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Blessed are the hijab wearers

Ordinary Sunday 4: 29th January, 2017
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Zephaniah 2:3;3:12-13, Psalm 146:6c-7,8-9a,9b-10, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Matthew 5:1-12a

In the name of God, Creator Christ and Spirit.

About 10 days ago an electronic billboard in Cranbourne posted an advertisement for the celebration of Australia Day, which we observe this weekend. The billboard promoted the Victorian Government organised celebration in Kings Domain — RACV Australia Day Festival, held on Thursday. The billboard featured a series of images of people from a range of cultural backgrounds, including one picture of two Muslim girls, wearing hijabs, in front of the Australian flag — actually taken on Australia Day last year.

This image drew a virulent response, albeit from a minority: The United Patriots Front in social media said: "... they're making every effort to redefine your nation and gradually erase you from history ...", the Guardian reported that: Hundreds of people criticised the image for being "too politically correct" or not a true reflection of Australia Day.

The advertising company that operates the sign, QMS Media, took the advertisement down — they say, in response to threats to the safety of their staff. In the days that followed, the State Government merely commented that the response was not a true reflection of the meaning of Australia Day. The RACV made no comment. As far as I know the sign was not reinstated and the press has subsequently gone quiet.

Apart from a crowdfunding campaign to print copies of the offending photo, which was over-subscribed, the so-called patriots have won.

The minority, white supremacist United Patriot Front who led this campaign is not the most disturbing aspect of this — we can expect them to act this way, they are a minority, it's what they do, even though for most of us, I expect, it is hateful and repugnant.

What is disturbing to me is that two prominent businesses and the State Government lost their nerve and did not stand up to the ratbags, did not stand up for two little girls, did not stand up for minority Australians. They accepted the accusation of being 'too politically correct' as a criticism and lay down.

Political correctness is a difficult term. Arising in the early 1990s in the US, it is almost always used by the political right to criticise the actions of the political left, as in this case. It is usually used linguistically like a swear word, in that it can be flung at someone without need for further discussion. Indeed, in my experience, it is used to avoid further discussion, to avoid any mature consideration of the issues at hand, to avoid hearing any alternative point of view. So, it is a paradox — saying someone is politically correct is an accusation of incorrectness. Yet, what is called politically correct is usually what the community has agreed to be conventional or accepted behaviour.

In this case community convention is the acceptance of diverse cultural backgrounds as normal and equal in our society. What those who are flinging the accusation around are really saying is they do not accept the community's agreed norms and intend to abuse them by abusing the very people the community intends to protect.

Jesus was in these terms, politically correct. In the Beatitudes we heard read this morning he makes a radical case for the inclusion of the marginalised — in his time in his society these were: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not that you needed reminding of this best known part of the gospel, although clearly some others do.

These words were as controversial in Jesus' day as claims for a culturally diverse Australia are today. Jesus' words challenged Israel's need to be powerful and triumphant, to be dominant. He directly accuses royal privilege, Roman occupation and the complicity of the Pharisees. As you know this passage, the Beatitudes, leads into an extended sermon that proclaims a society so radically different from current reality that it set the power holders against him.

Jesus was truly politically correct and it lead, inexorably, to his execution. And he was not even saying anything new here, it can all be read in the prophets, especially Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos and Zephaniah, who reminds us in today's reading:

For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord — the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.

The words of the United Patriots Front stand in stark contrast to those of the prophet and the Messiah.

This contrast forces us to remind ourselves, as a people of faith, of what community means for us and in particular nationhood and who is to be included in it. It challenges, in particular, any lazy assumption that this is a society is characterised by a majority of white, able, employed, Christians.

It ignores the contribution to society of many cultures that make this nation, especially in this city, of diversity, creativity, interest and excitement.

The celebration of Australia Day is even more contentious from the perspective of our indigenous community as you will know. The choice of the date on the 26th January has been a matter of prominent public debate because it celebrates an event not all Australians look to with pride. Two Australians of the Year have called for a change: Lowitja O'Donoghue in 1984 and Mick Dodson in 2009. Two white male Prime Ministers one on the left and one on the right of politics have refused to entertain change.

But the movement for change of the date is gearing up and it will be divisive. Even in the indigenous community there is disagreement — contra O'Donoghue and Dodson, Noel Pearson proposes, rather than changing the date, to change the conventional white settlement focus of Australian history which 26 January reinforces. He sees three defining moments in Australia's history: "First, a point 53,000-odd years ago, when the first Australians crossed the Torres Strait land bridge to this continent; second, the landing of the first fleet in 1788; third, the abolition of the White Australia policy between 1973 and 1975."

Whatever the outcome of the debate, whatever any of us believes personally, this argument will be controversial and will challenge us, and will put our modern democracy to its greatest test, which is how we treat our minorities and the marginalised.

On this, I believe the prophet Zephaniah and Jesus are quite clear.

'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
'Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

This gospel compels us to stand up to the United Patriots Front and, maybe, to government and business by standing up for the marginalised, by standing up for the gospel itself.

To echo the Vicar's musings in this week's pew-sheet, our Catholic evangelism — the telling of this gospel — is a task for each one of us. It starts here as we hear the gospel, but it must continue on in each of us as we go out that west door.

The Lord be with us all. Amen.


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