Friday, 24 October 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

Some of last week's thoughts about privatisation were prompted by reading French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, passed on to me by my generous cousin Michael.

Piketty's book is economics on a grand scale.  He sets out to tell the story of global capital accumulation over the past two centuries.  To do so, he draws on an impressive (if not quite truly global) collection of historical data on wealth collated by himself and a number of other economists over the past decade, published in sources such as the World Top Incomes Database.

This is not exactly an easy book to read, but nor is it the kind of impenetrable tome produced by so many professional economists.  Anyone who has some basic economic literacy will have no trouble grasping his arguments and if its 500-plus pages seem daunting take heart, there's a fair amount of repetition involved.  If you take economic issues seriously (as we all should!) this book is essential reading.

Piketty's foil, in an intellectual sense, is Simon Kuznets, the post-war American economist who was responsible for the 'Kuznets curve'.  This was the idea that the progress of industrialisation would initially result in greater inequality of income before swinging back to greater equality as a result of market forces and economic growth.  Kuznets summed this idea up in the famous phrase, "a rising tide lifts all boats".

Kuznets' theory is so hopeful and positive we would all love it to be true, but is it?  Well, according to Piketty even the limited data used by Kuznets himself did not really support his theory.  In his more serious academic works Kuznets was cautious and circumspect, but in his popular speeches and pronouncements as president of the American Economic Association he was far more bullish about the equalising effects of capitalism.

Piketty disagrees.  His data series, stretching back as far as 250 years for countries such as France and the UK and almost as far for the USA, paint a very different picture of the dynamics of wealth inequality.  His data show that both income and wealth inequality increased steadily through the 19th century, reaching a peak in the early 1900s.  In the decades that followed the wealthiest people in society lost a large proportion of their wealth due to the triple shock of two world wars and the Great Depression.  As a result, equality was at an historic high in the post-war period, kept that way by the rapid growth necessitated by post-war reconstruction and the institution of high marginal tax rates at the top of the income scale.

This is the world Kuznets lived in, and he took it to be normal and inevitable.  However, since the 1970s the level of income inequality and the concentration of wealth have increased steadily, so that they are now almost where they were a century ago.

Why has this happened?  Piketty explains the process of wealth accumulation through the use of a number of simple, elegant equations.  One of these suggests that where the return on capital (that is, rent, interest, dividends, capital gains etc) is greater than the rate of growth in the economy, wealth inequality will automatically increase.  Hence in high growth environments inequality tends to be suppressed, but in low growth environments it will almost always grow over time.  Wealth will gradually trickle up to the top.

But if we start out equal, wouldn't the return on capital benefit everyone equally?  Perhaps, but this is purely hypothetical.  Wealth has never been even close to being distributed equally.  Certainly we have a middle class which owns modest amounts of wealth, but this modest wealth is held in safer but lower-yielding assets like housing and bank accounts.  Wealthier people hold much more of their wealth in higher-yielding assets like equities, and have the freedom to take risks in order to achieve higher growth.  This means that over time they will progressively claim more and more of the available wealth.  Nor is this a question of hard work.  Once you have the wealth (whether earned or inherited) it will continue to grow without your lifting a finger.

So, is the answer that we should continuously promote high levels of growth?  Piketty is not hopeful about this option.  Over the long run of history, it seems unlikely that growth has often risen much above one percent.  High growth rates are inevitably a result of catch-up - Europe and the USA during the post-war reconstruction, Japan during its modernisation phase, the South East Asian nations of the 1980s and 90s, most recently China and India.  In the process of building infrastructure and acquiring technology to catch up with the rest of the world, these nations experience rapid growth.  Once they have caught up, growth slows dramatically.

Hence, Piketty believes that the decades to come will overwhelmingly see low growth - no more than 2% per year on average.  Even if Kuznets was right, there will be no rapid tide to lift those boats.

So are we doomed to ever-increasing inequality?  The good news is that there are other options available.  The less good news is that the wealthy citizens of all the major economies have a lot of power and wealth, and will fiercely resist anything that reduces that wealth.  Which brings us to the question of tax.

One of the significant contributors to the relative equality in advanced countries from the 1950s to the 1970s was a highly progressive tax system, with the richest people in many countries paying rates of 70% and beyond on the top part of their income as well as substantial inheritance taxes.  These taxes funded substantial social programs - health, education, public infrastructure, income security, public housing - which predominantly benefited those on lower incomes.  Allied with this were highly regulated labour markets which oversaw improved wages and conditions.

However, the rise of neoclassical economics from the late 1970s, personified by Reagan and Thatcher, represented a reversal of these gains.  Top tax rates were cut around the world, estate taxes were reduced or even abolished, loopholes were allowed to proliferate, wages were pushed down.  The result is what we see today in Australia as elsewhere.  A small number of fabulously wealthy people, many of them beneficiaries of large inheritances, live in luxury while the majority live from day to day and the number in poverty increases.  Meanwhile our governments, deprived of sufficient tax revenue, suffer their own form of poverty, running large deficits and borrowing to stay afloat.

Piketty's answer is that we should tax wealth.  His proposed tax is modest - nothing on the sort of amounts ordinary working families can accumulate, then stepping up progressively to 5% on the largest fortunes.  He clearly thinks it would be reasonable to levy much higher amounts - he suggests that fortunes above a certain size could be seen as socially dysfunctional and could be subject to confiscatory taxes.  However, he also understands that even these modest rates will be fiercely opposed by those who would have to pay them.  If you are in any doubt, just think back to the Rudd government's attempt to levy an extra tax on mining company profits.

Such a tax is not currently on any government's radar, and conservative economists and media outlets have been quick to try and discredit Piketty's analysis.  Instead, the solutions on offer, in Australia as elsewhere in the developed nations, are guaranteed to continue the process of wealth concentration.  Deep cuts to social programs will deepen the poverty of the poorest while leaving the wealthy untouched.  Asset sales will transfer wealth from government to private hands, inevitably those of our wealthiest individuals and companies.  Piketty points out that debt has much the same effect but over a longer period - instead of transferring wealth in one hit, it is transferred bit by bit through interest payments.

It's hard not to be gloomy about all this.  The odds are stacked against a just solution.  Our media and much of our political process is firmly in the hands of the super-rich.  They will not give up their wealth without a fight.  Yet while there are scholars like Piketty to point out the truth, and to point the way to solutions that don't further impoverish the poor, there is at least the justification to keep on striving.

Friday, 17 October 2014

When is a Sale Not a Sale?

Privatisation, lately rebadged as "asset sales", is electoral poison for political parties and their leaders in Australia.  In 2008, after NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma proposed to privatise parts of the state's electricity system, he was rolled at the party's State Conference by a huge margin and resigned as Premier soon after.

Queensland's Labor Premier Anna Bligh didn't quite manage to learn the lesson.  Soon after her government's re-election in 2009 she announced a privatisation process that included parts of Queensland Rail, various forestry assets, the Abbot Point Coal Terminal and the Port of Brisbane.  Anger at this announcement was heightened by the fact that not a word was breathed on the subject during the election.  She may have hoped this anger would have faded by the 2012 election but it clearly hadn't and her party was almost wiped out.

All this left the incoming LNP government with a problem.  The combination of the Global Financial Crisis and structural problems in the Queensland Budget led to large deficits and a lot of debt.  The LNP loves privatisation and their key financial backers were chomping at the bit to get their hands on valuable State assets.  Yet they had ridden into power on the back of anger over just such a sales program.  As a result, they promised to not to sell any major assets (although they have sold many minor ones) without taking the issue to an election.

Finally, after two and a half years of scare tactics about the budget, savage spending cuts, the odd token tax increase and a huge amount of PR dressed up as consultation, the government has released its strategy.  The final document, The Strongest and Smartest Choice: Queensland's Plan for Secure Finances and a Strong Economy, has a fake stamp on the front that says "No Asset Sales".

