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Faithful progressives

Gandhi is famous in Christian circles for saying “I like your Christ. I don’t like your Christians – you are so unlike your Christ.”

It seems that most people in the Western world agree with this sentiment. I’m a pastor and I often find myself agreeing with it. Research done over the last couple of decades shows that Jesus continues to have high approval ratings – yet Christians certainly don’t. And the more conservative, or fundamentalist, a certain faith tradition is the stronger the dislike seems to be. As the director of asylum seeker advocacy organisation Welcome to Australia, I see even stronger hatred for people of Islamic faith come through the angry emails, disgusting social media posts and comments on the opinion pieces we might have published.

Faith is broadly derided in the media, both mainstream and alternative, almost as the last vestiges of a society that has progressed intellectually, culturally and scientifically beyond any need for a belief in anything that can’t be quantified, defined and objectively proven.

However, if you distil down most of the critique it’s often more about the behaviour of people of faith and faith communities rather than for or against the existence of something beyond measurable, tangible matter. Sure, atheists argue strongly for their belief in only rational thought – which is another conversation – but the great majority of conversation is about the negative impact of religion and religious institutions. War, colonialism, sexual and other abuse, corruption, wealth, manipulation, terrorism and sectarianism… in essence, it’s about people of faith being so unlike the ideal human beings that society imagines people of faith should be. It’s like the world is saying, “If you’re so sure faith makes you a better person, then be a better person, dammit!” Or, in the words of Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ.”

The typical Christian answer to this analysis, is, “Well, we’re just as screwed up as everyone else. We’re flawed human beings, like everyone else, who happen to be people of faith.”

And so today I’m not here to defend faith, or people of faith, but rather to discuss how, as people on the progressive side of politics, we might invite the nearly 70% of Australians who still identify as religious to join us in building a progressive future for Australia – and even those on the conservative end of the spectrum. I’m interested in discussing how we might set about building a progressive future for Australia not in combat with people who hold to a religious belief, but hand in hand with them.

As a credentialed Pastor in the Australian Christian Churches denomination, being progressive is not something that conflicts with my faith but rather that was borne out of it. Because I seek to follow Jesus, who spent his days making marginalised people central to his life and ministry, it’s essential that my life reflects that model. Because I seek to follow Jesus, who was killed for challenging the social and cultural power structures that entrench both privilege and poverty, that enabled the powerful to control the destiny of the weak, it’s essential as a Christian that I’m involved in challenging those same structures. And because the message of Jesus, his death and his resurrection, is that all people have equal worth, it flows for me that progressive values of inclusion, opportunity and equality are not only good values to have, but they are at the core of what Christ came to teach us.

It is this synergy of faith with the values of the progressive movement that I believe is an opportunity to be harnessed if we are to broaden our appeal to Australians without compromising the very things that make us progressive – or those things that give people of faith their identity. I speak from the perspective of a person with Christian faith, but much of what follows is transferable to other faith traditions also.

I’d like to present three ideas that can help us reflect this synergy

1.    Reframe morality

Recent decades have seen the concept of “morality” being gradually reduced to mean, “what you do with your genitals.” Where morality once more broadly referred to “right or virtuous conduct”, today when you hear about “the church” getting involved in “moral issues” we assume it’ll somehow be related to sexuality. Even the church’s stance on euthanasia and abortion are now more readily discussed as “social” than moral issues.

To partner with people of faith we need to help reframe morality both in our conversations with them, and also the way we engage in policy and political conversations in the public arena.

As people involved in progressive politics, we’re concerned with the virtuous conduct of individuals, but we’re also committed to the virtuous conduct of the State, of our government.

We’re committed to morality in government, a morality that upholds the dignity of the individual, the health of the community, the equality of all people and our moral responsibility to care for the planet and its inhabitants.

These are all equally Christian values, Christian themes. More broadly, if you define Christian morality as “right or virtuous conduct” according to the teachings of Christian Scripture, all of these are moral imperatives for the believer.

I run a national organisation called Welcome to Australia, which began two and a half years ago and mobilises Australians to engage in practical acts of welcome while also seeking to change the political and media conversation around asylum seekers, refugees and other new arrivals.

We began after the opening of the Inverbrackie detention centre outside of Adelaide – there was a news story covering one of the protests against the asylum seekers coming into the neighbourhood in which a ten-year-old child held up a sign that said, “sink the boats.” I decided that a nation in which it was ok for a parent to hand their child a sign calling for families to drown at sea was not a nation I wanted to raise my children in. It wasn’t a political issue, it was a moral issue. Using the dictionary definition of morality, what our government was doing not just to asylum seekers but to our national character, was not right, was not virtuous. It is not right to vilify the world’s most vulnerable people and to use them as expendable pawns in the power struggles of our leaders. It is not right to intentionally damage men, women and children in the hope that others don’t flee in our direction. It is not right to intentionally instill fear and division in our communities for the purpose of winning elections.

Welcome to Australia has more than 70 high profile Australians as ambassadors – everyone from The Wiggles to AFL and Rugby union stars to state and Federal MPs and Senators from all major parties. One of its unique contributions to the conversation is the way it appeals to people across the political and socio-economic spectrum by intentionally not battling on policy grounds but on moral grounds – by calling out the best in Australians and reminding us that compassion, hospitality, welcome and kindness are values that we’d all like to see reflected in our homes, schools, suburbs and nation. By making it a moral issue, not just a political or policy one.

