On reclaiming Christianity from the West


'Christian stereotypes' by Chris JohnstonSitting near my keyboard is an iftar invitation. The word iftar is an Arabic word used to describe a gathering where people break their Ramadan fast. My invitation was to join friends and colleagues of Mr Issam Darwich, a religious scholar of Lebanese heritage. He lives and works in the south western Sydney suburb of Greenacre, home to a large Arabic-speaking population.

But this was no ordinary iftar invitation. Issam Darwich is the local Bishop of the Melkite Catholic Community. Yet if Bishop Darwich telephoned a talkback radio station and announced he was holding an iftar for Ramadan, what would listeners assume to be his religious affiliation?

And so we live in a country where the name of a Catholic bishop isn't readily identified as Christian. Aren't we a nation built upon a Christian ethic? Don't we have an established Christian heritage? Aren't Western culture and civilisation distinctly, uniquely and inherently Christian?

It isn't for me, a non-Christian, to be telling Christian readers how they should understand their faith. I have some exposure to Christianity, having spent a decade studying at Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral school. Then again, many Anglicans wouldn't accept exposure to the Sydney Diocese as counting for much.

The way mainstream Australia understands Christianity affects me as an Australian non-Christian. It also affects many Christians who don't meet the Christian stereotype. I often blame my stigmatisation and marginalisation on people stereotyping me on the basis of my faith. Yet the worst and most damaging stereotype of all is that of Christianity. And ironically, Christianity is subjected to inaccurate stereotypes allegedly for its own protection.

So I often put up with having Christianity rubbed in my face by politicians known for their Christian devotion. I'm not just talking about the likes of Peter Costello who spend so much time pleasing Pastor Danny Nalliah at my expense. I'm also talking about Tony Abbott, one of the few Howard Government ministers who openly supported multiculturalism and refused to use Australia's 'Christian heritage' to wedge out non-Christians from the mainstream.

During an episode of ABCTV's Q&A on 27 August, Mr Abbott claimed, 'I think everyone who has grown up in a western country is profoundly shaped and formed by the New Testament, because this is the core document of our civilisation.' In other words, he linked being Christian with being Western.

He went onto make both Jews and Muslims feel somewhat left out of the 'western civilisation equation' when he described the Koran as 'the Old Testament on steroids'.

As a South Asian Muslim, I'd like to think many Christian believers would be as incensed by attempts to treat Christianity as a uniquely Western phenomenon as I am when Islam is treated as a uniquely Arab phenomenon. Talking about monolithic and mutually exclusive Christian and Muslim 'civilisations' and 'countries' is nonsense.

This fixation with Christianity as a Western faith defies Christian reality. We often forget that Dili and Manila have probably a higher proportion of their populations Catholic than most Australian cities.

I wonder how many Catholics often associate the skin tones, exotic culture and poverty of the world's largest Catholic continent with Catholicism. How many Australian Catholics would recognise the popular beliefs and practices (such as adorning churches with a dark-skinned Jesus) of their Latin American co-religionists?

Naturally if I were to make an ambit criticism of Christianity based on the extreme poverty and draconian politics of Latin America, Catholics would be justified in poking their fingers at me and ridiculing my simplistic reasoning.

Much prejudice in Australia directed toward Muslims arises from our understanding that they are mainly Arab or Middle Eastern. Much is made by tabloid columnists and shock jocks when persons of 'Middle Eastern appearance' are apprehended by the police.

It's as if being Christian and being Middle Eastern are incompatible. Yet the vast majority of Australians of Arabic-speaking heritage are, in fact, Christian. More importantly, Christianity itself is a Middle Eastern faith. The city of Bethlehem is today a town in the occupied West Bank, and the liturgy of churches in the area where Christ was born is conducted largely in a Middle Eastern language.

In his book From the Holy Mountain, a book which all Western Christians should read, Scottish writer William Dalrymple visits a Syrian church where hymns are sung in the language of Jesus. Not just the words but also the music of these hymns dates back to within a few centuries of Christ. It's likely that very similar hymns were sung by the early Church, if not by the disciples. Yet these had a distinctly Syrian flavour to them.

