A friend told me this story: “My mum is from the Philippines and she moved into the Penrith area around five years ago. She started attending a local Anglican church and everyone there was (probably still is) white. The first women’s Bible study that she went to, she was told by one of the women in the group, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, I just prefer to associate only with white people.’ Nobody said anything to defend my mum. She didn’t even say anything to defend herself. She kept going; she even started serving, mostly the jobs that the others don’t want to do. I don’t know why. Because she’s a better woman than I am, I guess. Or worse; she’s used to it.”
Another friend, who is a pastor, and of Southeast Asian extraction, told me that he was spat on in a car park of a shopping centre in Sydney’s affluent and supposedly enlightened eastern suburbs.
A Japanese friend once heard her minister say from the pulpit that he “did not like all these Asians coming into Australia”.
An Indigenous friend was asked by a fellow Christian, “Do lots of Abos go to your church?” Another friend with Indigenous heritage was told an Aboriginal joke at church the Sunday after Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation in 2008.
A Sri Lankan woman I know – an academic – was told to “get back in the gutter where you came from.”
Another Asian woman said, “I was called a ‘slope’ by a Caucasian dad and his daughters in their Holden, at the local petrol station,” in the Hills district in Sydney. Another was spat at from a passing car in leafy Killara.
They happened well within the bounds of so-called civilisation, where people think they should know better.
A Japanese friend once heard her minister say from the pulpit that he “did not like all these Asians coming into Australia” – though he was quick to add that he did not include her in this statement.
A Facebook friend of Asian descent wrote recently, “Today on my morning run in local Wahroonga, a tradesman stopped me in my tracks to yell ‘Gangnam Style’ and proceeded to do the appropriate actions.”
So what are we to make of all these instances? They are all relatively recent events. They happened in and out of the church. They didn’t just happen in the boondocks, where we latte-sippers imagine all the rednecks live. They happened well within the bounds of so-called civilisation, where people think they should know better. Some of them happened in a church. And the truth is this: if you ask a person of Indigenous or Asian background whether they have experienced racism in Australia, their answer will be pretty much yes. Sometimes even in church.
Now, I need to make a couple of things clear. The first of these is that racism or racial prejudice can and does exist in non-Anglo communities. We Anglos are not the only ones with a superiority complex!
The other thing is that, while racism undoubtedly exists in Australia, it also exists in other countries – and in worse form. Relatively speaking, Australia isn’t a place (at least, not anymore) where there are openly racist laws, or where there are also racially directed policies. But being not as bad as somewhere else is beside the point. It is simply the response of a child to say “Oh, she’s far worse than me,” when they are caught doing the wrong thing.
Even though I know that racism is terrible, I still find within my own heart evidence of racist assumptions.
It isn’t exactly evidence of great insight, though, to say that “racism is wrong”. The more urgent question is: why is racism so persistent in human societies? Why, when we know the devastation that racism can wreak, is prejudice against someone on the basis of race or ethnicity something that is so casually evident?
Let me put it more pointedly: why is it that, even though I know that racism is terrible, I still find within my own heart evidence of racist assumptions? I still assume, pretty much, that white guys should be in charge of most things. And, as the flipside, I do catch myself suspecting the motives of people who are not like me. Typical, I catch myself thinking, they can’t control their kids. They are always stealing. They are all corrupt. They breed like rabbits.
The Bible traces the roots of this division amongst human tribes and cultures back to the very distant past. The story of the scattering of the people and the confusion of the languages at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 tells us that cultural and linguistic differences are not simply something we experience as neutral, but sources of deep fear for human beings. There is in human experience not simply an “us”; there is also a “them”. Indeed, it may be that being a tighter, more close-knit “us” depends on the presence of the “them”. It is an instinctive habit of human societies to draw closer together when threatened by another. Our identity and culture becomes clearer, or we become prouder of it.
“Australianness” is not unchangeable, nor is it ultimate, nor is it perfect.
And in that pride is an idolatry – a worship of my cultural identity as an absolute and ultimate thing, the final word that can be said about me and mine, and against you and yours. Immediately after the Babel story, though, we get introduced to Abraham. What’s God’s plan to heal the divided world? One nation, the people of Israel, the children of Abraham. But, isn’t that just another tribe to add to all the rest? Well, the plan is more interesting than that. Right from the beginning, God announces to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The one nation is not established to be a blessing to themselves, but to be the channel through which all the peoples of the earth experience God’s blessing. They are to be separate and different from the nations that surround them, but there’s not a sense of deserved superiority that goes along with it. Even at that point they are to be aware that they are made by the grace of God, called out of Egypt where they were nothing but slaves.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is at once an invitation and a challenge to all cultures.
This is then the huge theological dilemma that comes to a head in the New Testament. How can the God of the universe have favourites? If he is the God who made all people in his image, then why is there a chosen people among these peoples? Doesn’t that just make him like the tribal deities of the pagan gods? The remarkable response to that in the story of the Bible is Jesus Christ. He’s the true-blue Israelite, the one who will “save his people from their sins”. His mission seems pretty nationalistic, and his disciples seem to read him that way. But if we carefully listen to him, we hear him preparing the way for the globalisation of the gospel message.
There’s that intriguing encounter with the Syro-Phoenecian woman, a Gentile, whose daughter has an unclean spirit. As Mark records the story: “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’” Is Jesus being just a bit xenophobic here in his saying, the Israelites are the “children”, and the Gentiles the “dogs”? But throughout his ministry, Jesus shows us that the grace of God is coming through him not just to Israel, but to the nations.
The kingdom of God contains many kingdoms, and it leaves none of them unchanged. We need to think about this as Christians.
The woman’s tale, then, is a testimony to Israel about their privileged position. She takes nothing for granted, which is exactly the way to receive God’s blessing. And, thus, it is a fundamental plank of Christianity that all the nations are called by the gospel of Jesus Christ. And remarkably, what we get is not the reversal of the Tower of Babel – the making of a new mono-cultural, mono-racial church, but the declaration of a miraculous unity amidst diversity.
As the people of God, then, the church is not like an empire or a colonial power that imposes its culture on others by subduing them. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at once an invitation and a challenge to all cultures. The kingdom of God contains many kingdoms, and it leaves none of them unchanged. We need to think about this as Christians. The kingdom of God doesn’t tell us to take off our Australian flag T-shirts at the door. But it tells us two essential realities we have to grasp. The first of these is that “Australianness” is not unchangeable, nor is it ultimate, nor is it perfect. As I bring it into church, I subject it to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Second: it tells us not to fear others, but to welcome them. Isn’t this what Christ himself did?
There is nothing Christian about ‘Hansonism.’
I am writing this the day after Senator Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in our Australian parliament. Hanson complained that we were being “swamped by Muslims”, just as she said 20 years ago, we were being “swamped by Asians”. Here is a symptom of the old irrational fear of foreigners in Australia: a fear that is borne of idolatry of our own culture, and a lack of an ability to see the image of God in others.
There is nothing Christian about Hansonism; and it’s appalling that we can find instances of it in churches. We in the churches of Australia, as a matter of biblical imperative, have to live out a different way of living together with others. Jesus Christ himself calls us to it.
As a white guy, what am I to do? Well, I reckon the first thing I need to do is shut up and listen to what it is like to be an Indigenous person or a non-Anglo Australian in and out of the church. That’s my path
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Sydney and the author of several books.