“All We Need Is Love!”
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
UPJ Movement Rabbi, delivered to the Temple Beth Israel congregation, St Kilda, VIC
I used to think we rabbis were pretty safe as far as our jobs are concerned. It’s true that many of the tasks we perform can be done by others in the congregation, but I felt that our expertise in giving drashot, sermons, keeps us secure. Then Scott Morrison came along! Here’s a politician who really knows how to deliver a sermon. His first major speech to the party faithful after he became PM, given in Albury and reported in the media last week, was labelled by one waggish commentator with a feel for alliteration, “The Sermon on the Murray”. More significantly for this Rosh Hashana morning, what Morrison said comes very close to what I want to talk about in my sermon. I’ll return to that in a moment. But first, let me set the context.
The High Holydays at Temple Beth Israel this year follow a theme. The theme is “Healing: wholeness and holiness”. Healing, the overcoming of sickness, dis-ease, pain or loss, returning (in Jewish terms, making t’shuvah) to a state of well-being and completeness, is one of those ideas that works on many levels. Our youth movement Netzer portrays tikkun, mending our brokenness, through a series of concentric circles, and we can borrow their model of concentric circles in speaking of healing. The innermost circle is personal or inner healing. Then there’s healing at the level of family, the basic group unit. Next, there’s community healing, then the healing of society, next the level of the nation, and finally global healing. Each larger circle depends on us taking action in the circle within. Ultimately, of course, we must begin at the personal or inner circle, that is, with ourselves.
I want to speak this morning about national healing. The political blood-lettings and acrimonious manoeuvrings of the last couple of weeks have caused immense hurt across our nation and require a process of healing to mend the rifts, to repair the breeches in the national fabric. These recent events, though, are indicative of a much deeper illness that undermines and corrupts our national health. To deal with this illness, ultimately we have to look, each of us, within ourselves. Without beginning with ourselves, we can’t hope to change anything in the wider community. The Yamim Nora’im, our ten days of t’shuvah, of “returning”, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, give us an opportunity to do this. My words today are only a start.
National healing: making our nation whole again. That’s what the Prime Minister set out to do in his “Sermon on the Murray”. Drawing on his evangelical Christian background (he’s a member of the Pentecostal Church), Scott Morrison used words appropriate to his religious vision of healing. He spoke of love. He said, to love Australia, we have to love Australians. That was the essence of his message. And I’d like to tell you this morning that he is right. To quote John Lennon, All we need is love! Love is the only way to overcome the cancer that is eating away at our nation. And by that, the PM doesn’t mean loving an abstract version of Australia, our so-called Australian values, mateship and all that. The love that heals, the only love that heals, is love for the person who’s sitting next to me right now, or on the other end of the telephone, or in front of me in the queue, or across the desk. That love – love for another flesh and blood human being, the one I’m engaged with right now – that is the only love that heals.
That’s what the PM meant, using his Christian terminology. Now I’ll try to translate that into “Jewish” (as my mother would say). Love as we’re using the word here is not about a feeling or a passion, it’s not a gushing emotion. Rather, it’s an action or a response, a recognition that the person I’m dealing with, speaking to, communicating with, is a human being, like me. We’re both created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. He or she deserves the same dignity and respect that I would have for myself. It’s my duty to act towards him or her with chesed, with loving concern and kindness. Even that person who phones me uninvited to sell me a new energy plan or solar panels. It’s my duty to treat that person with respect, even as I reject their once-in-a-lifetime offer. How much more so those people who come to me asking for help, for care and for chesed.
If we want to heal the deep wounds in our nation, we need to examine how we have treated one another in the political sphere and then restore dignity to our political opponents in cases in which we’ve used them for our own gain or treated them as “objects”, as Martin Buber put it. Though politics is about the use of power, power doesn’t have to be used in a manipulative or utilitarian manner. It can be used to promote the well-being of others, in other words, to bring healing to those who are in suffering, in the words of the prophets “to support the needy and raise up those who have fallen”, rather than to promote self-seeking ends.
Last year I was privileged to lead two tours along the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China. The tours included visits to Kashgar, an ancient caravanserai and market centre located in the district of Western China which is populated by the Uighur people. The Uighurs are Muslims. They are of a different ethnic character to the Eastern Han Chinese who now govern them. The Han Chinese do not trust the Uighur people. It would be fair, I think, to say that they fear them. They fear the Uighurs because the Uighur are a people who no longer have a land, and some of them are nationalists. As a result, the Chinese rulers have set up detention camps to re-educate the Uighurs in Chinese values. This is similar to what the Chinese have done in Tibet; it is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, which itself was based on Stalinist Russia in the 1950s. A recent article claimed that, according to UN reports, there are a million Uighurs incarcerated in these re-education facilities.
