Friday, 31 July 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I'm late to the party as usual but I've just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, originally published in 2005, thanks to a tip-off from my clever niece Alisha.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre is becoming old news, but its effects are still with us and even more so still with our Islamic communities.  Last night I went to the launch of my friend Dave Andrews' book The Jihad of Jesus which deals with dialogue and common ground between Christianity and Islam.  That's a whole other subject, but  Dave's friend and local Islamic community leader Nora Amath shared her own story of how, in the wake of that event, she and her friends and family in Australia experienced increasing suspicion and aggression as they went about their daily lives.  They had nothing to do with it and were as horrified as everyone else, but were still blamed and vilified - and continue to be to this day.

How can we see this event in perspective?  Foer's lovely book gives us some important clues.  It is set in 2003, two years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, and narrated mostly by 9-year-old Oskar Schell whose father was killed in the attack, with occasional interpositions by his grandmother and grandfather.

I think it must be incredibly hard to write an adult book from a child's point of view but some great novels have resulted - To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The trick is that the child must only know and understand what a child of that age could, while revealing enough for the adult readers to understand what the narrator himself does not.

Since this is a mystery of sorts I won't tell you too much.  Suffice to say that Oskar is not dealing well with his grief, and his mother, grandmother and counsellor are worried about him.  His bafflement seems to be made worse by some odd traits which suggest he may be a little further than most along the ASD spectrum, although this is not explicitly mentioned.

Going through his father's cupboard one day, he finds a vase on the top shelf.  He accidentally breaks it and inside he finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on the front.  The key doesn't open anything in his apartment, so he sets out on a secret quest to find out what is is for, and what this might reveal about his father.  To do this he resolves to visit everyone in New York with the surname "Black", going through the phonebook systematically from A to Z.

What's important to me here is what this quest, and some of the other events that surround it and in which it is embedded, suggest to us about how we might respond to the World Trade Centre bombing.

The first important point is that the story never mentions Islam.  Not once.  It does not discuss politics, international relations, the motives for the attack or the wars that resulted from it.  This is not because Oskar is incapable of understanding these - Oskar is an extremely intelligent child - but because he is completely absorbed in his own grief and pain.  His loss blots out everything else.

The second point is that this is not the only atrocity in world history.  Two others appear in the story.  The firebombing of Dresden in  February 1945, in which British and American bombers dropped thousands of incendiary devices and killed over 20,000 German civilians, plays a pivotal role in the story.  Once again there is no political commentary - the story is just there, part of Oskar's family history and indeed its present although he doesn't know it.  In a brief cameo we also hear of an even bigger atrocity, the bombing of Hiroshima, told once again through a shocking personal story of grief which Oskar plays to his classmates.   He expands on the story by describing how nearest to the explosion people were completely destroyed but their shadows remained.  There is also the merest hint, no more, of the Holocaust.

The third point is that alongside these stories of mass grief are set the ordinary griefs of life.  Many of the people Oskar visits - a random cross-section of the New York population who share nothing but a surname - are dealing with their own grief - the loss of a partner, a divorce or separation, the loss of a dream.  None of these griefs are connected to the World Trade Centre.  They happen to us all.  Grief, Foer shows us, is one of the human constants.

So how do we deal with grief?  If the question is "how do we solve grief", the answer is clearly that we can't.  Grief doesn't go away.  Instead we find ways to cope with it, to make it part of our lives without destroying ourselves.  For some this is impossible - like for Oskar's grandfather.  There is a real possibility that grief can damage us beyond repair along with those we love.  Oskar experiences this possibility himself as he says hurtful things to his mother, and as he tells lie after lie to protect the secrets associated with his own grief.

Yet their are other options.  Some people build shrines to those they have lost, like the young woman who has done picture after picture of the same man.  Others create illusions to allow themselves to pretend that perhaps the person they lost is still alive, like the woman who spends her life at the top of the Empire State Building from where she can imagine her husband still signalling from below.  We can use our grief as a spur to do things we always meant to do, like the man who spends the time between his terminal diagnosis and his death writing letters to every person he has ever known.

Then there is diversion, Oskar's own strategy.  Oskar is a walking, talking bundle of diversions.  He is constantly "inventing": coming up with weird and wonderful technological ideas, like the birdseed coat which would allow its wearer to jump from a burning building and be carried away by birds, or the system of pipes which would collect the tears of the people who cried themselves to sleep into a giant reservoir.  He writes a steady stream of letters to famous people offering to become their assistant or pupil.  He writes to a famous naturalist researching elephants' memory asking if he can become her assistant.  He sends Ringo Starr a set of bomb-proof drumsticks and asks for drumming lessons.  But more than anyone he sends letter after letter to Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, receiving each time a form reply assuring him that Hawking reads all the letters he receives and keeps them in the hope that one day he will be able to reply personally.  Will it ever happen?

Of course the quest for the lock which fits the key is itself a huge diversion, one of which he is possibly not aware himself but which is obvious to the adult reader.  Of all the possible ways he could go about his quest, he chooses the one calculated to take the longest and produce the most uncertain results.  Yet for all its seeming aimlessness it also serves as a survival strategy, giving him a sense of purpose and engaging him in the lives of others.

Or there is the one we use so often, and are still using, but which never seems to occur to Oskar or to Foer.  We can convert our grief to anger, and since we have no access to the actual perpetrators we can take it out on people who share a similar religion, or wear the same kind of clothes.  It doesn't help, it doesn't make us feel any better.  We just keep getting angrier and angrier.

As Foer shows us (oh, so gently!), Dresden, Hiroshima and the Holocaust show that Islam and New York have no monopoly on atrocities.  Each is  collection of thousands of personal griefs, adding their tally to the reservoir of tears.  We all need to learn how to live with this grief without multiplying it endlessly.  Everything else is just diversion.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Resurrection 2: Meaning

The important thing about Jesus' miracles is not their factuality but their meaning.  Jesus' miracles illustrate and reinforce his teaching about the Kingdom of God.  The same goes for the resurrection.  Having summarised what I think the resurrection stories are describing, I'd like to talk a little about how the apostles used the story and what they made of it.

Whole books have been written about this.  I'm just going to give you the highlights under three headings - vindication of Jesus' life and message, a new life for his followers here and now, and a future hope.

Vindication
In Acts 2, Luke reports a sermon by Peter which centres on the following words.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power."



Peter goes on to relate this to Psalm 16, attributed to David, in which the psalmist says

You do not give me up to Sheol (the grave)
Or let your faithful one see the pit.

Reading this psalm without Peter's interpretation, you would simply understand it as a prayer for protection but Peter uses the established Jewish principles of interpretation to uncover its "hidden" meaning as a prophecy of the Messiah's resurrection.

A number of the sermons reported in Acts follow this pattern.  In Acts 3 Peter tells a crowd, "you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead".  In Acts 5 he says, "The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."  That pattern is later repeated in both Peter's and Paul's messages to a variety of audiences.

The point here is that the resurrection is God's verdict on the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and by extension the Roman Empire.  This conflict is shown in the gospels in Jesus' various arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, culminating in Jesus' cleansing of the temple and finally in his arrest and crucifixion.  While his death appeared to end the question in the expected way, with the powerful triumphing once again, the resurrection provides a surprise ending, a plot twist in which the underdog wins out after all.

The practical implication of this for the disciples, and for those who come after them, is that they should keep going.  This is the chief message that Jesus gives them in the various gospel accounts of his post-resurrection appearances.  In Matthew 28 he says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."  In John 20 he gives a more comprehensive commission: "As the father has sent me, so I send you".  This is also the main burden of the dialogue with Peter in John 21.  In a scene many commentators link with Peter's threefold denial on the night of Jesus' arrest, he asks Peter three times, "do you love me", Peter affirms that he does, and Jesus tells him, "feed my sheep".  The last time, he also predicts Peter's own execution.

