Moving on from mere tolerance

Australia is a multicultural society. This does not sound like much of a statement – really just an acknowledgement of what is reality. However, it masks a history that has taken over half a century to change to a situation where we now enjoy and celebrate our diverse cultural heritages.

The first acts of the Commonwealth of Australia Parliament were the acts enshrining the White Australia Policy and to ensure practical and active discrimination of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. This was a country that at its foundation sought to be mono-cultural and exclude others. As time passed we moved to encourage diverse immigration and overcome the legal and political barriers to the participation of Indigenous peoples in Australian life. Altering the culture took more time.

While we now celebrate diversity it has taken time and effort. It has taken legal changes, changes to political attitudes but even more so changes to the way we think about each other and what it means to be Australian. Now we enjoy the various foods, cultural celebrations, rituals and practices of our rich population. We discover the generosity, kindness and reward that has come from welcoming others who we did not, at first, understand.

How did this change? Initially, there was some sense of necessity. Following the Second World War we needed a much larger workforce and the poor and dispossessed of Europe came answering our call. We did not exactly welcome them – we altered names on arrival, we assumed they would go home once the work was done, we tolerated them. As time passed we learned and we discovered both that these newcomers made wonderful compatriots, and that we were capable of more than mere tolerance. Instead we discovered a capacity for generosity and acceptance in ourselves. Following acceptance came relationships – we married across cultures, ethnicities and religions. We discovered that those we had thought of as ‘others’ were not so very different from ourselves.

These are important lessons to share with our children, to educate them about  – that it is easy to discriminate against those we do not know and who we may fear. That it is much harder to do this when we know the ‘other’, and still harder when the ‘other’ is our neighbour or the partner of a friend or relative. Getting to know others takes time and a degree of familiarity but most of all it takes an openness to the other person. Instead of allowing fear of the unknown, the other, to rule us, we need to respect the dignity of each person and be prepared to welcome them to our lives, our communities, our country. We have to be open to this becoming their place, their country and their community too.

The achievements of the past half-century, in terms of openness to others, have been remarkable; but there are signs that we are prepared to allow fear to rule us again. The appalling treatment of asylum seekers by our nation is a fundamental rejection of the good and of the Gospel. The characterisation of many Australians as potential terrorists is perhaps even worse. In this too we are educating our children – we are now teaching them that holding onto fear is worth even the rejection of those in need; and, that we should look for the worst in others who we find to be different.

Is this the future we want for ourselves and for our children? As I have noted before in these columns – our children learn best from what we model for them. We can claim to be a tolerant people but is tolerance enough?  Rather we need to move from a perspective of mere tolerance to one of acceptance and onto an embracing of others.  We have learned how to do this in the past and we now need to learn it anew. It is what our humanity demands of us. It is what our faith requires of us if we are to be worthy of the name, Christian.