Australia is an absolutely beautiful country, and it wasn’t until I got back there (after more than a decade) that I realized how much I missed it. And being there again, about as far away from the United States as you can get, gave me new perspective on the perilous state of my own country.
I went “down under” again because a young woman that I had baptized as a teenager was getting married, and she had called to ask if I would officiate at her wedding ceremony. The request was wonderfully oblivious of my schedule and was borne of the deep relationship I have had with her and her family, who were part of Sojourners before returning to their native Australia. So I said yes, took the whole family, made it into a terrific spring break for my boys, with kangaroos and koalas, and agreed to launch the Australian version of my book God’s Politics at the same time.
What a wonderful 12 days—including a 25-hour journey each way with a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old! But wild kangaroos showing up at dusk every night of Easter weekend, outside our friend’s home in the country, made it worth the trip—along with all the reconnections made to the island continent.
Over the years, I’ve been to Australia many times, and the connections run deep. I remembered my very first visits, invited by a strong network of Christian communities (with wonderful names, such as the “House of the Gentle Bunyip”) who were vitally linking religious conviction with concrete action in the world on behalf of the poor and oppressed. I met powerful teachers such as Athol Gill, who insisted there was no credible belief in Jesus without following him in “radical discipleship.” Later I did a national speaking tour around the country, which began with an event hosted by some of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal leaders who gave me “permission” to speak in their country and presented me with an Aboriginal flag, a ceremony I found very moving.
AFTER A LOVELY wedding (how do they grow up so fast?), we headed for a Melbourne Town Hall event on Palm Sunday and then, two days later, to the Great Hall at the University of Sydney, with breakfasts and lunches with church and political leaders in between, book signings and more speaking, all sandwiched among a myriad of media interviews.
As was the case on my British book tour last year, both the political and religious media were quite interested in an American Christian that didn’t think God was an American or a right-wing Republican who cares more about anti-gay marriage amendments than about the 30,000 children under 5 in our world who die each day due to hunger and disease. As in both the U.K. and the U.S., we were able to bring together church leaders from all across the political spectrum—from conservative evangelical and pentecostal to mainline denominations—to explore how they might find unity on the urgent matters of poverty, the environment, and global violence. Like in the U.S., political leaders from both major parties also wanted to meet and explore a moral vision of politics. Also like in the U.S., they are increasingly concerned about the rise of a Religious Right in Australian politics. And like everywhere, young people filled the venues, looking for an agenda worthy of their gifts, energy, time, and lives.
AFTER WHAT’S happened around God’s Politics elsewhere, I wasn’t surprised by the reception in Australia, and again I was very encouraged. What most struck me were the attitudes of Australians toward the United States—and how much that has changed since I last was there. Don’t get me wrong, Australians generally like Americans and that hasn’t changed. But the level of alienation, anger, and disbelief so many people now feel toward American policies was extraordinary. George Bush’s war in Iraq generates great emotional opposition from ordinary Australians, despite Prime Minister John Howard’s characteristic acquiescence to U.S. war policy. They can’t understand how the deception and manipulation that led to war were allowed to stand. They can’t comprehend how President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continue despite the disaster of Iraq. They can’t stomach Americans involved in torture, and not holding those in authority responsible for it. And they are increasingly opposed to the presence of Australian troops in Iraq—a recent poll in the country found 59 percent of Australians opposed, the highest to date. The week I returned to the U.S., Australia suffered its first casualty in the war, which will certainly drive the opposition even higher.
They think America is losing its sanity and its soul with its “war on terrorism.” And how can this administration ignore the consensus of the world on global warming, they wonder? And how can the U.S. now threaten to attack Iran, perhaps even with nuclear weapons? What can the U.S. officials be thinking? I was continually asked. On one of the leading evening news shows, I was asked what I thought of these two “fundamentalists” (Bush and Iran’s President Ahmadinejad) squaring off, with nuclear weapons in the balance. I replied that it should be a very frightening prospect for all of the world’s people.
The profound disaffection with their old American friend wasn’t limited to the left wing of Australia. My tour was sponsored by World Vision Australia, and I was joined the whole way by its director, Tim Costello—a clear and public voice of prophetic conscience in his own nation. The way an imperial and increasingly messianic American foreign policy has gotten associated with Christian faith around the world is almost incomprehensible—and terribly embarrassing to the mainstream Australian Christians with whom I spoke.
Many Australians are deeply disillusioned with the policies and priorities of the Bush administration. They think something has gone terribly wrong in America. Being with them for Easter, on the other side of the world, made me realize again how much they are right. And I’m sure my Australian friends would have shuddered, once more, when George Bush reminded us last week that he is the “decider” in America and, by implication, in the world. Perhaps it’s time for Americans to confront the question of how those who have taken our nation down this disastrous path can be removed from power.
It’s hard to keep being reminded of how crazy and dangerous so many people around the world think our country has become.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.