The resurrection, whatever the apostles meant by it, reinforced Jesus' message of the Kingdom and the things he had taught them during his time with them.  It gave them the strength to continue in the face of opposition, indeed in the face of a real threat of execution by a ruthless and corrupt government, to proclaim the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and to continue the work he had begun.

New Life Right Now
The second practical application of the idea of the resurrection, which we have through Paul's teaching in particular, is much more symbolic and metaphorical.  The resurrection should inspire us to be come new people.  Paul puts this most clearly in Romans 6.  Baptism, he says, is a symbolic identification with Jesus' death and resurrection.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved by sin....  So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

A little later, in chapter 7, he extends the analogy to a discussion about the law, which he sees as the means of revealing and heightening our sin without having the power to overcome it.

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

He puts it more poetically in Ephesians 2.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

The resurrection offers us a new hope and a new beginning.  We do not need to go on being trapped in our old patterns of behaviour, our old failures, our old legalisms, our fruitless attempts at mending our lives.  He offers us the chance to put our old selves to death and begin again, to die only to live again.  This new life is freedom from the dead hand of law, freedom from our destructive ways, and freedom instead to be like Christ, in fact to become him or to become part of him in our new lives.

Future Hope
The final point is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15, which I alluded to in the previous post.  The resurrection gives us hope for a future which will be better than the present, for a final escape from death and suffering.  After presenting the apostolic tradition about the resurrection he gets to the point.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

And later he goes on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.



We all have to face our own death, and the deaths of those close to us, We face the ending of things we hoped would go on forever.  We face the ending of our culture, the realisation that we won't achieve all our dreams, and the pain of a thousand griefs leading up to our final end.

The resurrection represents a promise to us that this is not all there is, that God holds out new life to us.  It reminds us not to eternalise things that are temporary, to put them into perspective.

Scientifically, this doesn't make sense, and we find it hard to really believe it.  We can't see how it will happen.  Paul struggles with this himself, groping for words and images which will get across what he means.  The relationship of a seed to the final plant.  The difference between us and the sun, moon and stars.  Earthly dust and the stuff of heaven.  He can't describe it adequately, but he has seen Jesus, and this gives him assurance that it is true.

Conclusion
Often as Christians we are very caught up in what divides us.  Is the resurrection a physical event, a series of visions or a later legend?  Is there a place called heaven, and what is it like?  These are all, in a sense, questions about what is "out there".  They are diversions which keep what is important to us at a distance, and relieve us of the need to talk about our doubts and fears, about what is "in here".

Yet these more personal and collective meanings are something on which we are much closer to agreement.  We all need the courage to keep going, to keep proclaiming justice and mercy when it seems hard, fruitless or even dangerous, just as Jesus' disciples did after their Master was executed.  We all need to begin anew, to be able to put our failures and weaknesses behind us and take hold of a new and better life.  We all need hope to save us from the despair which Paul puts his finger on: "let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

If our fears, failings and mortality is all there is, we may as well give up.  Jesus's resurrection gives us hope for more, and so we can keep going.

Resurrection 1: Evidence

A while ago I wrote a series of posts about Jesus' miracles.  Without wanting to go over old ground, the general drift was that the miracles are teaching incidents.  They are not intended as displays of divine power, but as illustrations of the nature of the Kingdom of God coming among us.  Did they happen?  Not sure, I don't dismiss them but I hold their factuality relatively lightly.

Anyway, I kind of hinted then that I would do a separate post on the Resurrection, but it's taken me a while to get around to it.  It's a difficult subject and not one to be taken on lightly.  However some of my recent reading, including William Lane Craig, Paul Barnett and Geza Vermes, has helped to crystallise my thinking about the question in a way I think is worth telling you about.  I'll do it in two parts, otherwise it would be too long - this one looks at the evidence for the resurrection as an historical phenomenon, the next will look at what it meant for the early Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus is a central event in the Christian faith.  In my youth, encouraged by some of my early teachers, I often attempted to use the "proofs" of the resurrection as an evangelistic strategy - after all, if Jesus could be shown to have risen from the dead then he must be the Son of God and everyone should then believe.  I was kind of baffled when people remained clearly unconvinced by the arguments.  It all seemed so convincing to me when Lewis said it, or when Frank Morrison or Josh McDowell laid out the proofs one by one.

Conservative Christians are still at it, as I found reading Craig, but I no longer find it convincing, at least not in that way.  I have often said that the main point of apologetics is to keep believers in the faith, not to convert skeptics.  Yet when the arguments fell apart for me my faith did not.  It just became less literal.  It became more faith, less pseudo-history.

What are we to do then, with the arguments about the resurrection?  The traditional view of this event is that it is a literal, bodily resurrection.  Is belief in such an event sustainable?  If not, should we therefore abandon Christianity?  Or are there other ways to look at this event?

I want to approach this issue in three ways.  First, I want to look at the "strong" arguments for the resurrection as an historical event.  Second, I want to look at the main problems or confusing aspects of this story.  The finally, in the next post, I want to make some brief tentative comments about where this might leave us.

Strong Arguments
One of the things that's surprised me is the wide currency of the argument from transformation.  This is the line of reasoning that says that something transformed the Apostles from a group of frightened fugitives to bold preachers who were prepared to die for their message.  According to the Gospels, when Jesus was arrested all his disciples fled except Peter, and he denied knowing Jesus.  Later they hid in the upper room of the house they were staying with their doors locked.  Yet if the Book of Acts is at all accurate, within a couple of months they were proclaiming Jesus as Christ on the streets of Jerusalem and refusing to back down in the face of threats from the Jerusalem authorities who had Jesus killed.  What explains this transformation?


This argument is used by conservatives like Lewis, Craig and McDowell, but is also accepted by writers of a much more skeptical bent, including John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes.  What makes this a strong argument for there being an actual event behind the resurrection stories is that it's not something you would make up.  A story concocted at a later date to justify people's actions would not show the movement's leaders in such a bad light.  It would not show Jesus appearing to the women of the group while the men stayed away, and then the men refusing to believe the story until they were convinced with their own eyes.  If you were making this stuff up, you would show yourself, or your leaders, in a much more favourable light.

The other thing which is often seen as being in favour of this being an historical event is that it is unprecedented in Jewish thought.  Some of my early teachers liked to suggest that the resurrection was somehow proof of Jesus' messianic status, but first century Jews had no such notion.  For them the resurrection was an end time event at which all the dead would be raised to life and judged, with those found righteous admitted to paradise.  If you wanted to prove you were the Messiah, rising from the dead wouldn't help.  Getting rid of the Romans would.  The idea of the resurrection vindicating Jesus' messianic claims originates in Christianity.

One explanation that is sometimes put forward is that this is a borrowing from pagan mythology.  The Greek god Osiris, for instance, died and then rose again.  The fertility goddess Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld (the place of the dead) in winter and returned in spring.  Sir James Frazer's classic The Golden Bough popularised the notion that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is another outgrowth of this widespread fertility myth, and Paul even uses the illustration of a seed when talking about the subject.

The problem with this option, and the reason you mostly find it in pseudo-histories rather than works of serious scholarship, is that there is no evidence the apostles were influenced by these myths.  First century Christianity was very much a Jewish religion, spreading from believing Jews to Gentile God-fearers and working out from there.  The faith of the New Testament is expressed in wholly Jewish terms, and compromise with pagan religion is strongly forbidden.

Something transformed the Apostles and gave them the courage to fearlessly proclaim the crucified Jesus as a risen Messiah.  But what happened, and how are we to understand it?

