray Cleary shouldn’t be shooting off their mouths about gambling and other social issues. Don’t they realise gambling addicts have a democratic right to sacrifice their homes and families and commit suicide if they want to, without interference from religious do-gooders?
And it’s not just clerics, either. Look at all those religiously minded laymen and women who have meddled in matters that don’t concern them. Like William Wilberforce dragging his Christian faith into the slavery issue, or the Earl of Shaftesbury interfering in the politics of child labor and other forms of exploitation. Or William and Catherine Booth meddling in issues of social and economic inequality, and founding the Salvation Army.
Then there’s Elizabeth Fry interfering in the field of prison reform; Florence Nightingale who founded the modern nursing movement; Cicely Saunders who founded the modern hospice movement; Henri Dunant who founded the Red Cross; and other meddlesome religious zealots who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, Opportunity International, World Vision, TEAR Fund, and a host of other enterprises that can be traced back to a religious motivation.
Is a world without religious interference what we really need? The resultant welfare bill would send all governments flat broke. Expediency would be more likely to triumph over conscience, and brute force over moral persuasion. There’d be less of a check on the excesses of genocidal tyrants, murderous despots and ruthless pragmatists.
New Testament Christians, as Karl Barth pointed out, faced the dilemma of relating to Nero’s Rome, which in Romans 13 is a divinely-ordained institution to be obeyed, but in Revelation 13 is ‘the beast from the abyss’. When governments invoke order at the expense of freedom, tyranny usually results. But, yes, freedom without order is anarchy. The Christian social philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr used to say ‘There is no peace without power, and no justice with power.’ So a Christian has two responsibilities: to support legitimate law and order, but also to promote social justice.
Christians with a social conscience – whether clergy or not – have a biblical mandate to get involved in political debate. Pericles put it well: ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.’