The Suriyani (indigenous Syrian) Church is one of the oldest organised churches in existence, and to this day one can find churches in Syria where Muslim worshippers take part in Christian liturgy side by side with their Christian neighbours.

Australia and other Western countries don't have a uniquely Christian heritage. South America, Arab League states, Turkey, Iran, Africa and South Asia (to name a few) all have an indigenous Christian heritage. Maybe we would stop stereotyping non-Christians when we stopped stereotyping Christianity.

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.


Topic tags: irfan yusuf, christianity, islam, tony abbott, peter costello, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple



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Existing comments

Irfan, the following para from your article displays confused logic.

'During an episode of ABCTV's Q&A on 27 August, Mr Abbott claimed, 'I think everyone who has grown up in a western country is profoundly shaped and formed by the New Testament, because this is the core document of our civilisation.' In other words, he linked being Christian with being Western.'

Logically the last line should read 'In other words, he linked being Western with being Christian'! There is quite a difference. The article is therefore based on a false premise.
Joan M | 14 September 2009

I am an Catholic Anglican who doesn't fit the Sydney Anglican stereotype. I am also proud to be a member of the Marrickville Multifaith Forum. I agree wholeheartedly with Irfan Yusuf and I would like to add a comment. In the West, we are surrounded by competing brand names, everything from out toothpaste to our football team. So also our religion. We brand ourselves as No Religion or Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and all the 456 competing brands of Christian. We use these brand names to define, differentiate and stereotype. We define ourselves by our brand name or football code, possibly even our bar-code. If only Australia's heritage was based on community rather than conflict. But the commonwealth was born out of rivalry between the colonies which were in turn founded on differing principles (convict & free settlers, established church & religious freedom). What chance do we have?
Fr Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 14 September 2009

Regardless of what else Tony Abbott said, his remark that 'I think everyone who has grown up in a western country is profoundly shaped and formed by the New Testament, because this is the core document of our civilisation' does NOT link being Christian with being Western. A remark by an Arab that the Qu'ran is the core document of Arab civilisation does not restrict it to Arabs at the expense of other Islamic societies nor indeed as a core document of world civilisation.
Stereotyping is done by misunderstanding too.
valerie yule | 14 September 2009

This is a very insightful article and very helpful to me at this time.I have recently been asked to lead a small group of people (in our parish) who have been asked to be a resouce/welcome team, to be there for priests who have been invited to minister in our diocese by our Bishop.It has reminded me, dramatically, how the Christan Faith is not confined or defined by cultural borders.It has been a very rewarding experience for members of our group, but the article will serve as a valuble resouce to share with other members of our faith community who are struggling with the the concept of being ministered to by priests from a different culture.
Bruce Swain | 14 September 2009

I love reading Irfan Yusuf's articles relating to cultural, in the widest sense of the word, differences. He often provokes me into thinking about issues I'd prefer to ignore. Just like Tony Abbott does. But what spoils the whole experience for me is that I find myself being distracted by their careless use of language and their lapses in logic - as Joan M has pointed out re- Irfan's current article.

The result in this particular case is that an interesting question like 'To what extent has anyone who has grown up in a Western country been shaped and formed by the New Testament?' is not properly addressed. Tony's claim for the New Testament is grandstanding. On the other hand Irfan's use of the collective 'we' in his last sentence was indiscriminate.

Many Christians, including Catholics of my acquaintance, are sufficiently aware of the history of Christianity from New Testament times to the present day to know that more than a hundred flowers bloom alongside many weeds in the garden of Christianity. And who can say what part all these plants play in God's providence?
Uncle Pat | 14 September 2009

Just reading the quote from Tony Abbott's Q&A input I can't see that he implies that to be Christian is to be Western. If anything, it may suggest that to be Western is to be Christian, though even that would be stretching it. In fact, I think he's just saying that the New Testament is the core document of western civilization, and I think this is true. He's not excluding its influence on people outside the West, but it can hardly be called a core doucment for any non-Western civilization.
Joan Seymour | 14 September 2009

Methinks that Irfan protesteth too much.
David William | 14 September 2009

To say, as Tony Abbot does, that Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity is to state the obvious.

