Voting on 21 May (7): Contributing to a Just and Peaceful World

Australian citizens go to the polls to elect a federal government on 21 May. The 17 million people eligible to vote will be electing both a local member to sit in the House of Representatives for the next three years; and a number of senators, to sit in the Senate for the next six years.

To assist voters in considering how they might vote, the Uniting Church has prepared a resource that identifies a number of issues, in seven key areas, that should inform the way that we vote, if we take seriously how the Gospel. calls us to live.

The seven areas are drawn from Our Vision for a Just Australia, a 40-page document expressing the Uniting Church vision for a just Australia and why our Christian faith calls us to work towards its fulfilment. It can be read in full at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Our-Vision-For-a-Just-Australia_July2021.pdf

The Assembly has prepared a shorter 8-page document as a Federal Election Resource, in which key matters in each of the seven areas are identified. That document is found at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Federal-Election-Resources-2022_11-April.pdf

The final area reflects the vision of the Uniting Church for Contributing to a Just and Peaceful World.

The UCA resource notes that “we are a nation that works in partnership with other nations to dismantle the structural and historical causes of violence, injustice and inequality. Our government upholds human rights everywhere, acting in the best interests of all people and the planet.”

It further notes that we remain one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the highest median wealth per adult, and fourth highest average wealth per adult. “Historically, we played a significant part in reducing world poverty and making significant gains in human flourishing. COVID-19 has made the world poorer, less equal and less secure.”

“Climate change and increased geopolitical competition is destabilising democracies and increasing the number of refugees in the world. In 2020, Australia boosted aid to our local region to support pandemic response, however, the current government has capped ongoing aid to pre-COVID levels, the lowest since 1961.”

“Despite our relative wealth, we are ranked an ungenerous 21st on the global list of overseas development aid as a percentage of gross national income. The recent and ongoing conflict in Ukraine reminds us again of the urgent need to rid the world of weapons capable of catastrophic, widespread destruction.”

The key issues to inform our voting in this regard are what each candidate or their party says about:

• Centering Australia’s foreign policy on a commitment to justice and peace; collaborating internationally to deliver community development and human rights.

• Legislate Australian Aid to reach 0.5% GNI by 2026 and 0.7% GNI by 2030.

• Increase support to fight COVID globally.

• Sign on to the global treaty banning nuclear weapons.

• Increase support to vulnerable nations to help address the impact of climate change.

For the full series of seven posts, see:

Voting on 21 May (6): Flourishing Communities, Regional, Remote, and Urban

Australian citizens go to the polls to elect a federal government on 21 May. The 17 million people eligible to vote will be electing both a local member to sit in the House of Representatives for the next three years; and a number of senators, to sit in the Senate for the next six years.

To assist voters in considering how they might vote, the Uniting Church has prepared a resource that identifies a number of issues, in seven key areas, that should inform the way that we vote, if we take seriously how the Gospel. calls us to live.

The seven areas are drawn from Our Vision for a Just Australia, a 40-page document expressing the Uniting Church vision for a just Australia and why our Christian faith calls us to work towards its fulfilment. It can be read in full at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Our-Vision-For-a-Just-Australia_July2021.pdf

The Assembly has prepared a shorter 8-page document as a Federal Election Resource, in which key matters in each of the seven areas are identified. That document is found at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Federal-Election-Resources-2022_11-April.pdf

The sixth area reflects the vision of the Uniting Church for Flourishing Communities, Regional, Remote, and Urban—with particular reference to issues of housing and mental health in rural and remote areas.

We live in communities where we are connected and we care for one another. In communities all over Australia, from our big cities to remote regions, we seek the well-being of each Australian and uplift those who are on the margins.

People in Australia living in rural and remote areas tend to have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury and poorer access to and use of health services, including mental health care, compared to people living in metropolitan areas. The housing crisis and mental health crisis are converging in regional Australia as rental vacancy rates in some regions fall below 1%.

Regional towns have experienced a significant reduction in available properties and rental affordability, particularly since the onset of the pandemic. The Queensland Alliance for Mental Health, the state’s peak body for community mental health said the situation was “pushing people experiencing mental distress into homelessness”

The key issues to inform our voting in this regard are what each candidate or their party says about these two major areas:

(1) Improved mental health support for people in rural and remote Australia that is adequately funded, able to be flexibly used and well managed locally.

