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Festival of 'minority' ideas: race, justice and Tim Costello

Sunday, 4 June 2017  | Mersina Papantoniou

The Sydney Writer's Festival (SWF) 2017 was held at Sydney's historic former industrial port precinct, Walsh Bay, on May 27-29. The piers are inhabited by organisations such as the Sydney Dance Studio and the Philharmonia Choirs. The venues along the piers featured picturesque harbour views with the backdrop of sun-washed Sydney Autumn days for the duration of the Festival.

My interest at the SWF was in contemporary and brave writing about race - the emerging face of those categorised as 'racial minority' writers and their view of society from such a vantage point. These authors spoke candidly about their writing. One example was the Man Booker Prize winner, Paul Beatty, with his inimitable laconic yet acerbic view of the life of 'black men' in American society, considering 'humour is vengeance' in The Sellout.

It is a pointed characteristic of post-modernist critique that the assumed power-base behind 'majority culture' is indeed fragmenting. The emergence of contemporary Identity Politics is but one aspect of this, as minority voices become politicised and enter the foray of public discourse, re-negotiating perceived inequality. Indeed so, given Australia's historical legacy through the persistent overt/covert bias of the former 'White Australia Policy'.

The emergence of political minority movements harkening back to the supremacy of the 'old Australia', e.g. Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, United Patriot's Front and Reclaim Australia, was discussed by journalist, David Marr, author of The White Queen (Quarterly Essay), and John Safran, author of Depends what you mean by Extremist, in their session The Politics of Fear. Both men bravely put into perspective how the historic fear of invasion has been used as a political ploy to pragmatically unite and/or divide the nation against a foe, whether real or imagined.

The theme was examined further through the session Human Baggage: The Hate Politics of Immigration. Mona Chalabi, The Guardian's US data editor, countered the claim that immigrants commit more crimes than the native born, with her interesting and accessible graphs and tables. I had previously studied statistics for my Undergraduate psychology degree yet never had so much fun with those 'God-damn statistics'! For a sample of her writing, see here.

The session Writing Race became a remarkable discussion where writers discussed their view from a non-privileged minority space. The writers included Anuk Arudpragasam, the author of The Story of a Brief Marriage which considers the impact of the Civil War in Sri Lanka, who admitted to writing from his place of privilege through his ordained caste in that minority. Ellen van Neerven, a young Australian Indigenous poet/author, author of Comfort Food, and the disarmingly hilarious Roanna Gonsalvez of Indian background, author of The Permanent Resident, candidly remarked that, whilst Australia has benefitted from large-scale immigration, the word 'migrant' appears to have become a slur. 'White' immigrants are not seen as immigrants; in contrast, she admitted to being viewed by mainstream society using what Australian sociologist Ghassan Hage has described as TWLP - 'ThirdWorld Looking People'.

The Big Black Thing, Chapter 1 anthology, launched at the SWF by the Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement,

aims to provide Australians Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds with the tools to counteract racist, sexist, classist and homophobic narratives that are often encoded in mainstream media, film, television, computer games and literature. (Foreword, v)

Featuring the work of young writers from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) from Sir Joseph Banks and Lurnea High Schools, the teachers proudly accompanied the student authors as they read their work aloud along with their multi-lingual phrases, songs and 'wog' accents to their delighted audience. This session reminding me of the Civil Rights anthem, penned by Sam Cooke (1964) and now adopted by Australia's Indigenous movement (agitating for political and structural change since the 1967 referendum) from the song's refrain:

It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.


Sitting in church one Sunday, as one of the minority who regularly attend services, I often wonder who or where are such visible minorities in our congregations. I have since finished my PhD enquiring into a little-known now defunct department formerly in the Anglican Home Mission Society – the Department of Cross-Cultural Ministries (DCCM). This small structural entity was tasked with forming a missionary society (1987-2000) within the home base for church planting, deploying missionaries to peoples in Sydney of NESB. My research into this history reflects an intentional direction of the Sydney Diocese to create and fund a department, based within the former Anglican Home Mission Society, allocating diocesan NESB ministry grants particularly for this purpose. The work of DCCM recognised a particular nexus between peoples of NESB and combined social welfare/action programming and church-planting. In working with migrants and refugees, one authentically needed to do both.

