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The Minister and the Prophet: Scott Morrison, Jeremiah and the Silencing of Scripture

Tuesday, 1 July 2014  | Paul Tyson


In his maiden speech to Parliament House Scott Morrison quoted this passage from the prophet Jeremiah: 

... I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.

Scott Morrison goes on to explain: 
From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others.

Morrison then outlines his own principles as exemplified in this quote from Desmond Tutu:

... we expect Christians ... to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

Within this courageous and compassionate tradition of Christian activism Morrison explains:

My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous… generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.

Perhaps the Member for Cook had some sort of reverse road to Damascus experience between 2008 and becoming the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. For the ‘Stop the Boats’ mission he has relentlessly pursued as a cabinet minister has been advanced by strategies designed to send the clear international message that Australia is ruthlessly inhospitable to boat arrival asylum seekers. We, apparently, are no longer a generous nation who stands up for the homeless out of compassion and who share God’s desire for justice and righteousness on the earth. No, we must protect our borders at all costs. For, clearly, appeal to some foreign invading ‘other’ as an inchoate threat undermining our own wealth and opportunity is a sure fire vote winner in Australia, and one cannot afford to let the opposition get any advantage over the government in that game. Once this game starts, political realism ensures a race to the bottom on humanity towards asylum seekers.

So could it be that Scott Morrison, in order to win this political tough guy race to the bottom, has had to stop reading Jeremiah? Consider this passage from the weeping prophet:

Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done… This is what the Lord says: do what is just and right... Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner… do not shed innocent blood in this place… If you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this place will become a ruin. (Jeremiah 21:11, 22:35)

Given passages like this it seems hard to understand what Scott Morrison makes of Jeremiah, or  the Bible’s message of justice and compassion. For the New Testament too, in direct continuity with the Hebrew prophets, finds compassionate obedience more important than personal religious piety, and tells us that we will know a tree by its fruits. Think of the Good Samaritan. Further, Jesus goes so far as to explain that those nations found to be beloved of God on the day of judgement are those who welcomed the stranger, who fed the hungry, who healed the sick, clothed the naked and brought relief to those in prison. Indeed, the Lord says to His beloved: “in as much as you did it to the least of these… you did it for me.” Conversely, those nations judged and found wanting by the Lord will hear the horrifying words “Depart from me, you who are cursed… [for] whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

So in what sense does Scott Morrison think his border protection actions are a function of his Christian values? I cannot peer into his soul, but it seems clear that Scott Morrison upholds a strict separation between his responsibilities to act in conformity to party loyalty in his public and professional capacity, and to keep his faith defined within the tight and personal world of private moral integrity and individual religious piety.

Perhaps this phrase from his maiden speech is more in keeping with his actual practise of political life than anything he said about Jeremiah, Desmond Tutu, or William Wilberforce: “My personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda.” Clearly, stopping the boats is his political agenda. Hence, it seems clear that his personal faith in Jesus Christ is something he can understand as being entirely discrete from his political agenda to stop the boats.

Could it be that the Member for Cook’s reading of Jeremiah was always a highly selective exercise in platitudinous, de-politicised, textual cherry picking? For as any serious reading reveals, the relentless message of Jeremiah is one of pending judgement; it is a message that because the powerful despise loving kindness towards the vulnerable, because the rulers pursue immoral self-interested realpolitik agendas, they show contempt towards the social and truly religious requirements of obedience to God. This defiant hubris puts themselves, and the people they lead, in the direct path of God’s wrath. (Let us hope, then, that the Bible is indeed just made up.)

When thinking about this I recalled an eight week teaching series on the Book of Jeremiah which I sat through in a conservative evangelical church in Brisbane. It frankly astonished me that the political and corporate implications of the prophet’s words for us in Australia today were not raised once. Matters of personal morality, personal piety, and personal salvation, in the face of corrupt influences from the immoral and impious were somehow discovered in every passage we examined – and nothing else was found! Scott Morrison’s understanding of what it means to have Christian values and Christian faith, and to keep them distinctly concerned with personal morality and personal salvation, is not unusual in non-conformist circles.

It seems likely that the key to how Scott Morrison reads the Scriptures can be found in this sentence of his maiden speech. Morrison claims that Tutu and Wilberforce “established and reinforced the principles of our liberal democracy upon which our own nation is built.” That is, the appropriate place of Christian faith in public life sits within the framework of liberal democracy and the needs of a strong nation.

There are, of course, many good things to be said for liberal democracy and a healthy nation, but four things need to be pointed out here.

