RECENTLY the Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered his first major speech to the party faithful in Albury, on the Murray River. One biblically literate commentator labelled it “The Sermon on the Murray”. He likened the PM’s remarks to a sermon because it sought to bring about national healing after the damaging blood-lettings and acrimonious manoeuvrings that have plagued politics in Australia for several weeks.
Healing is a key theme in our tradition. The Jewish concept of tikkun is about mending our brokenness. We can speak of tikkun using the image of concentric circles. The innermost circle of tikkun is personal or inner healing. Then there is healing at the level of family, next community, and beyond that national healing. The widest circle is global healing. But each circle depends for its efficacy on the circle within it. This means that ultimately we must begin with personal healing.
By using words appropriate to his evangelical Christian background the PM addressed the need for national healing.
He spoke of love. He said, to love Australia, we have to love Australians. That was the essence of his message. In the words of John Lennon, All you need is love! And by that, the PM didn’t mean loving an abstract version of Australia or Australian values such as mateship. The only love that heals is love for another human being, the person I’m communicating with at this very moment.
We Jews use words differently. We would say that this kind of love is not about a feeling or a passion. Rather, it is an action or a response based on our belief that the person I’m engaging with is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, just as I am. He or she deserves the same dignity and respect that I would have for myself. It is my duty to act towards him or her with chesed, with loving concern and kindness.
If we want to heal the deep wounds in our nation, we need to examine how we have treated one another in the political sphere and then restore dignity to our political opponents. Though politics is about the use of power, power doesn’t have to be used in a manipulative or utilitarian manner. It can be used to promote the wellbeing of others, in the words of the prophets “to support the needy and raise up those who have fallen”, rather than to promote self-seeking ends.
Last year, I led two tours along the ancient Silk Road. The tours took us to Kashgar, an ancient caravanserai located in the district of Western China which is populated by the Uighur people. The Uighurs are Muslims. They are of a different ethnic character to the Eastern Han Chinese who now govern them. The Han Chinese distrust the Uighurs. As a result, they have set up detention camps to re-educate the Uighurs in Chinese values. A recent article claimed there are a million Uighurs incarcerated in these re-education facilities. Everywhere around us in Kashgar, we felt the oppressive presence of the Chinese military.
This is social harmony created through fear, not love. There is no respect for the Uighurs or their customs, only fear that they might try to overthrow the Han Chinese government by acts of terrorism. No doubt there have been terrorist acts. But the result is that the entire ethnic group is seen as the enemy, in need of re-education in Han Chinese values. This is, of course, an extreme example. It is not the situation in Australia, and God willing it will never be so here. But how we treat others, with respect or with disregard and contempt, is a universal issue.
Equally, we are responsible for how we allow others, those who wield political power, to treat the defenceless in our name. The Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once wisely observed in relation to the Holocaust that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. For us Jews, the bystander who watched and did nothing played the most dangerous role in Nazi Germany, enabling the worst things to happen by not speaking out against them.
So, the Prime Minister is right. To avoid becoming the kind of nation represented by the way that the ethnic Chinese treat the Uighur people, to heal our political rifts without resorting to real or metaphorical detention and re-education centres, we must learn how to love one another, to respect each other even in the midst of our political and ideological differences. That means speaking out when we see that there is a failure to act with respect and humanity towards other human beings.
Through my synagogue’s Project Dignity, my wife and I have come to know two young men who arrived in Australia about six or seven years ago seeking asylum. They arrived by leaky boats. As a result, they are stateless people. One, who was an unaccompanied minor of 15 when he arrived, is a Hazara. He fled the Taliban in Afghanistan via Pakistan before coming to this country. The other is a Kurd from Iran. Both of these young men are self-taught in English, they are keen to gain an education, they are sporty and they do volunteer work within the community. Neither is given any support by officialdom in Australia.
Before we met and befriended these two men who have sought asylum by the “wrong route”, “asylum seekers” was a distant category to us. We read about their travails but we saw them as aliens who were perhaps to be pitied, but not loved. These two young men have given the label “asylum seeker” a human face. We now know what it means to love them, that is, to show them respect and to treat them with dignity. Though they have suffered in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, we are still bound to them by befriending them. We are blessed to realise that we can be a part of their healing. God willing they’ll be Australians one day – someday – if only our nation can see its way beyond fear to love. I believe this is what the PM’s Sermon on the Murray was all about.
Rabbi Fred Morgan is the movement rabbi for the Union for Progressive Judaism.