Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Keeping it Real in Israel and Palestine

My family and friends include a number of stong supporters of Israel.  A lot of conservative Christians feel this way, for reasons which include their understanding of Biblical prophecy, their immersion in the history of Israel via our shared religious heritage, and a fear of the spread of Islam.  This means at a time like now my Facebook feed is flooded with pro-Israeli propaganda.

I find it distressing.  I am not a supporter of Hamas.  As far as I can tell they're an unprincipled group of religious ideologues.  Nor do I have anything against Israelis.  However, in the context of a war in which there are currently 200 Palestinian casualties for every Israeli one I think Israel's supporters need to ask themselves some serious questions.  What could lead someone, particularly a Christian from a neutral country, to lend support to the stronger party in such an asymmetrical war?

In the interests of keeping it real, I've taken to updating the death toll each day on Facebook.  The resulting discussions have been lively.  I'm no expert on Middle Eastern history and politics but I know bullshit when I see it.  There is a lot of it in the pro-Israeli arguments that fly past me each day.  Here are three of the low-lights.

1. "There is no such thing as the Palestinian people."
The argument goes that prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 there was no Palestinian people or nation and never had been, and that it is a creation of the Arabs who want to destroy Israel.

Like a good deal of propaganda, this is a falsehood wrapped in a truth.  It's true that there was no Palestinian nation.  Prior to 1948 there had not been an independent nation of any kind in this location (or in most of the Middle East) since the first century BC, when the Roman Empire took effective control through their puppet Herod the Great.  Since then the area has been controlled by a succession of imperial powers, including the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks.  When the Turks lost their empire at the end of World War 1 the Middle East was divided between the European powers, and their respective territories became the basis of the current national boundaries.

The creation of Israel was unique in this situation.  All the other states took their citizenship from their existing residents and their rulers were taken from the local elites.  The families that provided hereditary governors under the Ottomans became kings of small nation states sponsored by the departing Europeans.  However, in the wake of the Holocaust the United Nations acceded to a long-standing British plan to create a homeland for Jews. The nation of Israel was declared in 1948 in an area which had a mixed population, including some people of Jewish descent but a substantial majority of Arabic background.

The declaration of the Israeli nation brought simmering tensions to a head - war immediately broke out, firstly between the new Jewish rulers and the local Arab communities and quickly drawing in the neighbouring Arab nations.  Israel won a decisive victory and the result was the displacement of some 700,000 people of Arab descent, about 80% of the Arab population.  The majority of these ended up just over the borders in Gaza and the West Bank, controlled respectively by Egypt and Jordan.  There they settled in what were essentially refuge camps and organised their ongoing resistance, giving birth in the process to a sense of Palestinian national identity.  These areas were annexed by Israel in the 1967 war and have been under Israeli military control ever since.

So in a sense, Palestinian national identity was born along with the creation of modern Israel.  But this does not change the fact - people were displaced from their ancestral homes and their lands were taken by immigrants from around the world.  Their descendants remain stateless and largely landless to this day.

2. "Israel is acting in self-defence".
Self defence is the oldest excuse for military aggression in the book.  Once again, fact is mixed with fiction.  The Hamas rulers of Gaza have a considerable supply of primitive rockets which they regularly fire into Israel.  This is certainly an act of aggression. It is undoubtedly harrowing for Israelis who live near the border (and this is a very small country) but the Israeli military has a sophisticated missile interception system which is a highly effective means of self-defence and Hamas rockets rarely hit their targets.  This is not a new situation.  In 2007 the ongoing tension broke out into open war and Israel invaded Gaza, with huge loss of Palestinian life.  After that invasion Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza which is still in place seven years later, sucking the life out of Gaza's economy in an effort to prevent weapons from being smuggled in.

This stalemate was broken recently by the abduction and murder of three young Israelis in the West Bank. (Unlike Gaza, the West Bank is controlled by a Fatah-led government). The murderers were connected to Hamas but it is not clear that they were acting with any official foreknowledge or approval from the Hamas leadership - Israel says they were, Hamas says they weren't.  In the subsequent Israeli response 350 Palestinians were detained including the entire Hamas West Bank leadership, five Palestinians were killed and further restrictions were placed on already highly regulated movements in and out of Palestinian communities.

Hamas accused Israel of collective punishment and the situation rapidly escalated.  Hamas started firing an increasing barrage of rockets from their bases in Gaza, and in response the Israeli military sent guided missiles at various targets in Gaza which they claimed were missile sites but which also, or instead, were ordinary family homes.  This has been followed by a ground invasion.  As a result while only three Israeli civilians have been killed since the start of this particular exchange, some 800 Palestinian civilians have died including over 200 children.

This history begs two questions.  Firstly, how do you determine who started such a conflict?  Was it started by the murders, the heavy-handed Israeli response, the Hamas rockets, the Israeli counter-rockets?  Do we locate its origin back in the 2007 conflict and the subsequent blockade?  Or do we keep going further back, all the way to 1948 and beyond, the cycle of attack and counter-attack that has been going on for almost a century?

Secondly, in the face of such an overwhelming disparity in firepower, at what point does self-defence become all-out aggression?  When Israel has the technology to prevent any damage from Hamas rockets, where is the justification for the killing of civilians and children in the quest to prevent their launch?

3."Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, making a fight to the death inevitable."
It's true that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Israel is likewise committed to the destruction of Hamas.  It may even be true that Hamas uses civilians as human shields by placing rockets in residential areas, although there is not much else in Gaza.  The Hamas leadership has the morals of a pack of wild dogs.

However, Hamas is not the only Palestinian organisation.  The 1995 Oslo accord between the Israeli government and the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation involved PLO recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli legalisation of the PLO and creation of an interim system of self-government in the West Bank and Gaza.  It envisaged a five-year period of negotiation to settle outstanding issues including the status of Jerusalem, the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and ongoing Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories.

This was a landmark agreement and a rare moment of hope in the conflict.  However the concessions were hugely unequal.  While the PLO agreed to recognise Israel, Israel did not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, merely a form of interim local autonomy.  It did not agree to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territory, to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements or to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement.

It got worse from there.  No movement was gained on the outstanding issues.  Israel became frustrated at ongoing terrorist attacks from extreme Palestinian groups and when the Palestinian Authority couldn't or didn't detain the perpetrators, the Israelis intervened directly.  Restrictions on movement were tightened, Israeli military presence intensified, more Jewish settlements were built.

As time went on, positions on both sides hardened.  Israelis elected a government in which Likud entered into a coalition with right-wing nationalists who advocated a hard line and no concessions.  Meanwhile, the combination of frustration with Israel's immovability on key issues and frustration with corruption and misgovernment by Fatah led to the rise of Hamas, first winning local government elections and finally in 2006 gaining a majority on the Palestinian Authority.  Israel refused to recognise their election or have any dealings with them, and over the next couple of years Palestinian governance descended into chaos.  Fatah seized back control in the West Bank while Hamas remains in control in Gaza meaning that there are in effect two separate Palestinian authorities.  Both are under extreme pressure from Israel, still losing land to expanding Jewish settlement, subject to progressively increasing restrictions on movement including the infamous barrier and the Gaza blockade.  Lip-service is still occasionally paid to the "roadmap to peace", mainly by the Americans, but to all intents and purposes the Oslo process is dead.

You can take whatever message you want from this history.  It seems to me that despair and hope are both possible responses.  It is possible to see this as a story of irredeemable failure.  Negotiation has been tried and failed, and now the only solution possible is a military one.  In the short term there can only be one winner of an all-out war because Israel's firepower is so overwhelmingly superior.  This is the solution advocated by many of my friends and family, and many hard-liners in Israel as well as their supporters overseas.  This is the position of Christians for Israel, a pernicious group which has previously made an appearance on this blog.

The problem with this is that it's not actually a solution.   There are currently about 4 million Palestinians packed into the West Bank and Gaza.  They are stateless so they have nowhere else to go.  Every death is another angry family looking for revenge.  Unless the Israelis resort to genocide they will have to find a way to come to terms with this Palestinian presence and find a path to reconciliation.  I'm convinced that genocide would be a bridge too far for the descendants of Holocaust survivors.  If they did go that far, the hatred of their neighbours would be pushed to unprecedented levels, even the US would no longer be able to support them and their days would be numbered.  The fates of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably bound together.

