Even the Defence Force Bishop abused by fellow Christians

by Jeremy Halcrow

America’s so-called ‘war on terror’ is far from over. The military campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq are won but restoration of a secure, civil society in both places lingers over some distant horizon. Meanwhile, conflict with Syria or Iran looks possible.

So while the calming eye of this particular storm is overhead, Australian Christians should take stock before the next onslaught. We must rethink the way we communicate our differences with each other and the wider community.

Tensions between Christians, Muslims and Jews in our city have already boiled over. Without being unnecessarily alarmist there is potential for actual physical violence.

In the past month there has been a wave of anti-semitic attacks. Including, it seems, somewhat ironically, on St Andrews Cathedral. After the September 11 terror attack, seven churches in Sydney’s southwest were firebombed and spray-painted with slogans including ‘Osama the great,’ ‘Jihad’ and ‘Christianity must die’. Earlier graffiti had been sprayed on several Sydney mosques, including ‘Muslims are scum’ on the Penshurst mosque near Hurstville.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the past month has been observing the way Christian leaders of all opinions on the Iraq war have ratcheted up the rhetoric in an already over-heated community context. The most high profile was Fred Nile’s call to ban Muslim dress.

The danger is that Jews, Muslims and members of other religious minorities don’t perceive Christians in the same way as we perceive ourselves.

To them, Christian leaders speak not as the voice of small religious minority persecuted by the majority secular society (which is how we perceive ourselves), but as representatives of majority-Christian Australia - a country that is part of just three who form the coalition of the willing against an Islamic country.

Anglicans in particular speak from position of perceived power literally - in the case of St Andrews Cathedral - from the centre of the city. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are both well-known to be church-going Anglicans who consult with their Archbishop.

Indeed Rabbi Apple in a recent interview with ABC radio appeared to claim that he feared that Christian leaders would literally incite a Holocaust in Sydney.
His claim is certainly over the top. But is it any wonder that our words are heard with violent intent in this context, when we seem to regularly fall into such ungodly habits in the way we express our disagreements with each other?

Anglican Defence Force Chaplains have even been forced to respond to abuse from church members directed at their bishop who lent support for the war.
The Defence Force Board of the Anglican Church of Australia, has expressed its deep concern at the way the Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force, Dr Tom Frame, has been treated in various Anglican Church papers, including The Marketplace, and in emails and letters sent directly to the Bishop.

“This becomes apparent when some of the letters and emails which the Bishop has received are examined,” they say in an official statement. “The language used is very similar to that used in situations of conflict and violence and seems inconsistent with the Christian requirement to speak with grace and love. Intemperate language does nothing for a rational debate nor does it do credit to those who use it.”

The chaplains were particularly upset by an article by Archdeacon John Parkes published in the independent Anglican newspaper Marketplace. I’m loathe to make too much of this particular incident because of the wisdom in the saying ‘people in glass houses…’

But for the record the Defence Force Board wrote, “Archdeacon Parkes appears to be challenging the integrity of the Bishop (and of ADF Chaplains) and may himself be displaying the kind of self righteous judgement that he purports to condemn. It is a hurtful article that does not accept that a person with a different view may have given anguished thought to reach his conclusion.”

The troubling events of the past month have been a reminder to me as a Christian journalist how easy it is to create escalate divisions with mere words. And that a key part of my ministry is to be a force for reconciliation in the terms Paul describes in his letters to the Corinthians.

I must confess it is a role I have often failed to perform.