He is not saying that Christianity has been the only influence on the West nor that not-Western cultures have not be influenced by the Christian religion.

Mr Yusuf complains about being marginalised and stigmatised in Australia and having Christianity rubbed in his face.

He should spend some time among the Christian minority in Pakistan who know all about having Islam rubbed in their face.

William Dalrymple's excellent book chronicles the destruction of Christianity in Turkey in the name of Islam.
Sylvester | 14 September 2009

I had the great privilege of living for three years among Arab Christian communities, and it was a great revelation to learn how much of what we consider core Christian practice in the West is in fact overlay from pre-Christian European beliefs. Middle Eastern Christianity at its best is free of the triumphalism and entanglement with imperialism which have dragged down the church in the west. And if the New Testament were in fact the core document of western civilisation, that civilisation would surely be a very different phenomenon to what it now is?
Mark Deasey | 14 September 2009

It is one thing to say the West is uniquely Christian; another to say that Christianity is uniquely Western. Obviously the missionary commitment of Christianity means there is no serious claim that Christianity is uniquely western. On the other hand, no one can seriously deny that many of the core values of the West (democracy, freedom of worship and conscience, dignity of women, fundamental dignity of the human person) come from its Christian core.
David Williams | 14 September 2009

What a wonderful insight to the Australian psyche! We are so laid back that we have forgotten our roots until someone rocks deep seated prejudices and submerged beliefs that we have long forgotten and only trot out out when we are culturally challenged!
Petr Lynch | 14 September 2009

Mr Yusuf asserts that Tony Abbott was saying that Christianity is a Western faith. Mr Yusuf has misrepresented the thrust of Tony Abbott's comment.

Tony Abbott was in fact saying that Western civilisation has its roots in Christianity. This is not the narrowing of what it means to be Christian to one culture as Mr Yusuf would have it.
Joseph Lanigan | 14 September 2009

Me thinks that as Christianity became the official religion of Rome around 400BCE, it is understandable that many laws and customs in the "West" the former Roman Empire, have a Christian heritage. In the Middle East Islam for a long period was the dominant religion and 'official religion'. If I was to live in Saudi or some of the other Middle Eastern countries and attempt to practise my faith I too would feel rather more than marginalised! Like Islam, Christianity was exported to other parts of the world by traders/explorers. The point remains both have core regions of origin. That must always be understood.
Gavin | 14 September 2009

Mr Yusuf should address the issue of the severe persecution of Christians worldwide and openly oppose it as being unIslamic as well as the prohibition of possessing Bibles and the freedom of conversion in Saudi Arabia.Make universal freedom of religious beliefs a major topic by a lawyer and condemn matters like honour killing with the freedom he is enjoying in a country built on Christian principles. God bless all truth which sets free and does not enslave.
daya nand | 15 September 2009

Irfan, I broadly agree with the thrust of your article encouraging Christians to reclaim its non-Western heritage etc.

However, I'm not sure the cheap shot at expense of evangelicals in Sydney Diocese helps either good-will or a nuanced analysis of Christianity in Australia.

For the record - about 50% of Anglican church-goers are evangelical as opposed to 'broad' or 'high' church or Anglo-Catholic.
Jeremy Halcrow | 15 September 2009

Irfan's article gives the impression that when he listens to Abbott speak he feels 'as if he is having his nose rubbed in it'.

I feel the same when I hear some things that Abbott says. I wonder, if this is role in parliament.
cronos | 15 September 2009

Gavin's comment that 'The point remains both have core regions of origin. That must always be understood' is a rather interesting assessment.