So that's it, asset sales are off?  Well not quite.  Instead, the government is proposing to lease key assets - ports, electricity assets and water supply infrastructure valued in total at the deceptively precise figure of $33.6b - for periods of 99 years.  Treasurer Tim Nicholls has been proclaiming that this is a very different thing, because we get the assets back in the end.

Yes, but no.  At the end of 99 years (or 50 if the lessee fails to comply with the terms of the lease) the Queensland Government (assuming such an entity still exists) will be able to take its assets back.  WE, of course, will be long dead, as will the original people and companies who signed the leases.  The leases themselves, or the companies which hold them, will have been bought and sold on the open market many times.

But there's more to it than that.  You see, assets are not static things.  The port infrastructure, power stations, poles, wires and pipes that are about to be leased out did not exist 99 years ago.  Nor will they exist 99 years from now.  Assets gradually wear out and need to be replaced.  Technologies become obsolete and need to be upgraded.

So far the government's details on how this will work are a little sketchy, but it seems to to be like this.  The lease fees to the government will not be paid annually, they will be paid up front at the beginning so the government can use them to pay out debt.  The lessees will then, as part of their lease conditions, assume full responsibility for the management, maintenance and renewal of the assets, at their own expense, and have access to all the revenue that they generate.  Is this sounding like a sale yet?

The big difference between this and a sale is that there is an end date.  There are actually two - at 50 and 99 years.  However, a lot will happen before we get to those dates.  In the early years, investment decisions for the lessee will be clear - they have the reins for 50 years, so it is worth spending the money to upgrade the asset knowing they will get the full benefit.  However, at around the 30 or 35 year mark, they will start to examine their expenditure a bit more closely.  Parts of the electricity distribution network, say, are run down and need replacement.  The new items have an economic life of, say, 30 years, but the company only has 15 years left to run on its lease.  Is it financially prudent to spend the money?

To try and secure their investment, they will start to play hard-ball with the government of the day.  "It's just not worth our while," they will say, "to spend the money unless we have the assurance that we will get the return, so unless you extend the lease we're sorry, but we can't upgrade the infrastructure."  They will have the government over a barrel - their lease will have been prepared by the finest corporate lawyers and the government will have no grounds to end it until the 50 years are up, at which point the electricity system will be so run down that voters will be ripping politicians' heads off in frustration.  Leases will be extended well before it reaches that point.

So, it looks like a sale, it walks like a sale, it talks like a sale....  Dressing it up as a lease is pure PR.  The government is proposing to sell assets.  If you support asset sales, go ahead and vote for them.  If not, don't be fooled by the BS about leases.

Here's the thing about selling assets to reduce debt.  The government has a balance sheet (of which a summary appears in the Strongest Choice strategy) which lists its assets and liabilities.  State assets currently total a bit over $300b, with about $40b in financial assets and about $260b in land and other fixed assets.  Against this are set about $130b of liabilities, the largest item being $85b in debt, and the other big item being over $30b in superannuation and other accrued employee entitlements.  This means the State Government's net asset position - its net worth - is just under $180b.

Now if you sell some of the assets to pay debts, the net worth will stay about the same.  The fixed assets will be reduced, and the financial liabilities will be reduced by the same amount (or less if, as the government is proposing, some of the proceeds are passed back to citizens in various vote-buying exercises).  The overall position will not change, our assets will just be rearranged - more cash (or at least less cash liabilities), less fixed infrastructure.

This is where the problem with asset sales as a budget solution comes in.  Government assets are not simply inert things which sit on the books and can be sold to realise cash.  They are items that are used to provide services - electricity, water supply, transport, etc.  These can be provided in two ways - on an economic basis (the users pay a market price and the asset makes money) or on a subsidised basis (the government uses the asset to provide a free or subsidised service - for instance a hospital or school).  If the asset earns money, this money will now be paid to its private buyer not to the government, so while the budget will get an immediate boost through the one-off sale it will take a hit in each of the subsequent 99 years because the revenue will now be going elsewhere.  If the asset sold is the site of a subsidised service the government will now have to pay the private owner/lessee of this asset for the service, so expenditure will go up.

The LNP government says it wants to sell assets to "repair" the budget. Asset sales don't work like that.  If you sell assets, you structure into future budgets either reduced revenue or increased expenditure.  You put off the evil day when you have to either cut services or raise taxes, but that day will come as sure as the seasons turn.  It's not a strong choice, its a wimpish one.  But I doubt the current LNP politicians care.  By the time we all realise this, they will be long gone.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

King Alfred and the Cakes

One of my childhood treasures is a pair of books by C Walter Hodges: The Namesake and The Marsh King.  First published in the mid-1960s, these are what would today be called "Young Adult" novels which I read for the first time in late primary or early high school.  They tell the story of Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex (south England) from 871 to 899 CE, and his conflict with the invading Vikings.

I loved these books and read them over and over again, especially The Namesake, narrated by an engaging character of Hodges' invention, a one-legged boy also called Alfred who is part of the king's household.  They deal with the period from just before Alfred's accession to the throne in 871 to the conclusion of his second campaign against the Vikings led by Guthrum in 878.  I'm sure Hodges would have been pleased with the impression they made on me - to this day my ears prick up whenever I hear Alfred mentioned.

I recently decided to approach the subject for the first time in a more adult way, and bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources.  This volume brings together translations of all the material relating to Alfred that originates in his own time.  It includes the Life written by Asser, a Welsh monk who was enticed to Wessex as part of Alfred's project to improve the educational standard of this clergy and nobles, as well as excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some fragments of correspondence, prefaces to some books Alfred translated from Latin to Old English, and Alfred's will.  It also includes a lengthy introduction and notes which provide a scholarly account of Alfred's reign.

I had a kind of vague thought that by reading Asser's Life I would be able to sort out fact from fiction in Hodges' treatment.  Of course life is never that simple.  Asser was a member of the King's household and so was hardly likely to present an unbiased account, especially given he was writing during Alfred's lifetime.  The editors suggest he probably wrote for a Welsh audience, during the negotiation of a treaty between Alfred and some of the Welsh kings in which they acknowledged his overlordship in return for military aid.

Hence we should see the Life as a piece of royal propaganda, showing the king in a favourable light to help secure the deal.  Alfred is presented as a brave and resourceful general, a pious and humble ruler and a man of great wisdom and learning.  In other words just the sort of person you would be happy to acknowledge as an overlord.  The account seems unfinished, petering out in the mid-880s.  Although Asser lived for more than a decade after Alfred's death he obviously didn't value the task highly enough to bother completing it.

The low point of Alfred's reign came in early 878.  The Danes, led by Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Alfred at Chippenham, a royal estate in the north of his kingdom.  Most of those with him were killed.  He was forced to flee for his life and take refuge with a small group of followers in the Somerset Marshes while the Danes overran his kingdom.  From there he gathered his forces and planned a counter-attack, which he launched successfully in May 878.  He regained control and forced the Danish leaders to accept Christian baptism before expelling them from his domains.  This much, at least, seems to be history.  Beyond that it gets a little murky.

One of the most famous stories about Alfred dates from this period.  While he was fleeing the Danes, the story goes, he was forced to take refuge in the home of a poor swineherd.  There he was asked to keep watch over the cakes being baked by the woman of the house.  His attention wandered and they caught fire, drawing a sharp scolding from his hostess to the effect that he could not be bothered tending them but would have been happy to eat them.  The story illustrates both the depths of Alfred's trouble and, more importantly, his humility in being prepared to accept such a sharp rebuke from a commoner.

This story is so engaging and human it would be nice to think it was true.  However, it doesn't come up in any of the earliest sources, which simply record Alfred's flight and Somerset stronghold.  It appears for the first time in a life of St Neot, a saint Alfred apparently venerated, which dates from around a century later.  It is repeated thereafter in various forms in other sources, multiplying as the years passed and gaining enough currency to be included in 19th and 20th century school history books and other such dubious sources of information.

