"Politics and the Religious Conscience"

"Politics and the Religious Conscience"


John Cleary: A thoroughly embodied sort of spirituality from here on this morning - politics and the religious conscience, from Peter Garrett to the courts of the United States and yes, the struggle for human rights in Indonesia.

TAPE - Translator: "We on behalf of the Indonesian community, are expecting a strong trade union and an independent trade union who doesn't get interfered from the government. We also hope in Indonesia they are going to be giving a lot more attention for the law and human rights, especially the law on the base of Pancasila.

John Cleary: The wife and son of Indonesian independent trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan. And welcome to the Religion Report. I'm John Cleary. It was at a meeting of Pakpahan's union in Jakarta last weekend that led to the arrest of two Australian union leaders. Margaret Coffey has recently returned from Indonesia, and prepared this report. Pakpahan's wife and son speak because he is in jail charged with subversion.

Son: "My mother said that because the trade union struggle is based on human rights, so my mother thinks there is a connection between human rights and religion. In 1992 it seemed like the only way to get a better life for labourers, that is to build a trade union, so he built it because the trade union struggle is the same as his religious struggle. He thought that this was the right way to fight for the labourers' rights.

John Cleary: Muchtar Pakpahan is one of many Indonesians whose struggle for human rights and democracy, and the rule of law, is grounded in religious values - Muslim and Christian. His efforts won him the George Meany Human Rights Award in 1997. And he's not unique in having risked jail for articulating these values. Catholic priest Sandyawan Sumardi is also a medal winner - he won the prestigious Yap Thiem Hien Human Rights Award in 1996. Now he has been indicted for providing refuge to young members of the radical activist group PRD after the government accused them of being responsible for last year's 27 July Jakarta incident. At the time there was a shoot to kill order out. The young people included 26 year old Budiman Sudjatmiko who received a 13 year prison sentence earlier this year. Romo (Father) Sandyawan has also been refused permission to travel to Australia for a severe eye injury.

Margaret Coffey met Sandyawan Sumardi in Jakarta - at the Jakarta Social Institute where, with a team of 15 lawyers, doctors, teachers and additional volunteers, he works with those on the margins of Indonesia's development program.

Sandyawan Sumardi: You know, here in Indonesia, it looks like standing in the carpet of development.

Margaret Coffey: The flying carpet?

Sandyawan Sumardi: Yes, the flying carpet. From outside, from abroad, it looks like very beautiful carpet, but below the carpet, suffering people. And so we just try to accompany them. Violence, it's very real for us. I mean, there is systematic violence, especially experienced by the street children for example. Four times we experienced when the eviction, or termination, or demolition process of burn first before they demolish, or demolish by burning some area.

Anton: (Lawyer) A squatter was being demolished not far from here. It was burnt. We the lawyers came there, tried to accompany, but instead of being noticed as lawyer, we were captured while our friends, who are lawyers being caught there, keep in the office, they burned these squatters. Actually there is a regulation of Jakarta of Jakarta regulation number 11/1988 which allows the government to demolish urban poor.

Margaret Coffey: I'm looking at the photographs here and these are truly simple homes, shacks, made of bits and pieces and they're aflame. There are the military looking at the eviction going on and then in another photograph there are the military dragging a mother and her daughter, pulling them away from their home.

Anton (Lawyer): Always the military or the police stand behind the public order official.

Margaret Coffey: So these are the military and these are the security people?

Anton (Lawyer): They stand behind the security people to back up the demolition process.

Margaret Coffey: And this mother is kneeling down to plead, to beg, with the security person.

Sandyawan Sumardi: Yes her husband is killed, her husband was seriously ill and then shot and brought to the hospital, but it's late.

Margaret Coffey: So what happened to these people? What happened to this woman and her daughter?

Anton (Lawyer): The government just forced them to go out without any compensation.

Sandyawan Sumardi: Most of us are Catholics, but we never used the banner of the catholic flag because it's the main purpose to build kind of sectarianistic groups of people. I have no special theology, but maybe very, very simple theology. I mean, you know here very popular among the ordinary people, or urban poor, are the warung degal (Indonesian word)

Margaret Coffey: Food vendors?

Sandyawan Sumardi: Yes, food vendors. For me it is a model street parliament, symbol of democracy situation. So we're trying to build the warung degal as the basic ecclesial community. Everyone can come and go, freely, talk openly, freely - their aspirations, also when they're really afraid with the authority, they feel free and have a friend. What you call the theology of warung degal of warung solidaritas.