Firstly, the manner in which the requirements of political loyalty within our two party system works, and our politician’s present acceptance of the realpolitik notion of the amoral pursuit of “national interest”, on many fronts necessarily clashes with the clear moral teachings of the Scripture. Being cruel and inhumane to asylum seekers may make very good competitive electoral sense within our political system – which is, indeed, a liberal democratic system in some sense – but it deeply and obviously clashes with the clear teachings of Scripture. Whilst this clash may not seem apparent to right wing conservative evangelical supporters of the LNP, at least the 38 Catholic Bishops of Australia proclaimed this profound conflict between Christian morality and our government’s cruel and brutal asylum seeker policies in recent days. Tony Abbott should know better. (But then maybe he is more evangelical than Scott Morrison on this front.) Kevin Rudd should have known better. (When will any government or opposition give us an alternative to “border protection” policies premised on the barbaric abnegation of our Geneva Convention responsibilities?)

Secondly, the notion of liberalism which is native to non-conformist Christianity places such a premium on personal freedom in matters of one’s deepest religious convictions as to effectively render the public realm peripheral to religious concerns. This makes for a neat and almost total divide between matters of personal faith and matters of public politics (excepting legal matters deemed relevant to private sexual morality). Thus, the liberal democratic Christian politician can readily be a very moral, pious and religious person in private, and a ruthless, pragmatic, amoral political realist in public.

Thirdly, whatever the implied political philosophy of Jeremiah might be, it was not liberal democracy. To read Jeremiah through the lens of our own liberal political philosophy with its sharp demarcation between matters concerning private faith and matters concerning public politics, is to entirely miss what the prophet is saying. And, as I have witnessed in my own church, entirely missing what the prophet is saying is what conservative evangelical Christianity so readily does. When this sort of theology reads the prophets it brazenly appropriates whatever de-contextualized snippets of text it can find that re-enforces the interpretive lens it has already imposed on the text. This is an astonishingly banal conception of “Biblical” Christianity. Yet alas, this is a tried and tested approach to reading the Scriptures within conservative non-conformist Christian circles. In those circles another very significant doctrinal lens shapes this interpretive lens – a distorted  doctrine of salvation by faith alone, a ‘canon within the canon’ that effectively cuts out the message of Jeremiah, the Gospels, and James.

Fourthly, via a small and personalized sola fide theology, a subjectivized and sentimentalized understanding of right standing before God makes it possible to think of oneself as a sweet and pious Christian at the same time as being a ruthless ‘realist’ in public. Because the Christian does not earn his or her salvation, ‘good works’ are not a religious obligation, they are just an optional extra which one can do if circumstances and inclination allows. This, as Bonhoeffer well understood, is “cheap grace”. Christian faith is here all about enjoying the personal consolations of forgiveness without following Christ in any costly way in the here and now world. It is an ideal religion for people who want to be brutally and “amorally” pragmatic, and still have a good conscience, and still like themselves because they are lovingly affirmed and accepted by the forgiving God (via grace, and the brutal punishment of Christ in my place, of course). This outlook is fatalistic about the place of sin and violence in the fallen world. So this stance accepts that effective and realistic action in the fallen world requires the use of violence and that power is, finally, had by those who are most prepared to be brutally instrumental in their use of whatever means is available to them to “get the job done”. But don’t worry, because I don’t earn my salvation by being good, and because God has forgiven me anyway, I can simply do what power requires and still be beloved of God. Win the game of power by whatever means necessary and get out of jail free! Needless to say, there is not a trace of cheap grace in the prophets.

Bearing these four things in mind, the relationship between Jeremiah and Scott Morrison is now easier to see. It seems there is no relation.

 

Dr Paul Tyson
Honorary Associate Professor of Theology
Nottingham University

 


Comments

Mick Porter
July 1, 2014, 8:23AM
Brilliant article Paul; having also experienced that conservative approach to the prophets from the pulpits of Brisbane, I think you hit a few nails squarely on the head.
Robert Coles
July 1, 2014, 4:35PM
Paul's theology is correct.

Scott Morrison, having revealed his faith in his maiden speech should have refused the portfolio when offered to him.
No one likes the way things have gone. It seems that Australians are suspicious of people who fly into Asia with documents. Apparently, they are then told by people smugglers to destroy passports etc. and pay a large amount to risk travel in a boat that is hardly seaworthy.
There is also the question of genuine refugees waiting for years to be accepted into Australia. Are they being fairly treated in the circumstances?
Jim Reiher
July 1, 2014, 7:02PM
Great article thanks.

The issue of refugee re-settlement is huge and complex. But clearly it is not following the heart of Scripture, to treat asylum seekers as both our major parties are treating them in this country.

There are two queues, by the way: there always have been. We take refugees from two sources. (1) refugee camps and UN lists around the world and (2) from those who just turn up unannounced and ask for asylum.

Queue number (2) has always had two sources: plane arrivals and boat arrivals, and both used to be considered. Now it is just plane arrivals who are allowed to be considered.