(2) Governments to do more to provide affordable housing in the regions – to boost housing for vulnerable people and strengthen local economies.

For the full series of seven posts, see:

Voting on 21 May (4): An Economy for Life

Australian citizens go to the polls to elect a federal government on 21 May. The 17 million people eligible to vote will be electing both a local member to sit in the House of Representatives for the next three years; and a number of senators, to sit in the Senate for the next six years.

To assist voters in considering how they might vote, the Uniting Church has prepared a resource that identifies a number of issues, in seven key areas, that should inform the way that we vote, if we take seriously how the Gospel. calls us to live.

The seven areas are drawn from Our Vision for a Just Australia, a 40-page document expressing the Uniting Church vision for a just Australia and why our Christian faith calls us to work towards its fulfilment. It can be read in full at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Our-Vision-For-a-Just-Australia_July2021.pdf

The Assembly has prepared a shorter 8-page document as a Federal Election Resource, in which key matters in each of the seven areas are identified. That document is found at https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Federal-Election-Resources-2022_11-April.pdf

The fourth area reflects the vision of the Uniting Church for An Economy of Life. This was the title of an extensive document on economic policy which the Twelfth Assembly adopted in 2009. See https://ucaassembly.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/17

The resource notes that our “government makes economic decisions that put people first: decisions that are good for creation, that lift people out of poverty and fairly share our country’s wealth. The economy serves the well-being and flourishing of all people. We believe in an Australia where prosperity is shared fairly, embracing all people regardless of their privilege or upbringing.”

The resource makes these observations: “Aspirations for shared prosperity in Australia are unravelling under the sustained, twin trends of weak wage growth and rising asset prices. Over the past 10 years wage growth has limped under 2.5 per cent annually. Over the same period share portfolio and real estate values have grown around 10 per cent annually.”

“These settings deliver economic gains toward those with assets and away from those doing it tough, resulting in a greater and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Greater inequality strongly tracks with stress, hunger, poor physical health, poor mental health, homelessness and social exclusion, and has a negative impact on economic growth.”

“Older women are more at risk of reduced financial security after a lifelong gender pay-gap, interruptions to employment for care and reduced superannuation. The retirement savings gap between males and females in 2019 was almost one quarter. The result is that 34 percent of single women in Australia live in poverty.”

The key issues to inform our voting in this regard are what each candidate or their party says about:

• A clear commitment to undertake a review into the past decade of low-income growth.

• An increase in social security payments, especially Jobseeker.

• Tax reforms to increase the progressive nature of the Australian tax system to address unhealthy inequality.

• A clear commitment to make superannuation contributions on top of the government Parental Leave Pay.

For the full series of seven posts, see

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 50 years

On 26 January 1972, four Aboriginal men—Billie Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams, and Tony Coorey—set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite the Parliament House in Canberra. The men were protesting the resistance that the conservative Liberal-Country Party federal government were exhibiting towards granting land rights to Aboriginal people.

Even though Aboriginal people had lived on the land of the continent of Australia for millennia, they had no rights to land in most places across the continent. The British Invasion of Port Jackson in 1788, some years after Lt James Cook had imperiously claimed the land of New Holland for the British Crown in 1770, led to expanding colonisation of the land over the ensuing decades. Each new colonial settlement was associated with battles between the local indigenous people and the invading British. Massacres resulted in almost every location.

The men sitting under the umbrella in Canberra in 1972 described it as the Aboriginal Embassy, alluding to the fact that the city of Canberra was home to scores of embassies from the governments of overseas nations. Indeed, the city had been established early in the 20th century with the guarantee that those nations could have a piece of territory in the new capital city where their diplomatic staff could live and work.

By the late 1970s, seventy nations had embassies in Canberra (see https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/115002/2/b11766608.pdf), but there was no formal channel for relationships with the First Peoples of Australia. Somewhere around 400 groupings of Aboriginal people were believed to have lived across the continent and on the surrounding islands, including the Torres Strait Islands, with at least 250 languages being spoken.