Puzzling Questions
When we move from this general, circumstantial evidence to the specific resurrection stories, we move into much murkier territory.

It is clear that belief in Jesus' resurrection arose quite early in the life of the church.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul begins his discussion of the resurrection like this:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 
that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 
and that he appeared to Cephas, 
and then to the Twelve. 
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, 
most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 
Then he appeared to James, 
then to all the apostles, 
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Paul Barnett, among other scholars, suggests that this recital is part of a creed or liturgical formulation which Paul may have been taught on his induction into the faith or sometime shortly after.  Even if he learned it later it clearly pre-dates the letter in which it appears since Paul is restating what he has already taught them.  1 Corinthians is fairly reliably dated to around 55 CE.  This provides a kind of way marker in our knowledge of early Christianity.  By this date at the very latest, Christians were firm in their belief in the resurrection.

This is not the same, however, as saying that we have eyewitness accounts.  Aside from Paul's final line (to which I shall return) all of these events are reported at a distance.  This is the same for the gospel accounts.  Mark records no appearances.  Luke never had any personal contact with Jesus and relied on later research and tradition.  Matthew, if the traditional authorship is correct, was one of Jesus' disciples but his account is not a personal one - it is a recording of oral traditions, many of which he shares word for word with Mark and Luke.  Only John presents us with an account which may possibly be personal, although John's gospel appears to have been filtered through a number of editors before it reached the form we have.

There are also discrepancies in the accounts.  Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem or return to Galilee? To how many women did Jesus appear in the garden? How long did he stay around for after the resurrection?  These discrepancies lend a baffling air to the story.  However, they are not the most pressing issue.

I believe the resurrection stories present us with three key questions about the resurrection: what sort of appearances are being described? where was Jesus after the resurrection? and where is he now?

The traditional Christian view is that Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection - that his dead flesh
returned to life.  Some of the stories seem to support this.  For instance, in John 21 seven of the disciples are out fishing and they see Jesus on the shore - they return to shore and sit with him, eating some fish and discussing various things.  It seems highly natural, just like any unexpected meeting with a friend.  However, other stories in John are much less natural.  When Mary meets Jesus in the garden she doesn't recognise him until he makes himself known - then he tells her not to touch him "because I have not yet ascended to the Father".  Later, he twice enters the disciples' meeting room through locked doors.

Perhaps there's just some ambiguity in John's account, but Luke's is even stranger.  Two disciples are on a journey when Jesus appears to them.  He walks with them for some distance, discussing the relationship between Jesus' life and ancient prophecy, and joins them at the wayside inn for a meal, all without them recognising him.  Then before they eat he blesses the food and "their eyes are opened", at which point Jesus promptly disappears. The end of the story is quite curious, as on their return to Jerusalem the pair tell the other disciples what they have seen, "and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread".

Paul's list of appearances only deepens the mystery.  He doesn't describe any of these appearances, merely lists them, but at the end he adds an appearance to himself.  He provides no more detail of his own experience than of anyone else's but Luke, his later travelling companion and apologist, narrates the event in Acts 9.

...suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  He asked, "Who are you, Lord?"  The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."...The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no-one.

Paul/Saul is struck blind by this vision and does not recover his sight for three days.


This description is repeated, with minor variations, three more times in the book of Acts, in speeches attributed to Paul.  In one his companions see the light but do not hear the voice.  Another contains an expanded account of what Jesus said to Paul.

What is being described each time is not a meeting with a human being returned to life, it is a full-on mystical experience, an encounter with a divine messenger.  Flashing lights, a disembodied voice and a seminal. life changing message.  Paul places this experience alongside the others on his list as if they are all the same sort of thing.

He reinforces this point further in in the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. ...

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 

Paul sees a resurrected person as qualitatively different to the person before they die, and as far superior, just as Acts shows him encountering a powerful being.

So what is the resurrection?  Is it the man Jesus returning to bodily life and walking among his disciples again?  Or is it a series of striking mystical experiences which profoundly change the lives of those who experience them?

The second question, which tends to reinforce this point, is this: where was Jesus during the resurrection accounts?  It is clear that prior to his execution he lived with the disciples - they shared accommodation, they ate together, they travelled together.  Yet his post-resurrection appearances are just that - he comes and goes mysteriously, and in between they are on their own, puzzling among themselves about what all this means.  Where is Jesus in between these appearances, and what is he doing?

Leaving aside the wild and woolly speculations of the pseudo-historians, there are not many clues to this in the gospels themselves.  John possibly hints that he is coming and going from heaven, the abode of God - when he meets Mary in the garden he tells her not to touch him because he has "not yet ascended to (his) Father", but later he invites Thomas to touch his scars.  Does John intend us to understand that in between these two appearances he has, in fact, ascended and then returned?

Which brings us to the third question: where is Jesus now? Or to put it another way, where did he go after his final appearance?  Matthew, Mark and John are silent on this question.  Luke, however, does attempt an explanation.  In Luke 24:51 he tells as "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven".  He repeats the story at the beginning of Acts with a more graphic description: "as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight".  This idea of ascension is reinforced in the next chapter in Peter's Pentecost sermon, where he describes Jesus as "exalted at the right hand of God".

I have dealt with this description previously in my second post on Jesus' miracles, but it is worth repeating.  The primary view of the universe in the first century, and up to the time of Copernicus and Galileo in the Renaissance, was the Ptolemaic view.  According to Ptolemy the universe was a series of spheres, with the earth at the centre and various layers above containing the sun, moon, stars and so on.  The final, outermost sphere was the abode of God.  Hence if Jesus returned to be with God after his resurrection, he must have travelled upwards through the various levels, from which he would one day return.

This is a perfectly rational description on the basis of first century science, but our current knowledge of the universe renders it nonsense.  If Jesus travelled up into the sky he either suffocated or, assuming his heavenly body was capable of surviving in outer space, he is still going, travelling among the stars and doing who knows what?

The only way to make any sense of this story is to understand that it is symbolic.  It is not a literal, factual account of what happened but a way of illustrating Jesus' exalted status and his new relationship with his followers.  He is no longer with them in person, but his message is vindicated and he remains with them "in spirit".

Conclusion
The apostles genuinely believed that after Jesus was crucified he was raised from the dead, and that he appeared to them.  However, their descriptions of these appearances are enigmatic and brief, and suggest that this was not a simple return to life but a return to a qualitatively different type of existence - a "heavenly body", a figure who came and went mysteriously before finally disappearing from the scene in order to return to heaven to be with his Father.  He is still overseeing them, guiding them through his Spirit and waiting the time of his final descent.

What use did they make of this story?  How did it influence how they acted, and what they taught their followers?  This is the subject of my next post.

Friday, 17 July 2015

More Lives of Jesus 10: Paul Barnett

There is a stunning amount of scholarship and pseudo-scholarship about Jesus in circulation, and the flow doesn't show any sign of letting up.  I guess with 2.4 billion people around the world identifying as Christian in some way, there's no shortage of interest in the subject.

Unlike the spate of recent writings on the subject, the sources of evidence are strictly finite.  There are documents - the writings of Jesus' first followers, plus scattered (generally brief) references in non-Christian contemporaries like Tacitus, Josephus or Celsus.  There is a wide range of contextual information from historians and archaeologists which can throw light on the meaning of these documents and against which they can be checked.

Yet out of this evidence, or out of the silences between the evidence, authors have produced a huge variety of pictures of Jesus - divine being, freedom fighter, charismatic prophet, cynic philosopher, even (as we shall see) a wholly imaginary person.  You can't help but think that these differences arise much more from what people bring to the evidence than from what they take from it.  As Albert Schweitzer wrote, "there is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus".