Although the story is almost certainly legendary, it is quite consistent with the picture Asser paints of Alfred - a pious, humble, approachable man, someone who didn't stand on his dignity and had the common touch.  Hence while the story itself may not be strictly true, it illustrates something that may well be true, the character of the monarch and his attitude to those around him.  I say "may well be" because the source of the original description is a piece of royal propaganda, so it is just as valid to interpret the story as an illustration of how good propaganda works.

Then there is a third way it can be read.  It is possible that we should understand this as an illustration of how kings should behave.  Whether Alfred was really as humble and pious as Asser makes out, whether he really was the kind of king who would take a scolding from  swineherd's wife, is beside the point.  A king should be humble enough to accept rebuke when he has done wrong, wherever that rebuke comes from.  Perhaps when the English have revered Alfred down the years this is the message they have been giving to his numerous successors.

True or not, this story is too good for a novelist to pass up.  Nonetheless, the sparseness of its original telling will not do - the story requires context, a place in the overall narrative arc.  Neither Asser nor the later sources are much help.   What is Mr Hodges to do?

Of course as a novelist he is free to make things up.  However, as a historical novelist he has to be very careful what he makes up.  It has to at least be plausible within the context of the time and place, and of what is known of the main characters.  It's interesting to observe how Hodges handles this problem when he tells the story in The Marsh King.

The first thing he creates is a nephew for Alfred. It is a matter of historical fact that Alfred was the youngest of four brothers.  No-one expected him to be king at all, never mind by the age of 21, but his brothers fell one by one to battle or misfortune and there he was.  It is also a matter of historical fact that his eldest brother Aethelbalt scandalised his realm by marrying his father's young widow, a marriage considered incestuous even though she was not his mother.  There is no record of any offspring that I can find  but in Hodges' telling there is a son, Edmund, abandoned by his mother and brought up by loyal retainers on his father's English estate, of which he eventually becomes master.

Once we accept Edmund's existence what comes next is equally plausible but also not strictly historical.  Alfred is invited to attend young Edmund's wedding and, despite the misgivings of his lords, agrees to attend, wanting to show kindness to his nephew.  However, Edmund and his ambitious foster-father have tipped off the Danes to his impending presence.  Guthrum's men stage an ambush, intending to kill Alfred and invade his kingdom while it is leaderless.  Guthrum promises in return to install Edmund as king, a title to which he has some small claim.

Once again this is plausible in the context of the times.  The Danes had already installed an Anglo-Saxon puppet ruler in the kingdom of Mercia, just to the north of Wessex.  Although there is no evidence they planned to do the same in Wessex, it is not out of the question, and in any case Hodges doesn't over-claim - Edmund is never crowned.

Other parts of the story show the same blend of fact and fiction, or at least of known and unknown. Alongside a disaffected nephew to explain the ambush, he supplies an exchange of kindnesses to explain his escape.  While on the estate Alfred befriends the young daughter of the house, and she warns him of the ambush in the nick of time and helps him to escape through a hole in the fence.  Pure children's literary fancy, but good fun and once again rooted in Asser's description of Alfred's character.

Another detail shows how Hodges subtly modifies his sources to build a story.  According to Asser, Alfred suffered a chronic illness which left him in more or less constant pain.  He doesn't provide enough information for any attempt at diagnosis, so Hodges feels free to modify it slightly for his own purposes, from a constant source of pain to an intermittent illness.  Hodges' Alfred can be healthy for weeks and even months, and then be afflicted with weakness and fever which disables him for a few days before he returns to full strength.

This provides him with a plot device that he exploits to the full.  Alfred is struck down with his illness as he flees with young Hildis and one of his bodyguard.  King and child are forced to take refuge with the swineherd (remaining anonymous for fear of further betrayal) while the bodyguard struggles on through the snow to find help.  They stay there for a few days while Alfred recovers and his followers find the way back to him - long enough for him to burn a batch of cakes and be scolded for his negligence.  Alfred's thankyou gift of several bags of flour and a dozen perfectly cooked cakes is a nice addition, wholly of Hodges' own invention.

In purely factual terms none of this is historical at all - it is a modern fiction built around the bones of an ancient one.  Yet it presents a picture which is in some respects strikingly historical.  Asser, who tells us none of these things, tells us that Alfred was humble, gentle and approachable and had a sharp sense of humour.  Hodges doesn't tell us these things in so many words, but in this story Alfred shows kindness to his nephew even though his advisors urge him not to, almost dies for it but is saved as a kind of direct reward for another act of simple kindness towards a young girl.  He burns the cakes and takes his scolding in good spirit, before responding later with an act of self-deprecating humour.

Asser's portrait is, as I said, a piece of royal propaganda, aimed at convincing the Welsh that an alliance with Alfred would be to their advantage.  Hodges, of course, was far removed from the realpolitik of the 9th century and uses the story to illustrate his own concerns.  The Danes (who in keeping with Asser and the spirit of the time he designates as 'the heathen') attempt to conquer and rule through betrayal, brutality and venality.  Alfred (the Christian king), on the other hand, rules with kindness, justice and mercy, keeping promises despite the risks involved and forgoing revenge even if it seems to others the wiser course.  It seems at times that Alfred will be defeated, but in the end he wins and saves his kingdom, in no small part because his own kindness is repaid at the crucial moment.

Was Alfred really such a paragon of virtue?  It seems unlikely.  The further we get from him in time, the more his legend grows.  For those of his day and the years that followed. Asser's boosting aside, he was simply seen as one of a line of competent, successful Anglo-Saxon kings.  It was only later, when the Normans had taken over the realm from his descendants, that he acquired the tag of "the Great".

Yet this myth has its own purpose.  It provides a model of leadership with reflects how we would all like to be led.  For Hodges, who lived through both world wars, the Saxon-Danish conflict no doubt reminded him of more recent events.  Perhaps Guthrum, with his brutality, his cunning schemes and his huge imperial ambitions, represented Hitler and Alfred represented Churchill, a man who for all his faults was both a lover of learning and a thoroughgoing democrat.  And if Guthrum is a much nicer version of Hitler then Alfred is certainly a cleansed and exalted analogue of Churchill, an ideal model of which all rulers will ultimately fall short but from which, if we are lucky, some may still derive inspiration.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Death: Collective Illusions, Cultural Death

One of the things I touched on briefly in previous posts is the collective impact of our illusion of immortality.  Individually we know we will die but we push that idea away and act as if we will live for ever.  This leads us to value the wrong things - to put possessions before people, to waste time on trivialities, to put off until tomorrow what we should be doing today.  At its extremes this illusion can lead us to abuse and exploit others in the belief that our power over them will go on forever.

This same process also works for us as a community.  We see our current culture or "way of life" as something immutable and eternal which needs to be protected and preserved at all costs.  This illusion, and the actions that flow from it, have some very serious consequences for our society and the way we act in the wider world.

We can see this in the way our community responds to three controversial questions facing our country at the moment - our response to the perceived threat of terrorism, the question of asylum seekers, and the response to climate change.  Let me explain.

One of the big justifications being given for us getting involved in the latest Iraqi troubles, and for tougher security laws at home, is that the Islamists are out to destroy our way of life.  This way of life must be protected at all costs, even if this means sending war-planes overseas at huge expense and risk, and giving unprecedented powers to security agencies at home.

Australia has a long history of fearing outsiders.  For much of our history, this has focused on people from China and South-East Asia.  We feared that as a small Anglo-Saxon society in a region of populous Asian nations we were in danger of being overrun.  Our response to this perceived problem was to foster immigration from European countries, especially from the United Kingdom, while restricting it from Asia - what is colloquially referred to as the "White Australia policy".  While we moved to a more inclusive immigration policy in the 1970s, the fear remains.  As recently as the late 1990s Pauline Hanson built a political career on the fear of Asian immigration.

