Saturday, 23 July 2016

Escape from Freedom

So I finally have time and brain space to blog again, and I've been thinking: what do Brexit, Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump have in common?


To my mind, there are at least three similarities.

The first is that each of them represents a response to perceived threats to the wellbeing of their nations from people who are labelled "terrorists".  These terrorists are pictured as an existential threat and mainstream political forces are portrayed as being too weak to respond to these threats.  Hence, a certain proportion of our population turns to someone who will be "strong" and act decisively.

In Britain, a majority turned against their more moderate leaders and voted for a movement led by the right-wing UKIP and the far-right elements of the Conservative Party.  In the US, establishment Republican figures are rejected in favour of an outsider who promises to fix their broken nation.  Here in Australia Pauline Hanson remains a marginal figure but after 18 years of trying she has finally achieved a return to parliament - and her rhetoric is hardly more extreme than that of some members of our Coalition government.

The second similarity is that Islam provides a lightning rod for the fears that have propelled these right-wing outsiders into the mainstream.  Brexit is driven by a desire to control immigration, primarily to exclude the wave of refugees from Syria and other Islamic trouble spots who are flooding into Europe.  Both Trump and Hanson promise to end Muslim immigration, prevent the building of mosques and defeat Islamic State.

The final similarity is that in each case the debate is driven by fear, even panic, unsupported either by facts or by clear policy responses.  People have not elected a person who has thought through the problem and developed a response.  Instead, they have turned to someone who has played on their fears and produced a simple slogan which calms and comforts them.

Our fear of terrorism is not unreasonable, but in all three countries it is out of proportion to the threat.  The worst mass shootings in the US (and there have been many) are nothing to do with terrorism, they are carried out by disturbed young people making use of their community's lax gun laws to create mayhem.  More innocent people are shot each year by police than by terrorists.  More people die in all three countries as a result of domestic violence and alcohol-induced violence than Islamic extremism.  Yet none of these much more serious problems creates the same level of panic or calls forth a "strong" or "decisive" response.

The proposed solution - banning Muslim migration - is not so much a solution as a slogan.  Aside from the obvious - that the ban is misdirected because the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorism - the policy has no legs.  How will such a ban be implemented?  Will all immigrants be subject to a religious test?  How will lying on such a test be detected?  Will background checks include evidence of a person's religious practice?  What degree of connection with, or devotion to, Islam is sufficient to exclude someone, and how will this be measured?  If someone has previously been Muslim but has abandoned the faith, will they be allowed in?  And will their visa be subject to continued non-attendance at Friday prayers once they are here?

Even if we could actually implement such a ban, what is the evidence that it would protect us from terrorism?  This question is particularly pertinent because IS's current practice is to recruit at a distance, targeting vulnerable people who are already in the country they want to disrupt.  Recent attacks in Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Belgium have all been carried out by people who are residents and even citizens of those countries, sometimes even born there.  What will happen when our post-ban societies are victims of another attack?  What will our right-wing demagogues offer us then to make us feel safe?  No doubt when overseas Muslims can no longer be targeted, we will focus sharper attention on those who are already here.  The groundwork for this is already being laid in the proposals (also championed by Hanson, Trump and the UKIP) to ban further mosque-building and to ban women from covering their faces in public.

Of course, driving Islam underground and persecuting its followers will not make us safer or even make us feel safer after the initial sense of relief.  Indeed it will make is less safe as Muslims see proof that we really do hate them and more of them respond to calls to strike back in the name of Allah.  The cycle of violence will spin ever faster.

What is going on here?

In 1941 German-born social psychologist Erich Fromm published a book called Escape From Freedom.  Fromm himself, a man of Jewish parentage, had lived through the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before seeking safety in the US in the 1930s.

Escape From Freedom analyses the psychological processes which underlay the rise of European fascism.  It describes the rise of the Nazis as driven by the fears and uncertainties of particular sections of the German population who suffered badly during the Great Depression.  The lower middle class, in particular, felt confused and fearful, seeing their livelihoods and way of life threatened by forces beyond their control.  In this environment freedom was psychologically burdensome, leaving them insecure, and they turned instead to charismatic, "strong leader" figures who promised decisive action to solve their problems.