But decades of British colonisation had seen the indigenous people marginalised from “mainstream” white Australian society. Numbers declined, living conditions deteriorated, especially in towns and cities, and racist attitudes towards “the blacks” predominated. Of those 250 languages, less than a half had continued into the 20th century, and many of those continuing languages were in peril of dying out completely.

Aboriginal leadership had been agitating for their people for some time. The YES vote at the 1967 referendum augured well, it seemed. Yet the Prime Minister of the day (and arguably one of Australia’s worst leaders), William McMahon, and his conservative government colleagues exemplified the cultural arrogance and racism that held sway across the nation at that time.

The National Museum of Australia reports that “On the eve of Australia Day 1972, the McMahon government announced the implementation of a new system that rejected granting independent ownership of traditional land to Indigenous people in favour of 50-year general purpose leases for Indigenous communities, provided they could demonstrate a social and economic use for the land and excluding any mineral and forest rights.

“After the ongoing disappointments of the land rights struggle, this announcement sparked action among many Indigenous groups and directly contributed to the founding of the Tent Embassy.” (see https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/aboriginal-tent-embassy) The time was ripe for Aboriginal leaders to step up and speak out on behalf of their peoples.

The initial demands of the group which established the Tent Embassy read today as a sensible set of actions which, although achieved in part, are sadly yet to be completely fulfilled. Those demands included:

• Complete rights to the Northern Territory as a state within Australia and the installation of a primarily Aboriginal State Parliament. These rights would include all mining rights to the land

• Ownership and mining rights of all other Aboriginal reserve lands in Australia

• The preservation of all sacred sites in Australia

• Ownership of areas in major cities, including the mining rights

• Compensation for lands that were not able to be returned starting with $6 billion and including a percentage of the gross national income every year.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/aboriginal-tent-embassy-canberra

In the ensuing years, there have been legal challenges, removal of the embassy, reinstitution of the embassy, arson attacks, moves to other sites in Canberra, and eventually, the registration of the embassy site with the Australian Heritage Commission as a part of the National Estate.

The Embassy has been maintained continuously since 1972 by First People leaders, and this month the 50th anniversary is being celebrated. (The recent incident at the front of Old Parliament House was not associated in any way with the Tent Embassy, nor with any responsible Aboriginal leadership.)

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Director of The Centre for Global Indigenous Futures, Macquarie University, writes that “Nowhere else in the world have we seen such longevity around a site of protest. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the tenacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our continued fight for the reclamation of our lands and sovereign rights as First Nations peoples.” (see https://theconversation.com/a-short-history-of-the-aboriginal-tent-embassy-an-indelible-reminder-of-unceded-sovereignty-174693)

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

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A Day of Mourning

Every year the Uniting Church marks a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land.

For the millions of Second Peoples in this country—those whose ancestors arrived on this continent from 1788 onwards—it is a day to lament that we were and remain complicit with the invasion and colonisation of the country, with the massacres of First Peoples that took place in so many locations across the continent, and with the continuing marginalisation and oppression of First Peoples in so many communities.

The observance of a Day of Mourning was endorsed in 2018 by the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church, arising from a request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). At that same Assembly, an affirmation of the sovereignty of the First Peoples was also made.

As an expression of the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice and truth-telling, we keep the Sunday before Australia Day as a Day of Mourning. Today across Australia, people in many Uniting Church Congregations are reflecting on the effects of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples.

In the resources prepared for this day, the President of the Assembly, Rev. Sharon Hollis, and the Interim National Chair Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the Rev. Mark Kickett, state: “In marking a day of mourning, we hear the call of Jesus to a love one another. We live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country.”

See https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Day-of-Mourning-2022-FINAL_2_web.pdf

The President and National Chair continue, “We reaffirm our understanding that First Peoples encountered the Creator God long before colonisation. We confess and seek forgiveness for the dispossession and violence against First Peoples, we lament our part, and we recommit to justice and truth-telling.” This echoes the words now embedded within the Constitution of the church, in a Revised Preamble which was adopted at the Church’s 12th Assembly in 2009 and subsequently endorsed by the Synods and Presbyteries throughout 2010.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/covenanting/PreamblePoster-web.pdf

The resources prepared for worship on this day include an expanded Acknowledgement which also draws on words in the Revised Preamble: We acknowledge that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. We acknowledge that the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways; and so we rejoice in the reconciling purposes of God found in the good news about Jesus Christ.

