When recently commenting on boat arrivals in Australia, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott, said "I don't think it's a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door".
I do not wish to dwell on whether 'Christian' behaviour should be expected of people arriving from predominantly Muslim regions such as the Middle East, Indonesia or Malaysia. Rather, my focus is on Abbott's claim about boat arrivals not being a Christian act according to his standards.
It would seem from Abbott's statement that anything short of a formal request for refugee status by an asylum seeker via official channels (no matter how desperate, weak or young they might be) cannot be a Christian act. There is even a whiff of an allegation of criminality in Abbott's claim about boat people using a back door: trustworthy people usually have a front door key.
However, the most striking assertion by Mr Abbott is that the peoples' actions are not, according to him, 'Christian' ones. As a Catholic who trained as a priest, Abbott would appear to be well placed to comment on 'acceptable' Christian traits. Abbott perhaps even speaks with authority on Christianity and Catholicism.
Because Abbott has opined about Christian behaviour, I put forward three simple 'Christian' attributes and consider how Abbott measures up to them. This is a more difficult task than it might seem. There is not necessarily consensus about the key qualities of a Christian, nor even about the traits of a person who espouses Catholic values.
For example, many Catholics may regard belief in a resurrected Jesus Christ and his anticipated second coming, as minimum 'Christian' qualities. The Roman Catholic Church may expect 'the Christian' to live a life of kindness, engage in regular prayer, do 'good works'; and help the weak, elderly or vulnerable. Other Catholics may value these qualities and may perhaps encourage prayer to Mary or other Saints. Other Christian denominations may focus on different attributes – evangelical Protestants, for example, may highlight the importance of spreading the Word of God and emphasise the role of the forgiven Christian in winning the secular community to Jesus under the Holy Spirit's influence. Some Christians may eschew the concept of salvation by good works and conceivably may even criticise Mary-worship as idolatrous. Other Christian groups may hold different views, believing the Christian should do good things, go to church, protect the environment, tithe, live in peace, etc.
There is, in short, room for healthy differences amongst Christian on what makes a person 'Christian'. Some may even argue that what I describe below as 'Christian' qualities are basic traits that we should expect of any person in political life (and it may be hard to argue against that view). However, I do not claim that we should expect the below qualities in our politicians (even though it might be nice to have these qualities in good measure in our political representatives). Rather, my point is that Abbott has claimed that a particular action – namely, arrival by boat – is not Christian behaviour and yet, by implication, that he meets the basic standards of a Christian in his own life.
A first quality of a Christian is, I suggest, their truthfulness. Such, however, is Abbott's admitted looseness with the truth that his own caveat for believability is that his statement must be written. To quote Abbott: "... sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark"; hence, only "carefully prepared scripted remarks" are "gospel truth". Put differently, off the cuff statements or those he says during debate are not necessarily true. It is no surprise that Abbott increasingly offers his 'real' commitments in blood (conjuring images of the sacrament).
Yet, Jesus was honest. Even the Pharisees recognised Jesus' integrity in this regard. If Jesus was not a man of his word, then the New Testament would be entirely worthless and the resurrection story could be easily dismissed (more so perhaps than it can be already) as worse than fiction - not only mythology but simply based on lies. Imagine how differently churches might view Christ's stories if Jesus said his teachings should only be believed if he wrote them himself!
A second Christian trait is, I propose, compassion. Here, Mr Abbott appears to fall short in relation to boat people. For example, his position on boat arrivals from Indonesia is that, if these people put themselves voluntarily into the Indonesian region, then that is the appropriate place for them to be returned. It is a simple proposition.
Yet, this stance has no regard to the adequacy of Indonesian domestic conditions, nor why people leave Indonesia by boat in the first place; nor what the peoples' circumstances were before their arrival in that country. Abbott has even compared Indonesian boats "disgorging" their passengers on Australian shores with Australians importing illegal drugs into Bali. On this comparison, those who arrive by boat in Australia are mere human cargo, vomited onto Australian shores and, like drug exports and imports, are dangerous if they mix with other substances.
A third Christian quality, I suggest, is flexibility, a willingness to compromise. Abbott, however, is the leader who will not negotiate – the head as Anthony Albanese calls it, of the Noalition. Rejecting mere "talk" on boat people, Abbot claims that effective policies, and not political negotiation, are needed. What is more, Australian voters, he claims, want to 'stop the boats', and not just see more political compromises.
These are the words of a man of unshakable principle – a man who will not budge from his core values. To support his position on boat arrivals, Abbott has observed that "Jesus didn't say yes to everyone". Christ, however, was not inflexible about his mission. This may seem an unusual claim to make about Jesus, whom many Christians believe did not ever deviate from doing God's will. Yet, Jesus showed he was willing to compromise. Consider this: on any reasonable interpretation of the gospel stories, against his first preference, Jesus was willing to die so others might be saved. Abbott's unwillingness to negotiate and to stand firm 'on principle' may reflect great determination, but it is not necessarily the trait of a Christian.