The Nazis had a gift for describing both the problems and the solutions in simple (indeed simplistic) terms.  The problems of Germany, they said, were caused by easily identifiable enemies.  There was the enemy without - the Allied powers who were milking Germany dry by demanding war reparations and by manipulating world trade against them.  There was also the enemy within - a secret Jewish conspiracy to subvert German society through control of the financial sector and other key social institutions.  These threats demanded a powerful response - massive militarisation to deal with the external threat, suspension of freedoms and a powerful unfettered police force to deal with the enemy within.

Although our circumstances are not identical, there is a lot to learn from Fromm's analysis.  Trump, Hanson and the UKIP are all neo-fascists.  They advocate the same broad set of policies implemented by the Fascist governments of the 1930s and 1940s - strong authoritarian government, extreme nationalism, a focus on law and order, an insistence on social uniformity, an abhorrence of anything that looks or smells even vaguely like socialism, and a naive liberal free market view of economics.  They also, like the Nazis, build their support base by targeting enemies both without and within.

Sure, none of them are advocating the creation of concentration camps, but nor were the Nazis in the early 1930s.  They began with general anti-Jewish propaganda and progressed by easy stages through laws which restricted Jews from certain occupations, then stripped them of citizenship.  It was not until 1938 that they progressed to open violence towards Jews and even then the retained the fiction that Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that killed over 2,000 Jews and destroyed vast amounts of Jewish property, was not an official government action.

Much of Fromm's psychological dynamic is also on display in Australia, the UK, the US and other parts of the world.  People feel a general sense that things are not right in their societies.  Even though our economies are prospering, ordinary people are finding their jobs and businesses are at risk.  Dangers seem to be growing all around us.  Meanwhile we feel powerless to affect any of these things and the institutions through which we used to act - our trade unions, our churches, our social and sporting clubs, even our political parties - are in decline.

The actual causes of these problems are complex and deep rooted.  I have previously written (here and here) about how the problems that we see daily on our TVs are symptoms of deeper problems - the problems of environmental degradation, growing inequality and our attachment to destructive social and political illusions.  However, the scale of these problems and the complexity of the solutions leads to precisely the fear and disempowerment Fromm observed in Germany in the 1930s.
In this situation it doesn't matter that the problems are misidentified or that the solutions are impractical and counterproductive.  What matters is that someone offers to take the weight off our shoulders, to speak for us, to fix the problem for us, to restore our peace and sense of self-worth.

They won't be able to deliver on this promise.  Their prescriptions will make the problems worse and if we follow them we will feel less secure than we did before.  If they follow the Nazi pattern, they will then attempt to keep our loyalty through escalating the strategy, implementing ever stricter law and order policies, stricter supervision of our imagined enemies, more belligerent foreign policies.  If we allow them to get away with it, they will end up with such a firm grip on power that we couldn't dislodge them even if we wanted to.

I would like to say we should stop the cycle of escalation before it begins, but it's already too late for that.  Rather, let's stop it now before it gets out of hand.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Road to Ruin

I'm not sure if I have the energy to blog about the upcoming Australian election.  The level of debate is so low, the options so dismal, that it is hard to know where to begin.  While the parties tit for tat about who will have the biggest deficit or break the most promises, everyone is ignoring the elephants in the room - climate change, the new world economic order, imprisoning asylum seekers, the permanent end to coal mining, a new generation of Aboriginal poverty and despair.  It' not so much an election as a game of trivial pursuit.

Much like this heavily publicised book by Nikki Savva, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government.

Savva presents us with the inside story on the collapse of Abbott's Prime Ministership, as only someone in her position can.  She spent some years as Treasurer Peter Costello's press secretary before moving on to the Liberal Party's PR department, otherwise known as News Ltd.  She has a wide network of Liberal Party contacts with whom she worked as a political staffer, and who now feed her titbits for her columns in The Australian and commentary appearances on Sky News.

This means she can present us with a rollicking yarn about her former boss's bitterest sparring partner, Tony Abbott, and his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin.  Savva pulls no punches.  The early chapters of the book are a systematic demolition of Credlin's character.  The book was publicised through the careful placement of extracts about a rumoured affair between the two, but this turns out to be a fizzer.  The real story is that Credlin is a classic workplace psychopath.  Bullying staff and even her boss, throwing tantrums, controlling information and jobs, cutting off communication with the wider world.  Everyone, it seems, was offside with her - ministers, backbenchers, her own staff, the staff of other ministers.  Only Abbott, it seems, has any liking for her and he apparently supports her because he is cowed into submission.

