It would be hard to find a greater contrast than that between the lives of two men whose obituaries appeared in The Age recently. British publisher Felix Dennis spent tens of millions supporting his 14 mistresses, used crack cocaine, owned luxury cars and dwellings in Britain, the US and the Caribbean, and was a defendant in the Oz obscenity trial.
The other obituary was of East German pastor Christian Fuhrer, who devoted his life to prayer and political activism. He led prayer vigils that became increasingly large peaceful demonstrations that played a part in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. He shared the Augsburg peace prize with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shortly before his death on June 30 he was awarded Germany’s National Prize.
Comparisons and value judgments are said to be odious, but they can also be instructive. Are greed, hedonism, self-aggrandisement and unbridled self-indulgence qualities we admire and aspire to? Or are there grounds for preferring values such as courage, compassion, prayerfulness, a strong social conscience and a life-long dedication to justice and peace?
The answers to such questions appear self-evident and uncontroversial until we place them in the context of the school classroom. If secularists have their way and Christian values are ultimately expunged from our state schools, how would the inspiring story of Pastor Fuhrer be taught? Presumably with no reference – however absurd such an omission would be – to the fact that what inspired and motivated him was his deeply held Christian faith. To even mention this might be deemed an attempt to proselytise impressionable young minds, which of course would be strictly verboten.
The same would presumably apply to teaching about the abolition of slavery in 19th-century Britain: there could be no disclosure that Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists in the Clapham Sect were inspired and motivated by their strong faith in Jesus Christ. Or teaching about the formation of the Australian Inland Mission and the Flying Doctor Service, while avoiding any mention of their founder John Flynn being a Presbyterian minister impelled by his faith to serve the scattered inhabitants of the inland. Or the American civil rights movement without reference to Martin Luther King’s occupation.
Indeed, there could be no mention of the Christian origins of charities such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, Opportunity International, World Vision, the Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous (and hence all subsequent 12-step programs), the Children First Foundation, and the modern nursing and hospice movements.
It is hard to call to mind many corresponding charitable agencies inspired by atheism. There would seem to be little gain, and indeed much loss, in denying schoolchildren an understanding of the transformative faith that inspired the man who led the movement that brought down the Berlin Wall.
Rowan Forster is a Melbourne writer.