Addresses and Statements

Remarks For Red Wednesday

28 Nov 2018

St. Mary’s Cathedral Crypt

Thank-you Dean Richardson, Mr Toutounji and Mr Tobin. Your Eminences and Excellencies, Reverend Sirs and Ladies, Friends all: welcome to my place!

It is a tribute to the kind of country Australia is that religious leaders, representatives and faithful of 15 different faith traditions could gather tonight in a cathedral crypt to celebrate faith and freedom as we are doing tonight. A tribute to our country – but also to its faith leaders and faithful that have made it that sort of country. So thank-you to each one of you.

Rupert Shortt, religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement, has written that “the heart of our humanity lies in a twin awareness: of our disfiguration on the one hand, and our capacity to conceive and body forth transfiguration on the other.”[1] Tonight’s gathering connects both of these: in gathering to condemn the disfiguration of our human dignity that is religious persecution, we are choosing to hope for transfiguration that is respect for religious difference and freedom. I could dwell upon the disfiguration: the error of trying to homogenise inherently unique human beings; the ominous temptation to spread truth by force rather than persuasion; and the horrors of the human impulse to bullying, violence, even murder, magnified by religious prejudice and claims of religious warrant. I could focus on issues of religious discrimination, if not persecution, even in my own country: such as recent moves to make the Catholic and Orthodox celebration of the Sacrament of Confession illegal, or to charge a Catholic Archbishop with discrimination for teaching the traditional view of marriage, or to remove from faith-based schools the exemptions that allow them to be the particular kinds of community they strive to be. I could focus on the lack of any laws in this land against religious discrimination where discrimination on grounds of race, sex and the like has long been outlawed, and the lack of any serious laws or policies promoting religious freedom here.

I could focus on these negatives but that would be preaching to the choir. We are all here tonight precisely because we are appalled by religious persecution by anyone, of anyone. We are here to express our solidarity the with victims of religious persecution in all circumstances, in all parts of the world, of all faiths. The powerful testimonies of the two witnesses who have spoken before me and the film we saw highlight our common sense of this. If I might add another testimony I heard at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome on the church’s engagement with youth. A bishop from India spoke very movingly about the persecution of young Christians in his state: young Christian women were being raped as a way of humiliating them for their faith, and he told how amongst the victims was his own nice, a religious sister. Young Christian men were suffering other punishments for their faith: he told us of a young man, a youth leader, who was followed by a gang and thrown into a ditch which they proceeded to fill with mud. He was invited repeatedly to repudiate his God in exchange for his freedom, but he repli9ed that he could not, that he love Jesus. Eventually they crushed his head with a rock and killed him. The Synod Hall was silenced by the transfiguring heroism and the disfiguring tragedy.

Instead of focusing upon such losses tonight I would like to reflect with you upon the human tendency at the heart of persecution of various kinds, including religious persecution: the tendency to say ‘well, it’s not me’.

This tendency has two sides. The first is a process of ‘othering’; that is, it draws a line in the sand and says that if someone is on the other side of that line from me, from us, then they’re not ‘one of us’. This allows the oppressor to feel he or she is not wrong to oppress, and the indifferent to say ‘well, it’s not my problem’. The fact is, wherever humanity is suffering, wherever – in the idiom of my own faith tradition – the body of Christ is being tortured and killed, it is us who are suffering, our family, our people, the whole Body of Christ.

The other side of the ‘it’s not me’ evasion is the idea that whatever is happening ‘over there’ – wherever ‘there’ is – could never happen ‘over here’. That is at best naïve, and at worst dangerously short-sighted. Here in Australia we may not kill people for their beliefs – or only very rarely – but there is a prejudice and discrimination, and a growing secularist and sectarian intolerance in some quarters of the media and institutions. We must be eternally vigilant that this does not get worse. We are faced with the same choice between transfiguration and disfiguration that are our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, parts of Africa, the Subcontinent, and beyond.

The disfiguring of the oppressed is obvious enough. Those of different faith, ethnicity or other characteristics are dehumanized and demonized. Their inherent dignity as an image of God is denied. They are blamed for all sorts of things, silenced, disappeared. Then it is so much easier to do them violence, to get rid of them. Dress the whole thing up with the appearance of defending religious purity, and more and worse can be achieved.

The disfiguring of the oppressed is obvious enough here: but the disfiguration of the perpetrators of persecution or indifference is very real also. They become unsympathetic or hateful. In his poem The Conflict, the one-time poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis highlights the impossibility of neutrality and the futility of trying to stand unconnected to the conflicts around us – conflicts which coincidentally tonight he characterises as ‘red’:

Singing I was at peace,
Above the clouds, outside the ring:
For sorrow finds a swift release in song
And pride in poise.

 Yet living here,
As one between two massive powers I live
Whom neutrality cannot save
Nor occupation cheer.

None such shall be left alive:
The innocent wing is soon shot down,
And private stars fade in the blood-red dawn
Where two worlds strive.

 The red advance of life

Contracts pride, calls out the common blood,

Beats song into a single blade,

Makes a depth-charge of grief.

 Move then with new desires,

For where we used to build and love

Is no man’s land, and only ghosts can live

Between two fires.

 The choice to look on and do nothing, or look away and do nothing, is a choice to side with the oppressor, at least by neglect. Tonight as our cathedral is bathed in the blood of martyrs, we stand with the oppressed of any faith, and thus for the dignity of people of all faiths.


[1] Rupert Shortt, God is No Thing (2016), pp. 113-114