Governor’s Prayer Breakfast 2004 – Keynote Address

Friday 22 October 2004

by His Excellency Lieutenant General John Sanderson, AC
Governor of Western Australia

One of the first events I attended as Governor some four years ago was the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. The idea of coming together in an ecumenical, non political environment to share our faith in God by offering up prayers in each other’s company appealed to me as an appropriate way to build community in Western Australia. This was very much in accordance with the role of Governor as I saw it.

Since that time many things have happened to focus our attention on the moral and spiritual content of our society. Not the least of these has been the explosion in scientific endeavour, and our growing knowledge of many of the fundamental ingredients of life, generating a belief that we can manipulate these things in a productive way. Some people do this for profit, either out of greed, or in the belief that market forces should be the thing that decides the rightness or wrongness of an action. Others do it in the utilitarian belief that it is for the greater good of human beings – not necessarily all human beings.

Either way, there is a growing realisation that there is always a consequence, whether it takes the form of an erosion of our natural environment or the alienation of elements of our human family. Sometimes it is both, with the erosion of parts of our environment alienating parts of our society. Often we see this alienation taking the form of self destructive tendencies or violent activities like terrorism in both its criminal and political forms. It seems that you cannot get anything for nothing. Everything has its price in the utilitarian world, and must be paid for.

Of course, this is not true of the world of God and his son Jesus Christ. What is free in this world is love – freely given with the exhortation to share it among us – loving each other and giving of ourselves as creative beings in that spirit.

We speak a lot about ethics and trust these days as we struggle to find the ingredients that will make it all work for us and our children. There are many modern terms used to capture what it takes to work together to achieve common goals. As the world becomes more complex we realise that we have to build trust in order to generate happiness in our day to day lives.

But what is the foundation of enduring trust if not love. I am about to tell you a personal story you may have heard before. I told this story the first time I addressed this prayer breakfast, but because it is so important to me and so fundamental to what I believe, I am going to risk telling it to you again.

It occurred when I commanded the United Nations Force in Cambodia. I had bequeathed to me a force made up of troops of some 34 nations, many of whom were on their first UN mission. In fact, some of them were on the first operation outside their borders in the entire history of the country. Japan and Germany sent a contingent – the first operational deployment abroad since the Second World War. All the Great Powers sent observers and troops – the first time they were all deployed together. Troops came from all the continents, religious and cultural groups on Earth – a truly international force.

One former Iron Curtain country sent a contingent of 1,000 troops whose behaviour could not be described as ethical on any terms. In fact, it was often bordering on criminal and I was constantly concerned about the erosion of our moral authority with the Cambodians as a consequence. I had told them that I would have to ask for them to be removed from the Force if this continued, recognising the profound effect of such a decision on both the UN and the nation concerned.

Their lack of discipline translated into the operational environment and it was obvious to me that they were making themselves a target for the Khmer Rouge. Despite my warnings, eventually a significant number of them were killed. The effect was salutary to say the least. Very quickly, their General Staff, after meeting with me, changed a large part of the force, bringing in better trained troops.

The end of this story comes when they were about to depart from country. One of their young captains – their best officer I would think, asked to come and see me. He was one of the few who spoke English.

At first he was very complimentary about me and the Australians generally, expressing the view that we were exactly what he thought UN commanders and troops should be like. He said “General Sanderson, I think our troops should not go on UN operations again”. When I asked him why, he replied, “Because they have no God they think they are gods themselves. They have no love for each other and therefore they have no discipline.”

It was like a moment of epiphany – a profound truth that sums up the problems of human relationships and the issue of both love and human spirituality. “They have no love for each other and therefore they have no discipline.” This statement contains the very idea that love is the source of our inspiration and our creativity – the fundamental foundation of our ability to build a future together.

In his latest book, On Equilibrium, the Canadian philosopher, John Ralston Saul, makes a philosophical attack on our almost wholesale contemporary commitment to reason, particularly economic reason, as the sole determinant of structure and policy. Saul has this to say about the present:
“In such an atmosphere the non-cathartic, to the extent that it is visible, is presented as emotionally mediocre. Indeed, restraint is treated as weakness, an excuse not to take the exciting ride. But if we step back from the race, the fashion, the excitement of the present slipping constantly away, we find we have a solid attachment not only to that present, but to the past and the future. It is the strength of memory used consciously and with restraint to avoid self-inflicted wounds. Memory seen this way is the enemy of arbitrary power, whether it is in our personal lives or a political phenomenon or a utilitarian outcome of technological changes.”

When he speaks of arbitrary power Ralston Saul is warning us about those who would ensnare us in the rationalist belief that they have the absolute truth – in a time incidentally, when people cry out for certainty in their lives in a fear filled response to all the changes and messages that clutter up their existence and threaten their pursuit of material well being.

For those of you who remember that brilliant BBC series in the early 70s ‘The Ascent of Man’, it’s author, J. Bronowski, spoke about the human condition in all its forms – from its earliest beginnings right through to the then contemporary scientific and industrialised world. He had a view that became known as the ‘Principle of Tolerance’ in which he challenged our view of knowledge. He asserted, and let me quote him directly, that:
“…all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture…the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty.”

When we look back on the story of Jesus time amongst us we know that it was exactly this – absolute certainty on the part of the Jewish priests of that time that took him to the cross. The predictability of this was the reason for his message of love – love of God and love of each other.

This same sentiment rings true today. Here we have both governments and terrorists dealing in ‘absolute certainties’, certainties about their motives and outcomes, and the methods by which to implement those certainties. We cannot conceive of the far-reaching consequences but we have plenty of evidence to show us that we should put aside our fears and lock together as human beings in order to move forward and out of the reach of those who would entrap us in hatred.

One way of doing that is to pray together, reaching across religious and cultural boundaries and acknowledging our common spirituality – taking our direction from God, seeking his comfort for others and his guidance for ourselves.

Welcome to this prayer breakfast. I am so pleased that you have come to join us once again. I look forward to Andrew Evans sharing his journey and his message with us. Enjoy the fellowship of the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.