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No sympathy for scapegoats or the Gospel

"No sympathy," shouted the approving headline on the front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph last week. "Their drug operation would have destroyed thousands of lives - now they'll pay with theirs."

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two so-called ringleaders of the Bali Nine would-be drug smugglers, had been sentenced to death by firing squad. The Telegraph, in common with most other Australian media outlets, was expressing the opinion that they had got their just reward.

Meanwhile over at Maitland-Newcastle Diocese's newspaper, Fr Edmond Nixon CSsR was writing about scapegoats.

"In popular culture a scapegoat is someone selected to bear blame for a calamity... Scapegoating is the act of holding a person, a group of people, or even a thing responsible for a multitude of problems."

Nixon's point of reference was not the Bali Nine, but the celebrated case of Van Tuong Nguyen, the Australian convicted drug smuggler hanged in Singapore's Changi prison on 2 December last year. But his argument is just as relevant to the cases of the Bali Nine.

A Catholic position would hold that the Bali Nine were committing acts of supreme selfishness, and for that they deserve no sympathy. But it would also maintain that those acts are part of a larger context of social sin. For this, they do indeed deserve public sympathy, for they are paying for the sinfulness we're all born with. The theological term for this is social sin. In other words, they are members of a sick society that predisposed them to involvement in the crime of drug smuggling. We are all responsible for that, and the Church's only answer is acceptance of God's redemptive love.

While Nixon is arguing from the point of view of Catholic teaching, the Daily Telegraph's position is derived from the economic imperative to appeal to public emotion. Nobody's going to want to buy a newspaper that tells them that they are bad. They want to buy a newspaper that presents a convincing argument that others are bad, and that they - the others - are going to pay for it.

In what might be called a miscarriage of information, the tragedy is that millions of Australians were exposed to the message of the Daily Telegraph headline writers, not to mention the 99 per cent of the remainder of the population who would have heard similar messages from other media channels. Fr Nixon, on the other hand, would have been talking to several thousand Catholics at most, even though his message was deemed important enough to put on the front page of the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan paper.

The story of this miscarriage illustrates the reality that the communications ministry of the Catholic Church - and indeed all Christians - faces a daunting challenge. How is it going to influence the opinion of Catholics, let alone that of society at large? Think of the average teacher in a Catholic school who is asked by his or her students why the Bali Nine ringleaders are going before a firing squad.

Chances are that the teacher has just read the Daily Telegraph, and he or she will say they are bad people who did bad things, and they are going to pay for it, as they should in any society where justice prevails. If, in the highly unlikely event that they had instead been reading Fr Nixon's article in Aurora, they would say that our society is bad, and that fate has selected the Bali Nine to do bad things that will force them to accept punishment for something that we all have a hand in.

As it happens, last week the Catholic Church in Australia took an important step towards acknowledging that it has a long way to go in bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to bear on the content of the communications media we are all exposed to. The Bishops launched their pastoral letter Go Tell Everyone.

Of the challenge, it admits: "Never before have the challenges been greater, never before the need so pressing." But importantly, it adds that the "potential harvest [is] so bountiful". It quotes a Vatican document that focuses on the dangers of people "becom[ing] isolated in a narcissistic, self-reverential world of stimuli with near-narcotic effects", but says that there is also potential for people to "grow in sympathy and compassion". It all depends upon how they use the media. In other words, whether they habitually swallow what they read the Daily Telegraph, or whether they learn to read it critically.

Go Tell Everyone opts to set out the problems and potential in a clear and methodical fashion, but such an approach needs to be complemented by a more dramatic presentation of the issues, in order for it to have maximum impact. Like many Church documents, it speaks in general terms and avoids dramatic illustrations or case studies.

Teachers and church leaders who are presenting the content of the letter will be required therefore to use their imagination to bring home its message. Perhaps a careful analysis, and borrowing of some of the techniques of the Daily Telegraph might help.


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