John Cleary: Religion and community building in Indonesia and that report from Margaret Coffey, who's just returned from Indonesia. I'm John Cleary and this is the Religion Report on Radio National.

Well this Sunday churches around Australia celebrate Social Justice Sunday. A day designed to draw the attention of congregations to issues that for much of the year are the purview of church policy committees and debates within government. This year the Catholic Church has published its social justice statement in a special edition of the magazine Australian Catholics, intended for distribution via church pews of the nation this weekend. The focus of the statement is towards doing justice in local communities. And this community focus is also picked up by some other denominations. In Sydney, St John's Anglican Church in the heart of Kings Cross is celebrating with a community fair and among the guests is Peter Garrett who joins us now.

Peter, why have you identified with the churches on this issue?

Peter Garrett: A couple of reasons. Firstly because there's clearly a relationship between what the churches are trying to do and I think what people in the broader community are attempting to do, and even artists like ourselves when we raise these issues and are active on them. So it's a way of doing a joint thing of stretching a hand across the distance. The other reason is I think that this issue is probably more important now than it ever has been particularly given developments over the last 18 months.The stance that the Federal government has taken on a number of issues, but some that relate directly to social justice. And I also think, I guess in a much more general and overall sense, because we are facing this kind of really key question. Whether we are basically passive - passive in the forces of international globalism, of increasing unemployment, of capital running its way around the world, of social events taking their toll on us, or whether we're going to be active. And it seems to me that being active means being aware of social justice.

John Cleary: One of the issues that some people raise is the issue of where in fact we draw our value systems from as being one of the real crisises we face at the moment.

Peter Garrett: Well I'd probably agree with that to some extent. I mean I certainly don't espouse the view that you can lay down a set of template values and expect everybody to hop onboard them, and you hope that there are going to be values that get transmuted through families and communities and institutions. But the church obviously has played a role in that in the past and I guess in many ways Australian society and Australian people are going through a crisis of values. It's somewhat difficult for us to, I think, to really say clearly what it is we do and don't believe in. The church has to some extent always been able to do that. It has a role to play and I think the question about that is, it links into the question of identity, links into the question of community. I mean it's one of words that means a lot of things to many people - but yes it is an important thing.

John Cleary: What are the key ones for you?

Peter Garrett: Well shared values I guess, in the sense of the sacred. I mean on issues like indigenous people, on issues like environment, even on issues like landmines, it seems to me that you need to have some kind of fundamental belief that things have a value, have a worth that's intrinsic. Whether you have a religious view that it comes because it's in part of the Creator or whether you have a more humanist view that it comes because of a shared common humanity that we have, I think that's a very important value because without it I think that what tends to happen in that the predominant institution, the predominant ideologies run over it. And you see it constantly in our politics and I guess we see it in State and local issues as well. So that would be one of the things. I think the other thing I would say is - communality. The idea that being a neighbour is more important than being a successful 'yuppie' if you like.

John Cleary: It's interesting you mention those particular issues. One of the things that we're characterised by the moment is a government that tends to be walking away from, I guess what you'd perceive as the communitarian values that have been held since Federation. I mean the best example is perhaps the latest one of the government quite proud to chose to say "We choose to walk away from the philosophy of conciliation and mediation in industrial affairs."

Peter Garrett: People are very, very jaded about political solutions and what, unfortunately, we seem to have is swinging pendulums which run from one arc to the other, but they really don't attack the central issues that we're really struggling with, and that we're struggling with whether we're in a situation of being employed and trying to figure out how we're going to educate our kids and deal with the issues that we're faced with, or whether on the margins when we're in a less advantaged position. And it seems very clear that within the Cabinet at least, and I don't know about the party, but within the Cabinet of the current Federal government there is a meanness of spirit and a tremendous enthusiasm for what I think is a discredited orthodoxy, but nevertheless, it's an orthodoxy; they think is going to work economically. The problem with that is that if you throw out ideas like mediation and conciliation. If you throw out ideas like social security net, if you throw ideas out about providing a degree of humanitarian aid for people and countries less well off than ourselves, what are you replacing it with? And if all you're replacing it with is the law of the jungle, then I think it's a pretty nasty jungle for those that are capable of fighting with their teeth.