This means that ultimately the problem will only be solved by negotiation, and this will require compromises from both sides.  Palestinians will have to recognise Israel and guarantee its security.  Israel will have to support and assist the creation of a Palestinian state with the land and resources to sustain its citizens.  Or perhaps the parties could pull something unexpected out of the box.  Perhaps they could agree to create a single secular state with equal citizenship for the four million Palestinians alongside the current 8 million Israeli citizens.  Perhaps the UN Security Council will solve the problem by creating a Palestinian homeland in some other country nobody understands with a name no-one can pronounce, like Kyrgyzstan.  After all, no-one lives there, do they?

In the meantime, the situation is difficult and gut-wrenchingly sad.  Children are dying.  They are Palestinians but more than anything they are humans.  The solution is not easy.  None of the parties come out of the conflict smelling of roses.  Israel certainly doesn't.  Whatever excuses you may offer, it's their rockets doing the killing.  I understand that people have different views and that they are passionate about them.  All I ask is that my friends don't expect me to swallow Israeli propaganda.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Reasonable Faith

So, my rather haphazard journey through the world of Christian apologetics has brought me to William Lane Craig.  The much-traveled Craig is perhaps the most prominent conservative evangelical apologist in the English-speaking world, holding debates with militant atheists in all sorts of places in between his day job as Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology in Southern California.  He was even part of a widely advertised debate here in Brisbane City Hall with prominent atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss.  I couldn't get to the debate but friends who did told me I didn't miss much.

Craig is a prolific author and speaker, with over 30 books in print as well as numerous articles, scholarly and popular, and DVD's of his lectures and debates.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics is his attempt to bring all this together in a package.  It started life as material for his seminary courses in apologetics and was originally written as a textbook, but it has reached a much wider audience and spun off a website of the same name and various study guides and discussion forums.

As befits a university textbook this is an introductory work, summarising the ideas and arguments of Craig's apologetics in language plain enough for an educated but non-specialist reader.  There is little here that is individualistic or idiosyncratic like, say, GK Chesterton or Francis Spufford.  Nor is it a merry, populist romp through the territory like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity.  

In contrast to D'Souza's attempt to canvass every argument possible, Craig restricts himself to seven questions, each of which he deals with carefully and exhaustively.  For each question he opens with a historical survey of key arguments and positions on the subject.  The bulk of each chapter is spent on his own arguments, outlining and then explaining and defending a series of philosophical syllogisms, before closing each chapter with some brief advice about practical application.  He also has an overall plan: Start at the highest level of generality and work his way step by step to the specific defence of Christianity.

Craig is remarkably confident of his arguments - the book is salted with anecdotes about young students who have been converted as a result of these arguments, and with advice about their value and use in evangelism.  He clearly finds them convincing.  I am less sure.

First of all he addresses the question of epistemology.  How do we know what we know?  Is it possible to arrive at the truth through reason and investigation?  In Craig's view, the answer is "yes" - we can access the truth through reason and investigation.  In reaching this answer, Craig aligns himself firmly with the modernists against the post-modernists, regarding the latter as incoherent and dishonest.

At first I was inclined to dismiss this section as a kind of preface.  The more I think about it, the more I realise how crucial it is.  For Lane to defend the kind of conservative evangelicalism he espouses, he needs the truth to be objective and certain, to be discoverable.  It is not enough for him, like many other Christians, to accept that our knowledge is partial and hold our faith lightly.  He seeks certainty.  The alternative for him is the meaninglessness of a world without God.  In reaching this duality Craig has laid a heavy burden on himself, because modernism does not just require argument or tradition or spiritual discernment, it demands proof.  If he fails at his task, Christianity collapses.

This would daunt me but it doesn't seem to daunt Craig, who is confident that proof is at hand.  However, he seems unaware of, or at least skates across, the other limitation that modernism imposes on him.  Like the defenders of Biblical inerrancy, defenders of modernism risk being diverted from the meaning of the Christian story (which post-modernism directs us towards) to questions of its factuality, to focus on what is "out there" as opposed to what is within.  As Karen Armstrong would put it, Craig has abandoned mythos in favour of logos, at the risk of diluting and flattening our spirituality.

Anyhow, onto his evidence.  The longest section of the book, divided into two chapters, is devoted to Craig's own special subject, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God.  His favourite is what he calls the kalam cosmological argument, derived from the Arabic word for speech and originating with Islamic scholars of the 11th century CE.  This argument is very simple and is summarised in a three-step syllogism.

1. Whatever has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe must have a cause.

He then defends this syllogism with a wealth of detail and reasoning, defending the idea that everything which begins must have a cause, then surveying the astronomical evidence for the finitude of the universe.  Craig's grasp of these arguments and of the evidence behind them is impressive, and he stays firmly in the bounds of mainstream science - indeed, the most widely accepted cosmological theory, popularly known as the "Big Bang" theory, is his biggest ally here.  Equally impressive is his ability to explain these complex questions in a way even a non-scientist like me can understand.

He cheerfully bats aside the favourite Dawkins-ite follow up question, "where did God come from" as incoherent - God is not covered by the argument because he has no beginning and therefore needs no cause.  However, this does not get him completely out of the woods because in arguing that the universe has a beginning he provides a detailed explanation of the logical impossibility of a sequence of numbers going back indefinitely in time.    To avoid this argument also being applied to God he suggests that God is outside time, but at this point the argument becomes rather question-begging.  I suspect that here we are dealing with matters so complex and abstruse that humans are simply out of their depth.

This is the strongest part of the book and the most fascinating.  Yet it only gets him so far.  This First Cause could be anything - the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot or, more to the point, the Islamic Allah or the Hindu Brahma.  Indeed he ruefully comments that he has received letters from Islamic scholars thanking him for his work on this question.  To fulfil his mission as a Christian apologist he has to navigate from here to a set of arguments supporting the claim that this God has revealed himself in Jesus.

He approaches the task with typical care.  He begins by arguing, in line with his general modernism, that the facts of history are knowable in principle.  History is not simply a collection of unverifiable stories and interpretations, rewritten for each new generation.  It is a subject in which research can uncover the truth, even if our knowledge will never be complete.

Secondly, he argues that miracles are also possible in principle, although each individual miracle story requires verification.  In the process he responds to one of the favourite atheist arguments, Hume's idea that a miracle can only be accepted if the falsehood of the testimony to it would require an even greater miracle than the miracle itself.  Craig thinks this method is founded on an assumption that miracles are impossible, and believes the correct way of weighing the evidence is to consider the likelihood of the miracle having taken place against the likelihood of alternative explanations for the appearance of the tale - what he calls the "inference to the best explanation".

In his final two chapters he applies this background reasoning to the story of Jesus.  First of all, he attempts to show from both the New Testament and extra-biblical sources that Jesus claimed divinity, to be God incarnate, sent to redeem humanity.  Then he asks why we should accept this claim and his answer is because of the testimony of Jesus' miracles, and most especially the miracle of the Resurrection.  If the Resurrection took place, it vindicates Jesus' claims.  If not, there is no reason to accept them.

His final chapter, then, is a rehearsal of the evidence for the resurrection, weighed up using the framework of his "inference to the best explanation" method for evaluating miracles.  We know for a historical fact that the early church believed in Jesus' resurrection.  He thus weighs the various alternative explanations for this belief - that the apostles were deceived, that they were lying for their own gain, that the stories referred to something other than a literal physical resurrection, that they are later legends, and so forth - and finds them all wanting for various reasons.  Ergo, Jesus really did rise from the dead and the Christian God is the First Cause deduced from the cosmological arguments.

Sadly, on this subject he has little new to say.  His arguments are little different to those of the historical apologists that have come before him - Frank Morrison, say, or Josh McDowell.  He relies on the same faulty premises and hence reaches the same debatable conclusions.  It is not hard to find holes in the argument.

I have to say there is a lot to like about Craig's apologetics.  I like the depth with which he examines the questions, and the philosophical discipline he brings to the subject, particularly before he strays into history where he is less comfortable.  He is no careless amateur and this is a serious work of scholarship.