This fear still hasn't gone away, but since the World Trade Centre bombing in 2001 its focus has shifted to people from Islamic backgrounds and particularly those from the Middle East.  We fear that Islamic immigrants are a kind of Trojan horse, planting themselves quietly in our midst and waiting for the opportunity to subvert our culture and impose Sharia Law on us all.  Hence the presence of a small group of disaffected young people in our midst takes on a significance massively out of proportion to the actual objective threat.  The fact that we feel threatened by women in niqabs or burkas is a dead giveaway - how many violent crimes have been committed by women wearing these garments?

We are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to defend ourselves from this threat.  In order to prevent the "uncontrolled" arrival of people we feel threatened by, we are currently detaining over 6,000 people in immigration detention including about 900 children, many of whom are detained indefinitely in extremely harsh conditions.  We have just handed unprecedented powers of surveillance and detention to ASIO and the AFP.  And we are sending fighter planes off to Iraq to assist in the war against IS and its allies.  It seems to me that we are acting like gods, disposing of people as we see fit and imagining that the world will eventually bend to our iron will.

Now don't get me wrong, I actually quite like our way of life.  However, I think in our flurry to protect it at all costs we miss some very important things.

The first is that not everyone sees our way of life as we do.  Why do we have "home grown terrorists", as the government likes to call them?  Because there are young people growing up in our midst who feel excluded from, and vilified by, our culture.  Elsewhere I have written about how one of the most prominent, Mohammed Baryalei, grew up in Australia but never felt at home here despite his often desperate efforts to fit in.  It was Islam, not our way of life, which saved him from suicide.

These young men, and the many like them (Islamic or not) who turn to other alternatives when our society lets them down, are a test for us, a reminder that our culture is not yet all we would like it to be.  We should already know this as Christians.  We are citizens of another kingdom, and much as we love our culture we know that it is temporary and that there is something better coming which will sweep it away.  Jesus' kingdom is one which breaks down walls instead of building them up, which puts a high priority on welcoming the outcast and directs its critique against the powerful.

The other thing we fail to notice is that our culture is changing all the time.  While we have been focused on Islam, the Asians we have forgotten to fear have been moving to Australia in increasing numbers.  We are so used to their presence now we hardly notice it.  Just the other day I realised that the "happy prosperous family" images that scroll across my bank's website include a Chinese family.  We have, in fact, learned that the only really scary thing about Chinese and South-East Asian people is their capacity for hard work.  They have quietly become an accepted, productive part of our community, contributing to our developing culture and embedding themselves seamlessly among us.  Nothing bad has come of it so far, and I'm thinking it probably won't.

Climate change is a slightly different matter.  What is at stake here is our material culture, the ways we produce things, the way we get around, the way we design our cities, the structure of our industry and our economy.  Much of this is founded on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, the use of which powered the Industrial Revolution and helped create and enrich Australia.

Responding to climate change means changing this.  It means shifting from an economy based on fossil fuels, especially coal (of which we are the world's largest source) to renewables.  It means ditching our cars in favour of human-powered or renewably powered modes of transport.  It means shifting from big centralised power generation systems to networked distribution with large numbers of localised sources using sun, wind, thermal and wave power.  It means not flying half way across the country or the world at the drop of a hat.

These changes are difficult and costly.  We would like to think that we don't have to face them, that one day we will wake up and discover the whole thing was a bad dream (or a mistake of some crazed bunch of scientists) and that things can go an as normal.  We act as if that was the case.  We work hard to sustain our illusion that our economy will continue as it always has.

In the process we forget two things.  The first thing is that it always hasn't.  Out automobile culture only took off after the second world war.  I can remember a time when air travel was a luxury - my English grandparents only visited Australia once in my childhood because they simply could not afford the plane fare.  Our whole industrial system of production only dates back less than two centuries.  There were thousands of generations who did not live like we do.

The second is that if we open our eyes just ever so slightly we will see that it can't possibly go on as it is forever.  Our economic and industrial structures are not, and cannot possibly be, eternal.  Even in the unlikely event that the scientists turn out to be wrong and climate change is a false alarm, the supply of fossil fuels is strictly limited.  If global warming doesn't bring it to an end, peak oil will.  We don't have the option of not changing, but if we open our eyes and accept the mortality of aspects of our way of life, we have the option of preventing the change from being catastrophic.

Things are changing all around us, and not always in ways that we would like.  Many things that we are used to a take fro granted are coming to an end as we speak.  Richard Leakey talks about the "sixth extinction", the rapid elimination of species and lifeforms that is going on as a direct result of our industrial civilisation and the huge toll it takes on the natural environment.  Bruce Cockburn captures the tragedy of this so beautifully.

There's a knot in my gut as I gaze out today
On the planes of the city all polychrome grey
When the skin is peeled of it what is there to say?
The beautiful creatures are going away

Like a dam on a river my conscience is pressed
By the weight of hard feelings piled up in my breast
The callous and vicious things humans display
The beautiful creatures are going away

Why? Why?

From the stones of the fortress to the shapes in the air
To the ache in the spirit we label despair
We create what destroys, bind ourselves to betray
The beautiful creatures are going away

Then of course there is this.  A big part of the reason we persist in this illusion of immortality is that it seems to us that the alternative is despair.  What we fear most of all is our own annihilation.  David Crosby and Graham Nash capture it so well in their song To the Last Whale.  The song imagines the world's last whale stranded and dying as a result of our overhunting (an eventuality we have fortunately managed to avert so far).

However their final verse captures the problem neatly in a few words.

Maybe we'll go, maybe we'll disappear
It's not that we don't know, it's just that we don't wanna care...

The possibility of our own ending is too terrible to contemplate.  It literally paralyses us with fear.  So we close our eyes and pretend it's not so.  We pretend to be gods, but really we are just frightened children.

Jesus faced the same problem.  The people of first century Palestine faced the very real prospect of the annihilation of their culture and their way of life - indeed it happened within decades of Jesus' own crucifixion.  After his protest in the temple John quotes him as saying "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  His hearers' response in incredulous: "This temple has been under construction for 46 years..." they say.  Even Jesus' own disciples marvel at its grandeur and solidity.  Yet Jesus warns them, "Not one stone will be left upon another".

He faced clearly the imminent destruction of their religion and way of life, and offered them something better.  The Samaritan woman who he asked for water asked him which was right, to worship on Mt Gerazim as the Samaritans did, or in Jerusalem as the Jews did.  Jesus responded, "The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...."

All these things, he's saying - the temple, the mountain shrine, all the customs and practices that go with them - are temporary, powerful and eternal though they may seem.  When their time is up they will be destroyed, and this destruction can indeed be catastrophic as it was for both Jews and Samaritans in the war of 66-70 CE.  Yet we can rely on the fact that the Father is permanent, and when he takes away one thing he will replace it with another, different but better.  The temple had become a den of thieves.  The mountain had become a place to worship a god they hardly knew.  All this needed to be renewed.  Now worshipers must learn once again to worship in a new way, in spirit and in truth.

"So if anyone is in Christ," says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

Monday, 29 September 2014

How I Nearly Became an Extremist

I had an epiphany the other day.  I was watching ABC's 7.30 report on Mohammed Ali Baryalei, the Afghani-Australian man who is reputed to be the most senior Australian member of Islamic State.  I had a profound moment of identification.

Baryalei is a man with a colourful history.  He arrived in Australia in the early 1980s as an infant after his family fled Afghanistan, and grew up in Sydney in the home of his violent father.  The trauma of his personal abuse was exacerbated by the World Trade Centre bombing (he would have been about 20 at the time) which made him feel like an outsider in Australia, and his young adulthood included bouts of depression, periodic drug abuse and possibly petty crime.  On the brink of suicide, he turned back to Islam and within a short time became a fervent preacher, evangelising young men on the streets of Sydney.

