BY THE REV. OWEN FEATHERHEAD
I wonder if like me you have noticed an alarming parallel between this Christmas here in Australia and that first Christmas in Bethlehem so long ago when a Unique Infant Person came into the world and the story of humankind suddenly changed course from BCE (before the Common Era) to CE, as we now know it.
Let me explain.
Those of you who are "history buffs" will recall that at the time of the first Christmas the Holy Land was under the yolk of the Roman Empire. Oppression and gloom were the order of the day. Now think about Christmas in 2013. Unlike that of last year, when our country was free and happy and well and wisely governed, this Christmas a repressive and reactionary regime has been imposed on us by an uncomprehending electorate led astray by "shock jocks" and the Murdoch media. Fear and terror stalk the land, just as they did 2000 years ago on the day that the Word of God became Fully Human amongst us, while all around the stable at Bethlehem the nation of Israel was cowering beneath the brutal jackboot of occupying centurions.
Yes, fear and terror in the Australia of 2013, and above all for the most vulnerable among us. Fear and terror amongst the stranger and the asylum seeker who finds our ports and airport shut tight against them. Fear and terror for members of ethnic and other communities who fear that words of insult and calumny against them will soon be sanctioned by the abolition of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, a protective measure (enacted when we still had a government of vision and fairmindedness) that many of us believe both encourages free speech and shields minorities from "redneck" abuse. Fear and terror amongst the dedicated and hard-working members of our wonderful Human Rights Commission itself that precious "funding" may be lost, and with it, their own vital jobs in ensuring that we are a freer and more equitable society.
Fear and terror amongst our own "first Australians", the real owners of the soil we stand on, that they will remain unmentioned in our constitution - relegated to history's dustbin like the "unpersons" in Nineteen Sixty-Four, that uncannily prescient novel by an English writer whose name momentarily escapes me - was it Somerset Maugham? ("senior moments", sad to say, become part of one's lot as one moves down life's path). Fear and terror amongst humble hard-working folk in my own parish in inner Melbourne who have scrimped and saved to buy their own home and now risk seeing it shattered by the wrecker's ball to build an unnecessary road tunnel for the convenience of a few privileged motorists in four-wheel-drives. Fear and terror on a wider scale amongst householders who do not want to see their roof tree collapse into a ditch to suit the greed of "frackers". Fear and terror amongst our Islamic sisters and brothers that the irresponsible actions of a few "terrorists" among them - poor innocents, usually young, who have misunderstood the essential peacefulness of their religion - will be misinterpreted as representing the views of their whole Muslim community and used as an excuse for marginalisation and even expulsion. Fear and terror among women whose choice of terminating a pregnancy at the stage when, having been able to determine the child's gender, they have found it not quite what they wanted, is being assailed by reactionaries who call themselves Christians. What kind of Christian charity is that? Worse, what kind of sexism - to try to refuse a mother the right to decide whether she - nobody else is carrying the baby - wants a girl child or boy child? I realise that the primary parent of Jesus was denied that choice, but that was in a patriarchal society of the sort one would like to have hoped we had put behind us.
Yet amid all the suffering, all the anguish, do we not discern a sign of Hope in that humble manger in Bethlehem? It's hard to say what kind of hope or how it manifests itself but I'm sure it's there somewhere. For just as the Roman Empire passed into history, and every other colonialist imperialist empire after it, including the British one that still holds Australians tied to the apron strings of an outdated monarchy, and just as the capitalist-commercial-armaments-Wall Street hegemony that is the American empire is passing from the scene under the capable direction of President Obama, so will it be with the regime now installed in Canberra. Indeed, it is not Hope that tells us that this will happen but Faith. We know it will. Because Faith is God's great present to us at Christmas, along with His/Her first child.
On a personal note, along with the joy of the season, this Christmas is a time of great sadness for me and I am sure for many others. The passing from among us of dear Nelson Mandela is a reminder that in the midst of life we are in death, as the psalmist says. I did not know him well, but I was privileged to hear him speak at a World Council of Churches seminar in Johannesburg some years ago on the Christian attitude to violence, or so-called violence when used as a last resort by persecuted peoples seeking a just freedom by any means. He and his charming partner Winnie gave us a very thought-provoking discussion on the pros and cons of "necklacing" as a method of rebuking those who oppose social reform, a practice in which Mrs Mandela in particular had considerable expertise. The Mandelas' fervent concern for all those who get a "raw deal" in life put me in mind of the Sermon on the Mount. Truly, if the Lord had not given us Jesus at the first Christmas in Palestine, Nelson would have made a very good substitute!
Holiday greetings to all.
The Rev. Owen Featherhead is Minister of Burchett Hill Uniting Church and an Argus religion correspondent.
24 December 2013