I n the 40 years since his ordination, James Haire has focused on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, but there have been times when this was more than a polite academic exercise. ''I am not frightened of dealing with thugs,'' he says. ''I am not frightened of dealing with people with guns. I am not frightened of sitting down with any human being to see if we can negotiate. I am also very aware most negotiations fail but you occasionally get a couple of wins and it is worth having a go.''
He was speaking of his role helping to negotiate peace between warring Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. Having seen the violence in Northern Ireland - ''My family was caught up in it'' - and the violence between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia, ''I thought something has to be done. The Indonesian Government asked me to help with the ending of that violence. I was very privileged that I was given access and support by the Indonesian army at the very worst of times in the violence there. I travelled around trying to persuade the Christian leaders to go into the talks which eventually produced what was known as the Malino agreement which ended the violence between the Muslims and Christians.'' (Malino is a hill town near Makassar in south Sulawesi.) Haire's involvement had included speaking with militia leaders.
Executive director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Barton, he recently returned from Indonesia where he was honoured for his service to inter-faith harmony and understanding. This included the naming of the James Haire Research Centre, inaugurated on January 26 in association with the University of Halmahera. The centre focuses on Christianity in relation to other religions and cultures.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1946, Haire grew up in a ''very kind of middle-class environment''. His father was professor of theology and mother a consultant medical doctor and university teacher. His schooling was before the violence. ''At that time, Northern Ireland was a very quiet, unremarkable place. I think it had some similarity to Australia in the '50s.'' Belfast was a kind of Protestant citadel though very divided between Catholics and Protestants. It had a silent, exquisite, mutual apartheid. ''We just both pretended the other side didn't exist.''
He won a scholarship to Oxford University and began study there in 1965. ''That was a whole new, exciting world that opened up for me.'' His family was Presbyterian on all sides. ''I didn't really meet a Catholic until I went to Oxford … I realised they weren't another race - that they were part of my own people.'' It was at Oxford where he also became politically aware. ''I joined every political party there was because I wanted to find out what they were all about.'' He studied classics, philosophy and then theology and enjoyed his time there.
After leaving Oxford he worked as a manager with the Imperial Group in England and later in Europe. ''I was an asset stripper buying and selling companies.'' But after about two years he felt a strong call to the ministry, which came after a profound Christian experience while travelling by train from London to Bristol. ''When I got on to the train I would say I was a pagan. When I got off the train I was a Christian.''
On what caused this change he said, ''I think I was dissatisfied with industry. I found an enormous lack of depth in industry.'' He was thinking about why people exist. ''I felt Christianity had the answers or pointed in the right direction.'' Along with the papers for the business meeting he had a copy of the New Testament. ''I found the New Testament opened by my side.'' Though brought up a Christian, he says God had finally caught up with him. Swiss theologian Karl Barth was a major influence on him.
In 1972, after ordination, he was sent to the Malacca Islands in Indonesia to build up the church. He soon became principal of the theological college there. About half the population was Christian and about half Muslim. ''I had good relations with the Muslims. I learned a lot about Islam during those years.'' There was considerable movement between the two religions. This was normally by dint of marriage but some people simply changed from one to the other. At that stage there was no violence between the two.
Haire says insecurity by the Protestants in Northern Ireland and subsequently in the Malacca islands contributed to the violence in both places. Deep down, the Protestants felt they did not belong. He says people who feel they don't belong are concerned they could be pushed out so become very aggressive. He says this was also illustrated by the white population in South Africa. In the Malacca Islands, the Christians were concerned they would be driven out by the Muslims and the Muslims felt the Christians might dominate them. ''The only solution is to provide security that you really do belong.'' By comparison, Australia had been extremely successful at drawing people together with relatively little violence. But there remains the question of reconciliation with the indigenous population.
Since his years working in Indonesia and his subsequent positions in Australia, Haire has been respected for his ecumenical work. He says he is a classic Christian theologian in the Protestant tradition. ''I am conservative that way. But I think I am radical in terms of progressive thought.''
After 13 years in Indonesia, tropical illness beset his family, which moved to Darwin for medical treatment. He wanted to continue his involvement with Indonesia and accepted a call by a Uniting Church parish in Darwin. Soon after that he was appointed New Testament professor and principal of the Uniting Church's Trinity College in Brisbane. He was later an academic at the University of Queensland, then professor of theology at Griffith University.
From 2000-03 he was president of the Uniting Church in Australia and from 2003-06 president of the National Council of Churches. He came to Canberra in late 2003 as head of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and professor of theology at Charles Sturt University.
The centre was established to engage in public theology, ecumenical activities, interfaith dialogue, and to provide a place primarily of Christian activity.
Haire says that because of his security in the Christian faith, particularly the Protestant strand, he does not have worries about experimenting. ''Because other church leaders knew I was conservative they were prepared to talk to me because they knew I wouldn't play fast and loose with them. I was passionate about ecumenism.''
He says there is no doubt religion is often associated with violence. This includes internal Christian and internal Muslim violence and violence between religions.
He believes that humans need meaning. A true atheist wants to deny humans that meaning. Given there is meaning, people will search for meaning. ''I would say religion is part of what being human is. Therefore it is futile to assume you can make people irreligious.''
He accepts there are religious paths other than his. ''That is why I am quite interested in having dialogue with people … It is worth seeing, for example, if we have similar ethical standards from different backgrounds.''
He says he should share his faith with others. His faith also says he cannot force people into it by unfair means such as coercion by money or by force. ''I have to constantly be aware that a lot of the practitioners of my faith are hypocrites and fools. I also can be a hypocrite and a fool. Why? Because I am a human.''
Graham Downie is Religion Reporter.