Sixty years on-from the Cuban missile crisis to a crisis of faith
In one of the final scenes of the movie, The Queen, her late majesty is seen encouraging Tony Blair to conduct their weekly audience whilst strolling around the palace grounds, saying to her First Minister, “ I always think better after I have been for a walk.”
Last Sunday, perhaps subconsciously acting on the late Queen’s advice, I took advantage of tepid Melbourne sunshine and headed out, a simple pleasure denied to Sydneysiders being saturated by ‘La Nina’ induced rains. What began as a practical expedition-buying vital ingredients for Christmas puddings and returning a set of keys- evolved into a series of events that led to much thinking.
As I entered our building’s main corridor, there was a delightful aroma of incense that evoked memories of Indian spice markets and temples. It was no coincidence. Last Sunday Indian Muslims observed the festival of Eid-e-Milad-Un-Nabi, celebrating the birth of their prophet.
The presence of such distinct aromas, sandalwood blended with cinnamon, was a reminder that starting this week the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, will be celebrated. For Hindus, Diwali, signifies the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.
Walking through Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens, I passed the city’s Memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
Sixty years ago, President Kennedy was negotiating with the Soviet Union as the Cuban Missile crisis unfolded. For a perilous few days in October 1962, it seemed that the world was at risk of losing its light of life entirely as the prospect of a nuclear Armageddon loomed.
Mercifully, an outbreak of conflict was avoided. President Kennedy’s reluctance to pursue open conflict is not unconnected to my enjoyment of a carefree Sunday nearly 60 years later.
Sundays were very different in October 1962 in Christian countries. Most shops were closed. Sport was not played. Large numbers of people attended Church services. This social order remained until relatively recently, although Paris still does not allow Sunday trading.
Contemporary Sundays are now secular spectacles in most Christian countries. Shopping centres heave with their largest crowds of the week. People attend cinemas and sporting events in their droves. Any previous Rechabite tendencies about the Christian Sabbath are not noticed as people drink and dine from breakfast through to brunch and dinner.
The established Christian churches struggle to attract sizeable congregations on their Sabbath. The secular world is increasingly ascendant. On my walk I observed a Biblical multitude of people heading to the second day of a weekend’s ‘Gaming Convention.’ Many a participant dressed in homage to their favourite gaming character. Not much penitence or contrition on display!
When John F. Kennedy sought election as America’s President in 1960, he gave a televised address urging American people not to vote against him because of his Roman Catholicism.
As a young Senator John Kennedy had lived through America’s McCarthyism era of the Cold War in the mid-1950s when the obsessed and irrational Senator Joseph McCarthy maligned and destroyed the reputation of anyone associated with alleged Communists. McCarthy named and shamed and destroyed lives. Those accused of communist activity were instantly guilty by association. Political intolerance swept through the nation.
Recent events in Melbourne suggest that there is an almost McCarthyist distaste of Christianity itself. Today, President Kennedy would not have to be worried about the sectarianism of his age, but the very fact of being Christian per se.
Australia’s recent Census indicated that only 44% of the population described themselves as “of faith”, compared to over 60% five years earlier. The diminished role of Christianity in our society was also confirmed on my walk. Less than a kilometre from the overflow crowds at the gaming convention, I passed a sign outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, the spiritual home of Melbourne’s Anglicans advertising that that evening’s Evensong service would be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby. Thirty, twenty, even perhaps ten years ago the presence of the Anglican Church’s most senior cleric in Melbourne would have been a newsworthy event. The Archbishop’s visit barely generated a ripple in the mainstream media.
Maybe the media was taking pause from the firestorm about Christian faith that had occurred earlier in the week.
Andrew Thorburn, the former CEO of one of Australia’s largest banks, was forced to resign from his position as the CEO of the Essendon football club. For overseas readers, this position is the equivalent of running a major European soccer club or an American baseball or NFL team. Thorburn had held the position for barely a day.
What was the reason for his ignominious departure? It was revealed that he is a practising member of a Christian Church, whose website contained a sermon from 2013 likening abortions to concentration camps and upholding the sanctity of marriage as being between a man and a woman only. Mr. Thorburn did not deliver the sermon. Nor did he attend the service where it was delivered. The pastor who delivered the sermon has apologised for his excessive language.
When I last checked, Mr. Thorburn’s church’s attitudes on the sanctity of life and Christian marriage are no different to those of the Pope or millions of practising Christians; however, before he had a chance to defend his personal faith he was gone.
Where does one start with the distress that such a swift rush to judgement causes? First, one is sadly not surprised. In recent weeks two senior AFL coaches have been forced to step aside over allegations of racist behaviour that they had no chance to answer before they were disclosed. There are some sins that are, apparently, irredeemable. To be alleged to be a racist or a practising Christian now invokes at best suspicion and, at worst, condemnation. Virtue seeking has demolished notions of natural justice: the accusation is the thing. Forget a fair hearing or a chance to know the charges levelled against you.
What is most galling is that the extremism of the sermon was automatically assumed to be the common language of all members of Mr. Thorburn’s church. Remember the justifiable outrage when conservative Senator Pauline Hanson suggested that all Muslims supported Sharia law? Well, no such moral qualms here. Off with Thorburn’s head! How could such a ‘hateful’ man promote desired values of inclusivity and diversity?
Many Australians have protested against the Iranian government for its suspicious role in the death of a woman arrested by the nation’s morality police for wearing her hijab incorrectly. Yet Australians seem to be comfortable with the professional execution of a man for practising his faith. When intolerance and lack of freedom take the life of an Islamic woman, the world is rightly appalled. When intolerance and lack of freedom of expression destroy a Christian’s reputation, that is the price that must be paid for a ‘tolerant’ modern society.
This new secular modern faith seems to be characterised by a righteousness that does not allow either forgiveness or redemption. How ironic it is that the Christian faith has these concepts at its core.
Now King Charles III has promised us a modern multi-faith coronation. It seems that the Crown rests uneasily on the head of the Church of England. He should be more worried by something a friend told me this week: he had heard someone say that the new King was to be “coronated”!
When the injustices mount, one seeks relief from absurdity. Walking home I was handed a pamphlet from a fortune teller who promised to reveal inner secrets that not even doctors can see! Some people believe that mystics are mightier than x-ray machines.
How fortunate we are that President Kennedy and their advisers focussed on rational options rather than soothsayers sixty years ago. Rasputin and his ilk would not have been welcome members of Ex-Com!
However, free from any responsibilities may I end by making a series of predictions about politics and tennis, one of which concerns their interaction:
1. Rafael Nadal, who recently became a father for the first time, will retire from tennis at next year’s French Open. If the Queen expired after swearing in her 15th Prime Minister, Nadal may seek to do the same after attempting to win a 15th crown at Roland Garros;
2. Novak Djokovic who has just won his 90th ATP title- 2 behind Nadal and 13 behind Federer, will win the forthcoming Paris Masters and then his sixth ATP Finals title;
3. In next year’s Budget, Anthony Albanese will plead “circumstances not of his own making” to renege on implementing the Coalition government’s three-year package of tax cuts; and
4. Speaking of reneging on three-year commitments, the Australian government will waive the three-year visa ban applied to Novak Djokovic after this year’s Australian Open and the unvaccinated Djokovic will have a chance to equal Nadal’s total of 22 Grand Slam titles by winning a 10th Australian Open in January.
President Kennedy’s inaugural address is best remembered for his refrain to “…ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” His efforts in securing the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis were arguably his finest contribution to his country and the world.
Delivering the Commencement Address at the American University in Washington DC on June 10,1963, his words were clearly influenced by the experience of the Cuban crisis.
Most remembered is Kennedy’s plea:
“So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”
Events of the last week cannot be walked past. Our democracy has long recognised the importance of separating Church and State. Too many seem to be obsessed with diminishing the Church and replacing it with an intolerant brand of Statism that is overturning cardinal principles of justice and decency.
Those that seek to exorcise from public life those they disagree with would be wise to remember what true diversity means: the acceptance of a range of views that promotes a rational and respectful democracy.
There is nothing more distasteful than civilised discourse being destroyed by those who consider themselves more civilised than everyone else.
Let’s end on a positive note even though I write about mortality, albeit of a sporting form. Everyone from within and outside the tennis world must wish Roger Federer the retirement he deserves!