As Easter approaches this year, Australian Christians and Australian churches will retell and reflect on the great gospel events–the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we look back on the gospel story that, more than any other, gives meaning and purpose to all we do, it is important also to look to the present and future and to re-examine our motives and priorities in the light of the central gospel event.
As president of the Baptist Union of Australia, it is a great privilege to lead such a vibrant, creative and growing movement of churches throughout this vast land. Together we are committed to nurturing mission and evangelism, strengthening local congregations and deepening our spiritual life, reaching out to our communities in pastoral care, defending religious liberty and freedom, and responding to human needs through relief and development.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is central to everything we do, and it is good to celebrate Easter as we do. But the Easter story has particular implications for two social groups represented in the events of the first Easter–and who need to hear and respond to what Easter means today.
First, the political leaders of first-century Judea made a crucial error in overlooking injustice and allowed Jesus Christ, a demonstrably innocent person, to be wrongly sentenced and crucified to serve their pragmatic ends.
As the church of Jesus Christ prepares to recall the events of that terrible week, it is important for our federal and state political leaders to reflect on the Easter story and ensure they do not make a similar mistake and “crucify” innocent victims of social and economic injustice. It is incumbent on policy makers to pay careful attention to the needs of the poor and vulnerable in Australian society, who far too easily are misunderstood, overlooked and reduced to mere statistics.
We hear of concerns about government budget cuts, career bonus payment cuts, acute housing mortgage stress, unavailability of adequate dental health for hundreds of thousands of Australians, macular degeneration growing with little support for thousands of Australians losing their vision, and uncertainty on workplace relations.
In particular, the housing, health and education needs of indigenous Australians must be at the forefront of our national and state concerns. The Prime Minister’s recent National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is a welcome and timely development, but the symbolism must be accompanied by practical and innovative policy initiatives and resolute action if the injustices of the past are to be transformed into justice for tomorrow’s generations.
What Australia needs today is ongoing strong leadership that safeguards economic growth, upholds human rights and provides better care for the less well off. Jesus came to help the poor and vulnerable, the hurting and the meek in our society. The death and resurrection of Jesus has implications for our social arrangements as well as our spiritual destiny.
Second, the first Easter was a challenge not only to political leaders but also to religious leaders. As well as Pilate, who literally washed his hands of the political and existential problem of Jesus, so Caiaphas, the High Priest in Jerusalem, conveniently acquiesced and allowed Jesus to be tried and sentenced to death.
Easter 2008 presents an opportunity for Australia’s religious leaders to reflect on their use of power and influence, and examine their motives, in order to ensure that they serve God and not themselves or their traditions or institutions.
Surveys indicate that a majority of Australians believe in an actual resurrection of Jesus, and it is time to reconnect with God. Most people I talk with are open to spirituality. The problem lies with the institutional church.
The message of Easter is not primarily a call to join the institutional church, but to respond to the person of Jesus and explore the forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers. However, religious leaders need to ensure that the church is free of all forms of abuse and theological uncertainty.
I talk to numerous people on my weekly radio program who tell me they can’t connect with the church because of the hurt and rejection they have experienced. Some are not sure what gospel resurrection hope the church proclaims today.
So I encourage all Australians, and especially our political and religious leaders, not to “crucify” Jesus afresh this Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus offers an opportunity to experience and share the love, joy and peace of God.
Ross Clifford is principal of Morling College and president of the Baptist Union of Australia.