People of faith, who in the public space have expressed a limited version of morality, have a deep sense that morality must be more than this. They know that, “love your neighbour as yourself” is not about the right context for sexual activity. Social morality is deeply embedded not only in our Scripture, but also in our history and practice.

In my tradition, there’s a practice called the “altar call”. It’s where people physically respond to a sermon or an invitation to faith by coming to stand at the front of the stage with the speaker. It’s used for any and every kind of sermon.

One of the earliest preachers to use the altar call was an American revivalist named Charles Finney. He would invite people to join him in following Jesus, invite them to indicate this by calling them to the altar – and then tell them that if they would not sign up to the abolitionist movement, the movement to end slavery, that they were not yet ready to follow Christ and tell them to come back when they were.

People of Christian faith intrinsically know that poverty is a moral issue, systemic unemployment is a moral issue, exploitation, corporate and individual greed, oppression, injustice and the degradation of the environment are moral issues. They know that social inequality is a moral issue. They know all this because it’s in the DNA of their history, it’s in the words of their Scripture, it’s in the story of their Christ.

2.    Remember we’re progressives not libertarians

Much of the reason that people of faith have begun to define morality as sexual ethics is because, as Cardinal Pell has reminded Catholics often, they are battling the rise of liberalism in our society and culture.

Without spending too much time addressing the individual battleground issues, the fundamental difference between being progressive and being libertarian is the focus on either the community, the common good, versus a focus on individual freedom.

In recent years, liberalism and progressive politics have had blurred edges. Is the right of the individual to make free choices about their own behaviour an intrinsically progressive concept? It sounds like it is, but in fact progressive politics is about the notion of the “common good” being central rather than individual liberties.

Our relationship to smoking is a good example of this. Plain packaging, restrictions on where you can smoke, taxes on cigarettes – these are progressive ideas because they intentionally limit the freedom of the individual where that freedom is not in the interest of the common good. The framing of such laws as the actions of a “nanny state” is a libertarian idea suggesting the government should stay out of limiting people’s choices, where individual freedom is of greater value than the common good.

There is a complex relationship between these two ideologies that we can’t entirely investigate today. I raise this point only to say that people of faith react poorly when progressive politics and libertarian politics are conflated. We find common ground with most faith traditions when we uphold the common good, when the community is at the centre of our policy development, when the economy serves the community, and where freedom exists to make the life of the whole community better rather than to enhance an individual’s ability to express their self-interest.

Progressives and people of faith are united in seeing that the health and shared prosperity of “us” is of more importance than the autonomy and wealth of “me”.

3.    Remember that progressives fight for the common good.

Just as Gandhi said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians”, so it could be said that while Australians like our progressive values, they do not like our progressives.

Why? For exactly the same reasons – we often don’t live up to our own ideals. Whenever we allow opinion polls and focus groups to change our perception of what’s right and wrong, whenever we abandon “the greatest moral challenge of our time” for populism and power, whenever we betray the poor and marginalised because they can’t pay for a marketing campaign as large as the mining companies or other lobby groups can… then we’ve shown Australians that, in the end, self-interest trumps our commitment to the common good.

We’ve shown that progressive values aren’t as important to us as our individual ambition.

Australians believe in compassion. They believe in the fair go. They’ll back the underdog. Australians believe that kindness, equality and inclusion are good things for our society. No one, really, has an issue with progressive values at their core.

But when people claiming progressive values, asking to be elected on a platform of being on the side of the downtrodden and disadvantaged… when those people are just as corrupt, self-serving and flimsy on their core values as people on the other side – then Australians like our progressive values, they just don’t like our progressives. What they’re looking for – just like Gandhi was looking for in Christians – was people who will embody the values they espouse consistently, with integrity, even when it isn’t popular.

People of faith, in particular, aren’t looking for people who engage in community service as a public relations activity. We’re looking for leaders who have a natural others-focus, a commitment to the common good that leads to social change not because it’s popular with the electorate but because it’s who you are. Because it’s your character, it flows naturally from the core of your being. It’s not a platform from which your ambitions grows, it’s an outcome for which you’ll live and die no matter whose name gets to be on the policy document or on the door of the Minister’s office.

This is what is needed from the progressive movement not only to reach people of faith, but also to convince a jaded electorate. Australia will respond well to movement of people who are more interested in outcomes for people than the internal machinations of the party; who’ll not only be coming up with creative policy options and excellent slogans but who’ll be working hard to make their local community a better place, their suburb more inclusive and their workplace more equitable. Not because it’s good politics, or for a few extra votes, but because it’s intrinsic to their character and being.

In other words, Australia is looking for people who’ll live out their progressive values in the way Gandhi was looking for Christians who lived out their faith.

And because I am a person of faith, I pray that for the good of all Australians we can become such a movement.

This is an edited transcript of the speech delivered at 2013 Progressive Australia Conference

About Brad Chilcott

Brad Chilcott

Brad Chilcott is the founder and National Director of Welcome to Australia, a national movement of people working together to cultivate a culture of welcome in our nation. Welcome to Australia manages two Welcome Centres (in Adelaide and Newcastle) and has 9 branches in cities and regional centres providing personal and practical support for asylum seekers, refugees and other new arrivals through a variety of programs and public campaigns.

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