In a section known as “Truth-Telling and an Invitation”, the Congregation is invited to reflect: “In a nation, now called Australia, where is truth-telling not always told? To know mourning is to truly know injustice—a struggle for justice. We seek guidance from ancient wisdom of past and present, to hold this mourning in our hearts and minds, to honour, to pay respect, to know, to appreciate and to act on injustice. Layers of mourning unfold in the stories not told.”

At the conclusion of the service, again drawing on the Covenant relationship that the Uniting Church has with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the resources offer this word of mission to conclude worship, and to shape the witness and service of those who have shared in these services:

People of God, go from here to live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another. Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

On the move: a central feature of the Christmas story

At Christmas, we recall a familiar story. Central to the story is the baby born in a manger, because “there was no room in the inn”. This element is, of course, told and retold countless times in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and in churches in every country around the world, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

That part of the story gets disseminated widely. That part of the story contributes strongly to the warm, fuzzy vibe that Christmas brings to many people. Less well shared, however, is that part of the story which reports that this family were soon under threat, and they hurriedly fled to another country, seeking the safety of refuge, until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise the first part of the story—the babe in the manger in Bethlehem. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel, imagining it in the picture perfect way of so many cards and carols: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals, because there was no room, not in “the inn”, but rather in the guest room of the house where they were (according to the story) staying that night. So at the time when Mary gave birth, there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the animals, all around.

We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child (Luke 2:8–16) would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considers impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!

We forget, also, that Luke’s account of this birth places it in Bethlehem, which is not the place where the newly-formed family lived. They had been forced to travel there, according to Luke’s account, because of a nation-wide census that was required by the Romans (Luke 2:1-7).

Giving birth to the child in that town, in that room, in that manger, was not the plan that his parents initially had; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude. This part of the story is not at all the comfortable and soothing scene that cards and carols regularly depict. The birth takes place after a forced journey, in an less than desirable setting.

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The second part of the story, that found in the Gospel of Matthew, also has an unexpected and forced journey involved. This part of the story relates to the rapid flight that the family took after the child was born, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, a foreign country (Matt 2:13-15). Matthew’s contribution to the story rarely fosters those warm, fuzzy vibes that many associate with Christmas.

And often, in church, this part of the story is left for the time after Christmas Day—which is logical, since this is where it comes in the flow of the story; but which means that, downunder at least, it is featured during the Great Summer Holiday which comes immediately after the feasting and festivities of Christmas Day (and Boxing Day, if there are still plentiful left overs!)

Matthew’s account sets out very clearly that this journey was not part of the original plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge. It was a temporary measure, undertaken under great duress.

The ruler who gives the order which provokes the family to undertake this journey is the man whom Jesus once called “that fox”: Herod. Ruling over Judea as a client king of the Romans, Herod was a half-Jewish man who had risen to the top of Jewish society through political cunning and strategic marriages. He had a reputation for violent brutality.

Matthew’s story recounts that Herod ordered that all male children under two years of age should be killed, to ensure that this potential rival to his rule would be safely despatched (Matt 2:1-3, 16-18). Jesus survived this because his parents were advised of the imminent pogrom by visitors “from the east” who had come via the court of Herod (Matt 2:13-15). This part of the story also does not sound relaxed, sweet, and comfortable!

And then, as the story in Matthew’s account continues, there is yet another journey, returning from Egypt, back into Israelis–but not Judea, for fear of the ruler who followed Herod, his son Archelaus; rather, to Galilee, where the family,settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). Another episode of dislocation and disruption, that rarely features in the classic carols and Christmas cards.

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It is because of these disruptive and confronting elements in the story that, in my mind, Christmas challenges us to think about those who have no shelter. It especially invites us to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.

Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a ceasefire that would facilitate the COVID-19 response, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

Most recent statistics from the UNHCR,
as of mid-2021

In that spirit, as we celebrate Christmas, let us also commit to working to ensure safety and security for those who are imperilled, homeless, stateless, and on the move. There are so many such people in our world today. There are so many ways we can live out the Christmas story as we reach out to them.