Nonetheless, I think the biggest weakness is right at the beginning, with his defence of modernism.  This commitment sets him on the course which leads to him finally attempting to "prove" that the resurrection is a historical event, because such objective proof is required in his preferred philosophical position.  What if the apostles viewed the world differently?  What if the important thing for them was the content of Jesus' message, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the miracle and resurrection stories were merely the clothing in which this message was presented?  What if the New Testament is not a modernist anthology?

In this context, I find Craig's stories of the conversion of young students particularly interesting.  In Craig's telling of the stories, they are convinced by the power of the argument.  Of course this is possible in a superficial way.  Craig is convincing, he has studied deeply, he has great personal warmth and conviction.  An impressionable young man or woman searching for truth and meaning would be easily drawn in.

However, I would suggest they were there in the room listening to him because they were looking for a reason to believe.  They were there because of the power of the Christian story and the attractiveness of Jesus himself.  Without this, all the rest would be nothing.  The apologetic framework is only a pathway leading to that story, a means of smoothing the way, of helping people to get past the barriers and roadblocks that 21st century civilisation puts in the way.

What's important is what happens next.  Once these people (young or old) reach the point of acceptance, what kind of spirituality do we build?  Do we help people to become more Christ-like, or do we turn them into arrogant bigots?  Do we teach them to build the Kingdom of God, like Tolstoy or Walsh and Keesmaat, or to become loyal soldiers in the kingdom of Caesar?  If it is the former, then it is worthwhile.  If the latter, then all Craig's careful reasoning is just so much dust.  Ultimately, the story is everything.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Rolf Harris and The Beatles

We are currently being forced to accept, reluctantly and to our collective sorrow and shame, that for a long time our society has been remarkably tolerant of the sexual abuse of children.  Our Royal Commission here in Australia has been sitting for some time now, hearing horrendous stories of abuse in institutions which are mostly connected to the churches, Catholic and Protestant.  That we are hearing these stories has little or nothing to do with the willingness of churches and institutions to admit fault and change their ways, and everything to do with the courage and persistence of abuse survivors who have fought to be heard every step of the way.

Now, as if to remind us that it's not just the church, the British legal system has finally wound its methodical way to the conclusion that Rolf Harris is guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault committed on four young girls between 1968 and 1986.  These charges seem to be the tip of the iceberg.  A makeup artist he once groped testified that he was known as "the octopus" because of his wandering hands.  Other victims have already started laying complaints.  It seems likely the 84 year old Harris will spend his few remaining years behind bars.

The most revealing thing I've seen about the whole story is the 7.30 Report's interview with Cathy Henkel, a long-time friend of Harris who testified for the prosecution.  In 1986 Henkel, a theatre and film producer, was shepherding a group of young players around the UK and Harris came to one of their performances.  Afterwards he went with them to a nearby pub and socialised with the cast and crew, giving them encouraging feedback on their performance.  However, what seemed to most participants like a happy, convivial occasion was hugely traumatic for one young girl.  Tonya Lee, who was 13 at the time, was sexually assaulted twice by Harris during the course of the evening.

You can see how sad and conflicted Henkel is in this interview.  Harris was a long-term friend and mentor and she herself has nothing but happy memories of their relationship.  Yet she was so completely convinced of the truth of Lee's story that she was prepared to give corroborating evidence about the evening despite not having witnessed the assaults herself.  She asserts, reluctantly but firmly, that the verdict is the right one and Harris deserves punishment.

What's interesting to me about this interview is how easily Sarah Ferguson lets Henkel off.  Ferguson is renowned for her confrontational interview style and willingness to ask pointed questions, but she keeps her guns in the holster this time.  I would like to know what Henkel thought she was doing.  If she knew Harris well, she would surely have known that he was "the octopus".  She would surely have heard the gossip from makeup artists, administrative assistants and junior performers.  Yet when Tonya Lee sat on his lap in the pub, no alarm bells rang.  It didn't occur to her to keep an eye on Harris in the company of her young charges and she didn't notice when he slipped out to the toilets straight after Lee.  She had it in her power to prevent the assault, but she didn't.

It seems to me that the best thing to come out of such cases is not the jailing of octogenarian offenders, justified though that is.  The best thing is the message these cases hammer home to us, again and again, that we need to watch over the children in in our care and make sure they are safe.  It is the introduction of protocols for abuse prevention - screening adults in positions of responsibility, visibility at all times, the removal of opportunities for abuse, the realisation that such things can never just be a matter of trust.  This cultural change in the way we care for children seems to be the most hopeful outcome of this seemingly endless series of revelations.  Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

However, we still have a long way to go.  One of the things that made me think this was watching the recent ABC documentary on the the Beatles' 1964 visit to Australia.  There were scenes familiar from any Beatlemania documentary - the witty interview one-liners, the screaming fans lining the street or massed below hotel windows, the concert footage of young girls hysterical with excitement as their idols played.

Yet the story also had a sinister edge, especially in light of the Royal Commission and the Harris trial.  The hysteria was highly sexually charged.  Young girls hatched schemes to sneak past hotel security and get to the Beatles' rooms.  Some booked rooms in the hotel themselves for easy access.  The Beatles were not shy about taking advantage.  Every night was a party.  The band at that time were heavy users of stimulants which made them hyped up and reckless.  After a gig they would party, and they or their minders would select young girls from the throng and invite them to join in.  Sex was definitely part of the event, lots of it and with many partners.

This practice was even officially sanctioned.  Paul McCartney turned 22 during the tour and a local newspaper ran a competition which gave 10 lucky girls the chance to attend his party.  Girls were encouraged to send a photo of themselves and write a paragraph about why they wanted to attend.  The band themselves chose the winners.  Officially they were chaperoned, but the arrangements were far from watertight.

All this is told in breathless, nostalgic tones as if it was a great adventure.  Those were our wild days, everyone seems to be saying, and weren't they great?  Even some of the young women (no longer young now of course) seem to relish their parts in the occasion.  It's as if these events happened in a different world to that of Harris' crimes, a world in which boys will be boys and girls will be girls and it's all innocent fun.

Of course there are differences.  Harris was almost 40 at the time of his first offences, his victims as young as 11.  The Beatles, by contrast, were still quite young.  Ringo Starr, the oldest, was just short of 24, George Harrison the youngest at 21.  They were sex symbols in a way that Rolf Harris never was.  Girls literally threw themselves at them in a frenzy of adolescent hormones.  It could be that the Beatles never had any occasion to commit sexual assault because they were surrounded by so many willing partners.

Yet I wonder, were these over-stimulated young men and their minders always scrupulous about the age of the girls they bedded, or about issues of consent?  Did the girls themselves really know what they were getting into?  While some smile salaciously on camera at the memories, are there others who watch their TVs with shaking hands and tears running down their cheeks?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we will never know.

Cathy Henkel thought Rolf Harris was a kind, friendly man.  Tonya Lee knew differently.  It took almost 30 years for them to compare stories and piece together the truth.  Is there a similar jigsaw still to put together about the Beatles?  Or about other people we admire?  Have we really learned the lessons we need to learn, or do we still need more high profile cases do drive the message through our thick skulls?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Neil Young Wages Heavy Peace

So I've been reading Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream.

It's interesting how the form and language of a book tells you as much about the person as what they actually say about themselves, especially if they're not a professional writer.  Graham Nash's memoir, carefully structured around chronology, focused on his professional life, cautious in what he says about himself and those around him, shows a methodical, cautious and conservative person.  Nash remains firmly in control throughout.

David Crosby's attempt, co-authored with Carl Gottlieb and with contributions by a huge cast of friends and associates, shows a strong-willed, opinionated man but someone fundamentally democratic and collegial.  He retains ultimate control - after all, it's his story - but he gives his co-authors a long rope.  He even allows a former girlfriend to give the lie to his claims of sexual potency.

Young's book shows you someone who is very much in the moment.  He often lets you know where he is and what he's doing as he writes each chapter, and he seems to just write about whatever comes out of the junkpile in his brain.  One minute he'll be reminiscing about Buffalo Springfield.  The next he'll be writing about one of his pet projects - his high end digital sound technology, or his electric car, or perhaps his model trains.  Then perhaps he'll tell a story about one of his friends, or one of his cars, or both at once.  It's like one of his guitar solos - rambling, a bit too long with quite a few boring bits, laced with occasional flashes of brilliance.