John Cleary: Peter Garrett, thanks for joining us. Peter Garrett who along with thousands of other Australians will take part in Social Justice Sunday, being celebrated around the nation this weekend. Well, religion and the value of mediation in conflict was also the central theme on Saturday evening in Sydney of a presentation by Judge Dorothy Nelson of the United States Court of Appeal. Judge Nelson was appointed by Democrat President Jimmy Carter to the Appellate Court, the second highest court immediately below the Supreme Court in the United States structure. And Dorothy Nelson's husband is also a judge, appointed under a Republican administration. A genuinely bipartisan household. They're also united by their faith. The Nelsons are Baha'is, followers of the 19th century Persian prophet Bahowallah, in a faith dedicated to peace and the unity of humanity.

Judge Dorothy Nelson joins us by phone from Canberra. Judge Nelson, what principles undergird your commitment to a legal philosophy based on mediation.

Judge Dorothy Nelson: Well, actually the guiding thought has been my religion to be quite honest about it. When I was a law student and became a Baha'i I found that the way in which Baha'is resolve conflict was through a form of mediation and as I watched the adversary system in going through law school and into practice and academia, I found that the adversary system was too costly, too inefficient, too destructive, too painful for a truly civilised society, to sort of cite out of context the words of a former Chief Justice of our country, so I became very interested in what I could do in the justice system to improve it. And this was sort of my guiding principle. I became a lawyer because I felt I would have no credibility in the system if I didn't understand the system. And then, I think I didn't intend to be a judge, but I was the first woman dean of a major law school, therefore appointed to many national commissions by various presidents, who I think were looking for a woman to add to various commissions.

John Cleary: You've marked your career with a commitment to mediation and that's not been a popular cause among much of the legal fraternity.

Judge Dorothy Nelson: Well, it's much more popular now than it was when I began teaching about it in 1957 when the other members of the faculty would say - 'What is she teaching about?', and someone said 'Well, it's that women's thing, to teach cooperation and collaboration'. It makes me very happy to say today I think it is the most important issue in the American justice system today. And my Appellate Court was the first Appellate Court in the nation to hire full time mediators to help resolve conflicts, even on the Appellate level.

John Cleary: It's something that's not very popular in many parts of the world though. There seems to be a return to a wish to pursue a more Darwinian model right across the world.

Judge Dorothy Nelson: I think you're quite right about certain parts of the world, but we have found that unfortunately lawyers in our country oppose change. I'm not sure whether that's true in Australia, but the lawyers in our circuit who oppose the use of mediators in our circuit, have now become its greatest fans.

John Cleary: The issue of mediation has come to the fore in a major way in Australia over the past two years with regard to how we resolve questions over indigenous land rights, particularly what's known as the Wik judgement, but also in the last week, it's come to major prominence where the present government has decided to move away from the mediation and conciliation principles which have been enshrined in industrial law in this country for the best part of a hundred years. What's your response to that in seeing it?

Judge Dorothy Nelson: The use of mediation in dealing with our indigenous people, particularly the American Indian, is most successful. Recently our court had a case between the Navaho and the Hopi Indians, who live on reservations in our state of Arizona. In the lower court below a judgement had been given for the Hopi Indians against the Navaho and the Navaho were appealing. We referred this case to mediation and mediation of course follows the usual method of indigenous peoples and that is you sit and go around the circle and that everyone speak from the heart. And after a long negotiation - over six weeks, which is longer than the usual one - it was resolved the Hopis did indeed own the land, but they were willing to let the Navaho stay there because they'd been there since the early part of the century, as long as the Navaho would acknowledge the ownership of the Hopis and pay them a small fee to indicate the ownership. That case, if it had been resolved in our court, to me would have led to armed conflict.

John Cleary: On the industrial front it's a slightly different one. We almost have a government who says we want a return to the idea of disputes being settled by way of a trial of strength between labour and management and to the victor go the spoils. Is there any long term value in that?

Judge Dorothy Nelson: Let me just speak as far as my country is concerned we are moving more and more toward more mediations rather than fewer because in mediation you don't have a winner and a loser and you don't have people ending up as enemies. But instead of trying to assess blame retrospectively you're trying to solve a problem. So I guess you can tell I'm really committed to mediation of almost everything, except major crimes or major constitutional issues which we need to give us a precedent to establish for the rest of the country, such as freedom of the press or freedom of religion.

John Cleary: Dorothy Nelson thanks for joining us. Judge Dorothy Nelson of the second highest court in the United States, the Court of Appeal. To matters multicultural now. This week the Church of South India is 50 years old. It was formed in the heady days following the struggle for India's independence. Lyn Gallacher attended the Melbourne celebrations.

Lyn Gallacher: The Lyric of Invocation being sung at the Church of South India's Golden Jubilee celebrations in Melbourne last weekend. The local Indian, Sri Lankan and Tamil communities turned out in force, and yes it was the right moment for your best sari.