This aspect of ministry might come as a shock to some, asking why hasn't it twigged before, that one could do both. Or conversely, for other evangelicals, this is not gospelling, but 'the slippery slope of the social gospel'!

In wondering about the connection between racial/social minorities and church, I attended the Rev. Tim Costello's session regarding his newly-minted (2016) book titled Faith: Embracing life in all its uncertainty. On a biographical note, Rev. Costello, a Baptist minister, has been CEO of World Vision for the last 13 years. World Vision is concerned with poverty, racism, violence and the 60 million people including refugees who are currently displaced in the world. In the decade from 2004 (when he became CEO), World Vision sponsored just under 500 projects benefitting over 10 million people. They have now grown to more than 800 development projects benefitting 100 million people. Rev. Costello also chairs the national Australian Taskforce on Gambling and is on the National Australia Bank's Social Responsibility Advisory Council.

What continued was a very personal and candid reflection on the influences of his life. For Tim, faith informs social and cultural identity, where 'the personal is political' (a phrase used by Women Liberationists in the late 1960s.) He explained that he was a product of a father who had a profound religious conversion experience. He watched his father kneel by his bed and pray even sometimes with tears, and this had a great impact on him.

However, in order to play cricket, his father needed to go the Presbyterian Church to become part of the Presbyterian Cricket Team. His late father became part of that congregation where he met his future wife, and both became teachers.

Tim's mother taught him about Freud, read Germaine Greer and belonged to the Student Christian Movement (SCM), whilst his father was part of the conservative Evangelical Union (what Tim described as the disparity between 'the Sunni and Shia differences' of the Christian movement). Whilst his mother was 'open at the edges', his father was 'committed to the core'. It was this profound understanding of balance that shaped Tim's commitment to faith and social responsibility. This aspect of Tim's journey counters the idea that, if a Christian immerses oneself in social action/responsibility, one loses one's faith. In Tim's journey, it is to the contrary.

Even with such responsibilities, Tim discussed how he understood in his book how 'faith was the Siamese twin to doubt'. This was not a triumphalist Christianity on view in the public discourse, but rather a working out of his faith 'in fear and trembling' whilst witnessing the unspeakable trauma of the Rwandan genocide. For Tim, the working out of his faith was indeed public (not only confined to the personal realm) but also profoundly political. This is why his journey of faith has yielded a double-edged sword regarding the unashamed place of faith in the contemporary public, post-modern realm.

Tim admitted that a severe temptation for him did come in accepting Cheryl Kernot's invitation to join the Australian Democrats for a Senate seat. However, once again, after addressing a public rally regarding poverty, he listened to his heart and decided his first priority was towards 'the poor', and he eventually declined the invitation.

From a marketing point of view, the 'brand' Tim Costello represents an unparalleled ethical line, castigating the excesses of our contemporary Australian society along with the oft-forgotten inclusion of collective responsibility from that rather misappropriated phrase 'seeking the common good'.

Yet, the question remains: whose 'common good' are we talking about?

During the SWF session, he answered my question regarding the problematic space evangelicals have in holding both evangelism and social responsibility, remarking about the conundrum that 81% of American evangelicals voted for Mr Trump.

Tim, as a publicly untarnished Christian voice, shames those who only first prioritise their 'our own' and in their self-interest forget about everyone else, including the Christian's social responsibility to the rest of the world. I have often wondered why those with the least often share the most of what they have.

To conclude the session, I bought my copy of Faith and waited in the short line for Tim to sign the book. As circumstances happened, at the other end of the proscenium in the same room, another longer line was lingering out through the door with people patiently waiting for Dame Quentin Bryce to sign their copy of her popular book.

Motioning towards Australia's first female Governor-General, I asked Tim: would he accept such an honour to be bestowed on him, therefore forever being addressed as 'Sir'?

Once again, in his own considered way, he thought about my question, paused and in his grand baritone voice admitted:

No, I wouldn't accept it, and besides they would never have me anyway.

Mersina Papantoniou (née Tonys-Soulos)
has just completed her PhD at Macquarie University titled Multiculturalism's challenge to Sydney Anglican Identity, a study of a minority radical tradition (1987-2000).

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