A better alternative

Stephen Baxter, MC

The Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast is an annual event where leaders from across Tasmania gather to pray for our State and listen to a guest speaker. Each year I have the opportunity to provide a short introduction. In 2018 I began with the following…

2018 Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast | August 22, 2018

Each year, at the beginning of our program I take a moment to reflect why we are here. When 500 people gather so early, in the middle of winter, for a “prayer” breakfast, some explanation is appropriate.

We gather in the name and spirit of Jesus; not in the name of any religion, denomination or ideology. Yale historian Jeroslav Pelikan, wrote, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost 20 centuries.”

I grew up in rural Victoria and attended Art school in Melbourne in the mid-70s. I was naïve and unprepared for my first “Life Drawing” class, which I thought was sketching fruit, not a naked young woman. By my final year I co-hosted a student radio program featuring British punk bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Australian Nick Cave.

For a cloistered county lad, it was life changing. Though its 40 years ago, I still remember the euphoria, expectation, and sense of freedom escaping the shackles of the past and moving into a liberated future.

I also remember my embarrassment being a Christian. I’ve carried it ever since. And with the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I’m not only embarrassed but deeply ashamed. What took place in the name of Jesus under the cover of church institutions is abhorrent and disillusioning. I stand with Jesus in his scathing critique of religious leaders who selfishly use their position for their own gratification.

When I think of the 70s now, it’s pure nostalgia. What we see today is not what we hoped for then. The world’s problems increase – economic instability, environmental degradation, increasing gaps between rich and poor, and the loss of meaning and purpose.

Then there is a maze of complex ethical issues: the rights of the unborn child and abortion; elder abuse and euthanasia; the rights of minorities and what is best for the majority; the rise of individualism and the breakdown of community.

Our optimistic hopes have given way to anxiety and despair. Yet amid the despair I find my embarrassment slowly dissipating. Why? Well, I’m not sure, but I have some ideas…

Firstly, with many others I now understand freedom is not the default setting of the human condition. The 20th Century is littered with examples of utopian promises ending with despotic and murderous regimes. Free society doesn’t just happen, it takes hard work, patience and sacrifice.

Secondly, individualism, materialism and consumerism cannot build healthy communities. In his book, Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam observed how more Americans were going 10-pin bowling, yet fewer joined teams. He saw it symbolic of a society rich in individual life but disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and democratic structures.

10 years later, his research revealed the place in America you will most likely find social capital. Is in churches, synagogues, temples, and houses of worship.

In other words, if you regularly attend a place of worship (whether you believe or not), you are more likely to help a stranger, give to the hungry, shelter the homeless, find somebody a job, and give to charity and volunteer. Some believe religion is only bad for society, but that’s just ignorance.

Finally, secularism gives poor answers to the three questions asked by thoughtful people. Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? We know the answers are poor because of the increasing levels of mental illness and teenage suicide in our communities. We easily forget what Austrian-British philosopher Wittgenstein saw, “To believe in God is to see that life has a meaning.

The Australian documentary For The Love of God: How Christianity is better and worse than you ever imagined, has a helpful picture. Jesus, it suggests, came and taught a tune. Over the centuries, some have played the tune very badly with horrendous outcomes. History is full of legitimate denunciations of Christians and the church.

However, there are also beautiful stories. When the tune is played well it’s inspiring, encouraging and the world is a better place. The discovery of modern science, the celebration of the value of each person, the condemnation of slavery, the establishment of hospitals and universities, are but a few examples. The tune of Jesus, like any composition, should be judged not by its worst performance, but its best.

These past 50 or so years have been challenging for the church. There is much anger, pain, and disappointment in the community, and for good reason. We’ve had our failures and shortcomings We need humbling and pruning. We need to ask forgiveness.

Yet, there is hope. The challenge forces us to listen afresh for the tune of Jesus. And once we hear it, relearn to play it well again. Only then will the church have something to offer our Tasmanian community.

It is in that spirit we pray. The challenges of our world and State are far too complex and interconnected for simple answers. They require cooperation and integrity, empathy and sacrifice, humility and solidarity, grace and forgiveness. We must do better for the sake of our children and grandchildren. May God answer our prayers.

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