It’s critical: ‘Unite for the common good’
Climate change, the gap between the rich and the poor, Australia’s individualistic and consumer-oriented society, the complexity of the water issues in the Murray Darling basin, the environmental consequences of coal seam mining and the hardship inflicted on asylum seekers by our nation’s policy of mandatory detention were all critical issues on which the Uniting Church urgently needed to unite for the common good.
That was the view of the Rev. Dr Brian Brown speaking on April 16, the final day of the meeting of the Uniting Church’s Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.
The Synod theme for its four-day meeting was “Uniting for the Common Good”— which Dr Brown said was about the flourishing all, humans and creation, and was the ultimate in generous hospitality and inclusive love.
Dr Brown said he welcomed the initiative of UnitingCare NSW.ACT to highlight the plight of asylum-seekers and call the church to act according to its strengths of inclusion and hospitality.
He also noted the large and growing gap between rich and poor both in Australia and worldwide and cited new research that indicated a country like Australia may well be flourishing economically yet have significant numbers of its people in a bad way.
Dr Brown said American theologian Ched Myers was a prophetic voice for the common good in holding up an alternate wisdom of Sabbath economics.
Likewise, he said, the biblical ethic called for a systematic redistribution of wealth and power in order to check the negative effects of exploiting natural resources and human labour.
Dr Brown said that Sojourners leader Jim Wallis had called the common good “an ancient idea whose time has urgently come”— as an answer to critical and deep seated problems; problems like global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels.
There had been a “veritable forest fire of orange cards” raised at the Synod meeting to indicate that there was concern about and a commitment to working further on this significant issue.
Dr Brown said there had been increasing detrimental effect on Australia and the world’s natural and human environments due to what US President Barack Obama called “the imperative of economic growth”.
There were more important things than economic growth to be concerned about, he said.
For example: The Great Barrier Reef had lost half its coral and in a number of Chinese cities people had to wear facemasks so they could breathe. And species extinction, ocean acidification, growing shortages of fresh water and chemical pollution also meant there was no time to waste before taking definitive action.
He was heartened, he said, by the actions of small communities like Bulga in the Upper Hunter Valley, whose people met and sat in front of the juggernaut of Rio Tinto and said “you can go this far and no further”.
“The prophetic voice is needed now as never before, as creation faces its greatest threat since the dawn of civilisation.”
Primacy of the common good
Dr Brown said that from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, from Jesus to Paul, Christians were able to mine rich veins of inspiration and testimony about the primacy of the common good.
In the gospels, he said, the common good goes everywhere Jesus goes.
“In his ministry of healing and restoration he embraces all in reaching out to lepers, widows, gentiles, children, tax collectors and prostitutes; and even Pharisees and donkeys sucked down a well.
“Then, on the cross, he gives his blood — not just 470 millilitres, but all of it, not just for the ‘deserving few’ but for all … to restore a sick and suffering world.”
Dr Brown said the church was on safe ground in relying on the Bible as a primary document in favour of the common good.
And yet, for some reason, it was inordinately difficult to take the teaching of Jesus from Luke 6:31 to “do unto others as you would have them do to you” at face value, he said.
“Human nature wants to resist the call to go beyond the limits of loving those who love us, or doing good to those who do good to us. But Jesus says, ‘What credit is that to you [if you only do good to those who are good to you]?’”
Dr Brown said Christians had to push past their natural limitations to meet the needs of justice and the common good.
This was the bitter pill, he said, “Because God includes the most violent of enemies within the boundaries of the common good, we must do likewise.”
Dr Brown said crossing this frontier would result in our world and our church becoming very different places.
“Sadly, it is hard to let go of our comforts. I am happy to donate my blood for the common good, but I am not yet at the point of stretching myself to donate plasma, though that would be better.
“It is hard to relinquish our prejudices and narrow loyalties and to give beyond blood.
“It is hard to deny our self-interest for the sake of the greater good. It is a struggle to let go of our power or our wealth and give ourselves in service of the common good.
“Yet to give up on the task is to deny the gospel imperative and water down the call of Jesus to radical discipleship.”
Ethos of inclusion
Uniting for the common good would mean more intentional efforts regarding inclusion, hospitality and justice, Dr Brown said.
“Among our own community of faith, does our compassion stop at the Great Dividing Range because NSW stands for Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong or will Christ empower us to tear the sandstone curtain in two; to more generously share our resources with struggling communities; to think more kindly of those battle the stresses of city living?,” he asked.
“What does it say when we have only two rural chaplains to serve the far-flung under-resourced parts of our state, and one of them is un-stipended?
“If we do not see our way clear to actually combining presbyteries, what does it mean for presbyteries to have things in common, like the communities of Acts 2 and 4?
“Can we further serve the greater good in sharing or giving our under-utilised property so that mission can go ahead in another part of New South Wales or the ACT.”
Dr Brown also commented on the stresses of the recent restructuring of the Synod.
Fault-lines of loyalty had arisen, he said, due to differences arising from the dismantling of departmental silos and the challenges of a tight budget.
“In such a situation,” he asked, “what does it mean to put the Golden Rule into practice? What hard, expansive, forgiving or merciful step do you and I need to take so we can be a Synod uniting for the common good? What might it mean to leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled with your sister or brother? There is no excuse for maintaining the rage … [and] I commend those who have been building new bridges across old chasms, and bring us closer together.”
Dr Brown said that the common good was in the Uniting Church’s DNA and that he had seen many congregations and other parts of the church like UnitingCare and Uniting Church schools “pushing the boundaries, testing the limits, and taking new and risky paths in love of God and neighbour — uniting with all for the common good”.
He said he had seen it in:
- The community gardens of South Sydney, Mudgee and Moree Uniting Churches, where congregations reach out to men who are HIV positive, people with mental illness, and flat-dwellers with no gardens of their own.
- The Disaster Response Chaplaincy the church coordinates, when it places nine chaplains from five denominations for two weeks in fire-ravaged Coonabarabran.
- The Waste Not Want Not program of Hillston and the Food Bank of Narromine, where people who initially were too embarrassed to raise their eyes from the ground now sit and have tea with parishioners after making their purchases.
- When Perthville sells surplus property and gives the money to broken Hill to help fund their multi-purpose centre next to the church.
- The groundbreaking work of UnitingCare CYPF (Children, Young People and Families), the best practice facilities of UnitingCare Ageing and cooperative ventures with many congregations, of which Yamba was one good example.
- The openhearted missions of Ashfield, Parramatta, Paddington and the Wayside Chapel, and schools like Exodus and the Margaret Jurd Learning Centre who never settle for disadvantage.
- The quality young adult leadership, and in seasoned experienced ministry agents taking challenging placements where their gifts are sorely needed.
Dr Brown said that these and other stories told during the Synod meeting spoke more eloquently than he could of how it was possible to push beyond the limitations of self-interest and serve Christ in the common good.