It’s only just over three days since the horrific attack on Muslims in Christchurch. The death toll stands at 50 in one of the most shocking terrorist attacks we’ve seen in a long time. It has utterly shaken New Zealand and here in Australia we’re in deep empathy with our cousins across the water, especially since the gunman is one of our own.
Saying the Wrong Thing – Egg on your Face
Things have moved rapidly since then. Senator Fraser Anning issued a number of (now-deleted) tweets and a press statement that can most charitably be described as insensitive and poorly-timed and more accurately be referred to as crass and idiotic. It demonstrated either a complete lack of empathy or despicable political opportunism. Either way it’s not fit behaviour for an elected parliamentarian.
And then it got even more interesting. This happened…
Anning’s response is, I trust any sensible person would agree, unnecessary and over the top. It’s at moments of stress that you find out what someone is really like and he doesn’t hesitate in lashing out at the boy far beyond what is necessary. And then his supporters pile it on even more. The company you keep speaks volumes.
I say that just so we’re all clear on what I think of the man; everything I see about him tells me that he’s a lout – verbally and physically.
Not that I want to defend Egg-boy (as he has become known) either. So here’s what I tweeted in the aftermath…
and then this…
There is an almost hypocrisy about the lauding of Egg Boy. Granted, cracking a raw egg on someone’s head is a million miles away from the awful choice to open up a weapon on the innocent and vulnerable, but it’s a million miles away on the same road. At its very base it contains the same assumption; that some people aren’t worth respect and dignity because of the views that they hold or what they represent and so an assault upon them is justified. Yes, it was an egg, but an egg to the face is a powerful statement. Egg Boy knew exactly what he was doing. He wouldn’t like it if someone egged him but he thought that Anning deserved less.
Egg Boy did exactly what he accused Anning of doing. They both ended up with egg on their face.
How did we get here? The Failure to Engage
In the media today the discussion has turned to discussing how we ended up in a place where a man in his late 20s thought that the right thing to do was to walk into a Mosque and shoot women and children. This, we are told, is the inevitable result of right-wing ideology, of dog-whistling about refugees and so on. Criticism has come of Prime Ministers, both current and past, who have somehow provoked this sort of thing by their policies and statements. They must, therefore, take responsibility.
And yet, even as these arguments are made, others will want to point out an alternate position. Or at least that there appears to be some serious double-standards at work.
Think back to the last (of many) terrorist attacks perpetrated by those who claim a justification from Islam. How often do we find the media (and often the same commentators who decry the links between conservative commentators and the evil of Christchurch) tell us as quickly as they can that such people are not representative of Islam? Is there not a lack of consistency in the way that we respond to these awful crimes? Where is the outrage about these things? This is not whataboutism, it’s just pointing out that there is an imbalance of reporting and that there are segments of our society that get frustrated about it but don’t have a mature way to process that frustration.
I’m aware even as I write that last paragraph that I will bring down a whole heap of condemnation on myself for it. But that is actually the point that I want to make. The flight to condemn will come swift as a bullet despite the clear link between portions of the Qu’ran and the life of the Prophet Mohammed and the terrorist acts of those who find inspiration from them.
And then as I write that next paragraph I find that some readers will already be coming to the unreasonable conclusion that I am somehow drawing a cause and effect relationship between some obvious problems within Islam and the murder in Christchurch, like Anning redux.
Not at all. The massacre of Christchurch was a vile inexcusable crime by a man who is wholly responsible for his own actions and ought to bear the full weight of the law because of it. May God have mercy upon him because, at the moment, it’s understandbly hard to find anyone else who will.
My point is something far more nuanced. My point is that nuance and consistency and open engagement with the other are sorely lacking in much of our public discourse and that is one of the reasons that we’re at this position today. We polarise everything and so vacate the middle ground.
Listening to Engage
Last August, Australian One Nation Party Leader Pauline Hanson (long accused of being “far-right” etc.) appeared on the flagship discussion program Q&A. Watching the show was educational. She was popular. She was applauded time and time again.
It’s worth asking why this is. I don’t think it’s because her party stacked the audience. At the time of broadcast I expressed my own theory to anyone who was willing to hear and I still hold to it now. Hanson has support because she is one of only a very few people who are willing to broach difficult topics and speak something other than the mainstream narrative into them.
One of the things that caught me by surprise when I worked for 5 years in one of Sydney’s most underprivileged suburbs was the popularity of Hanson. I’d long been aware of the phenomenon of the working-class conservative but what I’d not grasped before is quite how conservative and reactionary they were. There were a good number who would happily vote for her since, as they saw it, she was the only one who was dealing with some big issues which they’re frustrated about. Any attempt to portray her as fringe or undesirable only serves to reinforce the sense that she and she alone is courageously there to engage on the hot topics of immigration, Islam and the like.
Of course, her suggested answers to those questions are very, very wrong. But when she’s the only one providing answers to the actual questions being asked then no wonder that some will be persuaded. In many ways she, Anning, and others are the Australian version of the Trump/Brexit phenomenon; a refusal by a segment of our society to be told what to do by the perceived “elites”. I’m just thankful that to this point nowhere near enough people are persuaded that she is the correct alternative.