So, Paul Barnett.  Barnett is a prominent Australian New Testament historian.  He has both served as Anglican Bishop of North Sydney and taught a More College, the Sydney Anglican seminary.  Sydney is renowned worldwide as a bastion of evangelical Anglicanism, and Barnett is one of its senior leaders and teachers.  Of the writers I have reviewed so far he most resembles John Dickson, another Sydney Anglican.  However while Dickson writes simply for a wide audience Barnett is more scholarly and "difficult" - at least sometimes.

He has written a number of historical books about Jesus and first century Christianity, and I've just read two of them.  The first is called Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, published in 1999.

Barnett's aim is to summarise and interpret the evidence he finds in the various early sources, with the New Testament as the primary source and other sources referred to to amplify, illuminate or complement this message.  Unlike more skeptical scholars, Barnett has a very 'high' view of the reliability of the New Testament books as historical documents.  He accepts the traditional authorship of the books, even those such as the pastoral epistles which most scholars at least regard as doubtful, and when there is debate about the date of composition he invariably opts for the earliest date.

He also has a good deal of faith in the factual accuracy of the authors and in particular the gospels.  His view is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are examples of the Greek/Roman genre of biography.  This is not the same as modern biography, but is intended to provide a portrait of a prominent person, drawing on incidents from their life to illustrate their achievements and their character.  It would have been nice to know more about this but he doesn't expand on the basic point.  What kind of factual accuracy was expected of Roman biographers?  I'm no expert, but having read Plutarch my sense is that the stories about a person need not be strictly factual, provided they illustrate the character the biographer seeks to portray.  This is not history in the modern sense, but it is expected to provide a reasonably faithful (if often stylised) portrait of an historical person.

Barnett's method, and his view of the accuracy of his documents, leads him pretty naturally to a traditional view of Jesus and of the church.  He sees Jesus' miracles as factual events, his claim to be the Son of God as intended literally, his resurrection as an actual bodily return to life recorded by eyewitnesses, his ascension as something genuinely witnessed by the apostles.  There is no distinction here between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith - the documents of faith are also documents of history and traditional Christian belief, for Barnett, is the most natural and logical interpretation of the historical data.

However, Barnett is not quite an inerrantist.  For instance, at one point he discusses Luke's description of Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem to take part in the census of Quirinius.  The problem is that this census took place in the year 12 CE, when Jesus would have already been at least 16 years old.  He does try out an explanation based on a convoluted reading of the original Greek and the idea of a series of censuses, but in the end he seems relaxed about the idea that Luke (or his source) may simply have made a mistake.

What's much more interesting is the way he takes the story on past Jesus' ascension to the birth and expansion of the early church.  There is a period of between 15 and 20 years between the incidents of Jesus' life and the writing of the earliest New Testament documents.  Barnett identifies the earliest of these as Paul's letter to the Galatians, written somewhere around 49 CE.  What was happening in these years?

Barnett ingeniously traces a sequence of events by bringing together Luke's account in the book of Acts and references in the various writings of Paul, Peter, James and John.  This allows him to do two things.

The first is to trace the development of early oral traditions about Jesus and the Christian faith.  Where the gospels bring together oral traditions relating to Jesus' life and teachings, Paul's writings incorporate a number of early statements of belief which Barnett suggests he learned from his first teachers and memorised in the manner of Jewish rabbinical instruction.  For instance, he interprets Paul's recital of the witnesses to the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as an early statement of belief, perhaps learned from Paul's first Christian teachers in Damascus.  This allows Barnett to trace belief in the Resurrection and in other doctrines like Jesus' divinity (expressed in the piece of oral teaching recorded in Philippians 2) to very early in the history of the church.

The second is to reconstruct the history of the first Christians.  He suggests that from their origin as a united group in Jerusalem the church developed a number of different subgroups.  Within the first couple of years there were already distinctions in the Jerusalem church between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking Jewish Christians.  By the time the books of the New Testament were being written there were at least four distinct blocs within the church.

A more traditionally Jewish bloc focused around the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James, and was responsible for both James' epistle and the gospel of Matthew.  A group based in the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora in Palestine and further afield, looking to Peter is its main leader, was responsible for Mark's gospel and the epistles of Peter.  A third group looked to the leadership of John, who originally worked in partnership with Peter but later separated geographically and developed the distinctive theology of the Johannine writings - the gospel and epistles of John and the Book of Revelation.  Finally, a predominantly Gentile bloc was based in the churches founded by Paul and his assistants, and responsible for Paul's epistles as well as the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In Barnett's view these groups were not necessarily at war and there were not firm barriers between them.  For instance, Peter speaks approvingly of Paul, while both Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark.  Still, there were serious tensions between them.  This is shown clearly in Paul's critique of both James and Peter in Galatians, and less clearly in facts like Paul's decision not to visit Rome once he realised that Peter had beaten him to it, and the unexplained supplanting of Peter by James as leader of the Jerusalem church.  The result for Barnett is a core of agreement, expressed in the creedal statements, alongside significant differences in emphasis and different ways of expressing their faith.  From it's earliest days, Christianity has incorporated debate and difference.  Why should it be different now?

It's a shame that Barnett didn't live out this spirit of diversity by engaging with the scholars who interpret the same data differently.  Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity barely mentions this scholarship - where it does it is in quick asides and variant views are briefly entertained and quickly dismissed.

However my second sample of his writings is, in a sense, more forthcoming.  It's a short book, written for a popular audience, called Gospel Truth: Answering the New Atheist attacks on the Gospels, published in 2012.  The title is self-explanatory - this is a work of apologetics aimed a refuting various claims made by atheist writers by deploying the scholarship displayed in his earlier work.

In Barnett's sights are the most prominent atheist boosters of the 21st century - Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.  One of the tactics all of these writers employ is the idea that modern bible scholarship has "shown" or "proved" that the claims of traditional Christianity are unfounded.  Typical is his quote from Hitchens' God is Not Great saying that there is "no firm evidence whatsoever that Jesus was a 'character in history'" and that there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus".

I can understand Barnett's concern as a pastor and retired bishop to refute high profile attacks on his faith.  However, for a scholar like Barnett it is like shooting fish in a barrel.  If this Gang of Four share one thing other than their strident atheism it is the depth of their ignorance of the religions they critique.  Instead of making a serious study of the subject, they tend to leap on a half-understood fact or argument and work it for all it is worth.  Hence, Hitchens has read a book (The Jesus Myth by GA Wells, apparently) that suggests that Jesus is entirely mythical and since this suits his purposes he quotes it as fact.

Barnett duly runs rings around his putative (and absent) opponents, showing that there is indeed strong evidence for not only Jesus' existence but for many of the facts of his life as recorded in the gospels, reiterating his high view of their accuracy as works of history.  He uses this knowledge, and this confidence, as a stepping off point to do a little evangelism of his own.

Barnett's scholarship is certainly impressive, his grasp of detail is forensic.  Nonetheless, you can say the same of Geza Vermes or John Dominic Crossan, not to mention Albert Schweitzer, and each of them reach very different conclusions from their examination of much the same evidence.  Are these differences resolvable, or are they just part of the wonderful diversity of ways of seeing which has been with the church from its very beginning?

Friday, 10 July 2015

Let Love Speak Up Itself

Ok, so I've been participating in the debate about same sex marriage, in a desultory sort of way.  I'm for it.  I don't feel that strongly about it, but if people really want it I can't see why they should be refused.

I'm not enjoying the debate though.  It seems to be so black and white, as if it was clear what marriage is and it's just a question of who has access to it.  Like cornflakes, or the internet.  I'm longing for a discussion which actually talks about the question in a meaningful way.