At one point he tells the story about how he and his neighbours in Hawaii, where he stays from time to time, go on a shopping trip.  He describes wandering through the Costco supermarket, looking at flat screen TVs and buying new brushes for his electric toothbrush and you sigh and say "why is he telling me this? Can't he afford an editor to cut the crap?"  Then they get to a second hand book and record store and there, in a cardboard box on the floor of a remote aisle, is a complete collection of his CDs, all 34 of them.  He is so deflated he can't go on with the shopping trip and sits at a table outside, gathering his wits, while the others go on.  Just when you think you know what's happening, you suddenly realise he was going somewhere else entirely.

In other words, pretty much like Young's career in general.   He leaps between styles depending on how he feels and which musicians he has met up with recently.  Folk, country, garage rock, grunge, techno.  Albums that baffle everyone, followed by riveting smash hits.  He is a genius without a filter, an intuitive artist who can't be told what art to make. Not won't be told, I should emphasise, can't be.  As soon as he thinks, things go wrong.  If you want the gems, you have to accept the rocks.

In the early 1980s Young switched record companies from Reprise, which had released all his music up to that time, to David Geffen's new company Geffen Records.  He was attracted by Geffen's reputation as a music man, but things did not go well.  He presented Geffen straight up with an environmental-themed record called Island in the Sun, which has never been released.  Geffen didn't like it and asked him to do something else.  Young agreed and produced 1982's Trans, a record inspired by his son Ben's communication struggles (Ben has severe cerebral palsy and can't speak) and using heavy electronic effects and distorted vocals sung through a vocoder.

Geffen reluctantly released it, but didn't promote it and wouldn't fund video production to support it.  In frustration the president of Geffen's Board of Directors intervened and asked him to make some rock'n'roll.  Big mistake!  He was obviously thinking about Rust Never Sleeps but no-one tells someone like Neil Young what sort of music to make.  Young decided to take him literally and made Everybody's Rockin', an album of old school 50's rockabilly.  He even funded his own videos with the band dressed up in sharp suits and greased hair.  Eventually Geffen sued him for "making music unrepresentative of Neil Young", no small claim given Young's broad musical range.  He counter-sued, they eventually settled out of court and parted ways.

So was the whole experience a huge failure?  Well, it depends on what you mean.  Commercially, the 1980s were Young's lowest point.  Everybody's Rockin' was not so much an album as a way of giving Geffen Records the finger, yet it still sold 400,000 copies, no mean feat for a fit of pique.  Trans is another matter.  Electronica dates fast and personally I find the vocoder effect wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  Yet if you listen past this, it is an album packed with great songs, a lost classic of timeless music dressed up in the rags of transient technology.  If Young was misunderstood, this itself is part of the point, part of his own reflection on his son's difficulty in making himself understood without functioning vocal chords.  If you think you hated this album, I encourage you to take another listen.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that Young's fame rests on his early work, and one of his highest points both commercially and creatively was 1972's Harvest.  Let me share a lovely song I rediscovered trolling Youtube as I read the book, 'A Man Needs a Maid'.

I think I prefer this performance to the studio version with its lush orchestral arrangement.  With its stripped back piano accompaniment the vulnerability and bewilderment of the song stand out.  This is not a hugely complex song musically - Young's music never is - but it is quite intricate, with subtle dynamics, modulations and changes of tempo that reflect the moods it goes through.

My life is changin' in so many ways
I don't know who to trust anymore
There's a shadow runnin' thru my days
Like a beggar goin' from door to door

I was thinkin' that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean
Fix my meals and go away

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid

It's hard to make that change
When life and love turns strange, and old

To live a love, you gotta give a love
To give a love, you gotta be part of

When will I see you again?

While ago somewhere I don't know when
I was watchin' a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playin' a part that I could understand

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid, a man needs a maid

When will I see you again?

Young was apparently given a hard time about this song by feminists because it was understood as relegating women to the role of domestic servants.  The critics obviously failed to listen to the song before they criticised.  This is not a song about gender relationships, its a song about being isolated and alone.

At the time he wrote it he was in his mid-20s.  His short-lived first marriage had ended and he was in a fraught relationship with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress of the third verse - it apparently happened much like that in real life.  Other relationships were also struggling.  His initial participation in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had foundered on his fractious relationship with Stephen Stills.  There were issues in his other band, Crazy Horse, as guitarist and singer Danny Whitten's drug addiction made him increasingly dysfunctional.  To make it all harder to bear Young was in constant pain from a spinal injury, performing in a back brace and shambling about the stage like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Young describes himself as a late developer, still emotionally immature and naive well into his 20s.  However, we all get to a point where we realise relationships are much more fraught and complex than we thought they would be.  People we trust betray us, those we thought would help us end up undermining us, friends turn into enemies.  We find things in ourselves that we don't exactly like, although we find them hard to change.  There is shadow where once there was only sunlight.  It's a hard change to get used to, everything has become strange.  How is a man like Neil Young to cope with this, shy, introverted and possibly a little further along the autism spectrum than most people?  This song represents a rather baffled work-in-progress answer.

Of course one option is to simply get a maid.  This is not to say that all a man really needs from a woman is cooking and cleaning, or that that's all she's any good for.  Rather, after you have been hurt it is tempting to put strict boundaries around relationships.  Hiring a maid is strictly a commercial arrangement.  She lives elsewhere, performs certain essential tasks, then leaves.  Both she and her employer are protected emotionally.  The same goes, perhaps, for musicians.  If you hire them you don't have to be their friend, they just have to play what you tell them to play.

The third verse presents another alternative.  You can wear a mask, you can play a role.  When you fall in love with the actress, it's not her you are attracted to but the role she is playing.  And perhaps you understand because you feel like you are playing a part yourself.  For Young in particular, he was playing the part of a rock star, a part to which he often felt unsuited.  His later reflections on his relationship with Snodgrass make depressing reading, a blank few years of unhappiness he would rather not talk about.

Young knows that ultimately neither of these will do.  There is no alternative but to be vulnerable, to take the risk.  "To live a love, you've got to give a love".  You can't cut yourself off or play a part, you have to give something of yourself, risky though it may be.  That longing will not go away.  He asks at the end, "when will I see you again?"  It might seem temporarily easier not to try, but this will not do.  We can't live without love.

Young's music has made him wealthier than most of us can ever imagine being.  This wealth cushions him from a lot of pressures.  Nonetheless his life has more than its share of hardships.  He got dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, suffering from both epilepsy and diabetes and passing both on to his daughter.  He also suffered polio as a child with its legacy of muscle weakness and proneness to injury.  Both his sons were born with cerebral palsy, the older only mildly so but the younger so severe as to be totally dependent on carers.  He faces it all with a kind of baffled optimism and a willingness to keep trying, to keep learning and loving despite it all, which maybe all of us could learn something from.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

School Chaplains

The news of the day is that the Australian High Court has, for the second time, ruled the Commonwealth Government's funding of school chaplains unconstitutional.  This decision has come courtesy of a persistent Queensland litigant by the name of Ron Williams (pictured) who has objected to the placement of a chaplain employed by Scripture Union in his children's school.

I have come across school chaplains in a few ways.  I have a good friend who is a chaplain (government-funded) at a rural school in the community where he is also the Anglican priest.  I have met and interviewed chaplains in the course of a project I worked on a few years ago about youth service delivery.  I also have a leadership role in a local church which employs two chaplains at Brisbane State High School, just across the road from us.  In this capacity I wrote the most recent application to have our permission to place chaplains in the school renewed, and helped negotiate the subsequent contract.

Our church is unusual in two respects.  Firstly, unlike most Queensland chaplains ours are wholly funded by private donations with no government funding.  Secondly, we are one of a very small number of local churches in Queensland to employ chaplains - the overwhelming majority are employed by Scripture Union, a large Evangelical para-church organisation.  However, despite being self-funding our access to the State school system is governed by essentially the same contract as that which governs Scripture Union - a contract which places strict boundaries around the chaplains' role, preventing them from attempting to convert students, from running or organising religious instruction, or from favouring people of any particular religion.  Their role is framed essentially around providing personal, social and emotional support to children - in effect they are intended to operate as school counsellors in the broad sense of the term, although they are not intended to carry out formal counselling and most are not qualified to do so.

