Homily for the Feast of Christ the King
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46
22 November 2020
What a hell of a week it has been for us Australians. To see General Angus Campbell the Chief of the Australian Defence Force with great dignity, discipline and humility trying to retain his composure before the glare of the cameras announcing: “Today, the Australian Defence Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct by some members of our Special Forces community during operations in Afghanistan.” Ironically, Campbell became a regular face on our TV screens standing beside Scott Morrison back in 2014 when Morrison was the Minister for Immigration and they were both there defending utmost secrecy assuring us that they could not talk about ‘on water’ matters which might jeopardise Operation Sovereign Borders turning back boatloads of asylum seekers on the high seas. Now with new roles as Chief of the Defence Force and Prime Minister and facing an altogether different crisis, they need to pledge openness and transparency reassuring us that no stone will be left unturned to discover what went so wrong with the secrecy of the operations in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013 resulting in 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killings of 39 people, perpetrated by 25 Australian Special Forces soldiers, with the criminal behaviour being “commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the corporal or sergeant level”. Those killed were prisoners, farmers and other civilians. “This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’.” John Howard who first committed our troops to Afghanistan in 2001, said on Friday, “All Australians should be grateful for the service of our forces in what has proved to be a long and difficult engagement.”
Back when these atrocities were occurring unknown to us and to our political leaders, Kevin Rudd when Foreign Minister told Parliament: “Our responsibility as a government is to maintain bipartisan support for our troops in the field and to maximise the wider support of the Australian international community. Once again, this will not be easy but our mission is clear, as is our strategy, and the resources we have committed to it are significant. … [N]ow is not the time to lose faith. … Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan.” On the other side of the chamber, Malcolm Turnbull told Parliament that we were asking our soldiers to be both warriors and nation builders:
“Much has been said about this very difficult war in Afghanistan, and we should debate it more often in this long war for a long time but have given relatively little attention to debating why they went there in the first place, why they are staying there and what the strategy is for them to leave and finally come home. We owe our troops much more attention. Loyalty, devotion and gratitude are a given, but we owe them our responsibility, our intellect, our care and our consideration in determining whether and to what extent the mission remains warranted. It should always be a matter of constant justification to the Australian people and our serving men and women as to why they remain in harm’s way.”
No matter what our politics, a decade later, we are all feeling gutted. We have no reason to think that our leaders on both sides of the chamber were doing anything but looking to our national interest and the well being of our troops. No doubt, lessons will be learnt with the benefit of hindsight. But we will all be left wondering: what more could have been done at the time by any of us to ensure that such dreadful things did not occur in our name, or if they did that they were exposed promptly and corrected. None of us can feel righteous. We all bear some responsibility. We are all complicit. Those troops were there on foreign soil a long way away – and they were there in our name, and in our cause, or so we were told by elected leaders of both political persuasions. Presumably our elected leaders thought they were placing these soldiers in harm’s way for our good and for our security. Now, collectively we seek mercy, forgiveness and understanding from the Afghan people.
We Catholics are used to hearing apologies from our last two popes for the egregious sexual abuse of children by clergy and for the institutional, cultural and personal failures of authorities to investigate or to be aware of problems. As Australians we now hear apologies from our political and military leaders for war crimes committed by our most elite troops and for the institutional, cultural and personal failures of authorities with General Campbell admitting: “I wonder was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see?”