The Church of South India was the first ever union between Episcopal and non-Episcopal churches, that is those with bishops and those without. Fifty years ago the Anglicans got together with the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Basil Mission churches. The union was the opportunity to leave behind a missionary past and develop a more Indian identity, even, as it turns out, in the diaspsora.

Reverend Prema Raja: "We are gathered here to give our thanks to God, for His providence and guidance for the past 50 years of journeying missions of the Church of South India. We are gathered here to celebrate an historic event, an event that was inspired by the Holy Spirit".

Lyn Gallacher: The Reverend Premarajah - his sermon celebrated God's guidance to the church of South India in the last 50 years, but how Indian is the church? According to critics, despite a commitment to Indian leadership style and culture, the church of South India is still too European.

The Right Reverend Dr Sundar Clarke: I must be quite honest and say that we have really failed to deliver the goods. We in indigenisation, we have not done much, we have not evolved and developed an indigenous theology built on some of the lyrics and songs and some of the writings of our Indians, which I think is a very, very sad mistake. And this has had it's negative impact on the non-Christian community. This has given the impression to the non-Christians in India that Christianity is a religion of the west because we have put religion into a western garb. I think we are a poor country and we should adapt everything, our customs, our dress, our habits to the situation in which we are. Address ourselves in terms of the poverty that India is going through and not appear to be a very pompous western orientated church. The Indian church must learn to walk on its own.

Lyn Gallacher: The Right Reverend Dr Sundar Clarke, author of "Let the Indian Church Be Indian". Meanwhile, back at the celebrations the choir sang a hymn to the church's faithfulness.

John Cleary: And finally today, an introduction to some of the sounds, beliefs and history of Chinese religious practice in Australia. Kate Evans reports.

Kate Evans: A Chinese lion dance with leaping drums and lots of sweat performed by the Hung Fook Tong Society Lion Team of the Yui Ming Society. The Chinese U-Ming Society has existed in Australia since at least the 1870s, initially dedicated to returning ancestors' bones to China. A temple was built in Sydney in 1908 in Retreat Street Alexandria. The Powerhouse Museum and the Yui Ming Society has together developed an exhibition and book "The Lions of Retreat Street" tracing the history and ongoing use of the temple. A heritage plan was also developed and the very day after its completion, fire broke out in the temple.

Ann Stephens: Fire is such a key element in Chinese beliefs and practices. Historically many, many peoples have had fires and it's really no surprise because the practice of worship involves, not only lighting incense sticks as offerings, but also paper offerings. And in fact, burning paper offerings in the altar at the temple has been a regular practice for as long as the temple has been there. We've got on display in the museum a magnificent collection of paper offerings that you can buy in Sydney in 1997, which are an extraordinary range of the basic communities. One believes it's necessary to survive and to send to one's departed relatives - and they range from ghetto blasters through to microwave ovens, all made out of paper.

Kate Evans: Ann Stephens, Curator of Social History, Powerhouse Museum. Those paper electrical goods are striking reminders of the adaptability of religious practice. But what of the temple itself?

Ann Stephens: It was like entering some courtyard in Beijing. The temple is also built on a precinct with housing either side of Retreat Street. They're a very simple basic row of terraces, no verandahs, and in fact, often you'll arrive there and you'll see racks and racks of drying mandarin or orange peel, or some of the elderly women doing piece work or looking after children. So that there is quite a strong sense of a Chinese community around the temple. It's not just a religious site. It's a social-cultural site as well.

Kate Evans: In both the exhibition and the book it's referred to as a "Chinese temple" and it's not referred to in terms of any particular belief systems. Why is that?

Ann Stephens: It's a response to the fairly eclectic and pragmatic relationship that Chinese people have to their gods and goddesses, to their honouring of their ancestors. So it's very much based out of overseas Chinese of southern China, and so some of the gods that are worshipped are popular from those regions. And it really does have very much a village basis. Very sadly there was a temple fire in December and so the temple has been closed.

John Cleary: That report from Kate Evans and the temple in Retreat Street will be back in use by the New Year. Curator Ann Stephen with a brief introduction to the long and complex presence of Chinese religious practices in Australia. The exhibition, "The Lions of Retreat Street: A Chinese temple in inner Sydney", is at the Powerhouse Museum until April 1998, and the book - with photographs, commentary and oral histories - is available nationally.


  The Religion Report is broadcast every Wednesday at 8.30am and 8.05pm on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network of ideas.

©Copyright 1997, Australian Broadcating Corporation
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