However, this story soon runs out of steam because it begs the question - why would an experienced, canny operator like Abbott hire and keep someone so obviously unsuited to the job?  Why would he continue to protect her in the face of repeated advice from his closest allies to sack her?  I have always thought this showed that despite his many faults, Abbott still retains enough decency and loyalty to stand by his friends.  However, Savva will have none of it.  The problem is that Abbott himself was incompetent.

So the book moves on to flay Abbott as a person wonderfully suited to be an Opposition Leader but woefully unprepared to be Prime Minister.  His many  missteps are recounted in forensic detail - his off the cuff promises on election eve about things he wouldn't cut which came back to haunt him, his mishandling of the leadup to the 2014 budget, his immoderate language on terrorism and foreign affairs, his poor judgement on knighthoods, his unavailability to backbenchers and even senior ministers.  Things came to a head in February 2015 with a backbench revolt in which a spill motion gathered 39 out of 101 votes despite the lack of a challenger. Savva retails the joke that nearly 40% of Abbott's colleagues would rather be led by an empty chair.  He was given six months to get it right but nothing changed and the rest, as they say, is Turnbull.

It's a tale of intrigue and skullduggery, full of tales told out of school about who called who when, who had illicit meetings with whom, who was or wasn't part of which plot and why, who thought who was part of it when they weren't, who may or may not have voted for whom.  No-one comes out of it with much glory, not even Savva herself who gleefully reported many of these titbits in her columns, helping to stir up the very trouble she appears to deplore.

Of course she has a point.  After all, we all know who Peta Credlin is.  How many other Prime Ministerial Chiefs of Staff can you name?  Who is Turnbull's, or for that matter Bill Shorten's? When someone in this role emerges from the shadows you know there is something wrong.

Still, despite its apparent forensic detail Savva's account seems to be missing something, or many somethings.  The politics she describes is almost totally the politics of personality.  It's not a Liberal-National government, it's Abbott and Credlin's Government.  Its flaws are the flaws in these two personalities.  Credlin is an insecure bullying control freak.  Abbott is a political trench warrior without the people skills or policy smarts to run a government.  If they had just been nicer to their colleagues, or at least smarter in their interactions with them, they would still be there.  Or if Abbott had the sense to sack Credlin, he would still be there with better advisers.

The same shallow analysis is applied elsewhere.  The Labor Party doesn't feature much in this story but where it does it is given the same treatment.  Savva and her informants are not horrified at the thought of a Labor government, they are horrified at the idea of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister.  The Gillard government didn't fall because the Labor Party was fatally divided, it fell because Gillard was too inexperienced for the top job.

And of course, in Savva's world the whole point of politics is to win government and keep it.  Hence she thinks Abbott was a great Opposition Leader but a terrible Prime Minister.  After all, he destroyed the Gillard Government and won power, but was unable to keep it.  Yet it seems to me that if Abbott had been a good opposition leader he would have slipped seamlessly into the role of Prime Minister, having presented the electorate with a clear alternative government from the opposition benches. He did not - he simply tore his opponents to shreds then walked into power over their dead bodies.  Once there he had no idea what to do next.  His time in opposition was wasted.

But this is not Savva's biggest misunderstanding.  The hugest gap in this book, the one so big you can't see it, is about policy.  In her story, Abbott rapidly lost popularity because of personal failings and poor publicity.  Yet as a political outsider, I think this is a load of bollocks.  Abbott lost popularity once people became aware of the policies he and his government wanted to implement - policies Abbott rightly discerned they would never vote for if they were announced pre-election.

People didn't like cuts to pensions, medicare payments and various other aspects of the social safety net, especially not when the Liberal Party's rich backers got to keep their lucrative tax concessions.  They didn't like the curtailment of civil liberties and the targeting of Muslim communities, the wanton imprisonment of innocent asylum seekers, the constant appeasement of the coal industry at the expense of the environment.  If your supermarket sells rotting meat it doesn't matter how slick your advertising campaign is, people still won't buy it.  Which is the very problem Malcolm Turnbull has now.  The more people realise that despite his engaging personality he leads a government with the same policies as before, the less inclined they will be to return that government.  Hence the early election.