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The gospel is Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment at which the Son of Man separates the people from all nations just as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. The test is the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, providing water for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the prisoner. The King thanks the virtuous who bestowed these acts of mercy on him and invites them into the kingdom. They ask when they ever did this. The answer: “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” The king curses and sends away to eternal punishment those who never showed him mercy. They ask when they ever saw him in need of mercy. The answer is similar: “In so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
Some scripture commentators tell us that Matthew in this part of his gospel is focused on the Gentiles who are to be judged according to the mercy they have shown to the disciples of Jesus who are the least of the brothers, recalling Jesus’ earlier declaration: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10:40)”. But where does this leave Jewish Christians and what about the duties to others in need, not just the disciples of Jesus? The scripture scholar Daniel Harrington tells us: “If good works to Christians are so important for non-Christians (and non-Jews) to perform, how much more are they to be expected from Christians (and Jews)! If Gentiles are rewarded for good deeds done to strangers and needy people, so also Christians (and Jews) will be rewarded for such actions.” Other scholars like Brendan Byrne take a more universal view of the lesson and the intended audience for this last parable in Matthew’s gospel: “The truth that mercy leads to life while its opposite leads to exclusion from the banquet of life emerges from this text as an inescapable aspect of the Christian gospel.” Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians, and non-Christians alike are called to perform the works of mercy for the least, and will be judged accordingly.
All of us can recall times when we have performed works of mercy for others. All of us can recall times when we have not, even when we could have done so with minimal inconvenience. So who’s to say whether each of us is a sheep or a goat? No matter how much or how little we have done, we are all dependent on God’s mercy. We’ve all fallen short in care for our neighbour and in our other responsibilities including care for our planet. We can only feel righteous and not in need of mercy if we take a very individualistic view of our personal responsibility in our web of complex relationships and dependencies. In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis said, “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” Some of the gravest responsibilities have to be borne together.
In his latest encyclical Fratelli tutti, Francis says: “We need to learn how to unmask the various ways that the truth is manipulated, distorted and concealed in public and private discourse. …[Truth] is primarily the search for the solid foundations sustaining our decisions and our laws. This calls for acknowledging that the human mind is capable of transcending immediate concerns and grasping certain truths that are unchanging, as true now as in the past. As it peers into human nature, reason discovers universal values derived from that same nature.” (#208) This search for truth in the public domain of pluralist democratic societies in the west has been rendered more difficult by the decline of trust in major institutions, including churches, major political parties, the media and now the defence forces.
In the Inspector General’s Afghanistan Report, the military judge Major General Paul Brereton says, “History teaches that the failure to comprehensively deal with allegations and indicators of breaches of Law of Armed Conflict as they begin to emerge and circulate is corrosive – it gives spurious allegations life, and serious allegations a degree of impunity.” He went on to say, “Painful as it may be for those involved, by conducting this Inquiry, and following the evidence wherever it went, Australia has sought to maintain our moral integrity and authority as a nation by investigating breaches of laws which apply to us and our enemies alike.” Responding to the report, General Angus Campbell admitted, “Cutting corners, bending and ignoring rules was normalised.” Looking for the way forward, he told us, “Prime, always, is the nurturing of character and culture, from which our people derive the strength to do what’s right, in the most difficult of circumstances.”
In Fratelli tutti Pope Francis says: “If rules are considered simply as means to be used whenever it proves advantageous, and to be ignored when it is not, uncontrollable forces are unleashed that cause grave harm to societies, to the poor and vulnerable, to fraternal relations, to the environment and to cultural treasures, with irretrievable losses for the global community.” (#257) No matter what our religion or none, each of us must profess virtue and truth and practise mercy, and that’s more readily done in transparent communities of trust.
Today we Australian Catholics, even those of us of a republican sentiment, proclaim Jesus Christ as King in the sense that He is the one who is the ultimate embodiment of virtue, truth and mercy. He is the one who can invite us into his kingdom: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.” On this feast this year, we are more aware than ever of our need to show mercy to the least and to receive God’s mercy for our individual and collective shortcomings. In the wake of the shocking revelations this past week, knowing not where to turn, we hear the words of the Lord and king in the prophet Ezekiel and dare to hope that He is looking over “the little ones” here and in Afghanistan:
I am going to look after my flock myself and keep all of it in view. As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness.
 Hansard, 21 October 2010, p.1072
 Hansard, 21 November 2011, p.13115
 Harrington, D. J., p. 360
 Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden, St Pauls, 2004, p. 195
 Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, QUESTIONS OF UNLAWFUL CONDUCT CONCERNING THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS TASK GROUP IN AFGHANISTAN, p. 41
 Ibid, 42
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).