Let’s encourage religious devotion in the public realm

Chris Fotinopoulos / 23 December 2016

Australian suburban shopping centres are places where people from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are free to peruse, shop and dream without being snubbed by those who do not identify with them.

Source: Let's encourage religious devotion in the public realm

Suburban shopping centres throughout Australia are places where people from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are free to peruse, shop and dream without being snubbed by those who do not identify with them.

Interestingly, the expansive shopping centres that sit at the periphery of our major cities are far more inclusive than most places of worship.

These outer suburban shopping centres have become symbols of economic prosperity, particularly when juxtaposed against television images of boarded-up shopfronts and ghost shopping towns in American cities that were once hubs of commercial success.

As a child, I remember visiting the new multilevel department store that abutted our working-class suburb in what was then considered outer suburbia. Each level of this newly established shopping complex specialised in a distinct aspect of modern Western living.

And as my mum, dad and sister glided skyward, I took in the displays at each landing. The well-dressed mannequins situated at the entrance of the men's wear level personified gentlemanliness. The meticulously arranged and colour co-ordinated outfits on the level above reflected female sophistication. The strategically placed white goods, soft furnishings, the newly arrived colour television sets and outdoor furniture presented a diorama of suburban domestic splendour.

And as my sister and I reclined on sofas, inspected the gas-fired barbecues and gazed at the range of above-ground swimming pools, we dreamt of a future when we could buy into this. As my dad reminded us, any person, regardless of their social and cultural status, can prosper in a society that is free, fair and industrious. The shopping centre was even better at Christmas time. The nativity scenes curated by Sydney's David Jones and Melbourne's Myer brought diverse groups and families together in a semi-religious public ritual.

As a kid in the '70s, I remember queuing with children from diverse neighbourhoods and gazing into the vitrine of biblical wonder. The elaborate nativity scene replete with farm animals, the Magi or Wise Men with their camels, Joseph, Mary and Jesus reminded us of the religious significance of Christmas.

Over the years the religious iconography became less conspicuous in Australian department stores. The manger was replaced by a workshop run by Santa who oversaw an elaborate manufacturing operation where elves worked throughout the night to meet the tightest deadline of the year. Reindeers replaced biblical barn animals and Scandinavian flora replaced the palms of Palestine and all that was associated with the Middle East.

The Magi also disappeared from the display, just as they were wiped out of my nieces' primary school nativity scene in the year of the September 11 terrorist attack. I guess they bore a close resemblance to the bearded and black-clad men that ordered the attack on the World Trade Centre. We do not, after all, want children confusing biblical figures with those associated with attacks on markets and shopping centres, especially at Christmas time, as was the case in this week's Berlin attack.

Instead of taking an iconoclastic hammer to religious imagery, a truly diverse and inclusive society is best served by permitting religious communities to advertise their religious convictions in any manner they wish, provided that they do not force their beliefs on others.

A culturally rich and diverse nation such as ours is best served by recognising Christmas for what it is – a significant religious event. Rather than leaching Christmas of its religious significance out of fear of offending non-Christians or unbelievers, we are better off encouraging all religious expression to flourish.

A genuinely free, open and tolerant society ought to permit Christians to celebrate Jesus' birth with gusto and fervour, just as it ought to permit Muslims to celebrate Mawlid an-Nabi (the birthday of the prophet Muhammad) or any event of religious significance with equal fervour.

And it would certainly be testament to our social inclusiveness if we were to see more women in the Abaya and Niqab visiting the local shopping centre to meet friends, peruse and shop as Jan's daughter is free to do so without being glared at or asked to leave.

Our preparedness to allow all religious convictions to manifest in the public realm, and indeed the shopping complex, will set us apart from theocracies, monocultures and fundamental secular societies that seek to estrange religious minorities and outsiders.

I am sure that we will be more harmonious and safer for it.

All the more reason.

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