When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist.
Helda Câmara, former archbishop of the miserably poor Brazilian diocese of Olinda and Recife 1964-85.
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
Lilla Watson (Murray Elder from Brisbane)
So your students want to make a stand on climate change and promote renewable energy; run an event for ‘free Ahed’ and raise questions about the killing of Palestinians in Gaza? Students have been exposed to dangerous ideas in English and History and want to lead an act of solidarity with peers who are transitioning gender, or host an activity around a local historical massacre site of First Nation peoples? Can our schools get around this? I have often wondered what it would be like if our school was located beside Dachau, or Nauru detention centre, or a sweatshop? What would be different about how we were a learning community?
Schools are typically conservative places, especially those based in a faith tradition. This is not a criticism, just a frequently made observation. As we faithfully pursue an Anglican inspired education, one of its key goals should be a particular kind of citizenship. That is, young men and women whose intellect and learning is pointed beyond self-interest towards an agency engaged in a greater and common good. Even as church participation falls across Australia, enrolments in faith based independent schools remains solid. It would seem families are pleased to invest in faith based education, and by implication, a particular kind of citizenship, but yet sit lightly to the faith at the heart of its values.
Creating this kind of citizenship and remaining faithful to Jesus is a radical act for a conservative institution
Sitting light to the faith of Jesus makes it difficult to practice what is at the core of God’s heart: justice and mercy. For many reasons, we tend to leave justice, for a focus on mercy. And we do mercy very well. From head shaves to food pantries to OzHarvest cook offs to community gardens to Relay4Life marathons to clothing drives to participation with migrant or indigenous communities. All these are brilliant examples of students and school communities living out core Christian values of compassion and mercy. Yet Câmara’s famous quote outlines the difficulty. Cross over from compassion to justice and suddenly we are being political. And we can’t be political!
The catch is, everything is political. Ai Weiwei, extraordinary artist and Chinese dissident would say ‘everything is art’. This is far more contestable than to suggest everything is political. Because our world is subjective and relational, every act, including compassion, has political gravity. In the right context, silence becomes a hymn to the dominant culture and can scream ‘politics’ without making a sound. As Bonhoeffer writes, ‘not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act’. Whatever is the status quo, whatever is the dominant way is what is spoken for when nothing is said. Elie Wiesel writes out of the same context as Bonhoeffer and goes further: ‘neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’.
We may well consider ourselves to be in circumstances far from those of Bonhoeffer and Wiesel. However, it is worth considering Bonhoeffer’s first speech after the ascent of National Socialism early in 1933. The subject of his talk was the ‘fuhrer’ principle. It was two days after Hitler was democratically elected Chancellor and at that stage, Hitler had not colonised and personalised the word ‘fuhrer’ as his own. Fuhrer means leader, a German notion that in the post WWI humiliations was an idea whose time was dawning. Bonhoeffer spoke out against the falsehood of any leader who cannot acknowledge their limitations, who replaces institutional authority with personality cult and refuses to be accountable to a greater authority. We are not in 1930’s Germany now, but there are warning signs around us. What does it mean to proclaim Jesus as leader and practise our faith in a learning institution whose mission demands intelligent, engaged citizenship of moral and ethical substance?
It is not surprising that it is safest for schools to throw energy and students and resources and communities wholeheartedly into the work of mercy.
At its worst mercy may be no more than a transactional exchange of ‘charity’ to the ‘less fortunate’. Done well, it is an act of solidarity where we are not actually helping others but discovering that our liberation is ‘bound up’ together. Done well, it is an experience of shared liberation. And this is truly exciting.
The problem with compassionate solidarity is that mutual liberation inevitably demands justice. A deep relationship with an indigenous community brings us face to face with our history of racist dispossession and systematic dismantling of language and culture. My school’s deepening friendship with communities in Timor has never led to requests for handouts, only questions about Timor Gap: ‘why does Australia take what does not belong to it? How can you stand alongside us on this?’
What do we do with these raw and difficult realities? Not get involved at all? Keep interaction transactional? These are not easy questions to answer. To work together on liberation brings real costs; human more than financial. It is messy, time consuming and demands personal investment and leadership in order to engage in truly transformational relationships of mutual trust.
Following Jesus means our identity is grafted within Christ.
Nothing, no ‘nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography’* supersedes this gracious reality. This is a theological affirmation, with fundamental implications for the way we engage the world. This quote is actually taken from the Reclaiming Jesus initiative. First appearing in newspapers across the US, its Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis is challenging. The link between theology and polity is plain, between confession and action, seamless. To confess Jesus as Lord is to own the social and moral responsibilities faith bestows and is thoroughly political. It always has been. The Reclaiming Jesus document makes some creedal statements that appear to be parochial to the US, but have wide application abroad and are worth exploring here:
WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God. THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage …
WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class. THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women being further revealed in our culture and politics, including in our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God.
WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees; we won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children.
WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society.
The statement continues: we believe Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination …; We BELIEVE Jesus … (whose) interests always surpass national boundaries … and therefore reject “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.
Living our faith within a school community is our gift, a work of daily faithfulness and a profound mission field.
Following Jesus means taking the incarnation seriously. The work of Christ is to be lived in our bodies and within community. This is not a functional task. It demands time and space, contemplation and dialogue, critique and wrestling, and faithful engagement over a long period of time. It is naïve to suggest we can be non-political, for remaining silent is also political, quite apart from being timid and estranged from Christ’s work of redemption. Individuals can only be healed in the wider context of community, indeed of the whole creation. When we image God who is Trinity, we awaken to the essential relational nature of all things. Like yeast in the dough, our work as the body of Christ is to be lost within the whole, for its rising and raising up of the greater and common good. Our mission is to embody mercy and compassion; but without justice the underlying causes necessitating mercy and compassion remain. To this end, may the outpouring of the Spirit of the risen Christ empower us all.