From the Archbishop

Let us not be too quick to cast collective blame


July 14 2016In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre in the United States many questions remain unanswered. Will the US ever limit access to assault weapons of the kind used in this shooting, is there an underlying persecution of LGBT people, was this just the action of a crazed individual? The list goes on.

In what has become too frequent an event in Western nations, such an act of terrorism, a lone wolf attack by a radically Islamised terrorist, still invokes ambiguity. President Obama was criticised for his reticence to name the attack as one of Islamic extremism, even if the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, had no such reserve and actively named himself an ‘Islamic soldier’ in his interactions with FBI negotiators.

It is quite proper in my view that we don’t ‘tar everyone with the same brush’. People need to take individual responsibility for their actions. As a Christian, I believe in the final moral accountability of each person before God, when Christ comes to judge the ‘living and the dead’.

Collective responsibility – as the US President understands – is a complicated matter. Just look at how we have struggled in this country to deal with the record of violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights. Self-reflection and self-criticism are necessary elements in taking any proposition of collective responsibility seriously. They are also difficult disciplines, especially for any group of people identified by religious or national identity.

I wonder, though, about the proposition that all religions have an equal propensity for extremism and violence. This position is common in contemporary popular wisdom but is it borne out in fact? Even within the Christian church some feel the need to go in hard on their own faith community. As a church billboard outside a New South Wales Anglican Church recently displayed, ‘We denounce extreme radicalised Christians’.

Jesus encouraged the kind of internal self-reflection I earlier referred to: ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye… first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’ (Matthew 7.3,5) I think that the sequence of this self-refection and its consequence are worth understanding. Self-criticism does not operate for its own sake but to give a better outcome for all. The removal of the speck in the neighbour’s eye is where the good may well be done: the self-reflection and the self-criticism are not only part of the means of getting there but part of our own ‘seeing’, our own growth.

In that light we offer little help to our neighbours if we simply proclaim our solidarity with them in having a common problem! As for example Christians proclaiming, ‘We denounce extreme radicalised Christians’. Rather, we are to be properly critical of ourselves and our own perspectives and conduct although interestingly, that by itself does not improve the problem elsewhere.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that we should get involved with the struggles of people who hold different views from our own, listening and helping where we can, as we become freed by the Holy Spirit from hypocrisy.

Read more from Dr Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, at