Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Gnostic Gospels

In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant by the name of Muhammad Ali al-Samman found a stone jar buried on a mountainside near the town of Nag Hammadi.  Inside were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books.

Over the next couple of years these books found their way, by various circuitous routes, into the collection of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities where in the decades that followed they were examined and translated by an international team of scholars.  The thirteen volumes brought together Coptic translations of over 50 second century Gnostic Christian texts, some completely unknown, some known only through quotes and references in other writings.

This is one of the most important finds in the study of the origins of Christianity, opening up an avenue of understanding that had been closed for more than 1,500 years.  Elaine Pagels joined the team of scholars working on these documents in the late 1960s and has become one of the leading experts in the field.  She has written a number of technical works on the subject, but The Gnostic Gospels, first published in 1979, is her attempt to interpret them for a wider audience.

A warning is in order: the title is misleading.  This is not, as I thought it would be, a summary and explanation of the gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi - gospels purported to be written by Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas and Philip.  Rather, it is a description and analysis of the debate between the gnostic writers and their orthodox critics about the nature of Christianity.

This book would not have been possible before the Nag Hammadi find.  Before then, most of what scholars knew about gnosticism was reconstructed from the writings of its critics.  Now we have the other side of the debate, and Pagels is able to put side by side the writings of the various gnostic teachers and those of defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin and Hippolytus.  For the first time, we can hear both sides of the debate.

Pagels focuses on five issues (listed here in a different order to the way Pagels presents them) - Jesus' passion and resurrection, the nature of God (particularly the question of gender), the authority of the priests and bishops, the question of the "true church" and the pathway to knowing God. On each of these crucial questions there were major differences between gnostic views (not all gnostics saw these issues the same way) and those which came to be considered orthodox.

The orthodox Christian view is that Jesus was really human as well as divine, that his passion involved real suffering and death, and that he then experienced physical resurrection.  For the gnostics it was impossible for a divine being to suffer and a physical resurrection would be pointless.  Hence, they saw the suffering as only applying to his "likeness" while his true self hovered above, laughing.  His "resurrection appearances" were appearances of this true spiritual self, not a resurrected physical person.

This may sound rather esoteric but it has practical consequences.  For the gnostics, the physical body was unimportant.  This led in two directions - in one, physical conduct was irrelevant and you could do what you liked.  In the other, true spirituality involved high levels of asceticism, particularly the denial of sexual activity.  Orthodox believers, on the other hand, saw our physical lives as important, valued appropriate sexuality and did not insist that their followers deny themselves legitimate pleasures.  A further implication, of crucial importance in the second century, was that while martyrdom was highly valued by orthodox believers it was downplayed and even seen as foolish by gnostics, who would rather compromise with authorities.

For orthodox Christians, there is only one God expressed in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This God is in general seen to be male although the Spirit is often seen as without gender.  Gnostics, by contrast, are famous for their complex cosmologies and held a variety of views about the nature of God.  In one of the most widespread, the God of Israel was co-creator with the superior female God Sophia (Wisdom) who may even have created him.  His desire to be seen as the only God is seen in this scheme as an aberration which led Sophia to withdraw in order to leave him to his delusion, before sending Jesus as a messenger or expression of herself to draw people back to her and away from this jealous, delusional god.  This view opens the way for a radical re-assessment of the Hebrew scriptures, seen not as "Christian" but as delusional texts inspired by a delusional deity.

One practical consequence of this is that just as Sophia was female, so women were seen by many gnostics (although certainly not all) as equal to men.  This is expressed in the elevated role played by Mary Magdelene in gnostic writings, and more immediately in the fact that many gnostic groups permitted women to take on priestly roles including celebrating communion, preaching and prophesying.  In contrast, by the second century the orthodox church was firmly patriarchal and many parts of it remain so even now.

Closely related to this is the question of authority in the church.  This was a pressing issue as the second century progressed and not only the apostles, but those who had been taught by them, passed away.  Who had the authority to lead and teach now?  For orthodox believers, this authority rested partly in the apostles' writings (in the process of becoming the canon of the New Testament) but more crucially in the apostolic succession, in those bishops who could trace their line of ordination back to the apostles, with the "apostolic churches" and particularly the church of Rome pre-eminent among them.

For the gnostics, these bishops were pretenders devoid of real wisdom, and the true leaders of the church were those who had received "gnosis" or knowledge/insight direct from the Spirit of God.  This meant that they did not recognise, or did not take seriously, the rigid hierarchy that was developing in the church at that time.  For example, one gnostic group is reported as drawing lots among its members each Sunday for who would take various roles in worship.

Of course along with this comes the final issue - how can you know God?  For the orthodox, knowing God was a straightforward matter of knowing some key propositions of the kind which were later incorporated into the Creeds.  These were open to all and comprehensible by people of all classes and levels of education.  A simple affirmation was all that was required to become a church member.

The gnostics, on the other hand, valued a much deeper personal knowledge which was not necessarily accessible to all.  Gnosticism was a religion of initiates, much like the mystery religions of the ancient Roman world.  Some of its teachings were seen as "secret", revealed only after the person had passed through the steps of initiation.  At the same time, they valued self-knowledge as a path to knowing God, and direct ecstatic experience as a source of enlightenment.  Their teachers invented their own myths and analogies, their own fictitious apostolic dialogues, their own ways of expressing the truth of a God who they saw as ultimately incomprehensible.  They valued and rewarded this kind of creativity and imagination.  For them the simplicity of orthodoxy was a sign of ignorance - God cold not be known so easily.

Pagels clearly has some admiration for the gnostics and provides a very sympathetic account of their views.  She is also very clear that the conflict was not just about esoteric matters of theology, it was about who was to be master of the church.  She appears to have little sympathy with the book-burners of the fourth and fifth centuries who effectively erased the traces of gnosticism from the newly Christianised Roman empire.  Some have criticised her for being too sympathetic, suggesting for instance that many gnostic teachers were much more negative towards femininity than she makes out.

However, she is no gnostic apologist.  She identifies at least three areas in which orthodoxy was clearly superior.  It provided a strong, clear organisational structure which bound the church together and kept it united, whereas gnosticism was diverse, diffuse and highly vulnerable.  The second is that the complexities of gnosticism required leisure and education  and so could only really appeal to the upper classes, while orthodoxy was open to all.  The third is that the simplicity of the orthodox creeds and formulations placed few hurdles in the way of adherents, while the complex and immersive nature of gnosticism restricted its number of followers.  Although the power of empire finally wiped out gnosticism, it had to eventually accept and even endorse orthodoxy after three centuries of persecution failed to make a dent on it.

Pagels writes as if gnosticism is a historical curiosity, wiped from the church by the triumph of orthodoxy.  However, I find myself wondering if it was that simple.  Certainly their complex cosmologies are now mere curiosities.  However, both asceticism and the valuing of direct experience survived in the monastic movement and the mystical or contemplative strand of Christian piety.  The modern-day Pentecostal movement seems to reprise much of the gnostic valuing of direct revelation and ecstatic experience.  Even their love of invention and myth-creation seems to have lived on in the art of hagiography and lives again in the likes of Lewis and Tolkein.

