Is Compassion Enough?
Christianity in Australia has never been as politicised as it is in the USA or even in the UK. There are obvious exceptions such as Daniel Mannix (1864-1963), Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne for much of the 20th century, who openly intervened in political debates amid much controversy.
But he is the exception that proves the rule. The relatively quietist approach of Sydney Anglicans then should not be seen in isolation from that broader cultural pattern. Yet it is still the case that Sydney Anglicans find a particular basis for non-intervention in their theological understanding of the world. The transformation of the community at large is a happy by-product of preaching of the gospel for which thanks and praise ought to be given to God. It is certainly a proof of the truth of the gospel that it ‘works’ as a lifestyle.
But the Christian task is to preach the gospel first and foremost as a matter of eschatological urgency. Social transformation is only ever a stopgap solution. Though Sydney Anglicans were prominent in the Lausanne movement which declared in 1974 that pursuit of social justice was not incompatible with preaching the gospel, they were not enthusiastic for political and social ends. They were in fact strong critics of a kind of Christianity that denied the pressing claims of the coming end of all things and instead become a social gospel.
For former principal of Moore College Broughton Knox, ‘social justice’ was itself a questionable category. In an article entitled ‘Social Justice or Compassion’ he argued that ‘the teaching and actions of Jesus nowhere show a concern for ‘social justice’:
The reason is that the call for social justice springs from envy rather than from compassion… Compassion, not social justice, is the motivation for Christian social action…Poverty calls for compassion… but a Christian is not called on to campaign for a closer equalisation of incomes either within our society, nor for that matter between nation and nation. Christ’s gospel is not concerned with equity but with relationships.
It was a provocative point to make, since the language of social justice had become a nostrum even within the evangelical movement (as it is today). It was not an empty academic point, either: Knox was personally and actively compassionate towards the poor. I lived in the principal’s residence at Moore College in the years following Knox’s retirement and can recall the stream of homeless men that would come to the door asking to see the ‘padre’ from whom they had received help in the past.
We mustn't mishear Knox here, either - he though social action was laudable, but that 'social justice' was a goal that smacked of utopianism. It failed to see that love was needed most of all.
Australia’s political culture is robustly democratic and so a quietist stance is not in itself problematic for the most part. Other groups tend to take up the cudgels against social injustices, and there are few issues in which the lines are sharply drawn. However, the cost of this passivity can be observed in the history of the Church of England in South Africa, with whom the diocese of Sydney has had historic links. CESA was not a racist church, and it has long had black and white congregations and bishops. It did not provide a theological justification for the apartheid policies of the South African government.
In the aftermath of the apartheid years, Bishop Frank Retief of CESA made this submission, in 1997, to a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
...when the government made legislation that accorded with our moral or biblical understanding, we supported them. However, on the great issue of justice for all, we were often insensitive. We had not made the connection between gospel and society…We were witnesses to how the Bible and its message can be misused to support an evil ideology. National government used the Bible to support its policies, to give the impression that they were a Christian government. But then so did some liberation theologians who finally supported violence as a means of continuing the struggle…Where we have been negligent, careless and insensitive to biblical injunctions and mandates as we have been, may the Lord graciously forgive us….The fact that the Bible was used in the past to condone injustice does not mean its true message may be ignored today…It is our belief that this day and hour calls for men and women of conviction and integrity to apply the message of the Bible more accurately and faithfully to our emerging society…
This is a courageous, impressive and moving statement from a cousin of the Sydney diocese recognising that the strategy of political withdrawal was a mistake for biblical Christians in South Africa, but recognising also that it was not the Bible itself that was to blame. Retief’s theological convictions are the same as Sydney’s, and he has often spoken in the pulpits of Sydney. What he notes is that the theology of eschatological deferment runs the risk of becoming unable to say anything about the presence of a real evil in the here and now.
Compassion is not nearly enough.
(Feature photo: Josep Ma. Rosell)