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The price of prejudice

Australia’s Chamberlain case affected many Adventists in the 1980s

The price of prejudice

Michael, left, and Lindy Chamberlain leave a courthouse in Alice Springs, Australia, in 1982. A coroner found Tuesday, June 12, 2012, that a dingo took the Chamberlain's baby who vanished in the Australian Outback more than 32 years ago in a notorious case that split the nation over suspicions that the infant was murdered. [Associated Press file photo]

“You baby killer!” yelled the schoolboys at Julie as she walked to her Adventist School in Strathfeild in 1980. She ignored the taunts as she’d done every day since the Chamberlain case broke sensationally in the tabloids. But this time, as she walked, a half-full can of Fanta hurled by her head as the boys cheered.

Julie wasn’t alone. Many Australian Adventists of the period have stories of harassment, from prank phone calls to public abuse. The hatred that underpinned the anti-Adventist bigotry was more than uncomfortable; it likely influenced the decision to prosecute the Chamberlains and the subsequent miscarriage of justice.

As we go through the process of healing the scars from that period, it’s incumbent on us to evaluate carefully what we’ve learned about our national vulnerabilities in the process, as well as what we still need to learn.

What is particularly surprising about the anti-Adventist bigotry of the period is that it happened at all. Australia is, after all, one of the most diverse and tolerant societies in the world. We look at attacks on minorities around the world and shake our heads. The brutality, the tribalism, the ignorance and the scapegoating that undergirds the hatred spewed at minorities from 1930s Europe to modern-day Iran seems entirely remote and foreign to us. And if you had to pick an innocuous faith community, it would have to be the vegetarian, noncombatant, healthcare providing, granola-making and education-cherishing Adventists who had a century’s worth of contributing to Australian society by the time the Chamberlain case broke.

If anyone could be safe anywhere, it would have to be a peaceful faith community with a long history and deep roots in a tolerant and progressive society.

And yet in our society, in our lifetimes, the tabloid press used the most debased and defamatory claims to whip up intense hatred of Adventist Christians. And this let lose the inner demons of many Australians. When Lindy Chamberlain was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor three decades ago, it’s reported that cheers were heard from pubs all over Darwin. It’s chilling. But it happened. That is the result of hate filled propaganda mixed with a mob mentality, even in an enlightened society in modern times.

Wendy Harmer, the prominent comedian, graciously apologized on Tuesday for her role in promoting bigotry, noting that “such was the firestorm of hatred, all rationality was lost."

The most profound lesson we can learn from the Chamberlain case has nothing to do with dingoes or even the flaws in our justice system. The most profound lesson is something that we’ve learned about ourselves: we now know we can be turned into lynch mobs as easily as any other society at any other time.

So let’s stand guard of ourselves. Because if there’s one thing we can know with certainty, there will be another firestorm of hatred against another Australian community sooner or later. And unless we have the character and the courage to stand up against it, the results will once again be terrifying.

Next time around, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I want to be there standing arm in arm with whoever is targeted, defending them, and in the process, defending what is best in our ideals and our national character.

—James Standish is the Communication director for the Adventist Church’s South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, near Sydney. He previously served as secretary of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion and received an award from the American Sikh community for defending civil rights in the wake of 9/11.