None of these developments can be formally attributed to the gnostic movement or to its anathemised authors.  However, I get the feeling that like many other church movements down through the ages, the gnostics have contributed much more to the Christian worldview than their opponents would like to think, and that their subterranean influence continues to benefit us today.  The church has always been a diverse body and we continue to learn from each other even as we fight.  May it always be so!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Blue Trees

I was in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and went for a walk through Pyrmont on the shore of Sydney Harbour - a very swanky location indeed, but fortunately most of the actual harbourside is public parkland.

I noticed something strange, though.  A lot of the trees had been painted blue.  At least, their trunks and lower branches were painted blue up to the leaf line, where the blue merged into the natural brown of the wood and green of the leaves.  The effect was quite striking and a little disturbing, like they were ghost trees, or space aliens.


The sign told me that this was the work of an artist called Konstantin Dimopoulos, global citizen and current Melbourne resident, and is "an environmental art installation that draws attention to global deforestation by turning living, breathing trees bright blue, demanding we notice them before the planet's old forests are gone for good."  It adds that Dimopoulos has installed similar works around the world.

Now I find the artwork itself mildly interesting - in does make you look.  But I certainly didn't think "oh no, deforestation!" when I saw them.  After all, I wasn't in a forest, I was in an urban park in the centre of Australia's largest concrete jungle.  Nor did these appear to be forest trees, nor particularly old - some of them were mere saplings.

In fact, what drew my attention to deforestation was the sign telling me why the trees were painted blue.  Perhaps the Sydney City Council could have saved some money by just putting up a sign, but that would be weird.  Although perhaps not as weird as blue trees.

What's really interesting about this is not the trees, or even the rather cliched message about deforestation, but the business model.  I don't imagine for a moment that Dimopoulos gets rich painting trees blue, but he clearly has a nice little earner on his hands.  He has painted trees blue in the name of deforestation outside St Paul's Cathedral in London, and at various locations in the US and Canada.  His own website shows photos of a dozen such installations, often associated with big city art festivals.  He also does other public art projects, many of which also feature vertical sticks painted in vivid primary colours.

Any good business relies on two things - repeatability and good marketing.  You want to be able to sell your product more than once, and you need to be able to make people want it.  Dimopoulos has both.

I don't mean to denigrate the skill of painting trees blue - of course I could do it, but it takes much more skill than I have to make it last and not kill the tree with toxic chemicals in the process.  Dimopoulos would have had to put a fair bit of research and practice into finding the right materials and techniques.  It's possible some trees died along the way.

However, once he has done this, doing it again is a piece of cake.  He can take his paintbrush and blue mixture anywhere in the world and repeat the process as many times as people will pay him.  Perhaps the painting itself gets a bit boring sometimes, but hey, he's in Vancouver, or Seattle, or London, at a fantastic art festival, and getting paid to boot!

Why do people pay him to keep doing this fun but apparently pointless activity?  Because he has sold them a great story - it's all about deforestation.  Whose heartstrings are not twanged by that connection?

Konstantin Dimopoulos is far from the only artist to operate such a business model.  One of the most successful is called "Cow Parade", a global corporate entity which organises the placement of groups of vividly painted, life-sized fibreglass cows in communities all over the world.  The CowParade Holdings Corporation boasts that cows have been placed in 79 cities since 1999, that over 5,000 cows have been created in that time by over 10,000 artists and that over $20m (or $30m, depending on which bit of the website you read) has been raised for charity by auctioning the cows at the end of each event.  It's the ultimate outsourcing operation - local artists compete for the privilege of painting the cows, local governments pay for the privilege of having them on their streets, the auction at the end takes care of storage and disposal.  CowParade Holdings makes its living selling the idea.


Interestingly, my home city of Brisbane is not on their list of 79 locations, and I can't find any pictures anywhere on the internet of such an event ever taking place here.  Yet I distinctly remember it.  I was working in Brisbane City Council at the time, some year in the early 2000s, and shared a floor with the arts officers who made it happen.  Cows identical to those in the photo appeared at various points around the city and then disappeared into private collections at the gala charity auction.

Perhaps I just dreamed the whole thing, but I don't think so.  The thing is that at the time there was a fierce legal dispute going on about ownership of the concept.  Two rival artists (or corporations) claimed the intellectual property.  If I remember rightly, Council's arts manager advised the Mayor not to go ahead for fear of being caught in the middle, but the Mayor basically said "stuff them" and the cows duly appeared.  I can only assume that Brisbane backed the wrong horse, or cow, and our event had to be erased as part of the legal settlement.  I wonder what happened to the cows.

Art may make us feel good, and add beauty and depths of meaning to our lives.  It can also prick our consciences, even if it needs the aid of a boring sign to do so.  But beneath the surface, the same economic forces drive it as drive coal mining, or the manufacture of plastic toys.  I don't begrudge the artists that.  Everyone has to make a living.  But if someone presents you with a shiny, colourful vehicle for saving the planet, or helping the poor, or whatever, don't forget to look under the bonnet.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Double Disillusion

So, it appears that after six months as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has finally done something clever.  He has presented the minor parties in the Senate with an impossible dilemma: vote in favour of a pernicious union-bashing piece of legislation, or be sent to a double-dissolution election on July 2 in which the most likely outcome is that most of them will be wiped out of the Senate courtesy of new voting rules designed for this very purpose.  For good measure, he will be hoping that the prospect of what is essentially a three-month election campaign will silence his increasingly vocal enemies in the right wing of his own party.


So at least a partial win for Turnbull whichever way it goes, but a sad and difficult time for us voters. We are facing the biggest double disillusion election in my almost forty years on the electoral roll.  

Back in 2007 when we were disillusioned with the long-running Howard Coalition government we could turn to Labor under that beacon of hope and change, Kevin Rudd.  Then in 2013, after three painful years watching the senior figures of the Labor Party put their own ambitions ahead of good governance, we could vent our disillusion by electing an apparently united and reassuringly moderate-sounding Coalition under Tony Abbott.

It didn't take long for that to fall apart.  The first Abbott Government budget gave the lie to the pretensions to moderation, doing a whole list of things Abbott promised not to do like cutting pensions, health, education, overseas aid and ABC funding.  Within two years it was clear that the Liberal Party was as divided and dysfunctional as the Labor Party, and with the same result - it dumped its leader part way through its first term.

Australians hate divided political parties, and they hate extreme partisanship.  The Liberals have given us both.  The removal of Abbott, the ongoing campaign of the party's Right to bring him back, and the increasingly obvious tension between Turnbull and Morrison are clear evidence of a divided party.  The cuts to essential services and pensions while protecting tax breaks for the rich - and advocating more of them - smack of lack of interest in ordinary Australians.  Meanwhile the increasing disquiet over asylum seeker policy, now spread beyond typical lefty groups to mainstream institutions like churches, schools and hospitals, makes the government seem cruel and inhumane.

All of this would suggest a Labor election win, and the polls seem to be moving in that direction.  However we haven't forgotten that only three years ago they were also hopelessly divided, and we know that Bill Shorten was a key figure in both changes of leadership, supporting Gillard and then shifting back to Rudd and taking his Victorian Right colleagues with him each time.  We've never warmed to him, and tend not to believe what he says.  So now Labor have policies and the Coalition have thought bubbles but we don't have any confidence that either of them will follow through if they get elected.  Plus, the fact that both parties have the same asylum seeker policy means no-one can take them seriously if they talk about justice or compassion.