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The image is La Sagrada Familia by Kelly Latimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/25/acting-for-peace-through-the-christmas-bowl/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

West Papua, 60 years on (remembering 1 December 1961)

The Indigenous people of West Papua have been struggling for independence from Indonesia since Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1962. Since that time, Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua has resulted in ongoing human rights abuses from Indonesian security forces, massive deforestation and destruction of the land for resource extraction, racial discrimination against Indigenous Papuans, mass displacement of Papuans from their Indigenous lands as refugees and internally displaced persons, and the systematic destruction of a Papuan identity.

2021 is a significant year as it marks the 60th anniversary of the first raising of West Papua’s symbol of independence, the Morning Star Flag. Sixty years ago the Nieuw Guinea Raad (New Guinea Council) raised the Morning Star flag alongside the Dutch flag across West Papua for the first time, on 1 December 1961.

The event was a milestone in West Papua’s ongoing path to national self-determination, which had begun when the Netherlands registered West Papua with the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory in December 1950. The self-determination project was short-lived, however, with West Papua being invaded through Operation Trikora by Australian-backed Indonesian forces.

The Morning Star Flag continues to be a powerful unifying symbol for West Papua’s struggle for economic, social and political self-determination. Raising the flag in Indonesia carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. West Papuans, as Melanesian people of the Pacific, continue to stand defiant against Indonesia’s fictitious claims to their land and identity.

(The flag is used by the Free Papua Organization and other independence supporters. It consists of a red vertical band along the hoist side, with a white five-pointed star in the center, and thirteen horizontal stripes, alternating blue and white, with seven blue stripes and six white ones. The seven blue stripes represents seven customary territories in the region.)

The Pacific Conference of Churches, with the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, has strongly condemned the institutional racism against the indigenous npeople of West (Tanah) Papua and the increase of Indonesian militarisation in Papua that comes with this. PCC General Secretary, Rev. James Bhagwan and PNGCC General Secretary, Rev. Roger Joseph, have stated that the oppression of Papuan people underlines the need for an urgent investigation of ongoing abuse of

Human Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural and Political rights of West Papuans, by the United Nations.

In 2019, the WCC Executive Committee released a statement of concern and solidarity for West Papua, a supporting the church leaders’ joint appeal for a comprehensive political dialogue, and calling on the Government of Indonesia to allow access to human rights organisations and journalists. The statement also invited all WCC member churches “to pray and act in support of the witness of the churches in West Papua – and that of PGI, PCC, and CCA – for justice and peace in the region.”

(The Uniting Church in Australia is a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.)

Map courtesy of the ABC

Sadly, the Australian Government has been notably silent on the issue of violence and human rights abuses in West Papua, being bound by the controversial 2006 Lombok Treaty to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”.

The theme of this year’s flag raising is Youth Rize for Land Rights. In the words of West Papuan activist Cyndi Makabory: “What resonates for me with the theme is young people are the leaders of today not ‘tomorrow’, what I’m seeing in West Papua and outside of West Papua is that youths are mobilising and propelling movements”.

There are a number of West Papuans who are active in the Canberra City Congregation—they play together in worship, as some were members of the popular Black Brothers band (see https://asiapacificreport.nz/2016/09/20/west-papuas-black-brothers-message-to-png-musicians-stay-committed/). Elizabeth “discovered” them when she was ministering in the Canberra City Congregation in 2017. They include Benny Bettay and Willem Ayamiseba.

You can read the remarkable story of courage and tenacity of one of the West Papuan leaders, Benny Wenda, at https://www.freewestpapua.org/info/benny-wendas-story/

For people of faith in Australia, the continuing injustices seen in this near neighbour merit attention and prayer. We yearn for justice, we seek to see oppression end in West Papua.

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I have prepared this post in conjunction with Jack Johnson, regional organiser of the Free West Papua Youth—Australia Team, and a member of the St Columba’s Uniting Church, Braddon, in the ACT.

If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

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Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

*****

B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

Coping with chaos and death: the ‘wisdom’ of Job (Pentecost 22B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 24 October 2021.

*****

Last time we were with Job, he and his three friends had reached an impasse. Job believed them to see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand Job’s stubbornness. Enter the fourth friend, Elihu.

