I used to be a decent, conservative boy. But in my old age, it seems I have been radicalised.
I think you can blame Jesus for that.
When you’re young you accept what you’re told (sometimes)
Growing up in postwar Australia, the world seemed pretty secure and mum and dad taught us what was right. We saw ourselves as working class, and working people voted Labor back then. (Labor was a mildly socialist party.)
So we learnt to mistrust their right wing political opponents. But it wasn’t a radical capitalist vs socialist thing, it was just that working people voted Labor while rich people didn’t. Simple as that.
In those days the British Empire was coloured red on the maps and spanned the world. And that was a good thing because the British were good people. That was one of the solid facts of life. We never questioned whether colonisation of Australia, India, South Africa, Canada and the US were at all justified. It never occurred to me that the indigenous peoples might not have appreciated being invaded.
My dad had fought in the war in New Guinea, though he never talked about it. But I nevertheless absorbed the fact that our side was always in the right in wars, because we were good people. We stood up to evil when that was required.
Mum and dad weren’t religious, but they sent us boys to Sunday School. The christianity of those days was very conservative. Christians were good citizens. Social justice issues were never raised.
I can even remember a group called the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade running a mid-week meeting at our church, which I attended. Nothing much in Australia was worthy of christian criticism, but those communists trying to destroy our christian country needed to be resisted.
And so when Australia joined the US in fighting the communists in Vietnam in the 60s, I believed it was only right. Australia began to conscript 20 year olds into the army, but I wasn’t a conscientious objector. I did my two years in the Australian army.
But I was never the same again.
Learning to question
Nothing terrible happened to me in my army stint. I didn’t go overseas so I didn’t have to fight. But I observed the male war culture, and for the first time I contrasted it with Jesus’ teachings on loving enemies and turning the other cheek.
So I began to question what I had been taught. I prayed earnestly, perhaps for the first time, to know God and his truth in a new way. I felt it was radical, but I started to think Jesus actually meant what he said in the sermon on the mount.
Closer to understanding Jesus
At first I reconstructed my faith and understanding of Jesus. Then it was a new understanding of the Bible, and new ways to follow Jesus in the church. And then my understanding of the Spirit. My beliefs changed, but life was still the same. Marriage, university degrees, Government career, children, house, respectability all followed, just as you’d expect from a good christian boy.
But fast forward a decade or two, and God’s renewal of my faith started to open my eyes to injustice.
Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly
My growing realisation that following Jesus entailed more than just believing the right things came via events and people that took me by surprise.
On the margins
We spent 16 years in a church that welcomed into its building and community people struggling with life. Several 12 step groups and other support groups met in the building, and we became friends with people who weren’t part of the middle class that I had somehow joined.
For eight years we led a cafe church for them. I visited them in gaol or psych ward or public housing, I attended their weddings and funerals, I listened to their stories. I learnt from them what it was like to be stigmatised and live on the margins, often through no fault of their own, but because they had a mental illness or a difficult upbringing.
Refugees wanting the best for their families
While at that church we assisted two refugee families from Africa to come through many obstacles and settle in Australia. We learnt that they just wanted to look after their families the same as we did. Later I became good friends with a women who regularly visited refugees locked away in detention centres for years without hope.
I learnt a little of the trauma these desperate people experienced because they feared for their families’ lives in their own country and they dared to seek asylum from an Australian government that was callous to their need. In response, I have demonstrated on their behalf outside politicians’ offices, and I am now part of a volunteer group seeking to assist refugees settle in Sydney.
I met an articulate indigenous christian woman who gave me an insight into the injustice suffered when British settlers took over their countries. She told me of stolen land, stolen lives, stolen children and stolen wages. I felt like I’d been hit with a four by two (a small wooden beam) and I knew I couldn’t just do nothing.
So I have worked just a little with her and her fellow first nations people, attended a conference with them where a room full of white people heard the other side of Australia’s history. Each year we mourn with them while Australia celebrates the day white invasion began.
A climate of despair
I trained as an engineering hydrologist and worked for years caring for rivers and catchments. I collected data and analysed it, and something like 40 years ago knew that our climate wasn’t static. When climate change became a well-researched fact, I was reading the papers, talking to the experts and observing the change in the data.
The need for change was obvious, but the fossil fuel billionaires, the media and the politicians conspired to deny or downplay the obvious reality. It’s still happening today, despite the need for action being even more starkly necessary. Wealth and power win! And meanwhile, Australia suffers its fiercest bushfires in recorded history.
Meanwhile, in another country
I have friends and relatives in the US and Europe. I watch what happens overseas with interest, and with some local input. I see the once “free world” polarising, each “side” demonising the other. As a friend said recently, capitalism is morphing into neofeudalism. I see two different christianities emerging and I fear the chasm will only widen. I am drawn to one side much more than to the other.
What’s Jesus got to do with it?
Jesus was much more radical than his conservative followers today. He talked a lot about greed and the perils of wealth.
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:23
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” Luke 6:24
“You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15
The interesting thing is, Jesus came from a radical family. His mother is reported as saying: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones …. [and] sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) And his brother James was the strongest of all:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you….. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. …. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” James 5:1-5
So I can’t see Jesus being a fan of capitalism. He saw only too clearly that wealth, materialism and greed were a trap that not only keep us away from God, but can so easily lead us to mistreat others.
Colonists seeking wealth from the land drove Australia’s first nations peoples from the land they had lived in and stewarded for millennia. One of the motives for mistreating refugees is to protect our wealth and privilege. Too often we refuse to provide adequate social welfare because we want to keep our own wealth. And it is certainly a rapacious desire to keep taking wealth while destroying the world that motivates so much climate change misinformation.
I don’t think there is any perfect political system. But as a christian, I cannot support unbridled capitalism. Capitalism has surely been the source for as much evil as communism.
Colonialism is a form of exercising power over others, to their detriment. Most of you who read this live, as I do, in countries where indigenous peoples have been mistreated for the sake of wealth and property. You and I didn’t do this, but we most likely benefit from what was taken from others.
European nations colonised and ripped off countries right across Africa and South America, in some cases creating problems that persist to this day. Kidnapping African people and taking them to the Americas as slaves, while perhaps not colonialism exactly, stems from the same willingness to abuse another person’s human rights in the pursuit of pwer and wealth.
In perhaps his greatest song, Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan muses on the corruption and condemnation that (he believes) still afflicts America because of the slave trade and the gross mistreatment of black Americans. He infers that America can never be whole until whites express repentance for what their ancestors did, and they still benefit from.
In Australia, we have walked a part of that journey, formally apologising to first nations peoples for the sins of our forebears. But there is more to go in that journey.
As a christian, I see colonialism as a great evil, the outworking of unrestrained capitalism, greed and misuse of power.
So I have been radicalised
I was once a good conservative christian boy. I saw the gospel in very clear terms as a spiritual matter that didn’t give me a social conscience.
But “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” (Dylan again). I’ve entered the kingdom of God as a little child and found there was much to learn, much to grieve over. And much good needing to be done in response.
Jesus, the kingdom of God, and the gospel, have radicalised me. And I suspect the journey has only just begun!
Main photo: New York Stock Exchange (Wikipedia). Other photos by unkleE. “The way of” text comes from a banner at a Mark Scandrette seminar about the “9 Beats” – the 9 Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:3-11).