The Uighur guides we had during our visits to Kashgar were interesting examples of this process at work. On the first visit, the guide was open about the dangers that faced him. He feared re-education because he worked with foreign visitors, and he felt the authorities would fear the foreign influences on him. He was ripe for re-education. The second guide simply evaded all our questions about life for the Uighurs in China. He gave us stock answers that sounded like they came out of an official manual. His re-education had been complete, I guess. Everywhere around us in Kashgar, we felt the oppressive presence of the Chinese military and police. Photos of anything or any people remotely official-looking were forbidden. Streets were closed at random for military business. Shopkeepers had to serve in the local militia and practice riot-control tactics with large batons in public.
This was social harmony created through fear, not love. There was no respect for the Uighurs or their customs, only fear that they might try to overthrow the Han Chinese government by acts of terrorism. No doubt there have been terrorist acts. But the result is that the entire ethnic group is seen as the enemy, in need of re-education in Han Chinese values, but clearly they are never trusted, and so they are never treated in a dignified, non-oppressive manner.
This is, of course, an extreme example. It is not the situation in Australia, and God willing it will never be so here. But how we treat others, with respect or with disregard and contempt, is a universal issue.
Equally, we are responsible for how we allow others, those who wield political power, to treat the defenceless in our name. The Nobel Prize winning peace activist Elie Wiesel once wisely observed in relation to the Holocaust that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. For us Jews, the bystander who watched and did nothing played the most dangerous role in Nazi Germany. The bystander enabled the worst things to happen by not speaking out against them. One of the great ethical lessons of the Shoah is that the bystander is not morally neutral. The one who stands by and allows evil to happen is as ethically responsible for the final result as the one who perpetrates evil in the first place.
So, the Prime Minister is right. To avoid becoming the kind of nation represented by the way that the ethnic Chinese treat the Uighur people, to heal our political rifts without resorting to real or metaphorical detention and re-education centres, we must learn how to love one another, to respect each other even in the midst of our political and ideological differences. But that means speaking out when we see that there is a failure to act with respect and humanity towards other human beings. That applies not only to those who are similar to ourselves; it also applies to those who appear different from us. Indeed, it is most urgent when we are interacting with those who are different, because they are most easily alienated from us and turned into the enemy.
Through Temple Beth Israel’s “Project Dignity”, inaugurated from this very bimah three High Holydays past, Sue and I have come to know two young men who arrived in Australia about 6-7 years ago seeking asylum. They arrived by leaky boats. As a result, they are in effect and in reality stateless people. One, who was an unaccompanied minor of 15 when he arrived, is a Hazara. He fled the Taliban in Afghanistan via Pakistan before coming to this country. The other is a Kurd from Iran. There are large, persecuted Kurdish minorities in Iran, Syria and Turkey; they are a people without a land. Both of these young men are self-taught in English, they are keen to gain an education, they are sporty and they do volunteer work within the community. Neither is given any support or, indeed, hope by the officialdom in Australia. If they enter higher education any financial support they might have been receiving from government agencies to live on is withdrawn, so they are totally dependent on charitable organisations and whatever they can earn while doing their studies, usually through menial work. They are warm, sociable men, generous and gracious, with delightful personalities and a keen desire to improve their lives and give back to this society, though, quite honestly, this society has given them shockingly little encouragement.
Before we met and befriended these two men who have sought asylum by the “wrong route”, “asylum seekers” was a distant category to us. We read about their travails but we saw them as aliens who were perhaps to be pitied, but not loved. These two young men have given the label “asylum seeker” a human face. We now know what it means to love them, that is, to show them respect and to treat them with dignity. They are human beings like us. Though they have suffered in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, we are still bound to them by befriending them. We are blessed to realise that we can be a part of their healing. God willing they’ll be Australians one day – someday - if only our nation can see its way beyond fear to love. Isn’t this what the PM’s Sermon on the Murray was all about? Love them, show them dignity, because they are human beings, too, like us. Then, as Australians, they will make Australia a nation we can all be proud of, and its wounds will - finally - be healed.
G’mar chatima tova.