But this is not the full story either.  If you want to explain why Abbott lasted such a short time, you need an explanation which will also help you understand why the Labor Party switched leaders twice in six years, and why the Liberals dumped Turnbull in opposition then re-elected him two years into their first term in government.

Such instability is a new thing in post-war Australian politics.  Certainly there have been leaders who didn't last, but even John Gorton survived more than three years in a collapsing government.  Menzies, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard all got extended runs at leadership.  Even Gough Whitlam, despite only lasting three years as Prime Minister, led the Labor Party for ten.  So what's changed?

I'm not sure I fully know the answer, but I think one part of the problem is that the parties themselves are fragmenting.  The Liberal Party is torn between the religious right and the secular pro-business "moderates".  The switching between Abbott (darling of the religious right) and Turnbull (champion of the secularists) is symptomatic of this deeper divide.  We've all seen Turnbull booed at NSW Liberal Party meetings.  The same is true of the Labor Party, with deep divisions over how much to appease big business, how close to remain to the union movement, how to manage refugee intake and how much to prioritise social equity over the neo-liberal economists' recipe for economic growth.

These divisions are symptomatic of a similar breakdown in social consensus in the wider community.  The divide between rich and poor is greater than it ever was - they now inhabit such different worlds they barely understand one another.  We have more cultural diversity than ever, and are torn between fear and embrace, a faultline brutally exposed by One Nation and then exploited by the Liberals for short term gain and long term pain.  We face threats we haven't faced before - climate change, a changing world economic order - and are flailing about for a coherent response.

You would like to think that in such a time of crisis we would be able to find political leaders who took the challenges seriously, who thought carefully about how to meet them and worked hard at taking Australians along the path of change.  I still hope and pray we will get to that eventually, but it's not on display in this election.  At least not so far, but then there's still more than a month to go....

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Arrival City

I've just read a most enlightening and thought-provoking book, Arrival City:How the Largest Migration in History is Changing our World by Doug Saunders.  Saunders is an English journalist who writes for the Globe and Mail, the kind of journalist who looks beyond the headlines for the social trends and idea that lie behind day to day events.  If I was journalist, that's the sort I'd like to be.

Our world, he says, is going through the largest and most rapid process of urbanisation in human history. Millions of people in developing nations are leaving their villages and heading to the major cities, most of them never to return.  By the end of this century approximately two to three billion people - a third of the world's population - will have made the shift and most of the world will be as urbanised as the wealthy nations are now.

At the centre of this movement is what Saunders calls the 'Arrival City' - those communities on the edge of major cities that are the first destination for rural migrants.  These destinations may be in their own country, or in a wealthy country far from home.  Wherever they are, they are not the most attractive or secure places.  Housing is often substandard, land tenure is insecure and occupation often illegal, infrastructure may be absent, or obtained at inflated costs from illegal diversions from "official" water or power supplies, and work may be hard, dangerous and poorly paid.

Why do people migrate to such places?  There are two reasons.  The first is that the places they are leaving are even worse.  Village life may seem peaceful and idyllic to outsiders, but developing nation villages are by far the poorest places on earth.  Farming is generally subsistence only, the risk of famine is never far away and there is little or no opportunity to supplement farm produce with non-farm work.  By contrast, the city presents opportunities to work and earn money, some of which can be sent back to struggling relatives back home.

The second reason is that arrival cities represent future hope.  They are a stepping stone to a fuller integration into city life, with opportunity for education (either for them or their children), for progress from menial work to more lucrative jobs or self-employment as they move up the social scale. Ultimately they present the hope of leaving a life of poverty and joining the urban middle class.

Saunders approaches this issue through the lives of a number of urban migrants, using each as a window into both the community they have arrived in, and into the village they have left.  The Chinese arrival cities of Liu Gong Li and Shenzen are linked to the village of Shuilin.  Tower Hamlets on the edge of London is linked with the village of Biswanath in Bangladesh.  The successful May 1 Neighbourhood on the edge of Istanbul is contrasted with the troubled German community of Slotervaart as destinations for Turkish villagers.

