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The church’s witness in politics and society

By Rod Benson - posted Thursday, 2 March 2006

Australians will be aware that the federal government moved recently to allow the abortion pill, RU486, to be approved for distribution in Australia. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the body that regulates therapeutic goods in Australia, will no longer be dogged by the Health Minister’s power of veto on RU486 approval.

We shall have to wait and see what decision the TGA makes if and when the pharmaceutical industry applies for permission to import the drug, given the TGA’s brief to ensure public health and safety, and its reliance on “evidence-based” medicine.

Speaking of evidence, one of the clear winners in the current RU486 debate is Australian democracy. The Prime Minister was right to allow parliamentarians a conscience vote, and the Senate did the nation a service in requiring the Community Affairs Committee to call for public submissions and produce a report. The evidence contained in the Committee’s report, in the wide media coverage of the issue, and in the protracted and remarkably personal debates in the Senate and House of Representatives over the last few weeks is voluminous and telling.


I have expressed my support for the current legislation elsewhere, and I am therefore disappointed in the decision made by federal parliament last week. What history will make of it all is not for me to guess. But I am pleased that I live in an open society in which the church, as well as its ideological opponents, can speak and be heard, even if it is misunderstood and misrepresented by some. Our democratic freedom is to be celebrated and defended.

It is important to note that the debate concerned whether RU486 should be permitted in Australia, and who should decide. It was not a debate over the legality of abortion, which is legal in Australia (although abortion is technically unlawful in NSW, I am told that no court will prosecute).

It is therefore disappointing that the Reverend Fred Nile, national president of the Christian Democratic Party, condemned the 95 federal MPs who, he says, “voted for the RU486 drug” and, by implication, voted for more abortions in Australia. In fact they did not. And the TGA is not likely to be impressed by a party leader calling on “everyone” to write to its chairman, urging him to suspend availability of the drug. Such action may well prove counter-productive.

The editor of the Catholic Leader goes further, claiming that, “like Pontius Pilate, more than half of [federal politicians] washed their hands of the responsibility … [and] like Christ, possibly millions of unborn babies have been possibly sentenced to death by them. These politicians will have the blood on their hands.” Little wonder, then, that Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle felt compelled to counter the religious rhetoric that flowed thick and fast in Canberra last week by wearing a T-shirt in the House during debate, emblazoned with the offensive words “Mr Abbott, get your rosaries off my ovaries”.

As I reflected on recent events in Australia, and as I contemplated encroaching political and ideological battles on issues ranging from “ethnic cleansing” to euthanasia to executive salaries (I am, according to my job description, a lobbyist as well as a researcher), I found myself reading a recent collection of essays by Thomas W. Ogletree, titled The World Calling: The Church’s Witness in Politics and Society (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

Currently Professor of Theological Ethics at the Yale University Divinity School, Ogletree reflects on the church’s public witness in a world of competing interests, entrenched injustice and radical individualism. He is optimistic about the church’s capacity to fulfil its prophetic calling, and has something important to say to liberals and conservatives alike. In the preface he offers this wise and hopeful advice on strategy:


We can foster justice, peace, and the bonds of a greater human community in a world that is persistently distorted by greed, corruption, cruelty, and violence. To be sure, sometimes our most energetic efforts will prove fruitless. Those in positions of power will know how to block and frustrate movements for change that run counter to their interests. We have to learn to discern the times of opportunity when openings emerge that present unprecedented new possibilities for constructive change. At other times, we must learn to practice patient waiting and faithful enduring, holding steadfastly to our deepest convictions even when prospects for constructive change are slim, trusting all the while that God’s promises will finally be brought to completion (p. ix).

These skills of judging and perceiving, and virtues such as patience and faithfulness and courage, are caught rather than taught. They seem to me to be under-valued and under-used in public discourse today. Elusive though they may be, such qualities are among the essential components of an effective public Christian witness.

Eminent social justice advocates like American Baptists Coretta Scott King and Foy Valentine (both of whom died recently, leaving extraordinarily rich legacies for Christian ethics and social justice), and their Australians equivalents such as the Protestant evangelist and prophet Alan Walker and the Catholic intellectual and strategist B.A. Santamaria, possessed and expressed such qualities.

We need more of them.

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Article edited by Susan Prior.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in Soundings, No 22, on February 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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