Lest We Forget Public Interest and Equity

Let us respond to the serious but whimsical provocation given to our recent post by our friend Allan Carter. Allan raises an important question of public equity that any Christian political option must, sooner or later, deal with in its comprehensive policy platform.

His argument goes like this: if football on a proclaimed public holiday like ANZAC day requires an ANZAC commemoration before the game begins, why shouldn’t a football game played on another equally proclaimed public holiday (Good Friday) likewise begin after a respectful “Good Friday” commemoration? Now, of course, many will rule out the possibility of such a Good Friday (religious) service at a (secular) event because they will see this as yet another illegitimate mixing of oil and water, substances that need to be kept strictly separate – moreover, it will offend the beliefs of those of “secularised separationist” persuasion by requiring their attendance at a religious ceremony.

But as much as that appeals to what many view as a self-evident separation between public life together and private religion, it does not address the question of equity that remains: if such public holidays are proclaimed – presumably because they have some historical significance attached to them – then, in the interests of public equity and due respect, the public-legal concession of a football game on such a day should indeed require rules that are publicly equitable, and not biased in terms of a “secularised separationist” interpretation of an event (ANZAC day) that is increasingly dominated by civil religious motifs.

Still, we know the answer they will give, I guess: such a lack of administered public equity, or more precisely the lack of any political interest in ensuring this be so, is, these days, part of our polity’s “way of doing things”, loudly respecting the asserted rights of those who do not wish to take part in formal religious events, but neglecting the non-asserted rights of those who prefer to avoid making their beliefs into a political problem.

Presumably “everybody knows” that even such a Good Friday celebration should not be held at a secular football event. Those with religious sensitivities should, before the game, treck on down to St Pat’s or St Paul’s or Collins Street Baptist or Scot’s Presbyterian or Wesley Church to have their needs for religious devotion satisfied. Would not even a minute’s silence before the Good Friday game – however that was announced – not make the AFL into a body that was biassed toward Christianity? But such a way of construing options is typical of a shallow and undeveloped line of political argument that proponents of such logic fail to develop in any comprehensive political manner. Are they happy to take the benefits (i.e. a Good Friday) but resist it’s full implications? If that line of argument is sound, and appropriate, then the least that should be argued by those of such “secularised separationist persuasion” is why they support Good Friday as a public holiday?

Now I am aware that as a “Christian blog” about politics, Nurturing Justice may attract non-Christian readers, as well. But at this point we are encouraging Christian readers to consider Allan Carter’s good humoured provocation to ask themselves whether, retaining Good Friday as a public holiday for all is necessary for living and developing a Christian way of life, let alone a Christian political option as part of that way of life. Can we, seeking a Christian political option, find a politically coherent answer to that question? Can we actually find a way to politically explain why we have such a holiday? Of course these are complex questions. Much else will be needed to be considered as well. I’m not at this point wanting my discussion to be sidetracked by the “cash-flow” problem of cash-strapped Christian denominations, congregations, parishes, let alone social welfare organisations, that rely upon the giving on these public days (Holy-week and Easter, Christmas), to remain viable. Such an aspect of the economic and financial management of churches and the community work they inspire cannot be ignored completely in our analysis of the way in which these holidays function in our nation’s political economy.

But the question Allan raises brings with it a whole raft of public policy considerations that will include the re-examination of the genuine public interest grounds upon which all public holidays are determined. Fijian Christian readers of this blog, for instance, might remind us (if not themselves) that with an increasing Muslim population the option might arise for  Australia to follow Fiji’s example and proclaim a public holiday to commemorate the birth of the Prophet of Islam? But more than this: what about penalty rates for those serving pies (or is it just fish?) at the MCG on Good Friday evening? Will there still be double-time penalty rates for Good Friday but not for Sunday?

At this point, Nurturing Justice would suggest to readers that they consider the typical justifications that are given when such historical anomalies arise in our public life. Of course we also have to endure the silly statements of the populist media (and not only Murdoch tabloids) trumpeting “Good Friday Footy” as some kind of historic breakthrough! Are there any spiritual descendants of Eric Liddell among those making themselves available to play for their teams this Friday (let alone on Easter Sunday)? The AFL, with all its managerial and advertising trickery tried to tweak a trans-Tasman ANZAC moment but this year, I hear, it has been abandoned.

But let us consider for a brief moment the manner in which ANZAC day “Lest we forget” ceremonies are justified. There are many who would still willingly give due respect on ANZAC day to those who have put themselves on the line to defend the country, and they will resist what they see as the counter-productive aspects of ANZAC day commemorations. One such counter-productive side of ANZAC Day commemoration is the nationalistic mythic tweaking of the carnage at Gallipoli as the true birth day of Australia (and New Zealand) as nations in their own right. But when the AFL allows the mixing of such a nationalist mythology with an annual clash between “traditional rivals”, (The Anzac Day Clash) their allowing for pre-football solemnity is simply populist blurring for a civil religious euphoria that clouds ANZAC day and means that ANZAC day also contributes to cloud what a football match actually is – a mere sporting competition for two hours to see which team has played better.

Our problem as citizens, in our allegedly “secular” polity, is that such blurring of public commemorations is self-evidently civil-religious in character. The ceremonies, particularly when, with the assistance of perpetual marketing of a sporting fetish, they gather large crowds, with children wearing the medals and colours of grandfathers and grandmothers who were on active military service, too easily promotes a latter-day nationalism, an Australia-first mentality blind to its own idolatry, a religious sentiment that is increasingly short-sighted, incapable of lamenting what it was and is we are remembering, to what is happening to us as a nation, as nations on a frenetic global scale continue to rise against nations.

And so Nurturing Justice calls for a prayerful and quiet respect, waiting upon the Lord, (Psalm 130 and then Psalm 131) to commemorate ANZAC day, and to do so in the knowledge that with Christ’s resurrection and ascension a future is promised in which men and women, boys and girls will “hang the trumpet in the hall and study war no more” (Isaiah 2:1-5).

We need as a distinct people, followers of the Suffering Servant, to identify and resist the civil-religious (blood and iron) motifs that may arise even in our own hearts at such pre-football game formalities. The last century of perpetual international conflict teaches us that, even at a moment of such pious remembrance, our hearts can too easily be captured and the integrity of any well-intended “lest we forget!” compromised by our faithless forgetfulness.

BCW 12.4.17

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