Recently I got a taxi home from the airport, and the driver was a young Indian man, as most of them are now in Brisbane.  He had just been married over in India, and was hanging out for the day when his wife's visa was approved so they could be together.  He was more than happy to talk about the whole thing at length.


Like a lot of Indian marriages, this one had been arranged for him.  His uncle had gone looking, found a girl who he and other relatives thought would be suitable, and negotiated the marriage with her family.  The couple then met via Skype (he in Australia, she in India), decided they thought it could work, and the marriage went ahead.

For me, this sort of marriage seems really risky.  I can't imagine myself ever contracting a marriage that way.  However, I have heard that Indian arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate than love matches.  I asked him why he thought that was so, and he said it was because both extended families have arranged it and so if the marriage breaks down you shame your family.  You have taken on a collective responsibility, it is not just about you.

This is fine for Indian people, but it seems totally foreign to 21st Century Westerners.  In our culture, marriage is a matter for the couple.  Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, they decide this could be a lifelong partnership, and they announce their intention to marry.  Their families may like the idea, they may not, but it's really not up to them and in the end they just have to live with it.

This is not how marriage has always been in our culture, but it is now so deeply embedded that it would be really difficult to do it any other way.  We are are so strongly trained for it.  It shapes the way we see the word 'love', the idea of love, in a way that is so embedded that it seems natural and we don't recognise it as a cultural artefact.

Gottfried von Strassburg describes our view of love brilliantly in Tristan and Isolde, the tragic tale of the lifelong affair between Tristan and Isolde, wife of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall.  Tristan is sent to Ireland to contract Mark's marriage with Isolde, daughter of the Irish king (yes, an arranged marriage brokered by relatives).  In order to ensure a happy marriage for her daughter, the Queen of Ireland entrusts Isolde's maidservant with a love potion to be served to the couple on their wedding night.  Due to a mix up Tristan and Isolde drink it on their voyage back to Cornwall instead, and fall hopelessly and permanently in love.  The marriage goes ahead as planned, but disaster follows as Tristan and Isolde have a long running affair.  They can't help it.  Love has a hold of them and will not let go.

Von Strassburg describes love like this.

...a lover's fancy acts like a free bird which, in the freedom it enjoys, perches on a lime-twig; and when it perceives the lime and lifts itself for flight stays clinging by the feet.  And so it spreads its wings and makes to get away, but, as it does so, cannot brush against the twig at any part, however lightly, without the twig's fettering it and making it a prisoner.  So now it strikes with all its might, here, there and everywhere, till at last, fighting itself, it overcomes itself and lies limed along the twig.  This is just how untamed fancy behaves.  When it falls into sad love-longing and love works its miracle of love-lorn sadness on him, the lover strives to regain his freedom: but love's clinging sweetness draws him down and he ensnares himself in it so deeply that, try as he may, he cannot get free of it.

In von Strassburg's day this kind of love was not yet linked to marriage.  Instead it was linked to infidelity and ultimately ended in tragedy.  Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere , Matty Groves, The Trumpeter of Fyvie, you name it.  Marriage was a matter of business and dynasty.  Love, on the other hand, was a disruptive force that could get you killed.  A sweet poison.

Some say that what changed this was the Industrial Revolution.  Its disruption of traditional family and community life led to a steady increase in the importance of the nuclear family.  When I was growing up my grandparents, and all my aunts, uncles and cousins, were on the other side of the world.  Even there they were fragmented.  For us, it was mum, dad and the kids.  All my friends were the same.  They had grandparents and aunts and uncles, sure, but they didn't live with them, they may not even see them much.  We all lived as little family units in our little suburban houses.

In this situation, everyone chooses their own life partner.  The wise and mature deliberations of parents, aunts and uncles are replaced by the passions and preferences of the couple themselves.  We live in the age of Love, the age in which von Strassburg's lime-covered twig is no longer seen as a trap, but as the guiding force of our lives.

In this age we have all come to talk of love as von Strassburg does.  You can see how this works in a little song by The Beautiful South called 'Let Love Speak Up Itself'.



Did you notice how it begins?

Don't whisper love and dream of wedding bells
Don't do all the talking
Let love speak up itself


And a bit later.

And let it rise up in the morning and take us for a walk
And let it do the talking when we're too tired to talk, oh
When we're too tired to talk


Richard Thompson has the same idea.

If love whispers your name
Breathes in your ear
Sighs in the rain.

Love is no longer merely a feeling or an attitude, or even a trap.  It is now a living entity.  It has its own voice, its own thoughts.  It can speak for itself.  Love has become a thing over which we have no control.  It is much like the Spirit in Jesus' illustration to Nicodemus - "the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from, nor where it goes to".  We don't choose it, it chooses us.  Elvis Presley's song expresses it perfectly.

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can't help falling in love with you.
Should I stay, would it be a sin?
I can't help falling in love with you.

Like a river flows surely to the sea
Darling so it goes, some things were meant to be
Take my hand, take my whole life too
I can't help falling in love with you.

Right or wrong doesn't come into it, because you have no choice.  The wise men, the uncles and parents who once arranged our marriages, have no say in the matter.  It's as natural and inevitable as the river flowing to the sea.  Fortunately, unlike Tristan and Isolde, Elvis is not constrained by family or dynastic considerations.  The couple, and all the couples at whose wedding this song is sung, are free to promise their lives to each other.

But of course this also has a downside.  Despite our best intentions, love may choose to stay away, like in Mumford and Sons' 'Winter Winds'.

And my head told my heart, "let love grow",
But my heart told my head, "this time no, this time no".

The poor woman, who has been strung along in a passionate affair all winter, gets no say.  She just has to get over it.

But if your strife strikes at your sleep
Remember spring swaps snow for leaves
You'll be happy and wholesome again
When the city clears and the sun ascends.

The fact that he causes her pain is regrettable but unavoidable.  It's not him, it's his heart.  In other words, it is Love, speaking up itself.

If love is a thing in itself, there is another problem.  Just as it comes unbidden, it may leave unbidden.  It may die before us, leaving us bereft.  This is the sting in The Beautiful South's song, the downside of love speaking up itself.

So when you feel a little tatty and unhappy with your face
Let it breathe into us and put you back in place
Let it breathe, let it breathe
From the day it came into us
Till the day it wants to leave for it will, it will go
And it will not say goodbye just like it didn't say hello


Just as love can whisper our name, it can fall strangely silent.  It can rot away, or it can simply disappear.  That will be it.  Just as we can't either summon or refuse it, when it chooses to leave there is nothing we can do to hold it.  We might as well try and catch the wind, as Donovan famously sang.

In 1984 Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro starred in a move called Falling in Love.  Both of them are married, as happily as any of us are, and neither is looking for an escape or an affair when they meet by chance.  Across the movie they keep meeting, first by accident then increasingly by design.  Love ensnares them despite their best intentions, sweeping them into a chaste but intense affair which finally ends both their marriages.  Love has spoken and they are powerless to resist.  Their partners, their children, their promises at the altar all have to give way before its power.  Love, as von Strassburg tells is, is the pain that gives pleasure and the pleasure that gives pain.  Either way, it reigns supreme.

You may think that this is merely poetic fancy, but it has even found its way into something as prosaic as Australian family law.  In 1975 the Whitlam Government passed the Family Law Act which, among other things, enshrined the concept of no fault divorce into Australian law.  Other Western countries passed similar legislation at around this time.

Prior to this, to obtain a divorce one or other of the couple would have to sue for it, citing grounds.  Someone had to have seriously breached the terms of the marriage - for instance, through infidelity or cruelty.  The other party could contest it, denying culpability, and if the accusation was considered unproved divorce could be denied.  