The 7.30 story included some Youtube footage (which has been cut from the on-line version) of Baryalei talking with a shy, nervous young man about this young man's conversion to Islam.  As I looked at the young man, the thought popped into my head: "That could have been me!"

I had a much happier childhood than Baryalei.  My parents came to Australia from England when I was six, and I grew up in a peaceful, happy family.  I did well at school, went on to university and launched quickly into a professional career.

Nevertheless like most young men, in my teens and early 20s I was struggling to work out my place in the world, and in the universe.  I could see the world wasn't as it should be, and that I wasn't either.  I was searching for something better.  Despite my education, I lacked both the maturity and the intelligence to grasp the complexity of what I was seeing.  I wanted a simple, pre-packaged answer that would fix it.

I turned to Christianity while I was still at high school.  My early experiences were in mainstream churches, firstly in one of Brisbane's premier evangelical Anglican churches, and later in the Uniting Church.  However, although I was solidly middle class myself I felt a little out of place in these churches because my budding career as a social worker was confronting me with aspects of social dysfunction and human misery which my peers at church were not encountering.  I felt confused and disoriented.  I flirted with various things, including declaring myself an anarchist (despite not having a very clear idea what that was) and hanging for a short time on the fringes of Brisbane's rag-tag bunch of International Socialists.

Then at 21, after I finished university, I moved to the regional Queensland town of Maryborough and joined an Open Brethren congregation.  Now don't get me wrong - the Brethren are not extremists.  Although they are a little bit on the fringes of the Christian church, they are essentially orthodox, mostly differing from other fundamentalist Protestant churches on matters of ecclesiology and perhaps a bit more interest in questions of prophecy.  My local church's leadership were kind, peace-loving, conservative men committed to their faith.

However, there are a couple of aspects of the Brethren that make them more open to extreme views than other churches.  They are perhaps the most unstructured of all the mainstream churches, a network of independent congregations bound together by some very loose cooperative arrangements and a set of collective norms.  Unlike other congregational denominations like the Baptists and the Churches of Christ, they have no system for training or accrediting clergy and they have a strong anti-clerical ethos which can easily slide into anti-intellectualism.  This means it can be easy for extreme views to find space within the Brethren, and there are often extremists of various sorts floating around the edges of these churches.

Maryborough was a place that suffered badly from the economic restructuring of the 1980s.  At its economic peak it was the location of Walkers Engineering, a large engineering and ship-building business which employed over a thousand people, plus a number of sawmills, a large sugar mill and a range of associated service providers.  However, by the time I got there a lot of this was gone.  The shipyard was closed altogether and the rest of the engineering works was limping along on the back of government train-building contracts, employing less than 200 people.  A number of the sawmills had closed.  The sugar mill had automated much of its production and downsized its workforce, which was seasonal in any case.  The make it worse the global sugar price had fallen through the floor and the surrounding cane farmers were struggling to pay the bills.

Unemployment was extremely high, particularly among labourers and tradies.  Young men who had taken up apprenticeships at Walkers confident of a job for life found themselves laid off once they had finished their training, with few prospects elsewhere in the town and a specific set of skills which were hard to transfer.  The town had a thriving drug scene and a lot of young people with time on their hands, feeling alienated from and abandoned by their wider society.

Quite a group of these young people were drawn to the Brethren, whose full time worker was a skilled evangelist with a huge amount of compassion and a gift for explaining the Gospel in clear terms that anyone could understand.  Under his influence they gave up drugs, studied the King James Bible with great excitement despite its impenetrable English, attended prayer groups and bible studies and formed a tight-knit little religious community.  This activity was supported by the congregation but often took place on its fringes, in people's homes or on informally organised weekend camping trips.

This was the group I joined when I moved to Maryborough.  I visited other churches, but I was attracted by the lively enthusiasm and questing spirit and the strong sense of community, the way they supported one another and the fact that they were different to me and to the people I had grown up with and in whose company I was dissatisfied.  It was a very good time in my life and I still have friends from there.

The worm in the apple here was that on the fringes of this group was a strong strain of extreme right-wing politics.  I'm not sure now exactly where it came from, and it wasn't part of the "official" teaching of the church.  My first encounter with it, as for many, was through the tracts of American cartoonist Jack Chick.  Chick describes himself as an evangelist and many of his cartoons are proclamations of the gospel according to the most conservative of fundamentalists.  However, he also does a virulent line in hate literature and far-right conspiracy-mongering.  He was (presumably still is) a promoter of the idea that various secret social forces - the Freemasons, the finance industry (controlled by Jewish interests), the communists and their fellow-travellers, the United Nations - were plotting to establish a single world government which would enslave us all, as predicted in the Book of Revelation.

If you wanted to know more than you could find out from his simple cartoons, there were various books in circulation that expounded the idea more fully.  There was Gary Allen and Larry Abraham's None Dare Call It Conspiracy which purported to reveal the secret machinations of these various forces in recent history.  There was Australian revivalist preacher Don Stanton's Mystery 666 which related this version of current events to the story in the Book of Revelation about the coming of the Beast, which he interpreted as this same world government which would usher in the Great Tribulation.  And of course there was Hal Lindsay's monumental best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth.  

There was also an Australian called Peter Sawyer who had his fifteen minutes of fame about that time.  Sawyer was a former clerk in the Department of Social Security in Western Australia.  While on the job he systematically defrauded the Department of a substantial sum of money by claiming payments under false names, then publicly returned the money, claiming he had done it to demonstrate how open the system was to fraud.  Not surprisingly he was sacked, but a magistrate refused to convict him of fraud on the basis that he was conducting a political crusade and had no intention of actually stealing the money.

Sawyer wrote a book about his experiences and briefly became a tabloid media darling and went on a national speaking tour.  He also started editing a magazine called Inside News.  This magazine was a vehicle for all sorts of right wing stuff including conspiracy theories about what was going on at Pine Gap, covert government surveillance of citizens and his own take on the World Government.  A number of church members went to hear him speak, including one of the senior church leaders, and came back mightily impressed.

Personally, despite it appealing to my anti-government stance and general distrust of authority, I didn't end up buying it.  My education came to my aid and I was able to see through the rather transparent flaws in the conspiratorial theories and the crude stereotypes of Chick's comics.  The all-encompassing circularity of the conspiracy theorists fell apart at the slightest poke.

So I emerged intact.  So did all of my friends, as far as I know.  Some of them became missionaries of various sorts, at home and abroad, others continued to live normal lives at home.  None of those I'm still in touch with became right wing political activists - they are all living peaceful lives as ordinary citizens, just like me.  They may not have had university educations, (although some got them later) but they weren't stupid.

Of course there are differences.  For one thing, our 1980s extremists preached fear and even hate, but did not advocate violence.  If they had a political program at all it was to frighten their followers into the arms of the political right.  The main beneficiaries were populists like Joh Bjelke-Petersen and later Pauline Hanson.  Dangerous in many ways, but not literally deadly.

Yet there were also a lot of similarities with what we hear of the recruitment of our young Islamic extremists.  Structurally, Islam has many similarities to the Brethren - although more clericalised, local Islamic congregations have a high level of independence, established and governed by local leaders.  Like our little church group, they often have groups of people loosely attached to them, coming to Friday prayers but running their own show off-site and on the streets.  Like our little group, which included street evangelism in its range of activities, Street Dawah aims to give new life and purpose to lost souls, just like Baryalei himself turned to Islam as a way out of addiction and depression.

Such groups, with uneducated new believers searching for answers, are prime targets for strong voices advocating radical solutions that have an air of certainty.  It could be armed rebellion dressed up in Islamic clothes, or right wing extremism dressed up in Christian clothes  The nature of the solutions proposed in both cases is transparently foolish, but they have an air of certainty and a promise of radical change which can be superficially appealing.