The chaplaincy program has been controversial since it was introduced by the Howard Government in 2006.  In the public realm, the controversy has mainly been about the place of religion in Australia's public school system.  The general idea of its opponents is that our public schools (as opposed to church-run schools) should be secular institutions, and that the chaplaincy program breaches this by providing public funding to particular religious bodies to work in schools.  This also seems to be Mr Williams' main objection.

This has been supplemented by other issues.  Chaplains, it is said, are poorly qualified for their role.  The basic qualification for a school chaplain in Queensland is a Certificate IV in youth work, and chaplains can be employed without this if they are undertaking study towards it.  In fact, Scripture Union runs this course (although others do as well) and puts new chaplains through it as a matter of routine.  This qualification could be seen as very low level for the complexity of their role.

If you were to judge by the occasional reports on ABC current affairs, chaplaincy is prone to problems with chaplains overstepping the bounds, either attempting to provide counselling where they are not qualified to do so or overstepping the religious boundaries of their role.  However, in my experience they enjoy quite a broad base of support, not just from religious communities but from parents, teachers and principals with no religious agenda of their own (and even those who are anti-religion in principle) because they provide the kind of support that is not available to students from any other source.

The High Court Judgement is an interesting intervention in this situation.  The Court's role in the matter is constitutional - their job is to determine whether or not the Australian Government is acting within the terms of the Australian Constitution.  This august and somewhat ad hoc foundation document for our nation does in fact have a clause about religion.

116 Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion 
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for  prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. 

The popular argument against the chaplaincy program is that it breaches the spirit of this clause by favouring a particular religious group (in this case, Evangelical Christians) with funding.  There is no objection, on this view, to funding support workers in schools.  In fact that's a great idea but they should be secular rather than explicitly religious.  The Gillard Government did in fact go a little way down this track by providing an option in the program to employ secular support workers or counsellors in place of chaplains, but most schools have not elected to go down this path.  I suspect the reason for this is more pragmatic than ideological. Scripture Union has a well-managed, easily accessible program for placing chaplains in schools.  There is no comparable non-religious alternative.  

However, the High Court judgement has nothing to do with this clause.  Despite religion being the 'elephant in the room' the actual legal case focuses on the powers of the Commonwealth Government.  Section 51 of the Constitution lists the matters the Commonwealth can make laws about, including the following:

(xxiiiA) the provision of maternity allowances, widows‘ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness  and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances;

Any item not listed in Section 51 is a responsibility of the States, and the Commonwealth does not have direct power to legislate about it, although it can make grants to the States and specify conditions for these grants.  The legal question is, does funding school chaplains come under the heading of 'benefits to students' as listed in the clause above.  The Commonwealth argued that it does, Mr Williams (supported, incidentally, by most if not all of the State Governments) argued that it doesn't and that therefore the Commonwealth has no power to provide direct funding for chaplains in schools.  The Court agreed with Mr Williams.

In other words, this is not a case about religion, it is a case about State and Commonwealth relations.  If the program funded social workers or psychologists instead of chaplains, the judgement would have been the same - except that then Mr Williams would never have brought his case.  The court has not found that it is illegal to have chaplains in schools, only for the Commonwealth to fund them directly.  Instead, it will have to fund them via the State governments.

Mr Williams is happy because he won. The States are happy, because they get more power. The Commonwealth is moderately unhappy but not seriously so.  The program does not need to disappear, it just needs to be channeled through the State Governments.  Scripture Union is probably a little nervous but not overly so, especially since its former CEO is now a Queensland cabinet minister.  It seems likely the program will go on much as before, which will make the majority of people in local schools happy too.  As for what Mr Williams will do next, we will just have to wait and see...

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Law of the Conservation of Red Tape

You're probably aware of the Law of the Conservation of Energy.  This is a law of physics which states that energy cannot be added to or removed from a closed system.  Energy can change its state or type - for instance, the chemical energy in dynamite can be changed into kinetic energy via an explosion - but overall the amount of energy will remain the same.

You are probably not aware that there is a very similar law in public administration - the Law of the Conservation of Red Tape.  This states that red tape cannot be added to or removed from a system of government.  It can be converted from one portfolio or area of business to another, for instance by changes of law or changes of government, but it cannot be completely removed.  This means that when governments promise you that they will "cut red tape" what they actually mean is that they will cut red tape for some people while increasing it for others.

Red tape is used in government departments to bind files - has been for centuries.  Once upon a time it was used to bind together any collection of documents.  In more recent years, cardboard folders and file pins are the technology of choice where the amount of paper is only moderate, but if there is too much to fit in one folder, the folders are still bound together with narrow, non-adhesive cloth tape.  Don't ask me why it is always red but I have never seen any other colour.  The "green tape" which politicians like to claim they are cutting is entirely mythical.  Public servants do in fact cut this tape all the time, since it comes in large rolls and whenever you need some you simply cut off the desired length with a pair of scissors.  Once you have the right length you tie up the files in a bundle - hence the expression "tied up in red tape".

This tape has come to symbolise the heavy hand of government regulation, draining energy from the economy and sucking the life out of business enterprise while feeding the army of pointless, lazy public servants who administer it.  If government could just get out of their way, our business lobbyists say, then business would be able to get on with creating wealth and everyone would be better off.

Of course this is a huge and deliberate caricature of government regulation.  Regulations are there for a reason and many of them are entirely necessary.  We need to protect the environment, make sure important services like health and construction are carried on by properly skilled professionals, make sure the places our children are cared for and educated are safe and well run, and so forth.  All these things require regulation and the files in which records of this regulatory activity are stored are indeed bound up by red tape for easy future retrieval.  However, most business people would prefer as little scrutiny as possible.

Of course there are bad regulations and there are good ones and there are always cases to be made for regulatory reform.  Nonetheless, our current governments at both State and Commonwealth level talk as if all regulation was bad, and commit themselves to global targets like "reducing red tape by 20%", whatever that means.

Anyway, back to my subject.  The Law of the Conservation of Red Tape clearly teaches that red tape cannot be reduced, only displaced into some other, alternative form of red tape.  In the current environment, with governments at all levels who are very chummy with businesses, the only way to deal with this problem is to displace the red tape onto poorer people and those who work with them.  After all, somebody has to do the heavy lifting.

Recently the Queensland Government tried to displace some of its red tape onto the union movement.  Trade unions, their new law said, would need to ballot their members before spending more the $10,000 on political campaigning or donations to political parties.  Thus, instead of a discussion at their governing council, unions would now have to stage a full scale ballot overseen by the Electoral Commission, at enormous expense.  This could displace the red tape from a significant number of environmental protection regulations, saving our favourite mining companies hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Problem was, the unions and their members are not poor enough for this displacement to stick.  Following a successful High Court challenge to a similar law in NSW last year, the Queensland Government was forced to repeal its new law.  The lesson here?  To be effective, red tape displacement must target those who don't have the resources to fight back.  Fortunately, such people are not in short supply.

The Commonwealth government has made a good start in its recent budget with its changes to disability support payments.  It used to be that once you were assessed as having a permanent disability, this assessment didn't then need to be repeated - after all, a permanent disability is, you know....  But now a large number of those assessed in recent years will have to be reassessed against slightly different criteria.  Some of the surplus red tape will be able to be used to tie those files together.

More of it will be used for young people who are unemployed.  Since they need to "earn or learn", they will need to submit evidence that they are doing one or the other, and no doubt this will need to be certified by the person or people they are earning or learning with - hence both the young person and their relevant organisation will need to submit paperwork.  The stipulation that people under 30 can only get benefits for six months will create a lovely round of paperwork as time is kept on the six months payment, exit paperwork is done at the end of six months, hardship claims are made, justified and considered and re-entry to the system is negotiated at the end of the six-month abstention.  Such lovely piles of paper will have to be bound up with something!  We could even give the whole program a progressive sounding title to make it look like we are doing good - how about "Welfare Reform"?  That sounds warm and cuddly....