Elihu, whose name means ‘My God is He’, and whose nose is burning in anger in regard to the conversation to date, strongly condemns the approach taken by the three friends and argues that Job is misrepresenting God’s justice and discrediting God’s character. In his speech, Elihu describes God as mighty, yet just, and quick to warn but also quick to forgive. Elihu is almost cast into a prophetic role, and prepares the way for the appearance of God, who finally shows up.

God has arrived in a whirlwind, and to compensate for his long silence of 35 chapters he now responds to Job with a flood of rather sarcastic questions. There is a touch of irony here in God’s chosen vehicle – in 9:17 Job had said If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe he would listen to my voice, for he tramples me down with a whirlwind, enlarges my wounds for no reason and will not let me get my breath.

God appears to do just this, his intent apparently being to adjust Job’s attitude by telling him a few things, including some pretty prolonged boasting about his cosmic power, culminating in the description of the monstrous Leviathan and Behemoth. By this God therefore puts cosmic matters – including Job’s smallness and frailness when compared to these two monstrous creations – into their true perspective.

Twice he reminds Job to gird your loins like a real man. I will ask questions, and you instruct me (38:2; 40:7).

To “gird the loins” is usually used as a metaphor for preparing for battle. It is hard to conceive that the unfortunate Job, who has just been told he “darkens counsel” with “ignorant” words, who has a whirlwind of cosmic proportions roaring around him, is in any position to instruct the deity or do battle with him. The deck is stacked, and this is a contest that we know God must win.

The response God gives Job is not the expected one. God’s words are not what the friends have imagined that God would say, nor are they the vindication that Job had hoped for. God has reversed the scenario that Job had earlier envisaged. Instead of Job challenging God in court about the justice of God’s actions, God counters with his own case, asking Job to reveal his wisdom. Instead of the divine actions being interpreted by a powerless human, they are now presented from God’s point of view.

The speech of God to Job is the climax of the book but it offers no explanation for Job’s suffering. The question: where was Job when God created the world? is an unsatisfactory ‘answer’, and we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that God acts in capricious ways, an unsympathetic deity who would allow the life of a man, his family and his servants and animals to be tormented or cut short for no better reason than to prove a point to the Adversary.

The meaning and significance of this divine speech of God continues to be a widely debated issue. Some interpret God’s words as a negation of a human being’s right to question God. Others see them as a correction to Job’s limited understanding of good and evil. Still others believe this scene shows Job’s faith and humility. Yet others believe that the words of God avoid Job’s questions, suggesting that there is doubt cast over God’s justice and compassion.

To answer God’s somewhat sarcastic questions would require the knowledge of a god, not a human. Job’s limitations are exposed, and the workings of God are declared to be a mystery beyond Job’s understanding. Instead of being offered comfort, Job is reminded of his ignorance and frailty. What are we to make of this disconcerting picture of God, especially since the questions Job asks may also be our own?

The speeches of God to Job illustrate the world according to Hebrew cosmology. The world is seemingly ordered, and everything has its place. The sea has its limits, cosmic darkness is behind gates, the sky has statutes and the clouds are numbered. But there are disorderly elements as well. The wild beasts have both hunter and prey among their numbers, yet God provides for both, giving to one the freedom to eat and another to be eaten.

In his ignorance, Job has imagined a black and white world where evil and good, reward and punishment are clearly defined. Hence his insistence that he be shown justice. But here he is presented with a world of moral ambiguity, where the wild ass is just as likely or not to be eaten by the lion in search of food.

The world as God has created it is presented as full opposing forces such as life and death, chaos and order, freedom and control, wisdom and foolishness, ordinary and bizarre, evil and good, and Job’s assumption that in a just universe his piety should have been rewarded with prosperity, is rendered meaningless. The world is not ordered according to guilt or innocence so there is no easy answer to the problem of innocent suffering.

Creatures die so others may survive. Chaos and death are not eliminated by God but operate within the boundaries of his design and the world’s complexity means it is not possible for a simple and mechanical law of reward and punishment to operate. The various aspects of human morality that Job and his friends have discussed at length are not the way the universe works. God presents a universe which is independent of such human belief systems. As Job’s beliefs fall about him in ruins, he is faced with a deity whose ways are outside of human comprehension and wisdom.

The book of Job began with deprivation and tragedy. In the final verses though, we find abundant restoration, with Job receiving back his house and family and twice as much as he had lost. Job wisely acknowledges the supreme power of God, his own ignorance, and renounces his dust and ashes.