In my understanding of the origins of Christianity it would be equally valid to say they both originated in the East. The sadder thing is that the 'west's' desire to harness it to its own future in many instances excluded the wonderful spiritual insight of the East which was lost in the split with Constantinople. Both are the poorer for it.
David Dignam | 15 September 2009

David Williams asserts that 'no one can seriously deny that many of the core values of the West (democracy, freedom of worship and conscience, dignity of women, fundamental dignity of the human person) come from its Christian core'. What about the less attractive aspects of the West, like slavery, exploitation, aggression, imperialism, greed? Should we also attribute those to 'its Christian core'?

Tom Jones | 15 September 2009

I look forward to the day when a western nation's government - perhaps Australia - sees the New Testament in it's proper light. Let's assume that Jesus was a man of non-violence. The spirit of the New Testament i think shows this. Surely this would mean that any Christian country would have, at the very least, a defense force that would not kill people. Can i suggest stun guns as a last resort... No? Well then Australia is being led politically by a government that does not hold dear values of non-violence...surely. Tell me i'm dreaming? Well non-violence is a principle at the heart of a Christian world view...isn't it?
Andrew | 17 September 2009

Well said Irfan.

We all need to read David Tacey's revised Edge of The Sacred - Jung, Psyche, Earth, published by Daimon, 2009 to see what the West has done with Christianity.

The West surely does not have a unique claim on Christianity and thank God we who are 'of the West' can't own it as it would have excluded nearly half the world's population if we had.

I've got a humorous fridge magnet, a person is pictured answering the phone and as we do, is calling out the name of the caller and the brief message, "It's Jesus, and he wants his religion back!"
Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala NSW | 17 September 2009

I totally agree that Christianity is not to be confused with Western culture. Ethiopia is another example of a non-Western culture which has been Christian for longer than most European countries.

But saying that Western culture is Christian is not the same as saying that Christianity is Western. If we Westerners were to rediscover the example of Jesus and live more by his values, it would not only benefit Western culture but other cultures as well. Imperialism, in its historical and modern, economic, forms is a Western phenomenon, but it is definitely not Christian.

It comes down to whether Christianity is a label and set of symbols that we appropriate as part of our exclusive identity, or whether Christianity is a spiritual dynamic - an expression of God's love for His creation, which transforms us and our culture from within.

The same question could equally apply to other religions.
Mike Lowe | 18 September 2009

Anyone who wishes to contest the thesis of the great Christopher Dawson (among others), that Europe and the West are in essence the product of Christianity, is free to make the attempt, I suppose. But until they demonstrate a power of analysis and breadth of knowledge approaching his, I know where my money will be.

Committing the basic logical fallacy, which Joan and others have effectively exposed above, of equating "{the New Testament} is the core document of our civilization" - (Abbott, after Dawson) - with "Only our civilisation has the New Testament as its core document", is not a promising start.
Hugh | 18 September 2009


I'd recommend you do a quick course on the history of Christianity before making some of your assumptions.

"More importantly, Christianity itself is a Middle Eastern faith."
It may have started there but soon after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in around 70AD most of its followers were gentiles mainly around Greece and Rome. Notice that all of the New Testament is written in Greek and not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Then in 333AD the Emperor Constantine made it the STATE RELIGION of the ROMAN EMPIRE. So by the time Mohammad was born, Christianity had been under 300 years of Roman and Greek control and influence.. Hardly a 'Middle Eastern faith'.

"The city of Bethlehem is today a town in the occupied West Bank, and the liturgy of churches in the area where Christ was born is conducted largely in a Middle Eastern language. "
So what? If you look at their clothing and vestments, the priests wear distinctly Roman and Greek style clothing from the Roman Empire despite speaking in Arabic because their churches have been associated with Greek and Rome from the beginning.

Before criticising Australians and their misconceptions about muslims, it might be better to get your facts straight first..
responder | 18 September 2009

Tony Abbott says 'I think everyone who has grown up in a western country is profoundly shaped and formed by the New Testament'.

And some, like Tony, have re-written it: 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' becomes 'I was a stranger and you locked me and my children behind razor wire.

And for Tony and his former government mates, we all know what "I was in prison and you visited me" becomes.
Gordon Rowland | 20 September 2009


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