Of course I have to mention housing, which has become a hugely fruitful repository of displaced red tape in the past few years.  When I first started working in the field, applicants filled in a four-page form and produced evidence of their identity, income and current address.  Then they waited in a queue that was essentially ordered according to the date of their application.  When their names reached the top of the list, they got a call and were allocated housing, provided nothing dramatic had changed for them in the meantime.  The only paperwork required of them while they waited was to inform the Housing Commission (as it was then) of any changes - new address, new child, new partner, etc.

Nowadays we are in a world of allocation by need.  This means the application form is now 17 pages long and the required supporting information is varied and voluminous as you have to show how you fit the need criteria.  Is your housing substandard?  Submit some proof!  Do you have a chronic health problem?  Submit a doctors letter.  Are you escaping domestic violence?  Provide a police report, or a letter from a domestic violence service.  The list goes on.

Of course all of this is handled at least twice - the person (and usually the agency helping them, since highly disadvantaged people struggle to get all this together) has to find and submit the evidence, and then someone in the Department of Housing has to assess it against a set of complex criteria.  Then of course if they are not housed quickly it all has to be done again as many of these circumstances will have changed.  This is red tape heaven!

But all this, while highly productive in meeting the government's red tape displacement goals, is not sufficient in itself.  So as a adjunct to the heavy lifting by poor people themselves, the organisations that work with them also need to carry some of the load.

One way they do this is through competitive tendering.  In the old days it used to be that once you were funded to provide a service you would go on doing so until the government decided they didn't want to fund that service any more.  However, as the need to displace red tape has grown in recent years, this process has been deemed too simple, and so now these services are periodically put out to tender.  Someone in the relevant government department writes a specification for what the service should deliver (which roughly matches what it is delivering now) organisations submit a detailed proposal as to how they will deliver this service, these proposals are assessed by a panel of public servants and the tender awarded.  This may in fact go to the original organisation, or it may go to someone else who will deliver much the same service, hopefully better but not necessarily, often after recruiting the staff recently made redundant by the organisation that missed out.  In the meantime the amount of paper generated is colossal and it all has be tied together at the end with ... yes, you guessed it!  Of course since tenders are only let for a period of three years, the process is endlessly sustainable.

The other way to get organisations to share the heavy lifting is through regulatory and accreditation schemes.  These are even more fruitful than tendering processes, because you can make organisations undergo an assessment each year, and the processes inevitably involve huge paper mountains - policies and procedures, record-keeping systems, charters, meeting minutes, complaints and risk registers.  Whole armies of worker ants spend their lives managing these systems and tinkering with them to come up with new refinements of paperwork.

Does all this red tape make us better off?  Well, we don't really know, no-one has ever evaluated its impacts.  Anyway, that's hardly the point.  All that red tape has to go somewhere, and if these people are so busy do-gooding that they don't have time to get real jobs, well they just have to take what they are given, don't they?

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Colossians Remixed

Well folks, there's been too much politics on this blog lately and not enough theology, so it's time to review a book I've just finished reading on Paul's letter to the Colossians. Oh, hang on a minute...

The book's title, Colossians Remixed, would not normally have got me in. Sounds dull, and Colossians is one of those books you tend to read quickly on your way between Romans and Hebrews. Still, the subtitle, Subverting the Empire,  was a bit more intriguing.  However, what really got me in were the authors. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat are a couple from Toronto, where Walsh is a university chaplain and Keesmaat an adjunct professor of biblical studies.  A couple of years ago they did a speaking tour of Australia and although I didn't hear them I read the text of one of their presentations and found myself wanting more. The clincher, though, was Walsh's book Kicking at the Darkness, a theological reflection on the songs of Bruce Cockburn. Anyone who is that serious about Cockburn deserves to have his books read!

I wasn't disappointed. This is not only the closest I have ever read the book of Colossians (which runs to a mere two and a half pages in my edition of the NRSV), it opened my eyes to a new way of understanding Paul's writings in general.

This is not really a commentary - in fact it is a response to the authors' frustration with commentaries. In particular, Walsh acted as a reader for NT Wright while he was writing his commentary on Colossians and felt a deep frustration that the limits of the commentary genre didn't allow Wright to take the logical next step from the interpretation of the text in its context to helping us understand it and apply it in our own.  This is, first and foremost, a work of hermeneutics, outlining both what the text meant to inhabitants of the first century Roman empire, and what this same message means in the 21st century Pax Americana and globalised economy.

The first surprise for me, given that our standard readings of Colossians are so conservative and so focused on eternity, was just how subversive this letter is in its first century context, and how easy it is for us to miss this fact. For example, consider this piece of early Christian poetry which forms chapter 1, verses 15-20.

He is the image 
of the invisible God, 
the firstborn of all creation; 
for in him were created all things 
in heaven and on earth, 
things visible and invisible, 
whether thrones or dominions 
or rulers or powers—
all things have been created 
through him and for him.  

He himself is before all things, 
and in  him all things hold together. 
He is the head 
of the body, the church; 

He is the beginning, 
the firstborn from the dead, 
so that he might come 
to have first place in everything. 
For in him all the fullness of God 
was pleased to dwell, 
and through him God was pleased 
to reconcile to himself all things, 
whether on earth or in heaven, 
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

We typically read this passage as a piece of cosmic theology, showing the divinity and eternity of Jesus and the promise of his final victory. What we are unaware of is how profoundly and subversively political these statements are. Jesus is described here in the language used by the Romans to describe the Emperor, who himself expected to be revered as a god. Caesar was the one who was before all things, who held all things together, who had first place in everything. Caesar was the head, and the empire was his body, united in him and directed by him, while all thrones, dominions, rulers and powers were subject to him. Caesar brought peace through the shedding of blood and so established an eternal empire.

Walsh and Keesmaat explain that the image of the Emperor was everywhere. His face was on the coins, his statues stood in all the public squares and on street corners, even in the temples. Not only that, but private homes would be adorned by by dozens of items that bore his image - lampshades, water jugs, cups, plates, all stamped or printed with the Emperor's face.  So when Paul applies this message instead to Jesus, this is a direct challenge to the empire. The empire is no longer the dominant force in the lives of Christians because Jesus and his kingdom take its place. No wonder the Christians were persecuted.

Nor is this simply an abstract set of ideas. The practical instructions Paul gives the Colossians also represent a direct challenge to the imperial system. This system was a very efficient means of distributing wealth from the poor to the rich. Unable to pay their crippling taxes, poor farmers and business people would be forced to sell not only their goods, but their own freedom, to the wealthiest citizens of their cities and provinces, who also occupied the most prominent official positions in the local imperial hierarchy. Hence the rich got richer, amassing huge estates, which were then worked by their newly enslaved former owners for little or no reward at the pleasure of their new masters. This empire was strictly hierarchical. Everyone was under the patronage of someone else, to command as they chose. Children were at the mercy of their fathers, wives of their husbands, slaves of their masters. Nor could you break free or opt out.  Roman laws required widows to remarry after a maximum of three years.

Paul turns this on its head.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

He is asking them to change the way they live, not just in an internal, spiritual way but in the way they relate to one another. Gone is the arrogance and the relationships of power that pervaded the empire. In its place is a relationship of equality. There are no racial divisions, no divisions between slave and free. They are instead to be humble towards each other, seeking one another's forgiveness for wrongs, treating one another with love, following the example of the Head of this alternative kingdom.  

This has many implications for the way they were to live back then. For instance, while the letter does not explicitly command them to release their slaves, they are warned; "you know that you have a master in heaven". Slavery is relativised. This letter was, is seems, accompanied by another, the letter from Paul to Philemon asking him to accept back his runaway slave as a son and treat him as he would treat Paul, his spiritual father and mentor. Hence, Walsh and Keesmaat suggest that its first readers would have been able to read between the lines a message Paul was not prepared to commit openly to writing for fear of endangering his followers' lives - that slavery was incompatible with the equality they had in Christ.