Note that Job does not repent in sackcloth and ashes but repents of them. This suggests that he is still a touch defiant, but he has learnt he is not the centre of the universe and it is now time to resume normal life again in the verses that follow. And with a final touch of irony, the friends who wanted Job to plead for God’s mercy for himself now find themselves in need of Job’s intercessions on their behalf.

It seems a happy ending, but despite its complex setting and arguments, the book of Job has presented us with more problems than solutions. Curiously, verse 42:10 states that restoration is made to Job because he prayed for his friends, not because he repents. Even more surprisingly, Job’s friends and relatives then console him about the evil that God had brought upon him, a statement that lays the blame for Job’s suffering directly with God, and not the Adversary. They offer gold and silver as a token of their goodwill. The implication is that God does cause innocent suffering, as part of the cosmic design.

So where do we go from here? Do we dwell on a dangerous universe where God doesn’t answer the questions of Job and where justice seems questionable? Or is there another way forward in this rather dark story?

Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker[1], in her commentary on Job on Working Preacher, notes the details of this restoration have some unusual features. She states that

Job’s three daughters are the most beautiful women in the land, and Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers, an unheard-of act in the ancient Near East. He also gives them unusually sensual names: Dove (Jemimah), Cinnamon (Keziah) and Rouge-Pot (Keren-happuch).

Schifferdecker believes that Job has “learned to govern his world as God does.” What does she mean by that?

The cautious father of the prologue who offered sacrifices for his children in case they had sinned now has become a parent modelled on God’s own creation. By giving them their inheritance, he is giving his children the same freedom to live and grow and learn that God gives God’s creation, and, like God, he delights in their freedom and in their beauty.4

Ellen Davis, in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament[2] writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”

It is a question, says Schifferdecker, that is worth pondering. “Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?” she asks? [3]

Davis also puts forward the case that we should not be concentrating on why or how much it costs God to restore Job’s fortunes, as it obviously costs God nothing. “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”[4]

I really like this perspective. Job, says Schifferdecker, resembles a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage may have been to start again and bear children. Yet despite the potential risks, Job chooses to enter life again. Job and his wife, despite their terrible experiences, choose to again “bring children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love”. (Schifferdecker, 2012)[5].

Having cited so much of her, I am going to give the last words to Professor Schifferdecker, as I think she sums it up beautifully:

Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the translators of the Septuagint add this verse to the book of Job: “And Job died, old and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.”

And perhaps that is an appropriate place to leave this story of Job, waiting with God’s other servants for the world to come. This complex work, the book of Job, plumbs the depths of despair and comes out on the other side into life again. In this movement, it testifies not only to the reality of inexplicable suffering but also to the possibility of new life — life lived out in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of resurrection, who, as both synagogue and church proclaim, is faithful even until death, and beyond. [6]

****

See other sermons in the series at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

and also

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-two-pentecost-19b-to-22b/


[1] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Working Preacher, 2012 (Accessed 20/10/2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-job-421-6-10-17 )

[2] Davis, E.F. “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.

[3] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17 ,Working Preacher, 2012

[4] Davis, E.F. (2001) 121-143

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” So we read in scripture (Deut 16:20). And once they were in that land (even though they colonised it unjustly), the people of Israel were reminded of the centrality of justice. “What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”, one prophet asked (Micah 6:8). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, another of the prophets declared (Amos 5:24).

Justice is an important and oft-recurring theme in scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. It sits at the centre of the scriptural witness

1 Jesus and Justice

When one of the evangelists told the story of Jesus, the person chosen by God for a special task, he related him to the words (from yet another prophet) in which God affirmed, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles … a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matt 12:18–20, quoting Isaiah 42:1–4).

Jesus himself had made it clear that when his focus was on fulfilling all the Law (Matt 5:17–20), it was “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” that ought to be given priority (Matt 23:23). So when Jesus instructs his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), he is pointing to the centrality of justice in the ways of God. And when he affirms that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), he is placing justice at the centre of his message. (The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice”.)

2 The Justice [Righteousness] of God

The letters of Paul place this justice (“righteousness”) at the heart of the gospel which he proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [justice] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [the just] shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1:16–17).