The law always lags behind the culture.  Fault-based divorce is quite appropriate for the type of marriage practiced by my Indian cab driver.  As long as everyone in the relationship (the couple, and their in-laws) behave with basic kindness and decency there is no reason to divorce.  Just as romantic love is not a precondition for marriage, its absence is not a reason for divorce.

No fault divorce, on the other hand, is carefully designed for a marriage system based on romantic love.  If love is like the wind that comes and goes as it pleases, if it has its own voice and its own will, then if it has gone that is no-one's fault.  It's sad, but inevitable.  All of us, even the august judges of the family court, have to bow to its will.

How are we to view this as Christians?  Well, what we have in society now is neither "Biblical marriage" nor "unbiblical marriage".  Of course, you only have to google "Biblical Marriage" to find memes telling you that this idea itself is diverse and variable, including monogamy, polygamy, levirate marriage, compulsory marriage of a victim with her rapist and other variations on the theme.  Romantic marriage is notably absent from these memes.  

When Paul says "husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church" he means something quite different.  The Greeks had a word for the kind of love I have been describing, eros, romantic or sexual love.  This word does not appear in the New Testament.  Instead, Paul uses the word agape, selfless and altruistic love, the love that gives without expecting anything in return.  This is the love he describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is patient and kind
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
It does not insist on its own way
It is not irritable or resentful
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing
But rejoices in the truth
It bears all things, believes all things
Hopes all things, endures all things.

This is the love Christians aspire to, although we constantly fall short.  But it is not the love around which 21st century Western marriage is built.

Does this mean that 21st century marriage is wrong, or sinful?  I don't think so.  It just is.  It is no more or less sacred than arranged marriage, levirate marriage, polygamy or dynastic marriage.  All of them are cultural institutions, evolved or designed to meet the needs of their communities or societies.  Romantic marriage does not appear in the Bible because no-one had thought if it yet.  It is the custom of the industrial and post-industrial societies we inhabit.  As long as we are part of this culture, we will practice it too.  Just as Paul taught his followers to practice agape in their arranged marriages, we need to do so in our romantic marriages.  This will, perhaps, make them "Christian" or "Biblical" in the New Testament sense.  Without it they are not, they are merely cultural.

But to come back to where I started, same sex marriage.  If love is a wind which blows where it will, an independent power over which we have no control, then same sex marriage is simply a logical consequence of this, an integral aspect of romantic marriage.  If love chooses to ensnare two men, or two women, in the same net this can no more be helped than if it ensnares a man and a woman.  Wise men may counsel otherwise all they like, but it is as inevitable as the river running to the sea.  A man or woman so ensnared will never manage a 21st century heterosexual romantic marriage, no matter how much they want to.  

Love has spoken up itself.  We can only deny it by denying the whole basis of marriage in our society.

Friday, 26 June 2015

National Security Arithmetic

So, I've been too busy to blog lately and it has taken a real piece of political idiocy to draw me out of my cave.

No, it's not the controversy about Zaky Mallah and Q&A, although it's related.  Zaky Mallah is a 31-year-old Australian man of Lebanese descent who is currently in the headlines here in Australia for his appearance on an ABC talk show.

Back in 2003, at the age of 20, Mallah was charged with terrorism offences after making a video in which he threatened to carry out a suicide bombing on ASIO headquarters.  After two years in remand, he was acquitted of the terrorism charges on the basis that he was incited to make the video by an undercover ASIO agent.  He was convicted of a lesser (non-terrorism) charge of threatening Commonwealth officials.  Two years in jail is a long time for making a stupid video.

These days he is an outspoken Islamic activist of independent mind.  He is an firm opponent of Islamic State but also a fierce critic of the current Government's approach to terrorism.

He made two points on Q&A.  The first, his initial question, was to make the point that under the proposed new citizenship law, someone in his position could have their citizenship cancelled - implying that this would be unjust since he was acquitted.  The response from panellist Steven Ciobo, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, was that he was acquitted on a technicality and that he (Ciobo) would be happy to see Mallah removed from Australia.  (This is factually incorrect - Mallah was acquitted because he was a victim of entrapment and not an actual terrorist).

Mallah's follow-up point was that Ciobo had just provided a classic example of why young Islamic men are attracted to join IS - because the leaders of our nation (like Ciobo) appear to make it abundantly clear that they are not welcome in Australia.  This against the background that Mallah is on record repeatedly criticising and condemning IS.

The government's subsequent outrage at the ABC appears to be about Mallah, but is really about silencing one of the few remaining independent voices in the Australian media.  It follows up on things like the vilification of the ABC last year for reporting claims that naval officers had physically assaulted asylum seekers at sea.  If the Government launched an inquiry every time someone said something offensive or inflammatory on air, officials of the Department of Communications would never sleep.  Try listening to Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt sometime.

All this is depressing but it's nothing new.  The Abbot government has repeatedly demonstrated that it is uncomfortable with democracy and accountability, and would prefer to shoot the messenger than respond to the message.  Just ask Gillian Triggs.

The trouble is that in the middle of all this noise we seem to have missed something much more revealing.  On Wednesday Tony Abbot paid a PR visit to ASIO headquarters and was filmed meeting with ASIO chief Duncan Lewis.  As the cameras rolled the pair were discussing a set of maps which show the areas in Sydney and Melbourne where ASIO has identified the highest concentrations of terror suspects.


Bill Shorten latched onto this story in parliament yesterday, accusing the Prime Minister of airing classified documents on national TV.  The accusation is absurd.  Abbot would undoubtedly do something that stupid, but Duncan Lewis would not.  Shorten is obviously tired and not thinking straight.  It's been a bad month.  He and his party are plunging in the polls.  His name has come up in the Royal Commission for Keeping Union Misdemeanours on the Front Pages.  He also played an unflattering cameo in The Killing Season, Sarah Ferguson's expose of the long-running battle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard for the labor leadership.  Who says the ABC is biased?

However, tiredness is not the only reason Shorten was unable to comment on the real problem in this story. He and his colleagues have been so busy "me-too"-ing on these issues that he has effectively silenced himself.  The Labor Party has yet to oppose any piece of government legislation on national security or asylum seekers, despite the government's relentless trashing of human rights and the rule of law in both policy areas.  Who would have thought, a mere two years ago, that we would be relying on Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir to be the voice of reason on these issues.

All this prevents Shorten from commenting on the real issue in this story which is, as it were, hidden in the fine print.  First of all the maps, highlighted by Lewis's commentary, show in red the suburbs from which the largest number of people have departed to fight for Islamic State.  You guessed it, these are the very suburbs which have the highest concentrations of people with Islamic backgrounds.  Zaky Mallah's point is proved yet again.

However, the main point comes almost incidentally.  In the background of the story we hear Lewis providing Abbot with some numbers.  There are currently 120 Australians fighting overseas for IS and related organisations.  They are supported by a network of about 160 people here in Australia.  I thought I might have heard wrong but Lewis confirms the number in the ABC's online update of the story.

So, do the maths with me.  120+160=280.  That's right, isn't it?  280 people.  40% of whom are on the other side of the world.  That's what our national security policy/debate/hysteria/rhetorical over-reach is all about.  In the name of protecting ourselves from these 280 people we have handed extensive extra powers and resources to ASIO, mandated the collection and retention of vast amounts of private information, changed the citizenship laws to allow the citizenship of Australians to be revoked if we think they are terrorists, mandated harsh prison sentences for offences which in any other context would be viewed as trivial, given police extra powers of search and detention, and vilified Australia's entire Islamic community.  And the Abbot government still wants more.