However, the real power of Colossians Remixed is in how its authors translate Colossians for 21st century readers. If this book directly challenged the imperial system of the Roman Empire in the first century, what is its equivalent in the 21st? They believe the signs of our time point clearly and unequivocally to the forces of globalisation led by the American empire. Like the Roman oligarchs, the powers of global capitalism - the multinational corporations and the governments that back them - seek complete domination. They ruthlessly move into any country or community they can reach, usurping local businesses and replacing them by global brands, leaving poor residents with no option but to work in their sweatshops and buy their products in their supermarkets and department stores. Wealth is systematically funneled from the poor to the rich. Those who challenge this system are invaded or boycotted in the name of peace.

We feel disempowered before this system, that we have no choice. That is what empires do. They are totalising systems. They drive us to participate in exploitation and oppression because we feel there is no other choice, this is all there is. Paul, as interpreted by Walsh and Keesmaat, begs to differ. Into this total global system he inserts an alternative, the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus, where we are asked, indeed commanded, to treat people differently, to see things differently, to put the poor before the rich, to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed, to release our slaves, to treat our women and children with love and respect.

Living in this kingdom is not easy. Paul wrote this letter from prison. Many of its readers were likely to have died or been imprisoned in their turn. Before that, its wealthier readers would have been guided to give up substantial parts of the wealth. Following Jesus comes at a cost - not merely a spiritual cost but a concrete social, political and economic one. Yet it also has benefits, for the poor and the rich alike, in the building of a new, loving kingdom, a body in which all take responsibility for one another, in a new living community based on genuine justice and peace, not war and oppression disguised by those labels. Do we have the courage to live in this kingdom, and wear the consequences?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Singing Australia

When my family became Australian citizens it was a very low-key affair.  Mum and Dad never had any interest in ceremony and were not particularly patriotic, so we skipped the public ceremony and took our pledge in the Brisbane office of the Immigration Department in the presence of an appropriately-ranking public servant.  At least, Mum, Dad and my sister did.  I was still under 16 and automatically became a citizen when my parents did.

So I actually attended my first ever citizenship ceremony this week, supporting another relative.  It was an interesting event, because it emphasised just how much we are a nation of immigrants.  Brisbane's Deputy Mayor Adrian Schrinner, son of German immigrants, conducted the formal part of the ceremony.  Member for Brisbane Therese Gambaro, whose parents came from Italy, represented the Immigration Minister. These longer-standing immigrants welcomed new ones, proclaiming how happy they were that their parents had chosen Australia over the other alternatives on offer.  There was an Aboriginal dance troupe involved in the ceremony but we didn't get to hear what they thought.

There are three signature Australian songs that are always sung at patriotic events and we got to hear versions of all three, so let me share them with you.

The first is 'Waltzing Matilda', Banjo Patterson's song about a homeless man who steals a sheep, is caught and drowns himself in the billabong rather than allow himself to be arrested.  I love that we continue to sing this song at official occasions because it is so unpatriotic  It reminds us of the poverty and hardship which have been part of Australian life from the beginning, and of our ambivalent relationship with authority.  The swagman's ghost is still heard, even if familiarity has tamed and muted him.

The second is a little more awkward in a number of different ways.  It is our National Anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair'.  It was first performed in 1878, written by a Scottish immigrant called Peter Dodds McCormick.  Apparently he was frustrated at going to a concert at which the national anthems of various nations were sung, and finding Australia unrepresented.  The muse struck him on the bus on the way home, and by the next morning he had a complete song.

It has been performed at ceremonies ever since, including at the ceremony to inaugurate the Australian Commonwealth in 1901.  However, it has only been our National Anthem since 1984 when Australians finally got brave enough to ditch 'God Save the Queen'.  In 1974 at the request of the Whitlam Government the Australia Council held a competition to find an appropriate song.  It ended up concluding that none of the entries were worth considering and instead recommended a short-list of three songs - 'Waltzing Matilda', 'Advance Australia Fair' and a third option,'Song of Australia' written by British-born Caroline Carleton in 1859. These were submitted to a plebiscite in 1977.

Of course Matilda would never make a national anthem, but 'Song of Australia' could have been an interesting choice.  It includes the following words.

There is a land where treasures shine
Deep in the dark unfathom'd mine
For worshippers at Mammon's shrine;
Where gold lies hid, and rubies gleam,
And fabled wealth no more doth seem
The idle fancy of a dream — Australia!

Well, perhaps not, but the song that eventually won is not much better.  The original has four verses but only one of them was officially adopted in 1984, along with a second written by another hand for the 1901 ceremony.  Perhaps they just thought the song was too tedious to go on for its full length.  Most often even the two official verses are too much and we only sing the first.

Part of the reason this song makes an appropriate anthem is that it says so little of substance about our country and its aspirations that no-one can be particularly offended by it.  Yet it contains quite a few half-truths and some misleading but flowery language.

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.

This rather disembodied picture of a natural paradise conveniently avoids mentioning those who cared for it for 40,000 years before the British found it.  It also skates over our vast expanses of desert, and assumes that wealth inequalities will be overcome by hard work - a good aspiration which we seem to be failing to fulfill.  Nor are we as young as we used to be, and we are getting older by the day.

The second verse is even more problematic, even in its edited official form.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross 
We’ll toil with hearts and hands; 
To make this Commonwealth of ours 
Renowned of all the lands; 
For those who’ve come across the seas 
We’ve boundless plains to share; 
With courage let us all combine 
To Advance Australia Fair. 

Of course recently we've been working hard to convince ourselves that our plains are not boundless and that we need to be very choosy who we share them with.  This includes a definite bias against those who come "across the sea" in favour of those who have the resources to fly over it.  I doubt this would have bothered McCormick, who did not write this verse, or even the authors who wrote it for the Federation ceremony with slightly different fifth and sixth lines.

For loyal sons across the sea
We've boundless plains to share.

A clear reference, of course, to loyal sons of Britannia.  This British connection is much clearer in the original second verse, which says

When gallant Cook from Albion sailed
To trace wide oceans o'er
True British courage bore him on
till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised old England's flag
The standard of the brave
"For all her faults we love her still
Britannia rules the waves."

And of course McCormick's third verse makes it plain what this means for Australian identity

From England, soil and Fatherland
Scotia and Erin fair
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair.

No Germans or Italians here, thankyou, never mind anyone from Asia or the Middle East!  No wonder they had to edit it for official consumption.  At least they made it less offensive, but only by making it more platitudinous.

Which brings me to the third song, which is of course 'We Are Australian'.

If this song had been written by 1977 when the plebiscite was held, it could well have blitzed the field.  As it was, it was written in 1987 by two iconic Australian folk musicians, Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and Dobie Newton of The Bushwackers.  It has a few advantages over 'Advance Australia Fair' as an anthem.  For a start it has a tune you can actually listen to all the way through without falling asleep.  It also presents a very concrete view of Australian history, and even names some real people.  Hence, it's worth looking at what is says a bit more closely.

To Woodley and Newton's credit, unlike the earlier patriotic songwriters they don't ignore Aboriginal people.  The whole first verse is about them.  However, like the histories kids of my generation (and also Woodley and Newton's) were taught in school, the song abruptly shifts focus once it gets to the point where they are standing on the rocky shore watching the tall ships come.  Aside from a later reference to the painter Albert Namatjira they simply disappear from the story.  "Don't mention the war", as they say.

The story they tell of the subsequent British-Australian community is also a lot more realistic than McCormick's or Carleton's, but it's still all about myth-making.  It is a tale of triumph through adversity - of convicts who suffer the lash but finally become free men, of stockmen and farm wives waiting anxiously for the rain which does eventually come, of the depression that resolves itself into the "good times', conveniently skipping the First World War and stopping short of the Second.  At this point the writers run out of puff and leave off history to talk about landscape.  The great post-war influx of migrants from outside the UK is lumped into the generalisation of the chorus, "from all the lands on earth we come". The Schrinner and Gambaro families will just have to be content with that.

All things considered, apart from noticing Aboriginal people Woodley and Newton have not progressed far beyond Banjo Paterson in their view of Australian identity.  Indeed when they come to naming names in Verse 4, they pair two real people (Namatjira and the outlaw Ned Kelly) with two fictional characters from Paterson's verse, the jolly swagman we have already met, and the stockman Clancy of the Overflow.  No women I'm afraid.