Our discrimination against boat arrivals in cruel and bizarre. Over the last 40 years plane arrivals were always more (numerically) than boat arrivals - often over 90% of applications for refuge in any year. That was the case until the last couple of years when they evened out. And now of course place arrivals are more again - due to the turn back the boats policy - and plane arrivals are hardly ever talked about! (I will let you in on a secret: they are allowed to live in the broader community while their claims are assessed. It would cost way too much to put them all in detention. It costs about 10 times the amount to have someone in detention as it does to allow them to live in the community).

We could just say to the world "we will only take people from UN camps and lists around the world". But what do you do with people who then just turn up? It seems that we put them in jail forever. With no right to appeal the decision. All they can do is opt to be sent back to the country of origin! The place they fled from in the first place.

If we tripled how many we take from refugee camps around the world, and all other receiving nations did the same, that might make people who flee their homelands, go to such camps, instead of taking dangerous boat rides and turning up unannounced. Maybe?

Maybe not. At the moment the world only places about 1-2% of the number of refugees in camps around the world, each year. (It might even be less than 1% now). Lets be generous and say it is 2%! That means if you wait your turn in a camp (and that does not happen - governments of the world "cherry-pick" who they want) - it would take 50 years to get placed!!

So even if every country in the world tripled their quotas from camps and together we took 6% of the people each year, that would still mean a person would wait 16 years to be placed somewhere.

And we wonder why desperate families resort to dangerous boat rides.

And to end with some statistics: did you know that each year in Australia we bring in about 160,000 to 190,000 people - mostly as migrants on different visas, but 14,000 of them are refugees. 14,000.

And it used to be that the 14,000 was roughly half and half: half camps and half unannounced arrivals.

Why don't we offer to take 50,000 refugees a year? and reduce migration by the same amount. To keep the total number much the same.

We could do more. There are ways we could act more in line with the justice principles we supposedly aspire to.
David Reynolds
July 2, 2014, 11:04PM
I love this piece!

I have recently been reflecting on Jesus' teachings on the sheep and the goats. Who else can those goats be but us? We are the only people group who can check those boxes.

Great piece Paul, thanks for penning it.
Andrew
July 3, 2014, 3:39PM
The only way I can have any hope of understanding why Morrison is acting the way he is, is because there is another and stronger agenda driving Morrison, that is his own political career. If he can 'stop the boats' by what ever his mean indicates he is a can do man and things get done and one day we will see him in as PM. I think his aspirations are beyond being his current role.
Mac Campbell
July 4, 2014, 8:08PM
If my people who are called by my name... My people are moral zombies, my inhritance a moral boneyard. Where is my Oscar Schindler?
Jim Reiher
July 8, 2014, 11:46AM
And in the last 48 hours we have heard that it is official: we have sent Sri Lankan Tamils back to the Sri Lankan government!

You know, the Chinese Communists send North Korean refugees that end up in China, back to North Korea. They hand them back to the people who they are fleeing from.

Just before WW2 broke out, nations around the world were sending Jewish refugees back to Nazi run Germany for being "illegal immigrants".

And now Australia joined their ranks! We sent back Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka back to the Sri Lankan government when we deemed them not to be "real" refugees.

I am sooo ashamed of my country right now. We have descended into one of the very worst countries in the world, when it comes to protecting fleeing persecuted people, and honoring their human rights.

My God (and that is a prayer not just a flabbergasted exclamation)... where is the national conscience?

-----------

Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers, were "interviewed at sea" with no rights at all (no translators, no lawyers, no chance to prepare their case) - and were "handed over to the Sri Lankan navy" to be returned to Sri Lanka - the nation they fled from.

I need my good conservative Christian friends to tell me why they continue to support this government?

I am so appalled by this action that I can not find the words to capture how bad it is. WE - US AUSSIES - our government that many of the nation voted for - have sent men women and children, who fled a nation, BACK to the forces of that nation that they fled from.

Our obsession with believing the spin, (we have to protect our borders!!), is more important than protecting persecuted people from their oppressors. it is more important than caring for women and children fleeing persecution.

Let me bring you into a well kept secret: even though the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, it does not mean that the place is safe for the minority who lost the war!!

More Sri Lankan men have been murdered by the majority winners army, SINCE the war ended, than during the war! (There is no Tamil army any more to be the buffer).

We just send a whole lot of Sri Lankan men (and some of their families with them) back to the oppressive regime that kills people just like them. Other Western Democracies recognise this about that government, but we don't want to. We want to use them to help "stop the boats".

We have lost perspective. We have a national narcissism that has gone beyond the edge. We are an international disgrace. We should be better than this. We have done much better in the past. We can find that again...
James Reiher
July 8, 2014, 5:04PM
And hot off the news tonight: it seems that the refugees concerned (in the Sri Lankan case) - are still in the "care" of the Australian navy and there are assurances that they wont be sent back to Sri Lanka without "three days notice". (What on earth does that mean?)

Perhaps the public outcry is starting to being heard?

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