All of which means we will drag ourselves to the polls come July 2 (assuming that is what happens) without much enthusiasm for either side, and force our hands to put numbers in squares.

Normally this would be good news for independents and minor parties who are the normal recipients of our disillusioned votes.  However the government, with the backing of the Greens, has just forced through a change in Senate voting rules which basically makes preferences optional.  This means that the intricate web of preference swaps which delivered us Senators from the Palmer United Party. the Liberal Democrats, Family First and of course the Motoring Enthusiast Party are likely to be a lot less effective.  Pundits are expecting them to be wiped out.  Turnbull certainly hopes so.

I suppose in a way it makes tactical sense for the government.  After all, if you're really bad at negotiating the obvious answer is to make sure you never have to negotiate with anyone.  Or perhaps you could improve your negotiating skills, because you may find you need them anyway.

For a start, both parties obviously need to learn better ways of negotiating agreement between their own factions.  We're now approaching a decade of chronic instability in both parties.  There doesn't seem to be any sign yet that they have learnt from the experience.

Then there is the fact that there are a lot more ways to have a hung parliament than intricate preference deals between micro-parties in the Senate.

For instance, a close House of Representatives election could leave neither party with a majority and a handful of independents holding the balance of power.  Tony Windsor is polling well in New England, disillusion with the major parties is at an all-time high in North Queensland, Nick Xenophon is trying to spread his wings in South Australia, and the Greens are targeting more inner city seats.  Turnbull, Shorten and their respective advisers would be wise to think ahead about what deals they will make, rather than foolishly ruling out making any in the leadup to the election.

Another possibility is that the big winner from the new Senate voting rules could be the Greens, left with a bigger share than ever of the disillusion vote.  That seems to be what they are hoping.  Why else would they risk an unholy alliance with the Coalition to rush the changes through, knowing there was likely to be an election hard on their heels?  Perhaps this is Turnbull's secret plan to act on his long-cherished dream of bringing in an emissions trading scheme, which no doubt the Greens would once again demand as the price of their support.  And of course, Tony Abbott will still be in parliament.  The more things change....

Then again, those clever minor parties could come up with their own ways of navigating the new Senate rules.  After all, no-one saw Ricky Muir coming.  Maybe this election will be too soon for them to solve the problem, but you can imagine more formal alliances, party amalgamations or joint tickets bringing together a "fourth force" in Australian politics - an independent, grassroots, broadly conservative political movement that attracts disaffected Coalition voters in the same way the Greens have come to rival Labor.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me there is a real chance that hung parliaments and large cross-benches could become a permanent feature of Australian politics.  Labor and the Coalition may hate it, but it might not be such a bad thing really.  After all, it turned out there was a lot more to Ricky Muir than a drunken video involving kangaroo poo.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Easter Friday: One for the Many

This is my meditation for this year’s Easter Friday service.  The readings are John 18:12-17 (in which Jesus is arrested and taken to Annas and Caiaphas, and Peter follows them to the High Priest’s courtyard but denies being Jesus’ disciple) and Amos 5:18-24 (in which the prophet tells the Israelites their worship is an abomination in the absence of justice and righteousness).

It seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating Christmas.  The angels sang “glory to God and peace to men”, the shepherds paid their respects, the magicians brought their gifts.  It was a time of hope and joy, anything seemed possible, God was with us and all would be well.

Yet already today is Easter Friday, when all the darkness and violence of the world is revealed and we know ourselves to be powerless against it.  It is a day of mourning and weeping, a day of anger and frustration, a day of terror, a day of failure.  Soon it will be Easter Sunday and hope will be reborn, but not yet, not today.  Today is the day for looking evil in the face and seeing it for what it is.

The day of Jesus and Caiaphas is like the day of Amos, and it is like our own day.  The economy is booming, wealth is being created at a rapid rate.  But this wealth flows into the hands of a few who live in opulent splendour while many are not sure if they will eat tomorrow.  Did you know that in the past 20 years the global economy has grown by 200%?  Yet over a billion people, one in five of the earth’s population, still live on less than a dollar a day.  

Revolution is in the air.  It makes us nervous and insecure.  The Jewish authorities that Caiaphas headed felt the same, jealously guarding their privileges in a dangerous world.  They kept up the daily sacrifices, the festivals, the singing in the temple even as they raked in the spoils of empire, just like their predecessors in Amos’s day.  As Amos says, the day of the Lord will not be light for Caiaphas and his supporters, it will be pitch dark.

They saw Jesus as a threat.  John 11 tells us that they called an urgent meeting.

‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all!  You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation…

Don’t we all fear the loss of our nation?  Don’t we fear that the vast army of the poor and oppressed will come and sweep away our culture and our way of life and replace it with their own?  So we spend billions fighting wars on foreign soil and propping up oppressive dictators in the hope that it will keep the danger in check and buy us peace.  Then when people flee these wars and these dictatorships and find their way to our shores we turn them away and imprison them on Nauru or Manus or in Darwin or right here at Pinkenba, and if anyone questions the justice of this we are told “it is essential that we imprison these people, or send them back, otherwise many more will come and we will lose control of our borders" - lose control of our nation.

It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. It is better for you that we sacrifice the few for the many.  You can be certain that Caiaphas was not offering to sacrifice himself for the sake of the people.  He was the High Priest, he was much too important.  Much better to sacrifice this insignificant, defenceless Galilean miracle worker.  Better to sacrifice these poor defenceless young men in their leaky boats, these unarmed women and children.  If we get them out of sight quickly, perhaps we will be able to carry on as if nothing serious has happened, and hope something else will turn up, that the problem will somehow solve itself without us having to make sacrifices of our own. 

It’s Easter Friday.  The evil of the world is on display.

But we in the church can’t afford to be smug and self-righteous, because day after day in the Royal Commission we have been hearing versions of the same story.  Someone in a position of authority in the church – a priest, a youth leader, a teacher, a counsellor – has abused an innocent child.  Then when that child has finally got up the courage to report the abuse to the man in charge, the principal or the bishop, the man in charge doesn’t believe them, or even blames them for the abuse or accuses them of defaming a good man.  Then finally perhaps he is convinced that it was true after all, so he offers them a small amount of money from a compensation fund on condition that they sign a waiver.  He pays them to go away.

So the institution survives, and we are still here in our beautiful churches and cathedrals celebrating communion and playing our glorious music and singing our hymns.  But you know who is no longer here?  That abused child won’t, or can’t, ever walk through that door again because they have been so traumatised, so betrayed.

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps, or your organs, or your guitars.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

What if the river of justice, or compensation, should wash away our beautiful buildings and we should find ourselves stranded and homeless, worshiping in a school hall, or a park, or someone’s home, but that abused child could join us there in fellowship?  I somehow think the exchange would be worth it.

Jesus has a different way.  In Mark 10, as the disciples jostled for power and prestige in the coming kingdom, he called a meeting and told them this.

‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

These are not empty words.  Jesus is about to show them just how literally he means them.  Jesus’ death means more than just an easy way for us to enter heaven.  It’s a pattern for all of us who claim to be his followers.  He asks us to be prepared to serve as he served, even to the point of death.

Peter knows it.  He was there when Jesus spoke those words.  So he follows Jesus after his arrest, right up to the door of the High Priest’s courtyard, right inside the door to where the arresting party is holding Jesus.  He is almost there, almost ready to join him.  