These must be 280 powerful super-villains, right?  Wrong.  They are mostly young men (and some young women) with troubled pasts who feel excluded from mainstream Australian society and who have been led astray by the passionate rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists.  Zaky Mallah's point - that we are further alienating them through our rhetoric - is spot-on.  The point even Mallah does not make is that the problem is just not that huge.  We are creating a very large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut.

Bill Shorten is unable to point this out because he has been meekly collaborating in the creation of said sledgehammer.  This means all he can do is stand by and look ineffectual.  He looks ineffectual because he is.  He has chosen to be ineffectual.  He likes being ineffectual.  But if he is a mere shadow of Tony Abbot, a man who supports the same policies but without the same fervour, why would we vote for him when we can so easily have the real thing?

Much better to re-elect Ricky Muir.  At least he's prepared to ignore the hysteria and point out the bleeding obvious.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Is Joe Out of Touch?

In the wake of Joe Hockey's comments about housing affordability in Sydney there are various memes circulating which suggest he, and the Coalition government in general, are out of touch with ordinary Australians.  I've been wondering if this is what the comments really show.


Now, if the question was "did Joe say something foolish and insensitive" then the answer would almost certainly be "yes".  No surprise here.  Joe often says foolish and insensitive things.  But that's not the question.  The question is, is he out of touch?

The context was a press conference about an ATO investigation into possible breaches of foreign investment restrictions on real estate.  Apart from the actual subject at hand, Hockey made two key statements about Sydney housing.  The first:

"The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money," 

And the second:

"If housing were unaffordable in Sydney, no-one would be buying it..."

Neither of these comments is actually inaccurate.  The problem is simply that both are ambiguous.

It has always been the case that if you wanted to buy a house, you needed to have secure employment.  Unemployed or underemployed people have never been able to buy housing in Australia - unless of course they inherited money.

What has shifted, if you like, is the definition of a "good job" and "good money".  It used to be that if you had a job as a tradie, or a steady job in a factory where you got to do some overtime, you could save enough money to buy a modest home in the Sydney suburbs.

Those days are long gone.  Now you would be flat out finding a home for under $400,000 anywhere in Sydney.  Even unpopular outer suburban local government areas have huge prices.  Blacktown, which includes housing commission suburbs like Bidwill and Mt Druitt where no-one really wants to live, has a median house price over half a million dollars, and the lowest quartile (i.e. the number 25% of houses are below) is above $450,000.  Cambelltown, in the far south-west of Sydney, another area with lots of public housing, has a bottom quartile price of $420,000. Good luck buying one of those on your factory hand's wage.


Not that such jobs are easy to come by these days, especially in the outer suburbs.  Of course unemployment is a problem, but by historical standards the level of unemployment is still fairly low.  The problem is that the definition of a "good job" for home ownership purposes has changed.  Now a "good job" is a well paid professional gig - a lawyer, say, like Joe himself, or doctor, or engineer, or a public service middle manager.  The trouble is that these jobs are not available to everyone.  Indeed, even those once secure factory jobs are now mostly a thing of the past.  Instead, people without high levels of education are doing things like caring for older people, or working in the retail industry, usually on a casual basis.

So Joe is not wrong, but for an awful lot of people his advice is unhelpful.

His second point is even more revealing, even insightful by Joe's standards.  People are indeed buying housing in Sydney.  Demand exceeds supply.  Who is doing all this buying?

Some of it is being done by overseas buyers, and some of these purchases may be technically illegal - but not many.  The ATO is only investigating 200 cases.

Most of the houses is being bought by people with good jobs that pay good money.  Some of these houses are being bought for their owners to live in.  Others are being bought to rent out for amounts slightly (but not hugely) more affordable than they are to buy.  These investment properties make a loss for their buyers but the owners are able to offset losses against the good money they earn in their good jobs, reducing their overall tax bills.  So in a sense, Joe is helping to pay for them.  If he had the guts he could do something about that.

Just in case Joe hadn't made the point clearly enough his boss Tony Abbott decided to underline it.

"I'm someone who has, over the years, felt a bit of mortgage stress. Even as a cabinet minister, sometimes it's hard to pay a Sydney mortgage and I know over the years I've earnt a lot more than the average person."

I thought perhaps this was further evidence of Tony's inability to manage money.  Then I realised he lives in Forestville on Sydney's northern beaches where the median house price is over $1.2m.  Even a person with a good job would struggle with that.  No wonder Tony was so keen to become Prime Minister.  Joe has probably had the same experience.  He lives a bit further south in North Sydney where the median house price is over $1.7m.

Are Tony and Joe out of touch?  No, they are very much in touch.  Not only do they own their own very expensive houses, but all their neighbours do too.  Of course some inherited them, or bought them when they were much cheaper, but houses are bought and sold in their neighbourhoods all the time.  By people with good jobs.  With some help from Joe.  They are Joe's and Tony's constituents and they are all on the same wavelength.

The problem is not that they are out of touch with ordinary Australians.  The problem is that these days ordinary Australians are a very diverse lot.  The rich - Tony's and Joe's constituents - are so much richer than they ever were.  The poor are not.  Even if they work hard, slaving away in their nursing homes, cleaning the houses of their rich compatriots or working a second job on the weekends, they will never earn enough to buy houses when the prices are set by the increasingly affluent rich.

 Joe and Tony provide a typical rich man's answer - they should get rich too.

If only it were that easy.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Art of Scapegoating

I'm sure all my readers will at least think they are familiar with the art of scapegoating.

It happens in companies.  When something goes wrong, and the company accidentally kills someone or loses lots of money, there are usually multiple system failures that lead up to the problem.  However, as often as not someone will get the blame, and the sack.  This will usually not be the CEO or the Board of Directors, even if it was actually their fault.  It will usually be someone more junior - a person with enough authority to be plausibly blamed for the problem, but not enough power within the company to protect themselves.  They take the blame for everyone else and are ceremoniously banished as a way of removing the stain from the company as a whole.

Countries and the regimes that govern them tend to do the same.  Regimes that are corrupt, or oppressive, or govern in the interests of a small minority, find themselves the target of their people's anger.  They work hard to deflect this anger onto someone else - most often an unpopular minority.  The more corrupt or dictatorial the regime, the harder it will work to whip up anger against its chosen scapegoat.  Nero used the Christians to deflect anger over the fire that destroyed large parts of Rome.  The Nazis used the Jews to unite the rest of the nation behind their corrupt and violent regime.  The military dictators of Myanmar stir up hatred against the Rohingya, then use the resulting unrest as an excuse to delay further democratization.

We shouldn't think that we in Australia, with our strong democratic tradition, are above this sort of behaviour either.  Asylum seekers are talked up as a threat and used to divert attention from a range of unpopular domestic decisions.  Here in Queensland the previous government used outlaw motorcycle gangs as their scapegoat, whipping up a law and order campaign to turn attention away from a serious of unpopular and possibly corrupt pieces of legislation.  The tactic is so widespread, so entrenched in human government, that we often fail to notice it.

The trouble is, we keep doing it wrong.

The original idea of the scapegoat comes from the Hebrew scriptures, in Leviticus 16.  There we read that once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Israelites were to celebrate the Feast of Atonement.  This ritual included the sacrifice of a number of animals.

Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

The bull and the goat chosen "for the Lord" were to be sacrificed at the altar - the bull to atone for the High Priest's own sins, the goat for the sins of the people, using a detailed ritual designed to protect the High Priest in the most holy part of the sanctuary which he would only visit on this day.  After this he would deal with the scapegoat.

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Now I know that my readers are at all points along the spectrum from devout believers to militant atheists.  Still I think we can all agree that the Levitical process is a definite improvement on the Nazi/Myanmar/Abbot approach to scapegoating.