You might respond that none of us became terrorists, or even hard-line right-wingers, but this is not that different either.  How many of the young people touched by Street Dawah around the country have joined IS or other Islamist groups?  The government's statements are vague on the subject but somewhere around 50 or 60 people have headed overseas to fight, and the total number of supporters in Australia is not much more than that.  Most of them are young - Baryalei himself is one of the oldest at 33, most of the others named are in their teens or early 20s.  With a supportive community and access to good teaching, most will grow up and move on.  The tragedy, and the one really important difference, is that the advocacy of violence within this movement means that some will never get that opportunity.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, Jesus says we should love our neighbour as ourselves, and that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  I want to make the point than when we see the faces of these young men and women on our TV screens, we should resist the temptation to think of them as "other".  They are not that different from you and me.  They have the same needs, the same vulnerabilities, the same drives and motivations.  Our first reaction on seeing the tragedy of their lives could appropriately be, "there but for the grace of God go I".

The second is that their existence presents a challenge to us.  We have young people in our midst looking for meaning, purpose and acceptance.  They are alienated from mainstream society, struggling to find a place for themselves and often drifting into mental illness and addiction. Should our first response be to criminalise them, to subject them to surveillance, questioning, and summary detention?  Or should we be making room for them in our midst, finding ways to help them find work, kick their addictions, put their lives on track?  Should we be trying to force them to change, or listening respectfully to their critique of our society?  Although they will be naive, idealistic and often just plain wrong, it is also possible they may have something to teach us.  We need to heed Jesus' lesson on driving out demons and find a way to fill the vacancy we create by driving out IS, otherwise we might just be creating space for an even worse devil.

I could have been a right-wing extremist.  Alternatively, if I had stayed in Brisbane and immersed myself a little more deeply in International Socialism, I could have become a left-wing extremist.  As it turned out I became neither.  I'm still uneasy about our society and still looking for a place in it.  I have become a lot more uneasy in the last year or two as our planet and country seem to lurch back to the right.  Yet I am also a lot more wary of easy answers, of programs or theories which attempt to explain everything.  I understand that the world is a lot more complex than that and have learned to live with it.

My prayer for our current young would-be extremists, and those in their orbit, is that they may live to do the same, and that as they do we will support them and help them to grow up.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Death: Where is your Sting?

So, I've written about my own experience of death, about the Genesis account of death's origin, and about the processes of denial, anger and bargaining that we use to try and deal with our mortality.  How do we get to the point of acceptance, and learn to live with the inevitability of our own death?

Of course I'm not going to give you "the answer", and I don't want to try and convince you that I have this one under control.  I'm just as prone to the illusion of immortality as anyone, more than many.  I know I'm going to die but most of the time I live as though I'm not.

However, I think the Bible has two answers for us.  The first is the answer I quoted in the last post, from the book of Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

I think part of the reason we often find Ecclesiastes so dark and wonder why it's even in the Bible is that we are still working hard to maintain our illusion of immortality.  Yet Solomon has gone past this, and is fully aware of his.  It drives him to despair, and he wonders: what is the point of it all?  Why do I bother with all this learning, all this hard work, all these wise choices, when one day soon it will all go up in smoke?

This problem doesn't cease to trouble Solomon throughout his book - he keeps returning to it, which is both honest and kind of comforting.  If anyone tells you they don't fear death, my hunch would be that they are deceiving themselves.  Solomon is honest and aware enough to admit that his answer is difficult to live by.

His answer is simply this - that we should humbly accept our lot, as a gift from God.  This is the opposite of the pretensions of Adam and Eve, who swallow the serpent's line that they can become gods themselves.  It is almost the undoing of the original sin, an acceptance that we are limited and mortal and that everything we have and are comes from God.  It is a deliberate act of submission, a willingness to live under his rule.

This is not the answer we have come to expect as Christians.  We have come to expect that we will be comforted with the promise of eternal life.  I will get to that in a moment, but I've stressed Solomon's answer for two reasons.  The first is that it is much harder for us to hear.  We desperately want to keep our god-illusion alive.  The second is that it is essential if we are to properly understand the New Testament's message.  It is too easy for us to just use eternal life as another way of bargaining with God or denying our mortality.

Death is a teacher which reminds us of our place in the universe.  Although this is  painful lesson, and one we have to relearn many times over, it is important that we learn it for many different reasons, not least of which is that we have to stop playing God with our planet and one another, and start to live out the call of Christ to lay down our lives for one another.

Once we have understood this answer we can move on to the second, and more expected, which comes from 1 Corinthians 15.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
      ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
      ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
              Where, O death, is your sting?’

Paul doesn't promise us that our life will go on forever.  Nor does he talk of an immortal soul, or of our loved ones looking down on us from heaven.  Death is not an illusion.  It is very real.  Those who die (and we have no special reason for thinking this will not be us) go into the ground and remain there.  We can't use our Christian hope to try and avoid this.

What Paul is saying is that this is not the full story.  Death itself is one of those temporary things, just like our lives.  Death is not an eternal reality.  Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste, the assurance that there is something beyond death.

The details of this "something" are not entirely clear - he is telling us a mystery.  He can only describe it through metaphor and analogy.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 he responds to the question, "with what kind of body do they come?" with a series of images.  The comparison between our form now and our resurrected form is like the difference between a seed and the plant it becomes, or like the difference between the bodies of humans and animals and the bodies of the sun, moon and stars. He says that our weakness, perishability and dishonour will be replaced bu imperishability, honour and power.   Instead of being made out of dust, we will be made out of the substance of heaven.

We don't know what all this means.  We can't picture it or describe it in any more precise terms than this.  All we know is that God has something better in store, and he will bring it about in his good time.  This is the hope with which the New Testament writers want to replace our illusion of immortality and our despair at death.  The Christian assurance is not that death is illusory, but that it precedes something much better than this life.  We will not go on for ever as we are, we will be transformed into something better.  This life of tears and suffering will give way to a life of joy.  As John Donne puts it:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Or for a more contemporary slant, as I've been working on this post I have the voice of Nick Cave and various friends in my head, singing a song written by Bob Dylan and appropriately titled 'Death is Not the End'.  Enjoy, and live in hope!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

I Shall Not Hate

In our fickle media age we've moved on from the Gaza conflict and are now obsessed with the atrocities in Iraq.  However, peace in Gaza is still fragile and temporary, and there is a long way to go before that situation could be considered truly resolved.  So I've been reading Izzeldin Abuelaish's 2010 memoir, I Shall Not Hate.

Abuelaish came to international attention during the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza when his house was bombed by Israeli tanks, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring a number of other family members.  This book tells that story, but puts it in its place in Abuelaish's life and work.  It's a moving, tragic and yet hopeful book.

The Abuelaish family originates from a village called Houg in southern Palestine.  They were wealthy farmers, his grandfather the village muktar.  However in 1948 during the first Israeli/Arab war, known to Palestinians as the Nakba or "Catastrophe", they fled their homes and walked the six miles to the designated safe haven in Gaza.

They always assumed that they would go back, that their refuge in the Jabalia refugee camp was a mere temporary safety measure, but temporary stretched on from weeks to months to years.  They were still there in 1955 when Izzeldin was born.  They were still there in 1973 when their farmland was taken over by Ariel Sharon and he renamed it Havat Shikmim or "Sycamore Ranch".  The Abulaish family were never paid for their land and Izzeldin still has the title deeds in his possession although he harbours no hope of ever being able to reclaim it.

He describes a childhood of grinding poverty, he and his parents and siblings crowded into a single room, his mother made harsh and bitter by the continual struggle for survival, the daily search for enough to eat.  As the oldest child, Izzeldin had to contribute to the family income from an early age, getting up at dawn to trade the family's surplus milk ration for extra cash, doing odd jobs and as he got older working in a variety of jobs before and after school and in the holidays.