The serving girl even identifies him:

You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too are you?

But at the last moment his courage fails him and he pulls back from the brink.

I am not.

I am not.

I tell you, I don’t know the man!

I am like Peter.  I see the evil of the world all too clearly.  I have read Jesus' words many times. I know how far I should be prepared to go to serve those who are entitled to my service, to resist the evil that is so clearly revealed on this Easter Friday.  I walk to the edge, I look at what must be done, but I pull back.  My courage fails me, I am weak and afraid.  Often I feel a physical sickness in my stomach at the evil of the world, my own powerlessness to change it, my own complicity in it.

It is Easter Friday.  All the darkness and violence of the world is made plain and we know ourselves to be powerless against it.  It is a day of mourning and weeping, a day of anger and frustration, a day of terror. 

Don’t despair.  

Don’t despair.  

Don’t ever give in to despair. 

In two days it will be Easter Sunday and hope will be reborn.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Paul on Running a Household

Bearing in mind my previous post on the non-legalistic way of understanding the Law and the New Testament, I'd like to illustrate by applying it to Paul's writing about relationships in a household in Ephesians 5 and 6.  It's a long passage so I won't quote it all here.  You can look it up if you want to (read it here), or else just take my word for it.


Paul's letter to the Ephesians follows the general structure he often uses in his letters - theory (or theology) followed by practice.  In the first three chapters he talks about how his readers have been chosen and redeemed, how Christ is now exalted and we have new life in him, how God has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile to make one people and how he (Paul) is a servant of this message.

In Chapters 4-6 he addresses the impact this should have on the way his readers live.  This second half of the letter can be divided into roughly four sections, and in each he provides some general guiding principles of conduct, along with some very specific examples of how these should apply.  There is a lot of overlap between the statements of principle - they are variations on the theme of love and service for one another.

The first section (4:1-16) deals with unity in the church.  The general principle is stated in verses 2 and 3:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

By way of practical example, he talks about the fact that each of us has been given complementary gifts by the Spirit, and we should use these in one another's service to build a unified body out of our diversity.

The second (4:17-5:20) deals with the idea that coming to Christ should transform us and this should have practical consequences for the way we treat one another.  Here general statements are interspersed with more specific examples.  General statements include these.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (4:22-24)

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (5:8)

These are interwoven with specific examples of transformation - truthfulness in place of lying; kindness and forgiveness in place of gossip, bitterness and rage; chastity and moderation in place of lust and greed; intoxication with the Spirit in place of drunkenness.

The fourth and final section is the famous passage about putting on the full armour of God, which points us to the spiritual resources we have at our disposal to promote and sustain this transformation.

The third section focuses on the notion that we should submit to and serve one another.  The principle is this simple statement in 5:21.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is illustrated by a series of examples of how the Ephesians should act within their households - wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters.

These are not three separate examples, they are multiple aspects of the one example - how should people live together in a household?  Paul was writing to a culture in which extended families were the norm.  A single household (whether in a single dwelling or in dwellings located near each other, perhaps in one compound) would consist of multiple generations.  It would generally be ruled by its patriarch (although some households were headed by women, for instance if a widow inherited property) and include his wife, possibly his other wives/concubines, any children who were still unmarried (adult or juvenile), married sons and perhaps also married daughters and their children.  If they were wealthy enough there may also have been slaves (as many as one third of the Empire's population), and perhaps some poorer relatives or younger men the patriarch had taken under his wing.

This means that these are not separate sets of "commands" for each relationship pair - one pattern for wives and husbands, one for children and parents, one for slaves and masters.  It is a single pattern of relationship illustrated by three examples which show how to submit to one another.  What he says to slaves also applies to wives and children, what he says to masters also applies to husbands and parents.  The examples are cumulative.

Paul is suggesting, by his opening statement, that all the members of such a household should "submit to one another out of reverence to Christ".  What could this mean?  He appears to begin conventionally enough.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

There are similar messages to children and slaves.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Wives, children and slaves are to submit, to obey their husbands, parents and masters.  This is not exactly revolutionary stuff, it seems to support the status quo.  Who would expect wives (or slaves, or children) to do anything else?

Of course these less powerful people were not always as obedient as they were supposed to be.  They had other options, including open rebellion and deception.  Paul asks them not to do either of these things.  Wives should submit to their husbands "as to the Lord".  Children should "obey their parents in the Lord".  Slaves should obey their masters "just as you would obey Christ".  In each case, their submission is linked to their Christian calling.  They are not simply submitting because they have to, out of fear of punishment.  They are asked to submit as if they were submitting to Christ, with their whole hearts.

The really shocking part of Paul's message is in what comes next.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.

We so often miss the significance of this.  I think it's because we read what we are looking for, not necessarily what's there.  So what we read is that men should be kind and considerate to our wives.  Is this what Paul is saying?  Look again.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...

Christ didn't love the church by being kind and considerate.  Christ wasn't the perfect gentleman towards the church, opening doors for her and pulling out chairs for her to sit down, by bringing her flowers and taking her out for candlelight dinners.  He loved the church by "giving himself up for her".  By dying for her.  By the ultimate and complete act of self-sacrifice.

In case you missed the point, he repeats it more succinctly when talking to slave-owners.  After asking slaves to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ, serving them whole-heartedly even when they are not watching, he says:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way.

What?

...treat your slaves in the same way.

Masters, in other words, are to serve their slaves in the same way that the slaves are to serve their masters.  They are not simply asked to be kind and gentle with their slaves, although that is part of it (he tells them not to use threats), they are asked to serve them, like the husbands, because

...he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.

Hence, while the commands to the weaker party in each relationship pair can seem fairly conventional, the demand on the powerful party is anything but.  The husband/parent/master (who might be the same person) is asked to make a radical change in order to be Christ-like.

Paul is pointing his readers back to Christ's self-giving on the cross, but also to the whole pattern of self-giving shown in his life and death.  He might have in mind the poem he records in Philippians 2, in which Christ,

...being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

In other words, Jesus' service does not consist merely of his death, but his whole life.  

He may also be thinking of Jesus' teaching recorded in Mark 9 and 10.  In Mark 9, following an argument among his disciples about which of them was to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God, he gathers them and says:

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.

In the next chapter, in response to a direct request from James and John for positions of honour, he repeats the point in more depth.

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.


John's gospel dramatises the point at the beginning of Jesus' final night with the disciples (John 13) through the story of the foot-washing.  Here Jesus takes on the job of the most menial household slave, washing the disciples' dirty feet before the meal.  Having performed the service he interprets it for them so they can't miss the point.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

In other words, just as he has been prepared to take on the role of the slave, they should do the same for each other.

This is the upside down world Paul is commending to the Ephesian disciples when he says they are to "submit to one another out of reverence to Christ".  Certainly the powerless are not exempt from this submission and service, but the greatest change is asked of the powerful.  If you are a slave, it is no great stretch to be a good and faithful slave.  But if you are a master, how hard is it to voluntarily enslave yourself, and that to your own slaves?  If you are a husband how hard is it to serve your wife and give yourself for her when everything in your culture and upbringing, and hers, tells you that she should be serving you?

Ultimately this means that a Christian household cannot be like a conventional Roman household.  It cannot be a place where good order is kept by a strong authority figure who metes out rewards and punishments impartially and whose word is law.  Instead, it has to be a place where everyone serves one another humbly and willingly, where no-one is too proud or important to take on the most menial tasks, where no-one stands on their dignity.  It is a place where people give their lives for one another, not just once in a dramatic act of self-sacrifice but every day through the washing of feet or the cleaning of toilets.

Paul chooses to illustrate his point through the household example, but "submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ" need not be limited to this, as Jesus' wider teaching makes clear.  We are all servants of one another.  Some parallels are widely acknowledged - for instance, I have heard and read plenty of expositions which apply the slave/master relationship to employees and employers.  Sadly while I have often heard it used to say that, for instance, employees shouldn't strike, or shirk, I have never heard anyone suggest that employers should serve their staff, or give their lives for them.  And how would we apply this principle to students and teachers, or to rulers and subjects, or to life in an urban neighbourhood?  How should it apply to leadership in the church?

So in a sense this passage does provide us with a "biblical pattern" for marriage and parenthood.  However, the pattern is not some abstract understanding of gender roles and proper authority.  Rather the pattern is that set by Christ - the pattern of self-giving service, reversal of power relationships and daily self-sacrifice.  Sure the wife should obey her husband, but the husband should also obey his wife.  Each should be trying to outdo each other in how they can serve one another.  If this means flouting convention, so be it.  And this doesn't just apply to them, it applies to everyone.  Servanthood is the norm for Christians, the pattern of Christian life, the pattern of Christ.  If in each situation we come across we are not asking, "how can I serve this person" then we are not being Christian.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Beyond Legalism

When I wrote about the conservative Christian response to same-sex relationships a couple of weeks ago, I talked about how many Christians approach the Bible, including the New Testament, with a legalistic mindset.

By this I don't mean that they have a strict morality.  The equation of legalism with strictness is a mistake, as is the equation of non-legalistic morality with laxity.  What I mean is that people with a legalistic mindset see morality as a set of rules which must be obeyed.  Our ethical task is to interpret those rules correctly and then follow them.

I have suggested plenty of times in this blog that this is not Jesus' view of morality nor that of his apostles.  Jesus taught that the whole law and the prophets could be summed up in two commandments - love God and love your neighbour.  This is often called "golden rule" morality - "do to others as you would like them to do to you".

A few years ago I had a go at summarising this view in two posts entitled "Is there a Christian Law?".  Reading them now I think they are clumsy and I thought it would be worth approaching the subject a little differently following a few more years of thought.


Christians tend to be perplexed about aspects of the torah, the law of Moses as encoded in the Pentateuch.  Many of these laws are horrific, like stoning adulterers and disobedient children.  Some seem to diminish the humanity of certain people, like the ban on people with disabilities or menstruating women in the Tabernacle.  Others are just baffling, like the ban on shellfish or mixed fabrics.

Surely, we think, these are not intended for us!  We tend, more or less consciously, to operate on the basis that Jesus' death and resurrection have superseded them, so that while they applied to ancient Israelites they don't apply to us.  I'm not sure that this is the best way to understand them, because what we often do (like the EA publication I reviewed in my earlier post) is substitute a new Law based on readings of the New Testament.  This perpetuates legalism but dresses it in new clothes.

One of the pressing questions floating around in Jesus' day and before is the question of how the ancient Jews were to follow the Law.  Among Jesus' most vocal opponents were the Pharisees, a highly influential group within Judaism who may have somewhat resembled the people we call Orthodox Jews.  The Pharisees were the ultimate legalists - they believed that every letter of the law had to be followed literally, and that failure to do so was the reason Israel was weak and under foreign domination.  Jesus thought they were hypocrites, focused on appearances but neglecting true virtue.

I've been thinking recently that while we know Pharisaism is not Christian, we are less sure about its Jewish credentials.  Within its own context, were the Pharisees the true carriers of the Judaic flame, or were they out of step with Jewish tradition?  The more I read and think about it, the more I think it's the latter.  The ancient Jews did not necessarily use the torah as a rule-book, and such use of it was roundly criticised by the Prophets.

A good starting place for thinking about this is Psalm 119, a long acrostic poem in praise of God's Law.  Here's what the author has to say under the letter mem starting at verse 97.

Oh how I love your Law.
    I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me,
    and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than my teachers
    for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders
    for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
    so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
    for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
    therefore I hate every wrong path.

So obviously the author is a lover of the torah and sees it as the centre of his or her life.  However, he/she doesn't see it legalistically.  To understand the difference, try reciting this psalm with the Traffic Act in place of God's Law.

Oh how I love the Traffic Act.
    I meditate on it all day long.
Its clauses are always with me....
How sweet are its words to my taste
    sweeter than honey in my mouth!

The idea is absurd.  We don't love the Traffic Act, or any other piece of legislation.  There is no inherent beauty in signaling at intersections or giving way to the right.  These are simply conventions which make everyone safer if we all follow them.  We hardly give them a moment's thought.

Yet the torah is the object of the Psalmist's devotion, something on which he meditates, the centre of his spiritual life.  It makes him ecstatic, it gives him wisdom and power.  This deep reflection and meditation is a signal that there is far more depth here than mechanical obedience to a set of rules.  This is a transformational life practice.

We can see the results of such meditation in the writings of the prophets.  There are lots of examples, but I will just quote a couple to show you what I mean.  The first is the oft-quoted passage from Micah 6.

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah has mediated deeply on the Law with its many regulations and instructions and asks, "what is the essence of this?  What is the most important thing here?"  His conclusion is that the most important thing is not to do all the rituals correctly, to bring more and more sacrifices.  It is to follow three simple (but very difficult!) virtues - justice, kindness, humility.

This is the same thing Jesus and Paul do, although they choose a different summary, one drawn from two verses in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind" and "love your neighbour as yourself".  This wasn't a particularly radical position in Jesus' day, as we can see by the fact that whereas Mark 12 and Matthew 22 place this quote in Jesus' mouth, in Luke 10 it comes from the mouth of an expert in the law and Jesus merely expresses his agreement.  This summary is in no way incompatible with Micah's - they are two ways of expressing the same approach to obeying the law.

The prophet Amos takes this idea even further.

‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God's rejection of Israel's offerings and worship is a persistent theme in the prophetic writings.  How is it that God can hate the very things he commanded?  They are merely following his instructions, carrying out the rituals and sacrifices that are described in detail in the book of Leviticus.  Can obeying God's commandments be wrong?

Yes it can, if it's done in the wrong spirit.  The Israelites have failed to understand what Amos, Micah and a host of other prophets knew - that the essence of the law is not following the details but acting justly, showing mercy and remaining humble.  They have dug beneath the external details to what lies within, they have seen the personal and social transformation to which the Law is pointing.  Without this transformation the observance of the details is worse than worthless, it is an abomination, a stench in God's nostrils and a ringing in his ears.

Jesus once again echoes this teaching.  It forms the core of his critique of the Pharisee in Matthew 23.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.'

Sure, tithe your spices if you must - but such tithes are worse than worthless if you fail to heed the lesson of Micah.

But there's more, because at times it can be wrong to follow the Law, like this from Matthew 5.

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

The thing here is that 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' is a legal principle which appears repeatedly in the torah, yet here is Jesus urging his followers to ignore it and instead forgive those who wrong them and even invite further wrongs.  Why is this?  Because in 'meditating on God's law day and night' Jesus has come to understand that the purpose of the law is to teach us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to do to others what we would like them to do to us, and here is a much more powerful way to do that.  As either Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King may have said, 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind'.

Paul, a man thoroughly trained in the interpretation of the torah, provides us with a slightly different approach in 1 Corinthians 9. 

For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned?  Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever ploughs and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.

The quote from Deuteronomy is an instruction about how to care for working animals but once again Paul suggests that we misunderstand it if we simply take it literally.  Instead, if we understand it in terms of the purpose of the Law - to show us how to love God and one another - we see that its fuller meaning is about the right of people to benefit from their labours - in other words, it is about justice.  He then applies this not to oxen but to those like himself who serve and teach in the church and have a right to receive financial support in return.  Even then, he does not insist on receiving this - indeed, he is proud of having not claimed his rights even as he asserts them.  For Paul, there are more important things than simply following the letter of the law.

This is a powerful antidote to legalism.  To summarise, there are two things wrong with legalistic morality.  

First, it misses the point.  The detailed rules are meant as pathways towards understanding the principles on which they are based, the imperatives of love, justice, kindness, humility and so on.  Legalism means we can't see the wood for the trees.

Second, this failure can lead to us doing evil even as we attempt to do good.  It is possible to follow the law in a way that is unloving, unjust, unkind or proud.  We can obey the letter of the law even as we violate its spirit.

We have been warned, but the warnings are so hard to hear. 

Sunday, 21 February 2016

National Conversation

So, apparently we're having a national conversation about tax reform.  Governments do this every so often.  It used to be called "consultation".

Such a "conversation" sounds like a really good idea.  I imagine that we would get tax experts to analyse our tax system and tell us how it is going now, what's good and bad about it and what options there are for us to improve it.  We could then get non-experts to translate this into terms ordinary people could understand, and there could be various ways for people to have input - web forums, face to face meetings, formal submission processes.  Then the government would narrow this down to its preferred options and see what reaction they get, before modifying and implementing.

Of course I have a fertile imagination.  Actually it's nothing like that.

Not that some people don't try.  The current government released a Tax White Paper last year called "Re:Think" and there are various plain-English resources to help people understand it, a twitter feed, an opportunity (now closed) for formal submissions.

We've been here before, of course, not that long ago.  Back in 2008 the Rudd Government launched a tax reform process which involved various consultation events including a Tax Summit, following which Treasury Secretary Ken Henry put together a detailed paper called "Australia's Future Tax System" with lots of quite good recommendations.


The problem is what happened next.  What was supposed to happen after Henry wrote his paper and made his recommendations was that it was supposed to be released, there would be more consultation about its recommendations, then the government would come up with a final package.  What happened instead was the Mining Tax, and we all know how that worked out.

The current government, still shell-shocked from its sudden change of leader, is a lot more cautious.  This means that what we are having instead is a series of "conversations" about individual options.  First of all the government, urged on by various State Premiers, floats the idea of increasing the GST to 15%.  The opposition gleefully beats them about the head, declaring that they want to ruin the lives of working families with this iniquitous tax hike.  The government is carefully non-committal for a while before finally ruling the idea out.

As a second step, the Labor Party has released a policy under which it will restrict negative gearing of rental properties to new-builds.  This is something that's been advocated by housing policy people for a long time, but not usually as an isolated measure.  Cue the alarmist response from the government - it will cause house value to plunge and ruin the lives of home owners around the country.

So not so much a conversation as a shouting match.  When you shout you can only say one thing, so the "debate" can only deal with one idea at a time.  You can't have a sensible discussion, you can only yell angry slogans.  There is lots of noise, but not much light.  If I was a betting man, I'd be saying we will end up with pretty much no change at all.

Tax reform is hard, because everyone can think of reasons why they should pay less tax, but no-one is ever prepared to put their hand up and say they'd like to pay more.  This is difficult in our current environment because both State and Commonwealth governments are bleeding money and need to either shore up their revenue or cut spending.

In its first year the Coalition government tried the second option and got absolutely hammered,  Rightly so, since the main targets were pensioners, unemployed young people, Aboriginal communities and the poor communities we help through overseas aid.  And it still didn't balance the budget.  Nasty as we can be sometimes, Australians won't cop the poorest members of the community bearing the burden of fiscal readjustment.


Before that the Rudd Labor government tried to fix it with a single big tax on wealthy mining companies.  The companies used some of their huge profits (no deficit issues there!) to blitz the government and Rudd got sacked.  The policy got watered down after that to the point where it yielded hardly any revenue, before the Coalition scrapped it.  Even if Labor had stuck to their guns, it wouldn't have solved the problem, because the mining boom went bust pretty quickly.

Pretty much any of the other options will face the same problem.  Changes to negative gearing will have to run the gantlet of the property industry and its well-funded lobby groups.  If you want to wind back concessions on superannuation for wealthy people, well, the superannuation industry has access to literally trillions of dollars to fight you with.  If you want to tax multi-nationals you need the cooperation of all the nations in which they trade to effectively police profit-shifting - what are the chances of that?

So I get that it's hard, but it doesn't help when our politicians continually undermine their own efforts by floating a piece of the puzzle before they have worked out the whole.  Otherwise we will be left with platitudes, like Scott Morrison saying repeatedly that he thinks we pay too much tax and the answer is to cut spending.  He knows very well that he can do no such thing.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Refugee Ultra-Solutions

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about Paul Watzlawick et al's Change and the idea of first and second order change.  The idea has kept on being useful since I remembered it, so recently I got my hands on a copy of the book to read it again.  Along with it I also bought a book by Watzlawick called Ultra-Solutions: How to fail most successfully.

This little booklet is an exploration of the kind of solution which "not only does away with the problem, but also with just about everything else, somewhat in the vein of the old medical joke - operation successful, patient dead...".  It is a light-hearted romp through the pitfalls of rigid or inadequate thinking, using as its framework the witches and their mistress Hecate who tempted Macbeth, and who continue to tempt us in our day to adopt strategies just as seductive and self-defeating as that followed by Shakespeare's tragic hero.

In each short chapter he deals with a mental pitfall. The search for security and certainty.  The idea that more of a good thing must mean better.  The idea that if something is bad, its opposite must be good.  The idea that there are only two options in any situation and we must choose between them.  The idea of the "zero sum game" in which someone can win only if someone else loses.  The idea that we know what other people are thinking.  The idea that disorder can only lead to more disorder.  The idea that our wise rulers must force us to do things for our own good, no matter what the cost.  The idea that if we keep searching and striving we will eventually achieve perfection.  Each of these temptations appear wise and good, but wreak terrible destruction.

As I was reading it this week, I was also following and taking part in the story of the High Court's finding that Australia's offshore detention of asylum seekers is legal, and the subsequent debate over whether 267 asylum seekers, including 37 infants, should be deported to Nauru as a result.  Of course I think they should be allowed to stay, and on Monday I joined over 1,000 people on the steps of Brisbane's Anglican Cathedral to make the point publicly.

I struggle a lot with this issue.  On the one hand, it's encouraging to play a tiny part in something like the Sanctuary movement because it's a source of hope.  When people from all walks of life and of all ages, from the left or the right, agree that this simple act of humanity is the right thing to do, I feel that maybe kindness will prevail after all .  Then again, all the attempts to make this point over the past few years, whether for specific individual refugees or at a policy level, have been met with stony political silence and a continued ratcheting up of cruelty.  I find it easy to despair.

As I was reading Watzlawick, it stood out just how much our current refugee policy is an ultra-solution, how much Hecate and her witches are having their way with our political leaders.

They are searching for security and orderliness, fearing that a disorderly immigration process will create social chaos.  They don't realise first of all that life is chaotic no matter how much control we attempt to exert, and that out of this chaos creativity and new solutions can arise which are beyond the power of governments to predict or create - or indeed to prevent.

They believe firmly that refugee policy is a zero sum game, that the only way to prevent some asylum seekers from drowning at sea is to make others suffer on land.  They are unable to see that there may be a way to prevent both kinds of suffering at the same time.

They believe that there are only two options, the current punitive regime or an open border regime in which our country is overrun by uncontrolled immigrants.  They are blind to any idea that there may be a middle course in which the situation is managed without harsh policing.

They think they know what motivates asylum seekers and the people who run the "people smuggling" trade, and that they can manipulate their behaviour with the right set of sticks and carrots - mostly sticks.  They fail to take account of the fact that human motivations are diverse and rarely unmixed, and that the intense creativity of human beings will find ways around the barriers we put up faster than we can create new ones.

They believe that they are wiser than everyone else, and that they need to apply force to make everyone conform to their wisdom.  If their efforts are not working, they just need to apply more force until their solution is forced through.  Anyone who thinks differently is obviously a foolish idealist who has no idea of the real world.

They believe that if their solution has only partial success then they need to do more of it, or do it harder, or convince others to do it as well, to make their success complete.  They don't realise that the "success" of our detention regime depends on others not doing the same, that if everyone did it the system would break down completely.

The result is indeed an ultra-solution, a solution which cures the illness by killing the patient.

Mandatory detention has long been a solution in search of a problem.  These days when anyone proposes showing some level of mercy to those in detention, our leaders are quick to claim that they are doing what they do to prevent asylum seekers from drowning at sea.  This is a recent innovation.  John Howard, whose government was the first to introduce offshore processing, justified it with a typically belligerent assertion of security and orderliness: "We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come".  His Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock talked about the unfairness of boat arrivals "jumping the queue" for scarce refugee places.  The solution remains the same, only the problem changes.

The trouble is, in the process of solving whatever problem it is we think we are solving, we do so much collateral damage.

We subject adults and children to a harsh, frightening regime of detention.  We irreparably damage their mental and physical health, leaving a long term problem for them and for someone (we're not sure who) to deal with long into the future.

We store up enemies for ourselves, broadcasting the idea around the world that we are a cruel, racist nation.  When at some present or future time we ask for humanitarian treatment of our own citizens, we leave ourselves open to those who could help us reminding us of what we did to their citizens.

Indeed, we begin to turn ourselves into that cruel nation.  We stoke the fear of the outsider, the view of refugees as people who are probably not genuine, who are gaming the system.  The more we close our borders, the more we close our hearts, depriving ourselves of love and community in our search for security.  Our attempt to make ourselves safer makes us more fearful.

In the end we do have more to fear, because systems in our community which were once designed to provide support are now designed to intimidate and control.  Large parts of our immigration system have been transformed into a paramilitary organisation called the Australian Border Force, with uniforms and a mandate to deter and control.  Instead of the first question when we meet asylum seekers being "how can we help you?" it becomes "do you have a valid visa?".  Instead of its main contractors being human service organisations and multicultural community groups, they are security firms.

We are gradually depriving ourselves of the means of compassion.  Now situations which can easily be resolved while the person remains in the community become excuses for detention, apparently just because we can.  A system which was designed to deal with boat arrivals is increasingly being applied to people who have overstayed visas, or breached visa conditions.  The logic of deterrence is slowly spreading.

Hecate would like us to give up in despair and allow her to have her way.  However, so far it's not working.  Despite her pretensions to wisdom, she has been unable to prevent ordinary people from seeing that the solution makes no sense, from looking past the bluster, the simplistic thinking, the "either-or" of our current ruling philosophy.  We see around the country ordinary doctors and schoolteachers saying "no goal can justify making children suffer", ordinary families saying "well, someone could come and live with me".  We see that so many of us have friends and neighbours who are refugees and that it is only natural for us to help them - and for them to help us.

We can only hope and pray that eventually sanity prevails, that we can change course in time to save the patient.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Why Christians Get Confused About Same Sex Relationships

Traditionally-oriented Christians are often portrayed as homophobic because of their opposition to same sex marriage and the various things that go with it. While it's true that there are some Christians who really think that "God hates fags", in my experience they are relatively few.  Most of the conservative Christians I know, and most of the conservative Christian writings I've read on the subject, are quite clear that God loves LGBTI people as much as he loves anyone else.  They will also tell you, if you ask, that same-sex relationships or encounters are not in a special category of sin - they are no more evil than, say, heterosexual adultery or stealing.

However, after saying all these nice, loving things and providing an assurance of God's love, acceptance and forgiveness they will be immovable on one thing.  A same sex relationship, they will tell you, cannot possibly be right.  While there are lots of wrong ways to do heterosexual relationships there is also a right one, in the context of a permanent monogamous marriage.  Hence, people who enjoy straight sex are able to continue to do so.  People who enjoy gay sex, on the other hand, must refrain.  This leads so many of them into frustration, both sexual and otherwise.

Of course not all Christians hold this view, and there is a fierce debate going on in sections of the church about whether this traditional attitude should still apply.  The Uniting Church here in Australia now ordains gay clergy, and the Anglican church worldwide is in the grip of a polite but fierce dispute on the issue which has just seen the more liberal churches of North America censured by their more conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world.

If you scratch any Christian you are likely to find a legalist just beneath the surface.  This doesn't just apply to conservative Christians or Evangelicals, nor does it apply exclusively to Christians.  The main difference between "liberal" and "conservative" Christians is that the strength of the reaction will depend on where you scratch.  For example, the liberal Anglo-Catholics who run the Brisbane Anglican diocese are likely to be pretty relaxed about same-sex relationships, but try suggesting that communion should be celebrated with non-alcoholic grape juice.

What defines legalism is not its moral strictness, but the idea that morality is codified in a set of objectively defined rules or laws.  Hence the seventh commandment says "you shall not commit adultery".  A legalistic approach to this law defines the key term, "adultery", as sexual relations with a person to whom you are not married.  There will then be a further set of rules around what marriage is and what it involves.  If you find out what these rules are, and follow them, then you will be acting morally.  This is the approach to morality taken by most of the church and pretty much any evangelical.

A good example is a little booklet I've just read called Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality by the Australian Evangelical Alliance Working Group on Human Sexuality.  It was originally published in 2009 but has been distributed again just recently as a contribution to current debates on the issue.

The Working Group consisted of seven people, six of whom are ministers or theologians while one is a clinical psychologist.  Only six are listed as authors with the seventh, Kings Cross pastor Bill Lawton, clearly disagreeing with its contents.  His dissenting view is included as an appendix.

