Address at the 3rd Annual Interfaith Peace Dinner at Parramatta Mission, Parramatta, 2 December 2017
“Peace, goodwill and unity from a Christian perspective”
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place. I would like to also pay respect to Elders both past and present.
It is a great honour for me to be speaking at this Peace Dinner, in the presence of His Eminence Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, the Grand Mufti of Australia, Rev Simon Hansford, the Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia NSW and ACT Synod, the Honourable Dr Geoff Lee MP, the Honourable Julia Finn, other distinguished guests. Thank you, Rev Dr Manas Ghosh of Leigh Memorial Congregation for your kind invitation to this event. Thank you, fellow religious and civic leaders for your warm welcome extended to me at my installation in June last year.
As a former refugee and an asylum seeker, I stand before you as a living witness to this great nation built on the principle of respect for human dignity, fair go and equal opportunity. I pledge myself to work with you to advance the common good of all in our land and indeed in the world.
Parramatta and Western Sydney are the epitome of multicultural, multi-faith and ethnically diverse Australia. In times of insecurity and tension such as this, I believe we need to build bridges in our community, bridges of understanding, inclusion and solidarity instead walls of prejudice, division and exclusion.
The theme that I’ve been asked to speak on this evening is “peace, goodwill and unity from a Christian perspective”. I think it is a pertinent theme as we enter the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. What Christians celebrate at Christmas is the basis for true peace, goodwill and unity. “God in Christ reconciling the world”: that is the wonderful message of Christmas and reconciliation is a divine project that we are committed to carrying out by virtue of our Christian discipleship.
Christmas shows God to be a boundary breaker and a reconciler. In Jesus, God abandoned his own security and entered the world of others. This pattern continued in his life and ministry. Jesus constantly went beyond the borders of every kind and affirmed the humanity of all. In so doing, he invites us to step beyond our fears, our tribal confines and to expand the boundaries of our love. Our mission as Christians is to make peace, to nurture goodwill and to facilitate unity in the face of economic and social inequality, cultural polarisation and fragmentation. We can be the places that refuse to be tribal, which create spaces of welcome and encounter and address mutual suspicion.
Last week, we Catholics celebrated the feast of Christ the King. In my childhood days, this feast was observed with much pomp and ceremony. During the time of great tension with the majority Buddhists in Vietnam, the celebration became a rallying cry for Catholics, not unlike the Orange Parades in Belfast. In Northern Ireland, there was a rivalry between Protestants and Catholics. Our tribal rivalry was between Catholics and Buddhists. At one seaside town, the Buddhists built a giant statue of a sleeping Buddha. But we Catholics refused to take it lying down. We built a much bigger statue of Christ on the hill overlooking the ocean. The triumphant King of kings seemed to be looking down on the sleeping Buddha with glee! So we thought.
But that is tribal religion and thank God, more and more people have come to know tribal religion for what it is. Tribal Catholicism or sectarian Christianity can never produce true peace, goodwill and unity.
Scriptures often critique the notion that God somehow prefers one group of people over another, be it on the basis of religion, race or nationality. They challenge us to let go of our narrow human thinking and adopt the generous, inclusive and unbounded way of God.
There is the interesting story of Eldad and Medad who were not with the 70 elders. They were found prophesying outside the rules and Moses was asked to stop them. Moses’ response surprised the keepers of tradition: Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all? In other words, Moses challenged the people not to put God in a box, not to think small, but to allow God to act freely and not according to our preconceived ideas.
We find the echo of this challenge in the Gospel of Mark. “Rabbi,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us”. The disciples tried to stop someone, who was not known to them, but who was healing in the name of Jesus. They thought they alone had a corner and a monopoly on truth and goodness. How mistaken they were!
“Anyone who is not against us is for us” Jesus replied. The disciples received a lesson in ecumenical dialogue and broadmindedness. Jesus taught them to stretch the boundaries of inclusion. We must not think in adversarial or exclusivist terms. It is the “us versus them” mentality that is often so entrenched in human mind no matter what religion, what group or what category we belong too. God is not limited to this group or that group. We cannot define who’s inside and who’s outside the boundaries of his grace, power and love. The realms in which we meet God are greater than those defined by our human categories.
Pope Francis recently caused a stir when he said that there is no such thing as a Catholic God. He does not mean to relativise all religions. Yet, the point he made is that we must not put a myopic focus and narrow limit on who God is and how God works. The Pope would encourage us Catholics and Christians generally to be humble and respectful of the way God works in those different to us, mindful of the fact that Jesus himself found goodness, love, and humanity more often than not in the most unexpected quarters. When we survey his interactions with people, those who showed great faith, great openness, great receptivity to him were not always the standard bearers, not always those who were of his race, of his religion, of his kindred. Instead we found to our surprise, the lepers, the beggars, the foreigners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes and sinners.
We can draw inspiration from the way Jesus recognised, affirmed and celebrated the goodness, the humanity and the spiritual insight of those who were different, those who were considered outsiders, those who were on the margins of society. It was a reality check for the disciples to know that God revealed his power outside their borders and circles. Today, we too need that kind of reality check. We need to know that we do not have a monopoly on salvation. In the light of scriptures, we can learn to be humble servants who work for unity in diversity and respect for differences.
In the Gospel, the outsider becomes the insider, the outcast turns out to be God’s favoured, the last first, the disinvited at the table. Jesus challenges us to expand our limited horizons, to find goodness, blessings and opportunities disguised in the harsh realities of life, to discover beauty, love and dignity in all people and indeed in all things around us.
As for peace making, Jesus makes it a central part of Christian discipleship. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God”. But the peace that he is interested in is not a superficial peace. It is not merely an absence of war and conflict. Rather it is a peace based on truth, justice and love. Jesus stresses that there is no question of preserving peace and unity at all costs. Rather it is a matter of promoting truth and justice at all costs, even at the cost of one’s life. This is precisely what Jesus asks of his disciples. “I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.” The fire here is the passion for the Kingdom and all that Jesus stood for. We cannot be his disciples and not be consumed with a burning passion for justice, for human dignity, for the fullness of life and love for all God’s children. Jesus uses very strong images of family divisions to emphasize the importance of the undivided loyalty, the single-mindedness and the unmitigated dedication with which the disciples are to prosecute the cause of the Kingdom.
Peace, then, is the fruit of truth, justice and love. Christians as peacemakers cannot avoid the task of building a society free of injustice, oppression, discrimination and inequality. Furthermore, we cannot but be on the side of the poor and the oppressed because it is God in Christ who took up their cause. Our solidarity with and preferential option for the poor is fundamental to the pursuit of long lasting peace.
Christians are countercultural insofar as we dare to name and to critique the anti-Gospel attitudes of the world around us. More importantly, we seek to reframe the harsh, unjust and inhumane realities that many experience into an alternative vision of hope and promote those values that will lead to the fulfilment of that vision. We show the way to a culture of encounter and acceptance by a radical discipleship of love, compassion and solidarity.
As Christians, we cannot remain content with status quo, especially when that status quo is less than what God wants for us as individuals and as a community. Australia is a wonderful country, but we have a lot of work to do in terms of bringing justice to those who have been deprived of it, including our indigenous peoples, asylum seekers and others. We cannot be his disciples if we ignore the plight of the marginalised and the vulnerable. We cannot be salt and leaven if we allow our Christian conscience to be desensitised by the inequality, injustice and inhumanity in our society and in the world.
With the men and women of goodwill, let us build a better Australia and a better world. May our endeavour to build true peace and unity be brought to fulfilment in accordance with God’s vision of the fullness of life for all humanity.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta