Number 01/2007
Getting Our Relationships Right
08 February 2007

The current widespread ideology of individualism endangers our future because it doesn't take into account the relationships which undergird our survival, writes Bishop George Browning

“The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” - Isaiah 32:17

A description of 'righteousness' is right relationship: right relationship between the community and the individual; between people of different nations; and right relationship with God.

Today relationships are global, and the failure of relationships in the 21st Century will bring disaster for the whole of human kind. This particular virtue is not optional. We cannot and must not fail in our relationships with one another. And the responsibility for right relationships always rests more with the stronger than the weaker; more with the wealthy than the poor; more with the powerful than the powerless. In Australia we are powerful and wealthy. We cannot and must not neglect our responsibility in this area.

I am known as a critic of various government policies and actions. But my greatest argument is with the ideology of individualism that lies behind them. Individualism is the enemy of righteousness, because individualism does not take into account the relationships which undergird the wellbeing of all human kind.

Individualism is seen in economic policy. It is also seen, tragically, in policy with the aboriginal people. It is because of the view that an individual can apologise only for what an individual has done that we have neglected one of our great responsibilities to the indigenous people of Australia. In actual fact, we are inheritors of both the good and the bad of our past. The effect of a corporate sense of responsibility for what has gone before, and the release that comes through apology, has escaped many of the powerful leadership of our time – to the great detriment of our country.

There is a huge responsibility to deal with the pain of the past in order that it can be sufficiently remembered so that it can be safely forgotten. Whether it’s in the Middle East, or the Balkans, or Northern Ireland, or with the Indigenous People of Australia: if pain is not dealt with appropriately, it is forever remembered. And the remembering of it continues the violence and the perpetration of that violence from generation to generation to generation.

I believe that the environment is the great social issue of our time – and that time is running out. We are actually at a point where we have to decide whether we want our children and our grandchildren to have a future or not. Every day I have a mantra that I ask myself: 'what will I do today that my grandchildren will thank me for, or curse me for, in 50 years time.' This issue is important to me because:

It is one of the issues that unites all people of faith as our core business. We believe that all human life and every living thing is sacred to God the creator. We have no right whatsoever to a standard of living that diminishes what we have received.
Like most other problems, environmental degradation affects the poor the most and we will not 'make poverty history' unless we deal with the environment issue as well.
This issue affects future generations, and as a person of faith I believe in intergenerational morality.

As individuals and communities we should take seriously our responsibilities in relationship to others, to the poor and to future generations, and we should put pressure on our governments to act responsibly. Last December I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition saying I did not believe it would be morally right for anyone to vote for a party that did not have a credible climate change policy.

I haven’t mentioned anything to do with personal morality – euthanasia, homosexuality – and in Australia at the present time you would have every reason to think that these were the main issues that relate to righteousness. It is strange that I have to make the point that matters of public morality, justice or ethics are core to righteousness. A good student of the Bible would understand that these public issues are as much to do with righteousness as personal morality.

I want to conclude by coming back to righteousness. One of the great failures of righteousness is the case of David Hicks. The fact that we can abandon ordinary human rights for a cause puts into question the rightness of the cause itself. We in Australia are in a debate about values. We’ve named 'a fair go' one of the main Australian values – but when you think of David Hicks you wonder whether it actually is an Australian value. And yet it is a value which is held by all peoples universally.

Righteousness is a virtue. A virtue is far deeper than a value – it is an expression of truth. Righteousness is one fundamental expression of truth that requires courage to live by. My hope and prayer for this conference is that you’ll hear truth: that having heard it, you’ll live it and have the courage to make a difference in this world of which we are a part. That we’ll truly be, as Jesus asked us to be, good neighbours to one another.

Bishop George Browning is the Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia. This is taken from a speech given at the Australia as a neighbour conference organised by Initiatives of Change in Melbourne last January.