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Living in Interesting Times: A Time to Speak and Protest or Be Silenced?

Monday, 5 May 2014  | Anonymous

We live in interesting times, just as the old, alleged Chinese adage goes. There is much with which to be dismayed in government policy.

A War on the Environment
With the recent IPCC report examining the impacts on our country and the economics of adaptation, it would be good to see a government very active in re-structuring our economy along more sustainable lines. And yet the public now has to fund the Climate Commission while the Climate Change Authority narrowly survives. The price on carbon and Mining Tax are set to go, while dumping of waste in the Great Barrier Reef, expanded coal exports, removal of old growth (and carbon storing) forests, currently world heritage, are all on the cards. These are signs of a fundamentally unsustainable ideology, and very bad news for all Australians, present and future. Further, it is scientifically ignorant. Seeking to silence and shut down informed advice is more than just sticking one’s head in the sand; it’s decapitating others we don’t want to hear from.

A War on ‘Boat people’
Things are no better with ‘border protection’. This militaristic euphemism along with ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ is all well and good when applied to foreign invaders, drug smugglers and people stupid enough to bring in harmful or prohibited substances. No one is suggesting that our borders should be wide open; border protection makes sense when seeking to keep out war criminals, ideological extremists, and some who could come in a more orderly fashion. However, it is another thing entirely when applied to people fleeing persecution. And we sell military equipment to a government who is actively persecuting the very people who come to us for aid? To be fair, the most recent Quarterly Essay entitled “That Sinking Feeling”, does a good job at painting both sides of politics as complicit in the dehumanising of people seeking to come to Australia by boat, and show that not all of these people are the same.

Even given these caveats, however, it seems the present government seems hell-bent on outdoing all predecessors in Machiavellian politics. The only way we know anything of what has been happening on Manus (or Nauru with its $8000 journalist visa fees) is the occasional journalist and whistle-blower brave enough to speak out. The conditions in which people are being held are unconscionable, and unflattering comparisons with harsh regimes are almost unavoidable. We stand accused of being in violation of international law and treaties. What is just as worrying are the attempts to control information, or the labelling of those who do speak out as ‘un-Australian’.

Constricting Public Conversation
Democracy is a funny beast. In a multicultural, pluralistic world, democracy is meant to be rule by the people, for the people, though often better described as a way of placing limits on excessive and unaccountable power, whether of the government or markets. You’ve only to look at the upcoming Senate composition to see that. For a stable democracy, you need an independent judiciary; hence, mandatory sentencing is a backward step. You also need a diverse fourth estate—the media. Much of the Murdoch press much of the time reflects a view of events shaped by its owner’s interests. Where was the coverage of the anti-Abbott rally, or last year’s climate change rally? Note too that reviews of the ABC have never found systematic bias against the Coalition, and no one else—no newspaper or media outlet—has the equivalent of the ABC’s ‘Media Watch’. No one else is brave enough to critique itself. So we should be worried about changes to media laws on cross-ownership.

Freedom to critique government policy should be an inalienable right, and yet now the Federal Government wants to use the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct to mute public servants and to risk demoralising and dividing them by turning them into dobbers and spies. We’re reminded of John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards where an employer owns a person’s expertise, and they are told to be silent where they have no expertise. It is one thing to ensure that the public service conducts itself in a proper manner, not attacking individuals within the government nor using inside information improperly, but this is not the same as silencing individuals from making any criticisms in their broader role as citizens.

The Victorian government has tightened its control of public protests, a knee-jerk response to protests over yet another unnecessary road, when what we need for a sustainable future is a better public transport network. Echoes of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his laws on public gatherings? This law puts too much into the hands of police and could effectively stifle public dissent and industrial disputes. Melbourne’s lord mayor, Robert Doyle, suggested that the changes could be used to target regular anti-abortion protesters – a use that would divide Christians. But we all know it will be used far more widely.

Also on the cards is an attempt to ban boycott campaigns – a stock-in-trade tool used by environmental activists. It seems that ‘business over environment’ is a broad club to bash people’s heads, regardless of their right to express concerns. To this we might add the secret negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could see us helpless to protect the environment in the face of free trade.

