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Christians also have a right to a public faith

There is an unresolved angst among Christians at having been forced to relegate their faith to the private sphere.

Professor Azyumardi Azra and the Revd Professor James Haire.

Professor Azyumardi Azra and the Revd Professor James Haire, who spoke at a series of public forums around Australia in September on interfaith relations.

PHOTO: Paul Klaric

By Emma Halgren

Christians have been browbeaten into relegating their faith to the private sphere, and this has created angst and resentment – particularly when they see Muslims able to openly and publicly express their faith, claims theologian the Revd Professor James Haire.

The former president of the National Council of Churches in Australia and the Uniting Church in Australia was speaking at a public forum, “Can Christianity and Islam Co-Exist?”, held at the University of Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Asia Centre on 7 September. The forum, an initiative of the Canberra-based Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, also featured prominent Indonesian Muslim scholar Professor Azyumardi Azra and was moderated by journalist Jim Middleton.

Professor Haire said that public “sneering” had made Christians reluctant to share their faith. “Christianity… has been forced out of the public square into the private world,” he said. “In our public space, it is a case of ‘Leave your religion at the door’.”

He said this had created an “unresolved angst” among Christians: “They are forced to express [their faith] in indirect ways – that is in running schools, hospitals, welfare services.

“And then they see Muslims entering this country and apparently being quite relaxed about expressing their faith in public, in terms of their dress and activities. And that builds a deep kind of resentment which says well if we can’t do it, neither can you.

“I think that Christians have to feel re-empowered in their own ways of expressing their faith in public and celebrating the fact that Muslims do so. In fact, you can see the coming of Muslims as a kind of liberation for Christians to also do the same kind of thing.”

The panellists agreed that interfaith dialogue was vital to deepen understanding, dispel myths, and ultimately end violence.

“Through this kind of dialogue you can establish not only mutual understanding and mutual respect, but also friendship,” said Professor Azra.

Professor Haire, who lectured in Indonesia for 14 years and was involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue during this time, said that the controversy over halal certification in Australia, which some opponents claim funds terrorism, was one area where dialogue was needed in order to bust myths, he said.

“There are all kinds of conspiracy theories about how this money is used,” said Professor Haire. “My experience in Australia is that the vast majority of halal money is used in the promotion of Islamic religion – helping Islamic schools get built, and so on. They [schools] can’t just come out of nothing: a minority has to have some means of getting money together in order to produce any kind of community existence.

“If one looks back at the early years of European settlement [in Australia], the Scots and the Irish all did their versions of this. The Greeks and Italians did it later.

“One simply has to try to showcase what social achievements have been made by the building of Islamic community centres, schools, and so on — and maybe the Muslim community has to be more conscious that it has to do this.”

Refugee crisis

Professor Azra, who is Rector and Professor of History at the Universitas Islam Negeri, Jakarta University, Indonesia, said that as a Muslim, he was “very grateful” for the willingness of Australia and other countries to accommodate people who were fleeing Syria and other parts of the Middle East. But he said the root causes of this mass movement of people also needed to be tackled, and foremost among these was political instability.

“We should empower civil society in these countries and support its consolidation. You cannot have democracy unless you have strong and vibrant civil society. Unfortunately, you don’t have this kind of civil society in many countries in the Middle East and south Asia.”

Professor Haire said that throughout their history both Christianity and Islam had been in the position of being overwhelming majorities or tiny minorities in different contexts.

“What Christians and Muslims share is faith. And faith has to have its fair place in public life – not to dominate it, like in medieval Europe, but to have its place. Otherwise, we are left with a meaningless world in which there is no measure apart from the measure of economics – that is, the only value a human has is as consumer or producer.

“Now there are those in our world who have a great interest that economics [is] the only measure of human life, but those of faith have a right to debate that in the public space.”

Asked by an audience member what it would look like if Australians were to be more relaxed about expressing themselves publically, he said he would like to see “more measured discourse, at all times, in all areas of life”.

“In public discourse, in newspaper articles, in the opinion pieces, there would be a much more concerted Christian answer to a political problem,” he said. “It would also mean that in parliament, there would be much more relationship to religious factors in what was going on.

“I’m not suggesting that we become a group of fundamentalists – far from it. In fact the danger [at present] is that the only bit of Christianity that appears is fundamentalism, primarily in relation to the beginnings and ends of human life.”

Prof Haire and Prof Azyumardi spoke at forums around Australia throughout September as the first stage in a five-year national dialogue with a focus on Christian-Muslim relations in the Australian-Indonesian context. For more information, visit www.acc-c.org.au