Sunday, 6 September 2009

Thin Ice Needs More Than Personal Moral Courage

Bernhard Schlink says that the Holocaust is evidence of the thin ice that human culture rests on, and how easily we can descend into the depths of barbarity. It is tempting to think that Germany 1933 couldn't happen here. However, the way in which Australians were so easily turned against asylum seekers in recent history hardly fills one with confidence. Theologically, a doctrine of Original Sin would also suggest that we are always on thin ice. How do we stop our society falling through?

Schlink says we should learn from the experience of Germany during the Nazi years. His generation (born during or shortly after the war) criticized their parents for not showing individual moral courage. He says he and his colleagues were mistaken in their criticism because individual moral courage in the Nazi years ended up in pointless symbolic acts or extremely small victories of no lasting effect. (He cites the events depicted in Rosenstrasse as an example of the latter.) Personal moral courage is effective when it is practiced within a society with institutions that encourage and do not punish dissent, and where individual social and political views matter. When we allow such institutions (e.g. parliament, courts, churches, unions, political parties, universities) to be undermined and no longer reflect a culture of engaged disagreement the ice will, at some point, break.

It would seem to me that the Anglican Church of Australia has a role to play in this. We are diverse and have rules regulating the manner in which disagreement can be voiced and worked through. I wonder if the suggested solutions to our Communion's disagreements over sexuality are going to reinforce our credentials as the church that tolerates dissent or not? I can't see it myself, and I think that the increasing centralization across the Communion (including Australia) augurs badly for us as an institution that will not just tolerate dissent, but work it through fruitfully. After reading Schlink I see that the stakes are greater than just freedom in the church.

In as far as there was any resistance during the Third Reich and the Holocaust that had an effect beyond being symbolic gestures, its basis was found less in individual morality than in communist or socialist solidarity, Christian faith and ecclesiastic responsibility, and the honour code of officers or of the aristocracy. The lessons of the past pertain not just to individual morality, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to societal and state institutions in which individual morality must be preserved if it is to have the power to resist in the crucial moment. This applies to citizens' engagement within and on behalf of institutions to ensure their proper functioning. (Schlink, Guilt About the Past, p. 33)

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