Ironically, at the same time, we see an attempt to undo laws that protect people from hate speech and racial and other vilification. Shock jocks who whip up people into a hateful frenzy will have more protection than vulnerable minorities and public servants. All of this points to more power and “free speech” for the rich and powerful, and two fingers to everyone else (and with no laughter allowed in parliament, maybe even free speech for the government and not the opposition).

Obedient to Christ, Disobedient to the Powers
Recently, two groups of Christians were arrested. At the Maules Creek mine site, a number of Christians and other believers were arrested while protesting the expansion of coal mining in Australia – focussed on climate change, the rights of indigenous Australians, and protecting the natural beauty of the environment. Christians arrested included theologian Byron Smith, and head of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, Thea Ormond. The Minerals Council of Australia sees such activism as “increasingly dangerous”. One might respond that such mines are “increasingly dangerous”.

The other group of Christians was headed by peace activist Jarrod McKenna, and were arrested for praying in Scott Morrison’s office. Scott himself is a Christian. Perhaps these particular prayers offended him? The police, though, said they were the ‘nicest criminals’ they had ever arrested, and could come back any time. Jarrod McKenna, one of the participants, has provided a theological account of why he participated in this action. (Matt Anslow talks about the public prayer here.) Other Christians have subsequently been arrested for protesting about refugee policy in the office of the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

It seems to us that these acts are just – though you might disagree – and that Christians should be considering whether or not we are called to be arrested over such issues. The kingdom of God is concerned about public peace and justice, and cannot be restricted to a privatised spirituality. How much are we willing to risk personally for the kingdom? It is hard for some; public servants might risk getting the sack. Some people might be jeopardising their new careers, and so on. Bill McKibben, a US climate change activist behind 350.org, recommends that retirees are in the forefront of protests, because they risk little by being arrested. Perhaps others can get a little cleverer in an increasingly hostile environment.

Civil disobedience can be direct without being confrontational. When Jesus called for us to turn the other cheek, it was after receiving a condescending backhander, inviting being struck as an equal with the front of the hand. A Roman soldier could command a Jew to bear his burden for the legally required mile but Jesus urged his followers to take it a second; a subversive act in many ways, possibly getting the soldier into trouble for breaking a rule of occupation. Were someone to sue a person for their outer garment (something the Law forbid), Jesus said to hand over underwear as well; by implication, walking out of court naked. All of these are strategies and models for disobedience; encouraging creativity in resistance. Boycotts can become information campaigns, or culture jamming (see for example, the magazine Adbusters). Protests and marches can become flashmobs. And all conduct must be non-violent.

Governments find it convenient even in relatively open societies such as Australia to redirect and limit public debate We must resist. The norm to submit to the powers in Romans 13 follows Romans 12 which tells us how to respond to evil. Caesar sought worship and absolute obedience, not the honour the apostles Paul and Peter would limit us to giving them. We should fear empires indeed when they can bring the sword (literal or metaphorical) upon disobedience to them (Romans 8:34f hints at this). So our obedience to governments is limited, and shaped by the gospel. Jesus calls us to get our priorities straight. As William Cavanaugh has observed, if we render to God what is God’s, what is left for Caesar?

Many of the campaigns Christians have been arrested for really are gospel issues. There may be others you can add to the list. This is not a social gospel but THE gospel. Martin Luther King Jr understood that the gospel meant that God cared about race relations, war, and employment rights, even if he didn’t get the connection to fidelity in marriage. A non-Christian like Gandhi got Jesus on nonviolence, even if he didn’t embrace him as Lord and Saviour. Surely we can see how personal righteousness and public justice are both important.

Standing with others on issues of peace and justice, expresses our love for God and neighbour, and provides us with opportunities to share the gospel with actions, and if need be, with words as well.

This article received input from a number of people and was edited by former Canberra public servant Doug Hynd and Ethos Director Gordon Preece.


Roslyn Loader
May 6, 2014, 11:22AM
I often feel scared as to where we are going and how we can be heard. Thank you, anonymous. My mind was already being exercised by Christians for Biblical Equality seminar last weekend. A very honest South African sharing his journey from privileged white to an egalitarian in marriage, worship and social justice. Maybe we are too privileged in Australia.
Tom Mayne
May 6, 2014, 4:47PM
Having just signed a petition to have the Nigerian government do more to rescue the girls that were kidnapped, we need to protest loudly about what is happening here. The above comments should be 'shouted from the housetops'.

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