Morrison’s Christian empathy must go beyond simple prayer – it also requires action


Over the past week Australians have heard Scott Morrison make several explicit references to his faith. Given that Morrison has placed his faith at the center of his public persona, it’s worth trying to understand how he views his faith and how it might intersect with his work as prime minister.

For me, Morrison’s recent comments on faith and prayer reveal a pattern of human passivity, dependence on divine intervention, and potential self-denial of power.

For example, in his 60 Minutes interview, Morrison’s response to a question about his empathy was:

I worn out the rug on the side of my bed […] on my knees, praying and praying […] pray for those who are losing loved ones, pray for those who were unable to attend the family funeral, pray for those who are exhausted […]

In fairness to Morrison, it would be strange if a person of any faith did not include prayer in their expression of concern for those who are suffering or struggling. Such an approach has a long tradition. But we might expect more than just a prayer from a devout Christian who also happens to be the Prime Minister.

In this response, he seems to prioritize prayer over action, which is amazing considering how much power he wields due to his position. In the Christian tradition, prayer informs and even motivates action; it does not replace it. Such a response is also, of course, a way of signaling his piety to some voters.

This is not an isolated example. Take, for example, his address to the National Conference of Australian Christian Churches in 2021, where he told the crowd:

I can’t fix the world, I can’t save the world, but we both believe in someone who can.

That someone, of course, is God.

On the one hand, it shows admirable humility to recognize that even the Prime Minister cannot “fix the world”. But by alluding to “someone who can,” Morrison seems to give his agency and responsibility to God. Let God act.

More recently, in a speech commemorating 14 years since the Rudd government’s “sorry” to Indigenous peoples, Morrison emphasized forgiveness, which sparked fury.

Morrison, emphasizing ‘forgiveness’ in a speech commemorating apologies to the Stolen Generations, sparked furor this week.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Morrison explicitly stated that forgiveness was an individual matter and not a “corporate” matter, expressing hope for the kind of healing that came from forgiveness. His desire to move from apologies to individual forgiveness is entirely consistent with his assertive spirituality which emphasizes individual and personal faith.

But it’s also theologically thin. Trawloolway man and theologian Garry Deverell was quick to point out that the Prime Minister had missed a step. In the Christian tradition, no excuse can insist on forgiveness, and seeking forgiveness for the wrong done requires repentance, acts of restitution, and attempts to right the injustice. The spiritual cannot be separated from the physical, tangible, social and political dimensions of life.

While acknowledging, rightly, that forgiveness is difficult and cannot be earned, Morrison had put the onus on those hurt by systemic justice to do the work of forgiveness, rather than on those with the power to do so. restitution work.

Read more: Christians in Australia are not persecuted and it is insulting to claim they are

Prayer and action go hand in hand

There’s a classic story making the rounds in Christian circles of a guy who gets trapped when his town is flooded. In a desperate attempt to avoid the rising waters, he climbs onto his roof and prays to God to save him.

Soon, a rescue team in a boat comes by and invites him into their boat, but he refuses. “God will save me,” he said.

Later, a helicopter passes and a man descends on a rope. The rescue team offers him a way out of the roof, but again he refuses. “God will save me.”

Eventually the man dies and goes to heaven, but he is confused. “Why didn’t you save me my God?” he asks. “I have been a faithful Christian all my life.”

And God replies, “How come I didn’t save you? I sent a boat and a helicopter. You refused them both.

Such parabolic stories demonstrate a Christian theological belief that God works through and with human activity, not in spite of it. It emphasizes the need to integrate belief, prayer and action.

Theology – the way we think and talk about God – matters precisely because of its implications for human activity. I have no reason to doubt that when Morrison talks about his faith he is sincere, and when he expresses his concern for people primarily through prayer, he behaves in the normal way for his religious community. Yet this kind of passivity and trust in divine intervention is not the only or even the most complete expression of Christian faith.

Morrison’s faith is undoubtedly sincere. But the work of God requires action as well as prayer.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Faith and Power Should Integrate, Not Separate

The danger of emphasizing personal prayer as the primary expression of Christian care is that social responsibility may be abdicated. Praying and relying on God can be an escape, especially for those in power. It can be a way to ignore systemic injustice by reducing faith to something personal and private.

As Brittany Higgins so eloquently put it in her recent speech to the National Press Club: “I didn’t want his sympathy as a father, I wanted him to use his power as prime minister.”

Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer an alternative expression of the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer lived and wrote during the rise of Nazism in early 20th century Germany. In his well-known book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about “cheap grace,” which is the kind of faith that wants forgiveness without actual repentance, and justice or peace without personal cost. Cheap grace wants inner spiritual resolution without costly outer labor.

For Bonhoeffer, this outside work included vocal criticism of the Nazi regime and Christians who were silent bystanders. Bonhoeffer saw that the way of Jesus was one that required practical help for victims of injustice and, if necessary, resistance to government. Arrested for conspiring to save Jews, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned before being executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945.

Not all Christians need to become martyrs, but as Garry Deverell writes:

The Christian is called not to separate but to integrate his faith and his public presence, his work or his charge.

This broader view of faith is found in Tim Costello’s call for the Prime Minister to act on his faith on climate change, or in urging church leaders to take more compassionate action for refugees based on Christian values. After all, Jesus teaches that whatever we do for the least of us (defined as those who are hungry, poor or imprisoned), we do for Jesus.

Morrison is not the first prime minister to be a person of deep faith, nor will he be the last. That’s not the problem. All politicians are informed by their value systems and beliefs, regardless of the religious or non-religious traditions that shape them.

Nor am I criticizing Morrison for speaking out about his faith. However, I am critical of the highly individualistic and spiritualized version of faith that Morrison espouses, which allows him to shy away from personal responsibility and action when it suits him.

There are millions of faithful Christians in this country who also wear the mat in prayer each week. The difference is that they don’t hold the highest office in the land, nor do they have Morrison’s power to enact change.

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