Indeed, in his excellent analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, identifies this clearly in the title of his book: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale University Press, 1997).

Justice [righteousness] is the very essence of God, given as an act of grace to all who put trust in God. It is through this “righteousness [justice] of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, that “all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26). Paul asserts that it is “one act of righteousness [justice] [which] leads to justification and life for all” so that “grace also might reign through righteousness [justice] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:18–21). Justice is the very essence of God, given to all through Jesus.

3 Justice and Grace

One way of expressing this quality of justice, or righteousness, in the life of faith, is to show grace, or compassion, to those who are in need. Jesus recognised this when affirmed “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in his parable about the Samaritan who went out of his way to assist and care for an injured traveller (Luke 10:25–37).

Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus declares his intention to enact justice by setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He tells his followers that whenever they sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). James, his brother, likewise asserted that to practice true religion was “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).

So acts of kindness give expression to the very heart of who God is, by manifesting God’s justice, or righteousness. “Unless your righteousness [justice] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he declares (Matt 5:20), and so “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness [justice], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10).

4 Advocating for Justice in Scripture

Taking care that justice is done also requires speaking out for those who are silenced, marginalised, oppressed, or persecuted. In Proverbs, the sage advises, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8–9).

Likewise, the Psalmist affirms, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him” Psalm 41:1).

Advocating for justice is thus seen as integral to faith in God.

One of the prophets delivered the word of the Lord: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech 7:9). Another prophet asserted, “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” (Isa 56:1).

Jesus is remembered in the preaching of his followers as The Righteous One—we might also say, The Just One. This is what he is called by Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). The title recalls the centrality of justice in the ministry of Jesus.

And Jesus maintains the importance of advocating for justice in his teachings. We have already noted his teachings in which he advocates that we care for the little ones and those in need (Matt 25) and instructs his followers to work for liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4). He teaches the central significance of love for neighbour (Mark 12:31), which surely entails advocating for justice.

And he tells the parable of the widow calling persistently for justice (Luke 18:1-8), which concludes with the powerful rhetorical question, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7), followed I meant the striking affirmation, “tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8). A commitment to justice requires advocacy for justice.

5 Justice in the Basis of Union

The centrality of justice, so evident in the witness of scripture, is reiterated in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. If we are followers of Jesus, called to walk the way he sets out before us, then as faithful disciples, we are called to walk right into what the Basis of Union envisages as a “new order of righteousness and love” (para 3). The words in that phrase are drawn from the deep wells of tradition, especially in scripture, where both live and righteousness are frequently-occurring words. It is the kingdom of God which is the new order of righteousness (justice), manifested in love.

These words call us to care for one another but also to do what is right. They call us to live a live grounded in justice, in the same terms that Jesus and the prophets before him cried out, seeking justice for everyone—not just for ourselves or those close to us, but for the whole of society.

These words challenge us to live with the same self-giving, fully-emptying love, that we see in the cross at the centre of the story of Jesus. And they lead us to the conclusion that as we live in this way, we will advocate for justice.

6 Advocating for Justice in the Statement to the Nation

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches this resolutely firm commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which declared, “We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.”

That Statement then identified specific forms of injustice: “poverty, racism and discrimination, acquisitiveness and greed, and the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”. It identified a number of rights to be supported: “equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available”.

It also noted some just actions that were to be followed, including “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources”, as well as a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

The Statement spoke out publicly about these matters. It models for future Uniting Church people the importance of advocating for justice.

7 Advocating for Justice in Action

This commitment to advocating for justice has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades. The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in standing in covenant solidarity with First Peoples; in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” The words of the ancient prophet sound clear, still, today. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” has become a compelling guide for people of faith. And as we walk the way of The Just One, we do well to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”.

*****

On justice in scripture, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/. For the Basis of Union, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/basis-of-union. For the Statement to the Nation, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/134-statement-to-the-nation-inaugural-assembly-june-1977. For policy documents and Assembly resolutions on matters of justice, see the many resources collected at https://unitingjustice.org.au

There are further articles about justice and advocacy in the Spring 2021 issue of Viewpoint, the magazine of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, at https://canberra.uca.org.au/media/10701/viewpoint-crp-advocacy-august-2021.pdf