Which brings us back to Christchurch. Why did it happen? Of course one answer (and it’s not wrong) is that the shooter was fed by nasty xeonophobic rhetoric and was persuaded to carry out this act. But we still need to ask how we’ve ended up with an environment where such a conclusion is possible.
Enter David Wood, an American evangelist who was converted in prison out of a life of psychopathic violence. David has been engaged with evangelisms to Muslims for a long time and has experienced an increasing hostility from secular authorities to his proselytising activity. He wants to have open conversations about Islam in order to critique it but finds that the society around him is more and more averse to dialogue.
Now I find this fascinating, and in large part because it resonates strongly with what many of us experience. There is an increasing move to silence unorthodox thought. Just think back to the debate in 2017 over changing the Marriage Act. We now end up self-censoring in order to avoid having to deal with the social justice warriors as they demand apologies, insist on people being de-platformed and generally make life a misery for any view point they judge to be “unacceptable”.
Engaging with the Shooter
We are told that we should not share the shooter’s manifesto, lest we propagate his evil. But it is in his manifesto that we will discover his rationale for acting in this way and only if we engage with that rationale will we have any hope of preventing another similar atrocity.
In his document, which is logically set out and clearly argued (albeit interlaced with deliberate sh*tposting), we see his mind – or at least the mind he wishes to display to the rest of the world. He is rational and articulate. And it’s chilling. Utterly chilling. But at least in engaging we have a better means of countering. In understanding we have a far better opportunity to expose the flaws in what he is saying.
So, for example, he is clear that this is not about Islam per se but about immigration. He is not so much Islamophobic as Xenophobic. Now we may argue that it’s all ultimately the same (and in terms of the base failure to accept someone different to ourselves it certainly is) but there is still an important distinction here. To simply brand him as a hater of Muslims is to fail to understand what happened. Again, if we want to deal with this evil we must understand it, not simply dismiss it. By all means refuse to name him, but don’t ignore what happened and why.
To fail to understand what happened means that there is a much greater risk of it happening again, that somewhere else another frustrated white supremacist will think they have no other option than to pick up a gun and shoot as many people as possible because every other avenue was closed to them.
Moving Forward into Conversation
So what’s the alternative way forward? We need to have the maturity to talk about the difficult issues and to answer the difficult questions. We need to stop egging and calling for the no-platforming of those like Anning and Hanson and instead put them on our panel shows and the like and then take apart their arguments rather than dismissing them. We need to learn that the only effect of seeking to silence them is to consolidate their base. They need to be taken seriously because there are already many people who take them seriously. Much better to answer and engage and persuade. To misquote Churchill, we need more jaw-jaw to prevent war-war.
So back to the shooter’s manifesto. He claims that there is a need to defend white European culture against “invaders”. So how to deal with that? Well you can just dismiss it and throw eggs but then everyone with whom it resonated doesn’t have an answer.
Instead how about we have the conversation rather than shy away from it? The shooter calls us to fight for “the survival of our people, our culture and our lands”. How about we gently explain to an Australian white man that actually he belongs to an alien culture in another country? How about we argue the point that Australia is a country of immigrants (unless you’re aboriginal) and that there is no essential difference between the first wave of White immigration and later waves of Mediterranean, South-East Asian, Sub-Continental and every other people group that make up this rich and wonderful nation?
How about (and here’s a radical thought from an immigrant) we actually have a mature conversation about immigration? Why don’t we talk about what we do and don’t want this Australia we all live in to look like without assuming that everyone else is either out to destroy the nation or is some mindless goon because they worry about people who bring very different world views and cultural approaches into the mix? What if we learned to live with each other despite our differences, but mature enough to be able to debate those differences?
And yet, even as I make this call part of me feels despair at the thought that it might never happen. And then I remember that it already has…
The Place for True Unity
I pastor a church where over 75% of my large congregation trace their family line from a non-caucasian country and most were not born as Australians. Now there is an example of what it really means for people from many tribes, tongues and nations to come together in unity.
And so it should be because that’s the amazing thing that Jesus has done. He has brought together an incredible range of people and genuinely united them.
Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Of course, the Scriptures speak about the building up of the church, not nation-building, but if your heart is moved to yearn for the unity of all tribes amongst God’s people then it’s only natural we yearn for it in other places too.
The church, when it properly understands this, is uniquely placed to engage well in this debate. It’s hard to think of any other gathering in modern Australia where such a rich variety of cultures regularly and consistently come together in a common purpose.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” said Jesus and he has forged a community grounded in genuine peace that seeks peace wherever it goes. When we get it wrong it’s glaringly obvious because we know it should be another way. When we get it right it’s glorious. We get it right when we forgive one another our wrongs and long together for something better (Col. 3:13) just as we have ourselves been forgiven by the Great Peacemaker Jesus. Nobody who takes church, the united people of God, seriously throws eggs at each other. Instead we graciously wipe off the eggs (and worse) that others throw at us and seek reconciliation.
I’d love for everyone in Australia to know this kind of unity. But while I’m waiting there’s much that we can offer our nation in modelling how to move forward. It takes courage to engage maturely with those we differ from. That courage and maturity was patently lacking in the Christchurch shooter. But it’s also been sadly lacking in many others on all sides in the lead up to last week’s tragedy and we need to face up to the fact that it’s one of the reasons it happened.
We all got egg on our faces in this one. But we can all stop, wipe it off, and do better.