By Benjamin Law
Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given.
This week, he talks to Reverend Bill Crews. The Sydney-based Uniting Church minister, broadcaster and author, 76, is one of the nation’s “100 Living Treasures” and was awarded an Order of Australia in 1999 for his work with disadvantaged people.
Have you ever considered running for office? You’ve got the name recognition. Federal politics has been my temptation for decades.
What appeals? The illusion of power. The illusion that you can do something.
You say “the illusion of power”. But politicians can call the shots, create laws and pass bills. But you’re fish and chips tomorrow night. If you look at a lot of prime ministers, often the best speeches they make are when they’ve been kicked out and can say all the things they couldn’t before. I didn’t want that constraint. The things I have to say or do are – this sounds egotistical – too important to be corrupted by the system.
Have you been courted by any of the parties? The mayor of Ashfield – Labor – used to say to me, “Get the numbers.” In the end, I decided it was better to try and push from the outside. I’ve seen really good people get in and be monstered by the system.
As a religious man, do you feel religion affects Australian politics too much or too little? The wrong sorts of religion: too much.
What do you mean by “the wrong sorts”? Say, the way gay people are treated. It’s outrageous. I’ve lived through the times when gay people had their brains cut open, had psychological testing, shock treatment, all of that. I’ve seen what happens, and it’s just wrong.
You support gay rights, voluntary euthanasia and decriminalising illicit drug use. You’ve publicly opposed school chaplaincy programs. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of many churches on these issues. When I got into this [work] in Kings Cross, I saw first-hand the way damaged, runaway kids were treated by so-called religious people. Governments will know the war on drugs doesn’t work, but it gets votes, so they’ll do it anyway. I find that very difficult to deal with.
Say you had the power to change one federal government policy, what would it be? I’d start with changing Parliament House so that women in there would be safe.
“I decided it was better to try and push from the outside. I’ve seen really good people get in and be monstered by the system.”
You’re now 76. How are you finding the ageing process? I’ve learnt to treat things as annoyances. If I’m a bit slower at things, it’s an annoyance.
Not a catastrophe. Not a catastrophe. I struggle to keep my weight right, which is an annoyance. But I’ve been lucky. I walk every day. I meditate. I eat right. I have a bit of a balance problem, which is genetic. I’ve learnt to treat that as an annoyance.
How’s your health generally? Good, my health is fine. The cardiologist just said my heart will last until I’m over 100.
Tell me more about the ways you think poverty and health are linked. Every day, we [the Bill Crews Foundation] have an endless stream of people coming to us to get their teeth fixed. We get people who are in such pain, they pull their teeth out with pliers. We had two people who turned up for a meal. One ate the meal, then took out his false teeth and gave them to his mate to eat his meal.
No way. A very simple thing like dental health is really important. Years ago, I’d go to maybe six or seven funerals a year for homeless people who’d died of pneumonia. All we did was give everybody who came to us a flu shot. After that, I rarely had a pneumonia death in winter from someone sleeping out. Simple things can make huge changes.
Tell me something you can do in your 70s that might surprise people. I can lie on the ground and do one of these …
You mean crunches? I can’t get all the way up! But I’ve been doing crunches. Not exactly there yet, but I’m on the way.
Your new book, Twelve Rules for Living a Better Life, out in May, is dedicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You’re a Uniting Church minister. Why dedicate your book to a Buddhist leader? He and I get together and we chat a bit. Either here when he comes to Australia, or in Dharamshala [in India]. He was really funny: he said to me, “I reckon you’re a good Buddhist.”
How did you take that? And what did he mean? I thought it was really lovely. I was talking to him another time and I said, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m a simple monk.” I said, “Look, you’re more than that. You’re a leader. There are people who would die for you.” And he said, “I am the teaching.” I was looking in his eyes, and it was like looking right through his eyes to the Buddhist Dharma. But, at the same time, I was looking right through Jesus’s eyes to the Kingdom.
So they might be separate religions – Buddhism and Christianity – but you see that they speak to each other? They should be speaking to each other. They do. The words of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad went into this bottomless well called human existence, and then came out. People who go deeply into religion – their religion – come out with a huge respect for other religions. They all touch something universal.
Scripture offers 10 Commandments. What are your personal commandments? Be grateful, every day. Do your best. Also, say yes to everything. If my soul says “yes”, then I say “yes”. And keep moving towards the universe, whatever that is. Keep moving, because as you move towards the universe, it comes and meets you in strange, amazing ways.