The main part of the book (minus appendices) takes up seventy pages, and opens with some general material.  This material affirms that we are all broken people saved by God's grace, that LGBTI people are made in God's image like everyone else and are just as much loved by God as the rest of us, and that we all need to repent of our various sins.  In particular, they are clear that the church needs to repent of its lack of love towards LGBTI people and its complicity in various acts of persecution.

It then tries to answer its central question - what is a Biblical/Christian view of homosexuality?  This is a considerable challenge, because there is not much to work with.  Jesus has nothing to say on the subject.  There are three passing references in Paul's letters. 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 contain lists of sins.  The one in 1 Corinthians includes something the NIV translates as "homosexual offenders" and the NRSV as "sodomites".  The list in 1 Timothy includes something the NIV translates as "perverts" and the NRSV once again as "sodomites".

The meaning of this term is hotly debated.  Some interpreters suggest it applies to any sex act between men, while others suggest it implies something more than that - for instance, pederasty.  This is an interesting linguistic discussion but ultimately unhelpful for a non-linguist like me.  It seems clear to me that interpreters choose the translation that suits their preconceived view - conservatives choose the wider application, progressives the narrower one.

A different kind of ambiguity floats around the remaining reference in the first chapter of Romans.  Here, the reference is clearly to same sex relationships, both between men and between women.  Some have suggested that the context suggests cultic practice rather than general life, but once again the choice made here seems to depend on the readers' preconceptions.  The more important point is that the context is not a moral instruction like those to Timothy or the Corinthians, it is part of Paul's case that everyone is sinful.  The conclusion it leads to is not that people should give up their same sex relationships but that a completely new righteousness has been revealed through faith in Jesus Christ.

How do the solid evangelicals speaking on behalf of the EA handle this ambiguity?  To my astonishment, they start with the harsh and unambiguous condemnation of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, reiterated with the addition of a death penalty in Leviticus 20.  I was astonished because the idea that this might be relevant to us is such a difficult one to sustain.  Anyone who has waded through Leviticus knows that it forbids many things and mandates many penalties that we would never enforce, from the puzzling bans on mixed fabrics, mixed crops and certain hairstyles to the horror of stoning disobedient children.

The authors' response is a kind of modified version of the idea that the Law of Moses can be divided into categories - ceremonial, civic and moral.  They don't spell this out but they suggest that the ceremonial law doesn't apply because it is specific to the temple worship which is replaced by Jesus' death on the cross, and the civic law is specific to the ancient Israeli nation.  They also appear to add a fourth category - laws which are based on ancient medical practice and which are superseded by modern science.  However, they regard the moral law as still in force, including the laws relating to marriage and sexual relations.

This scheme then leads them to interpret Jesus' silence not as neutrality or disinterest, but as a tacit endorsement of the Levitical law.  Their approach seems to be that when Jesus or the apostolic authors specifically contradict or modify a law (for instance, disobeying the Sabbath regulations, declaring all foods clean, denying the validity of divorce or negating the death penalty for adultery) we should consider that law as repealed.  Where they say nothing, we should assume the law still applies.

Hence, since no-one has modified the laws on homosexuality (and Paul has even made comments which could be interpreted as endorsing them), they are still in force.  Their conclusion - Christians cannot endorse same-sex relationships.  This doesn't mean we should be ungracious towards gay people or persecute them (Levitical death penalty notwithstanding), but if they are serious about their faith they have only two acceptable alternatives - heterosexuality or celibacy.

There are so many problems with this approach that it's hard to decide where to start, but their reading of Leviticus is as good a place as any.  At the most obvious level, it doesn't answer the original objection - the laws about mixed crops or fabrics and the mandated hairstyles are not clearly in any of the superseded categories.  But there is a bigger problem because not only is this law limited to men (lesbianism is not forbidden), but it appears in a list which regulates a polygamous marriage system.  Read it and you'll see what I mean.

Yet later in their book the Working Party affirms that "monogamous heterosexual marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for full sexual relations today".  How do they get from Leviticus to here?  It's not at all clear.  Monogamy appears out of nowhere.  If you want to make a legal case, you need to be way more pedantic than that.

However, this is a mere quibble.  My main problem is with their approach to the relationship between Christianity and the Law.  The picture they paint is of Jesus and the Apostles engaging in a kind of divine law reform program.  Some laws are made redundant by Jesus' death and resurrection.  Others are more or less explicitly removed from the statute books by the sayings of Jesus or the writings of his followers.  New laws are added to regulate the life of the emerging cross-cultural Church.  Punishments are tempered by Christian mercy.  From an ethical point of view the laws are significantly revised but they remain laws which must be obeyed.

The thing is, I'm pretty sure this is not what Jesus and the apostles were doing.  Otherwise why would Jesus say something like this from Matthew 5:17-19?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not one stroke of a pen, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This doesn't sound like a law reform program to me.  The Law is described as eternal and unchanging.  Every tiny detail must be respected and carried out.  Even the Pharisees, those fanatical upholders of the law, do not go far enough.

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

How is this possible?  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear.  It's not enough to obey the letter of the law.  You have to get at what's behind it.  It's not enough to refrain from having sex with someone to whom you are not married, because every time you look at someone lustfully you have already committed adultery.  Most men commit adultery every day.  We can't help it.  It's not enough to refrain from actually killing someone, because whenever you are angry you have already committed murder.  How many of us are innocent of this crime?

This is the message of the story of the woman caught in adultery, shoehorned into John's gospel.  When the arresting party/lynch mob challenge Jesus on the application of the law, citing the Levitical principle which says she should be stoned, he doesn't suggest the penalty is too harsh and that it should be mitigated.  Instead, he challenges them on their own record.  "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

His brother James states the general principle.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails at one point of it has become accountable for all of it.

And the practical outworking of this, as stated by Jesus in Matthew 7 and in a slightly different way by James, is that we are not in a position to judge others.  James puts it this way:

Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is one lawgiver or judge who is able to save or destroy.  So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?

There is no repealing or revising of laws here, no suggestion that there is any failure in the law that needs to be fixed.  Rather, the failure is in us.  We are totally unable to fulfil the law.  The more we understand its depth, the more we understand how far we are from keeping it.

This is a hard message for us to hear, and even harder to apply.  The law is so deceptively easy-looking, because it seems to be objective.  I can look at the external circumstances and judge whether what I am doing is OK.  Do I have a receipt for this computer?  Yes I do, so I obviously own it and am not guilty of theft.  Can my wife and I produce a marriage certificate?  Yes we can, so we are not in an adulterous relationship.  My gay friends, on the other hand, are clearly in sinful relationships.  These distinctions allow us to order our lives.

The trouble is that they are false.  This is the point Jesus is making when he critiques the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence....you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

The point is not that some parts of the law do or don't apply to our situation.  The point is that we need to stop pretending we can somehow approximate obedience to the law.  In particular, we need to stop drawing an arbitrary line which says that this breach is within the acceptable limits while this other one is beyond the pale.  Is my flawed marriage more acceptable than someone else's flawed same-sex relationship?  Is it OK for me to benefit from an exploitative industry as long as I have a receipt?  Is it OK for us to ordain people who have trouble controlling their anger but not those who are in same sex relationships?

This cup is so shiny!  Why does my stomach feel sick?  This tomb is so beautiful and well-maintained!  What is that smell?