First of all, their scapegoat is a goat.  No people are harmed in this process.  Instead, the mistakes and failings of the Israelites are symbolically taken out on a small number on animals.  Many of us will feel a certain amount of sympathy for the animals involved.  After all, what have they done wrong?  However, you should bear in mind that if these animals were not sacrificed at the altar they would simply be butchered elsewhere.  In fact while the bull and the Lord's goat suffer a messy death, the scapegoat gets a surprising reprieve.  It is turned loose in the wilderness.  Anyone who has traveled in outback Australia will know that goats can survive pretty much anywhere.  As soon as the goat was out of sight it would turn to foraging for whatever scrubby plants it could find and be happily feral for the term of its natural life.


Secondly, neither the sins of the leaders, nor those of the people, are swept under the carpet.  Before he does anything else the High Priest has to sacrifice a bull to atone for his own sins.  The whole nation is watching as he publicly admits to his own failings and does something about them.  He is forbidden from attempting to keep up the illusion that he is without fault.

But so is everyone else.  A goat is killed for the sins of the whole nation.  Then the other goat is symbolically asked to take on board, and to carry away, these sins.  They are publicly confessed.  Was this a "general confession" like churches do now, or did they get down to specifics?  We are not told, but nonetheless the nation's failings are admitted and symbolically transferred onto the goat.  They are then sent out with it into the desert.

They don't disappear altogether.  The goat lives on, presumably carrying its heavy burden of sin as it goes.  I doubt that it cares.  But the sins are removed from sight.  The Israelites are given a chance to make a new beginning, to confess and repent of what has gone before and to start over again, trying to do better in the coming year.  They won't get it right, the ritual will need to be repeated next year.  But it is out in the open, the need to do better is acknowledged by everyone from the High Priest to the lowest farmhand.

It is so simple and transparent, and yet we continue to get it wrong.  We and our leaders refuse to own up to our own failings and instead seek someone else to blame for them.  We try to create the illusion that we are perfect, that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Not only that, but we persistently refuse to take the route God offers us and substitute something less than human for the human victims of our rage and hubris.  Abraham was commanded, at the last moment, to swap his son for a ram, but we refuse.  We keep the ram - because it is profitable and will breed us many more sheep - and sacrifice our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters instead.

So next time you hear complaints about scapegoating, remember that the problem is not that we are scapegoating but that we are failing to scapegoat.  We have lost the skill of scapegoating.  The result of our loss is a world filled with pain.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

New Refinements of Cruelty

I'm sorely tempted to not write about asylum seekers.  I really don't want to.  It's too awful.  But my conscience compels me.  It seems like every time I write an article about this, the story is worse than the last one.


The last time I wrote, our government was complaining that while the Human Rights Commission was criticising them for holding children in detention and the United Nations was highlighting their failure to respect the human rights of asylum seekers in general, no-one was was giving them credit for the amazing human rights achievement of preventing people from drowning at sea.  Mind you, they have never presented a scrap of evidence that they have done this.  They have prevented boatloads of people from arriving in Australia by intercepting them on the way here and sending them back, but there is no evidence that I have seem about where they end up.

Now we are seeing just how hollow this claim is.  It is becoming clear that something like 8,000 asylum seekers are currently at sea around South-East Asia in leaky boats.  Most of them are Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in particular for years - many settled in Australia before our government turned hostile, but many more simply crossed the border into Thailand where they live in camps supported by international aid agencies.  Others have made their way further south to Malaysia where they are officially illegal immigrants but in practice are tolerated and able to work in the grey economy.

They have plenty of reasons to flee.  The government of Myanmar has been pursuing a slow but consistent program of genocide.  It officially denies they exist, even going to the extent of refusing to attend international forums where they are discussed by name.  It claims instead that they are simply Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh, from which it says they have entered the country illegally and to which it says they should return.  However, they are also persecuted in Bangladesh where they are a minority ethnic group.  Meanwhile, most of those still in Myanmar (around 800,000) have been driven from their homes and are living in 'displacement camps' where they rely on charitable donations of food (often stolen by Burmese officials) and are subject to further violence and harassment by the military and extremist Burmese nationalists.

Recently, the Thai government has increased surveillance on its border with Myanmar, preventing refugees from crossing there.  In any case, the Thai border is on the other side of Myanmar to Rakhine state and the Rohingya have to cross unfriendly country to get there.  This means that the safest and quickest avenue of escape is by boat, departing from Myanmar's western coastline and seeking landfall in a safer place.


There are two problems.  The first is that their boats are not seaworthy.  The second is that the governments of the three countries whose waters they enter as they pass down the coast (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) are determined to prevent them from landing.  Thai officials will hurry them along the coast towards Malaysia.   Malaysian officials will give them food, water and directions to Indonesia.  Indonesian officials will do the same and send them back again.  Their boats are not fit to head into the open ocean in an attempt to reach India (and in any case, no-one on board has the navigational skill to get them there) and there is little point any more in attempting the marginally less dangerous crossing to Australia.

The result is that something like 8,000 of them are floating aimlessly around, some for as long as four months, begging asylum from one country after another.  If their boats were arranged by people smugglers their 'official' crew have long since jumped ship and gone home.  In the meantime they suffer dehydration and malnutrition.  They turn on one another in desperation and there is violence and murder.  Some try to swim for shore and drown in the process.

This is what "stopping the boats" means.  I dare Mr Abbott to claim it as a stunning human rights achievement now!

He hasn't gone that far, but he still seems a long way from growing a conscience.  The ABC reports the following.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he supported regional countries taking action to stop people smuggling boats by turning them around and stood by the Australian Government doing the same.

"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary."

What else can he say?  He can hardly ask other countries to do what he is not prepared for us to do, and show some basic human decency.  He can hardly say "nothing is worth the suffering these people are enduring, we just have to do better".  He can only stand by and applaud as our neighbours pull ahead of us in the race to the bottom.  Soon, though, he will have to further ramp up Australia's level of deterrence as even permanent detention on Manus Island starts to look better than the other alternatives on offer.

Of course there are other alternatives.  The most obvious and simple is to admit that the whole project is a cruel farce, and agree to accept these people in wealthy, comfortable Australia where 8,000 desperate refugees would merge into the existing population without a trace and within a few years become productive, valued members of our communities.

Upping the degree of difficulty a little, we could work to solve the problem at its source by changing the terms of our engagement with Myanmar.  Over the last couple of years, Australia and other countries in the region have increasingly embraced Myanmar in response to its military junta taking a few baby steps towards democracy.  No matter that these baby steps did not include either relaxing the military's hold on power, or stopping the genocide of Rohingya which has, if anything, got worse.  Of course this is tricky - an invasion would cause untold suffering, and even sanctions would mostly hurt the poorest people in the community while leaving the rulers untouched.  But surely we can do better than turning  blind eye, which is what we are doing right now.

Meantime, there is one bright note in all this horror.  After a boat containing something like 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers was turned around by both Malaysian and Indonesian navies during a journey that seems to have lasted at least two months, they were finally rescued and brought ashore by poor Acehnese fishermen and brought to their village of Kuala Cangkoi in North Aceh .  Many of them had died before the rescue, fighting had broken out between the two groups, all of the passengers were weak and dehydrated and some had suffered from meningitis.  The military and officials may have been able to ignore this terrible suffering, but the fisherman reached out in common humanity.  They did so at some risk to themselves, since bringing them ashore could be seen as facilitating illegal immigration.


Once they were ashore it was impossible to send them back, and they are safe for the present.  What the future holds is anyone's guess but I think the fishermen of Kuala Cangkoi have pointed the way for us.  If they can see that it is just not right to leave people to starve aboard leaky boats then surely the rest of us can too.  If ordinary citizens can act with common humanity, surely our governments can follow suit.

We can always hope.