His good fortune was that he was a gifted scholar, and despite the fact that he could have contributed more to the family's survival by leaving school as a teenager to work full time, his family supported him to persist and he eventually gained admission to Cairo University, where he studied to be a doctor.  This made it possible for him to lift himself and his siblings out of the direst poverty, building a large multi-story apartment block in Jabalia in which each of his brothers has a floor.  His gifts also enabled him to become a trailblazer in many ways, becoming the first Palestinian physician to work in an Israeli hospital, pioneering approaches to women's health and public health in the Islamic context and gaining an international reputation for his public health work.

Yet despite his international reputation and his friendship with a number of prominent Israeli medical and public figures, he was not exempted from the daily grind of life as a Palestinian refugee in Gaza.  A huge part of this grind is the difficulty of travelling between Gaza and Israel, a daily or weekly necessity for Abuelaish and thousands of other Palestinians.  This is a journey of only a few kilometres but involves a complex checkpoint at which Palestinians are subjected to multiple document checks, security searches and questioning as to their reason for travel, and frequently turned back without any specified reason.  What should be a half hour or hour journey is transformed into hours of humiliation and frustration.

Health facilities in Gaza are rudimentary and medicine is often in short supply due to the blockade, so many Palestinians need to travel to Israel, especially Tel Aviv, for treatment.  Not only are sick people subjected to lengthy delays at the border, many are turned back when the border guards deem they can be treated in Palestine, despite the guards having no medical training and no access to medical advice.

With this poverty and harassment added to their original dispossession it is not surprising many Palestinians harbour deep hatred towards Israel.  Not so for Abuelaish.  He is saved from this hatred by his own values of peace and tolerance, and by the fact that he has personal experience of the friendship and kindness of many ordinary Israelis.  He first experienced this when he spent a summer in his teenage years working on an Israeli farm where the owners treated him just like the rest of their employees, despite his often embarrassing ignorance of their lifestyle - like his collecting the pile of discarded clothing to distribute to needy friends and family back home, only to have to return them when the family started wondering what had happened to their dirty laundry.

These experiences increased in number and intensity as his medical career progressed and he developed close friendships with Israeli colleagues, persuading many of them to help with his projects to improve health services in Gaza.  This led him to conclude that the resolution of his people's suffering lay not in a military defeat of Israel but in compromise and peaceful co-existence.  He found that many Israelis felt the same, and they formed bonds across the borders to work towards this peace.

His refusal to hate was sorely tested in 2008 and 2009 by two personal tragedies.  The first was an ordinary one, and nothing to do with the Israelis - his wife Nadia died of an aggressive form of leukemia.  Indeed, Nadia was treated by Israeli doctors in the hospital where Izzeldin worked.  However after her initial treatment, when she appeared to be in remission, Izzeldin left the country to work on a UN health project.  On his way out of the country he was delayed at the checkpoint, with the guards telling him his name was on a security watch-list and he would not be allowed to leave.  Phone calls to various prominent Israeli friends eventually identified that his listing was a mistake and he was allowed to depart.

While he was away, Nadia's condition deteriorated rapidly and he attempted to rush home to be with her.  Palestinians are not allowed to use Israelis airports so he made his flight to neighbouring Jordan, from where he would travel across the West Bank and into Tel Aviv to join his wife in hospital.  What should have been a journey of an hour or two turned into a 36-hour nightmare as he was held up at checkpoint after checkpoint, each one finding his name on the same security watch-list and detaining him interminably as he struggled towards his destination.  He arrived, angry and sleep-deprived, just in time to be with Nadia in her last hours.

This may seem bad enough, but worse was to come.  In late December 2008 the Israeli army began shelling and bombing Gaza, and on 2 January 2009 they sent in their ground troops.  The Abuelaish family found themselves in war zone.  Terrified, with the power off and food supplies extremely limited, Izzeldin, his eight children and other family members huddled in their Jabalia home as the war raged around them, keeping out of the way of the Israeli military and praying for the war to finish quickly.  Because Izzeldin was well known in Israel and understood to be independent, journalists with no access to Gaza would contact him for information and he gave nightly interviews on Israeli television, describing the situation in Gaza as he saw it from his front door.

Then on January 16 an Israeli tank fired on his home twice, destroying his daughters' bedroom, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring various others including severe injuries to another of his daughters.  In his extreme distress, he phoned the TV newscaster for whom he had been reporting on conditions in Gaza.  His call was broadcast on air, and was the story of his subsequent running of the border gauntlet to get his critically injured daughter to the Tel Aviv hospital which represented her only hope of survival.  He became the face of the almost 300 Palestinian children killed in that conflict.

At this point he could have been forgiven for giving up his dream of peaceful resolution, especially as the Israeli army rubbed salt in the wounds by suggesting his home harboured combatants or that a sniper was firing from his roof.  He is still waiting for his apology.  Indeed, the atrocity has made huge changes in his life - soon afterwards he accepted a university position in Toronto, putting the safety of his remaining children ahead of his own desire to stay home.  However, he continues to cling to the belief that the conflict can be resolved, and to put his energy into building that peace.  In his book he expresses the hope that his children will be the last to die in this conflict.  Even when this year's repeat performance dashed that hope he continued to advocate for a peaceful solution.

During the most recent conflict, the public discussion, and much of the commentary from my friends and family, presented it as a "goodies and baddies" event, a zero sum game in which either Israel or Palestine would have to be crippled before the conflict ended.  Izzeldin Abuelaish gives the lie to this simplistic understanding.  He does not shy away from the injustices that continue to be perpetrated on Palestinians.  Yet he is also critical of Hamas and its exploitation of hatred and anger.  He is a faithful practicing Muslim who believes in peace, toleration and the empowerment of women.  He identifies people on both sides of the conflict who long for peace and who work hard for it.  He identifies processes for building friendships and collaboration across racial and religious divides.  He strives against the stereotyping of people of either race.  In his medical practice he treats Israelis and Palestinians exactly the same, and he points to his Israeli colleagues who do likewise.

It's easy for such voices to be drowned out, but we shouldn't let that happen.  Our world is desperately in need of peacemakers and bridge-builders and they need to be heard.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Death: Do Not Go Gentle

When I was a young social work student we learnt about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's four stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance.  I'm sure there are other models that work as well to help us understand the grieving process, but this is the most widely known and it has a kind of elegant simplicity to it.  Not that grief is elegant or simple.  We don't progress smoothly through these stages and pop out the other end calm and accepting.  We bounce around between them like rubber balls.

James says we are "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" but we're not easy in our minds about that fact.  Most of time, as I said in my last post, we just pretend it's not true and that we will live forever.  However, there comes a time when we can no longer do so.  Someone close to us dies, or comes close to death, or we ourselves feel death's wings brushing us and we can no longer ignore our own mortality.  What are we to do?

One option is to follow Dylan Thomas's advice and fight like hell, going down raging at the injustice of our lives cut short when there is so much left to do.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That's anger.  But anger is exhausting.  It requires a huge amount of adrenaline and after a little while it leaves us drained and numb.  At that point, we are likely to do something like the anonymous author of the old American blues number, 'Death Have Mercy', sung here by Harry Manx.

What is this that I can see?
A cold mist is runnin' all over me.
Wanna stretch my eyes wanna stretch my limbs.
Ain't that the way death begins?

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.
You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

We try and make a deal with death.  Just give me one more year.  Just give me a little longer to make my mark, to finish my appointed task.  Let me just put off the day.  In effect, we are asking to be allowed to regain our illusion of immortality for just a little bit longer.

