At Easter, death becomes the prevailing and sacred image, but it is also the greatest challenge to humanity. As crowds bay for his blood, Jesus dies. The subsequent call to follow Jesus is often accompanied by a challenge to take up our own cross, but how does a 21st century citizen respond to such a call? And why should we? For what or for whom would you lay down your life? For friends, for children, or for country?
In the film Amen by Costa-Gavras, a young German scientist Kurt Gerstein realises that he has developed a chemical that will be used to kill humans, not animals as he was initially led to believe. With the help of a young Jesuit priest Riccardo Fontana, a fictitious character, Kurt raises the plight of Jews in concentration camps with Pope Pius XII.
At one point in the film, the fictitious Jesuit priest, who represents many priests confronted by the horror of the holocaust, suggests to his colleagues that Catholics should simply convert to Judaism en masse. For in the face of such a mass protest, the Nazis could not possibly continue on their deadly course. In his book “How not to speak of God”, Pete Rollins suggests that this story represents a greater challenge than dying on account of one's beliefs: would we kill our beliefs for the sake of them?
Sadly, racial and religious persecution did not die with the defeat of the Nazis. There are countless examples of mindless hatred across the world, and currently the most depressing is no doubt the situation in Darfur and neighbouring Chad. Amnesty International reports that the perpetrators are a loose coalition, based on common ethnicity, of Sudanese government-backed militia and Chadian allies.
Since 2003, the militias have concentrated on killing men between the ages of 20 and 50, and sexual violence against women. The result is the genocide of more than 85,000 civilians, with more than two million internally displaced persons in Darfur and 218,000 displaced Darfuris who live in wretched conditions in camps in eastern Chad.
Rather than acting to stem this tragedy, the violence has spread since 2005 to Chad, where more than 90,000 people were forcefully displaced, and about 1,000 were killed by Sudanese Janjawid militias and local allies.
At the heart of the genocide is a civil war which has been waged almost continuously since independence in 1956. It can be described (PDF 304KB) as a dispute between the Arab Muslim north and the Animist and Christian south, however, Alan Phillips of Minority Rights Group International in 1995 described the conflict as a “multi-ethnic ... struggle over access to land or political power”.
For most of us, the contrast could not be starker. As Australians spent their Easter holiday weekend relaxing, Easter spells no such relief for some on the other side of the world. Perhaps this contrast is the challenge.
Or perhaps we need to delve further into the rationale that motivates humans to act so unjustly and unjustifiably towards fellow human beings throughout history. Is religion the motivation for racial hatred, or is it a quest for assimilation? Maybe it stems from the lust for financial and political power?
Whatever the motivation, it is worth considering the similarities between the extremes of racial hatred and violence and the insidious and frequently disguised prejudices that exist in mainstream society. Whether it was the aftermath of the September 11 attacks or in Hanson-ism in the late 1990's, long hidden fears were allowed to bubble to the surface in Australia.
Recently, in the much-publicised case of a regional refugee settlement in Tamworth, councillors and residents expressed concerns about the influx of Sudanese refugees, even though it involved only five families. Concerns raised were linked to the treatment of women, and the perceived criminality of 12 refugee families already living in Tamworth. Thankfully, the settlement of refugees, initially blocked by the council, went ahead after the council reversed their decision.
The undercurrents of ethnic and religious prejudice run much thicker than the Murray Darling in Australia. Just scroll the newspapers for positive stories on Muslims and you'll find countless examples of fear-mongering, and pandering to prejudice. Prime Minister John Howard has hardly helped, on several occasions demanding that Muslims integrate, singling out a small subsection of Muslims who, in his eyes, have resisted integration.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 281,578 respondents ticked the box marked Islam at the 2001 census, about 1.5 per cent of Australia's population. No doubt countless more may have ticked a box marked Islamaphobic if such a box existed. Easter provides time and space for reflection.
At the cross, crowds called for Jesus' death. Others silently watched on. Moral reflection has no natural place in a mob. The challenge is always for individuals to act against their nature and to take a stand; to lay down something precious in order to defend it. Perhaps this is the real and ongoing citizenship test, multiple choice of course.