I kind of like the fact that Australians are so poor at patriotism this is the best we have to offer.  Still, there are plenty of other songs about Australia that never get a run and some of them are a lot more challenging than these.  How about this one, as a closer?  Sadly I can only find this slightly insipid cover on YouTube.  The author, the late lamented Scottish/Australian singer Alister Hulett, would have given it a lot more bite.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Farewell, National Rental Affordability Scheme

There's so much carnage in this week's Commonwealth Budget that small things are apt to slip by.  So I'm going to tell you about something from my professional life that has just become a casualty of Abbott and Hockey's slash and burn exercise.  It's a scheme called the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

Back in 2004 National Shelter, the Community Housing Federation of Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Housing Industry Association, supported by a wide range of other organisations with an interest in housing, convened a National Affordable Housing Summit.  It came up with a simple but ambitious plan of action aimed at improving Australia's housing system, and set up a working party under the leadership of Julian Disney to promote this plan around the country.  They were very successful, and large parts of their agenda were adopted by the Labor government on its election in 2007.

One of the most significant initiatives championed by the Summit group was a program aimed at attracting private investment into affordable housing.  This concept was adopted by the government, with modifications of their own, as the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS).  This scheme provides a tax incentive (or grant for not-for-profit organisations) each year for ten years to fund the provision of rental housing to be rented at no more than 80% of market rent. Properties are rented to low income tenants on a long term basis, but the subsidy cuts out at the end of 10 years and the owner gets to keep the property and do whatever they want with it.  The scheme aimed to provide 50,000 new affordable housing dwellings in its first five years, with a further 50,000 tentatively flagged after that "if needed" - as if they wouldn't be!

This scheme was a radical break from the way affordable housing has previously been delivered in Australia.  The Australian model of affordable rental provision has always been driven by 100% funding from government capital grants, with the ongoing costs of managing and maintaining the housing coming from rents.  The result is a system limited by the amount of capital governments are prepared to put in up-front, and the small amounts of housing produced by it are heavily rationed to those on the lowest incomes.

NRAS reverses this - the capital cost of the housing has to be privately funded, but the difference between the below-market rent and the cost of provision is made up by an annual subsidy.  This subsidy makes the scheme a viable commercial proposition but significantly less costly to government.  To make it work, it needs to target a different tier of renters - those who struggle to afford market rents, but could afford something a little less and never get to the top of the public housing waiting lists because their need is not dire enough.

 NRAS is an attempt to find one of the Holy Grails of housing policy: a way to get the private sector to fund and build affordable rental housing.  Ever since the advent of compulsory superannuation in the 1990s , housing policy makers have pondered over how to get some of this superannuation money into rental housing.  The problem is, the structure of the private rental market in Australia just doesn't suit superannuation funds.  It is driven by small investors who use operating losses to minimise tax and make up for it later through capital gain.  Superannuation funds can't do this so rental investment isn't attractive to them.  It's also too small-scale - the big superannuation funds aren't interested in investing half a million dollars into a house, they only invest in chunks of $50m or more.

Early on some attempts were made to interest these big investors in the scheme.  However, while they nibbled at the bait they didn't swallow the hook.  The returns were still not good enough for them.  There was still no way to invest in big enough chunks to satisfy them.  And it was not flexible enough - it was too hard to sell out of if they wanted to down the track.

This failure to land the big fish, plus the fact that the scheme was launched in the middle of a credit squeeze, meant the scheme struggled to achieve its targets.  Other problems didn't help.  The cumbersome Commonwealth-State approval system and the insistence on detailed, site-specific applications meant that plenty of opportunities were lost.  Time is literally money in the property industry, and as NRAS approvals were delayed many developers elected to sell on the open market rather than wait, sending proposals back to Square 1.

Nonetheless the program has succeeded in delivering a substantial amount of affordable rental housing.  By June 2013, the date of the most recent published update, over 14,000 dwellings were tenanted under the scheme and another 24,000 were in progress.  This is well short of the 50,000 target but the pace has been steadily picking up after the slow start.

Of all the Australian Government's housing programs, this is the one which is most closely aligned with Liberal Party values.  It is a social program but largely funded by the private sector.  Commercial and not-for-profit providers compete on an equal footing.  There is a large element of "user-pays" in its charging regime.  It is built around the expectation that assistance will be temporary.  These are all things the Liberals love in a welfare measure.

Yet in the lead-up to this month's Budget, the ground started to be laid for its abolition.  In March and April News Ltd's The Australian ran a series of articles on it, echoed in other News papers.  These articles used "un-named sources" to identify a set of supposed "rorts" or failings in the scheme and some of its individual projects.  Aside from the fact that the scheme hadn't achieved its targets, the articles focused on its use to build housing for students and the fact that some of it was rented to students from overseas.  It is no surprise that once the abolition of the scheme was announced in the Budget, these were the very reasons cited by the responsible Minister, Kevin Andrews.  His press release says:

From the beginning, the previous government’s scheme was poorly designed, with multiple flaws, ambiguous legal requirements and red tape.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme has fallen well short of expectations—it has simply failed to deliver for low and moderate income Australians.

The scheme has been plagued by the late delivery of dwellings, trading of incentives, multiple changes to agreed locations, leasing to international students and rorting.

There is just enough truth in this to make it plausible.  There were problems in the scheme's design and it has not delivered all that was hoped.  Yet it was hardly the monumental failure Andrews' statement implies.  Even Andrews' Queensland LNP counterpart Tim Mander is happy to spruik the success of the program in delivering affordable rental housing in regional Queensland and getting people off the public housing waiting list.  The trading of incentives is hardly a problem - tradeability is an essential element of a successful investment product.  Nor is the student housing issue the killer it is made out to be.  Students are among the population groups who most struggle to find affordable rental housing, and university towns and suburbs are plagued by problems in their rental market as a result.  The Commonwealth guidelines for the scheme don't currently require Australian residency so there is no bar to overseas students occupying NRAS housing if they meet the income guidelines.  If this is a problem it is easy to fix by adding a dot point to the guidelines.

No, all these "reasons" sound like excuses, and for anyone who knows the scheme they are lame ones.  NRAS was always going to be experimental.  Nothing like this had been tried in Australia before.  Investors are conservative and it takes them a while to warm to new products.  Government housing departments have never dealt with private investors in this way, and they needed to learn how to do it.  What this scheme needed was not abolition but a proper evaluation and redesign to build on the experiences of this first tentative effort.

That we got abolition is symptomatic both of this budget and of the state of housing policy in Australia.

As far as the budget goes, it is simply another program aimed at helping people on low incomes which has got the chop.  There are so many of them that this one has had very little airplay in the mainstream media, although the Australian made use of one last anonymous leak in the budget lead-up to trumpet its expected axing.  The Abbott government has shown it cares nothing for social equity and has no interest in programs that promote it.

In housing policy, the situation has been dire for a long time.  Despite huge tax subsidies (or perhaps because of them) private home ownership and private rental are out the reach of increasing numbers of Australian households.  Meanwhile, public housing, the safety valve which provides housing for low-income households, is labouring under an outdated financial model and State housing authorities are leaking funds, forced to gradually sell down their housing portfolios to stay afloat.  This is creating a vicious spiral in which shortage of housing leads to increased rationing to the most highly disadvantaged, lowering the potential income of the system and deepening the spiral.

Housing researchers and government policy-makers have known about these problems for a long time.  The financial viability of the public housing system has been a subject for discussion for the past 25 years.  Housing researchers have described, modeled and advocated various solutions repeatedly and at length.  For a brief moment in 2007 it looked like a meaningful response might be in the offing, but in the end the Rudd and Gillard governments never quite got there, putting the architecture in place but failing to put their money where their mouth was after an initial burst of post-GFC spending.  There seems no chance whatsoever that the Abbott government will get anywhere near this close - the best guess is that they will just delegate the whole mess to the States and Territories as suggested by the Commission of Audit.

NRAS was the single lasting benefit to come out of Labor's hopeful beginning, a program that continued to grow when other housing funds dried up, that provided a meaningful growth option for housing providers, a source of income beyond the hugely welfarised social housing system and affordable housing for low income Australians.  Now it's gone.  It makes me feel a bit like Macbeth:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(Bangs head against wall.  Lights fade...)