What drives this anger and this bargaining?  I suspect it is a sense of despair, a sense that death renders our lives meaningless, a sense that if we are not eternal, if we are not gods, then we are nothing.  We fight this notion with every nerve and sinew and bone in our bodies.  We refuse to be mere mist! The author of the book of Ecclesiastes (traditionally ascribed to Solomon) put it this way:

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Solomon expresses what we all feel at times - the sense of despair at the point of our existence. Throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes he returns to this theme, reiterating the sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness of life.  Yet although he wavers throughout the book he keeps coming back to his one hope - that God is able to make meaning out of this meaninglessness.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

As for Solomon, so for us, our only hope against the power of death is our existence in and with God. Our relationship with God is the only way we can be relieved of the need to be gods ourselves, and the despair and frustration we feel when we discover we are not.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Jorge Luis Borges

I recently read a collection of  essays and journalistic pieces by William Gibson.  Unlike Gibson's fiction, which I love, his non-fiction wasn't that great.  However, he referred a number of times to the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and I was intrigued enough to check him out.  I sure am glad I did!

Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 and died there in 1986.  He was a classic "man of letters" a person who, although he held various professorships and other positions, never really made his living as anything other than a writer.

I have read other "philosophical" writers of fiction, authors like Camus, Eco, Calvino or Kafka who use fiction as a vehicle for philosophical speculation.  Yet no-one I've read is quite like Borges.  His stories, essays and parables open up fields of speculation, dizzying ways of viewing the world which seem at once plausible and fantastic.

Naturally he wrote in Spanish, but he was fluent in a number of different languages including English and many of his sources are recognisable to the English reader.  Penguin have pulled together translations of a selection of his stories, essays and parables into a collection called Labyrinths.  The title is well chosen because not only do labyrinths feature in a number of his works, the whole forms a sort of labyrinth of its own as you try to navigate your way through his mental world.

There is little of the conventional structure or content of fiction here.  There is little or no characterisation and often no plot.  Instead, each of his stories explores a philosophical or metaphysical conundrum.

Sometimes his intent seems to be satirical, although it's not always easy to be certain.  For instance, in 'Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote' he portrays an author who sets out to recreate Cervantes' famous satirical novel, not by copying, translating or updating it but by so immersing himself in Cervantes' context that he  spontaneously recreates parts of the work word for word.  His imaginary narrator goes on, however, to analyse the works and find different meanings in Menard's version to Cervantes' despite the two being verbally identical.  I laughed, although I still can't be sure if I was meant to.  How much of meaning is contextual?

'The Library of Babel' had a similar effect.  This tale is told by a librarian in a library made up of unnumbered - possibly infinite - identical chambers, each of which contains an identical number of books.  These books, across the entire library, contain every possible combination of a set of 25 symbols - 22 letters, the comma, the full stop and the space.  Most combinations are simply nonsensical but occasionally there will be a paragraph or a sentence which appears to convey some meaning.  It is hypothesised that any book that could possibly exist will exist somewhere in this library, in multiple editions, each minutely different.  What could life be like in such a library?  The librarians, it seems, go slowly mad trying to make some sense out of the world in which they find themselves, but ultimately it has no sense.  Even the works that appear to make sense are merely random creations.

These plays on the notion of meaning and meaninglessness are complemented by meditations on the nature of time, and of creation.  For instance 'The Secret Miracle' tells the story of Jaromir Hladik, arrested by the Nazis because of his Jewish ancestry and sentenced to face the firing squad.  He has a play unfinished, and prays to be given the extra year of life he believes will be necessary to bring it to perfection.  At the moment the squad begin to pull their triggers he finds himself frozen in time, fully aware but unable to move as his executioners also stand frozen.  During the subsequent "year" of frozen time he mentally completes the play to his satisfaction, at which point time recommences and he is killed.  As well as the question of time (what exactly could a year be when time is frozen?) is the question of existence.  In what sense does Hladik's play exist, what does it mean for it to have been completed?

I could go on with examples but it would never end.  Those who don't like this sort of thing have already stopped reading.  Those who do will be on their way out to find a copy (I'm about to return one to the Council library for those who live in Brisbane).  Each story has its own conundrum, its own question which it asks and then leaves hanging.  In each, our view of the world is tilted a little sideways.  As his characters find their way through the labyrinths he creates for them, we try to find ours through the mental labyrinth he puts in front of us.  What exactly is real?  Does that question even have any meaning?  It's useless to go on.  I can't go back.  I'm trapped.

It's esoteric, metaphysical.  It hardly touches the earth and when it does you can never be sure if it's the same earth we inhabit.  It won't help you solve any concrete problems, fix poverty, avert our environmental crisis, defeat terrorism or even water the plants.  But it's good to have your mind expanded sometimes, to come back to earth seeing things just that little bit differently.  Give it a read.  You won't be sorry.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Death: The Illusion of Immortality

It's hardly surprising that the Bible introduces death right at the beginning of the story.  I think you'll be familiar with it.  Adam and Eve are placed in the garden, and told they can eat the fruit of any tree except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the eating of which will bring about their death.  However, the serpent convinces Eve to doubt the truth of this prohibition.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

The serpent's claim is obviously absurd.  We are specks of dust, crawling around on the surface of the third planet in a solar system located in one of the spirals of the Milky Way, a galaxy consisting of somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars.  Most astronomers estimate that there are over 100 billion such galaxies in the universe.  Yet the serpent convinces Eve, and via her Adam, that she can be like the God who created all this!  The serpent says Adam and Eve can be "like God, knowing good and evil".  The word translated "knowing" here is the Hebrew yada and it means a lot more than simply intellectual knowledge.  It implies an intimate acquaintance - "Adam knew is wife Eve, and she conceived...."  It also implies the ability to judge and decide - Adam and Eve will be able to decide for themselves what is good and evil.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that Adam and Eve are so far from having the capacity to judge and decide right from wrong that they can let a talking snake convince them that they are gods.  Their attempts, and those of their descendants including us, to act like gods has been a long saga of misrule.  Human history is a story of war, oppression, violence and environmental destruction.  Even when we try to do good - when we dream that the industrial revolution will lift us out of poverty, that the green revolution will end hunger, that the technological revolution will deliver us a life of ease, the results turn out the opposite to our intentions.

Death is God's way of limiting the damage.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Imagine how much damage we could do if we were immortal?  What would there ever be to remind us of our own limitations?  Yet our illusion that we are immortal, that we are gods, persists.  Henri Nouwen puts it this way in his book Reaching Out:

The greatest obstacle to our entering into that profound dimension where our prayer takes place is our all-pervasive illusion of immortality.  At first it seems unlikely or even untrue that we would have such an illusion.... Who thinks that he is immortal?.... Although we keep telling each other and ourselves that we are going to die soon, our daily actions, thoughts and concerns keep revealing to us how hard it is to fully accept the reality of our own statements.

Although we have learned from parents, teachers, friends and many books, sacred and profane, that we are worth more than what the world makes us, we keep giving an eternal value to the things we own, the people we know, the plans we have, and the successes we "collect".  Indeed, it takes only a small disruption to lay our illusion of immortality bare and to reveal how much we have become victimised by our surrounding world suggesting to us that we are "in control".

In other words, we continue to act as if we were gods, as if we could live forever and have absolute control over our environment.  At a personal level this leads us to value the wrong things - to put our income above our relationships, to value things before people, to live for tomorrow not today.  At a social level we treat our planet as if it was inexhaustible, our nation and culture as if it is immutable, other people as if they were instruments to do our will and provide us with comfort.  Our belief in our own divinity is disastrous.

Whenever we think like this, the bible reminds us to think again.  James says:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ 

Or Jesus himself says:

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We are often told that living like this is irresponsible, but the truth is that it is the first step on the journey to understanding that we are mortals and to humbling ourselves in the face of the true God.  We cannot worship God unless we accept, not just with our heads but in our hearts, that we are mortal.