Life is inherently difficult for the residents of arrival cities, but it is often made more difficult by the hostility or bungling of government authorities.  Sometimes they are actively hostile.  The May 1 Neighbourhood was established as a well-organised act of protest by left-wing former villagers who built it in a single night on a piece of vacant government land on the edge of the city.  The police attempted to demolish it several times, seeing it as a hotbed of dissent and trouble.  Not only did they meet with determined armed resistance, what they destroyed was quickly rebuilt once they left.  Eventually the government gave up and changed tack, granting the residents title to the land, supplying infrastructure and incorporating them into the city.

Interestingly, the political movement that finally emerged from these communities, and ones like it founded by radical Islamists and Fascists on the edges of major Turkish cities, was not extreme at all, but the moderately conservative "Welfare Party" of Recep Tayyip Erdogan which currently controls the Turkish government (although recent events suggest Erdogan may not be quite as moderate or benign as Saunders suggests!).  Saunders attributes this eventual moderation to the process of legitimising land titles in the urban fringe communities, which turned radical settlers into petty capitalists through the right to convert their quickly-erected stone houses into three-story apartment buildings.  Even his left-wing radical informant has to sheepishly admit that he has converted his own house into a block of units and now lives off the rents.

Other arrival cities, however, are not so fortunate.  Slotervaart in Germany is also home to Turkish rural migrants, but unlike in their home country, they have no hope of permanence.  They enter Germany as "guest workers" and neither they nor their children are able by law to become German citizens.  The result is that thousands of young men and women who have only ever been to Turkey on holiday and who speak German better than they speak Turkish are nonetheless seen as foreigners, restricted in where they can live, what kind of work they can do and barred from access to German higher education.  They can neither return to Turkey nor become fully German.  The community becomes a hotbed of crime and dissent.

The suburb of Les Pyramides on the outskirts of Paris is similar.  Here, migrants from France's former African colonies rent beautifully designed housing but find themselves unable to start businesses in this fully residential suburb or to be licensed to do so elsewhere, forced to travel long distances to apply for scarce, poorly paid jobs, and locked out of a highly restricted university system.  The result was a series of wild riots in 2005, and many other examples of unrest since.  Such communities are among the biggest sources of "home grown terrorists" in Europe.  Blocked from a European identity, young men and women turn instead to a radical Islamic one which promises revenge on the countries which have rejected them.

So why do some communities work, and others don't?  Saunders identifies a number of elements that are needed for success.  New arrivals have to have access to the basics of life - basic housing and utilities, work that pays enough for them to live off, a reasonable level of safety.  Then they need the possibility of progress - the chance to own title on a piece of land, however small, the opportunity to better themselves either by improving their skills so they can move up the employment ladder, or by starting their own businesses.  Most importantly, they need the hope of permanence in their new communities and the chance to get an education for their children, so that the next generation will not face their parents' poverty.

This last point highlights something we frequently overlook in our debates about migration - it is an act of delayed gratification on a grand scale.  If migrants have the hope of future betterment for themselves or their children, they will put up with years of hardship.  When residents leave Shuilin Village for the city, they often go first to Shenzen because of the high wages on offer in its booming factories.  Yet in the end many choose to move on to Liu Gong Li because although wages are far higher in Shenzen it offers no hope of permanent residence, without which children can't be enrolled in school and housing must always be rented.  Liu Gong Li, for all its hardship, offers a brighter future.

It is the same story in Tower Hamlets, on the edge London.  Here, Bengali village families live in tiny Council flats and the parents toil at menial jobs, but their children go to school, study hard, and end up with university degrees and a ticket to the middle class, leaving Tower Hamlets for more desirable suburbs.  Official statistics often fail to capture this, because Tower Hamlets itself remains poor.

Indeed, remaining poor can be a sign of success in these communities, because rural to urban migration is not an individual thing.  The first migrants to a city will set up and work hard, sending as much money as they can to their family in the village.  As soon as they have the means they will help someone else to follow in their footsteps - a sibling, cousin or neighbour who they will employ in their new business, or get their employer to take on.  A young man might bring his wife and child, or marry.  In wealthy countries marriage will be used as a way to sponsor new migrants from home.  As one family leaves the poor community to buy a home in a better location, a new poor villager will fill their place.

The energy and enterprise of these migrants, if well harnessed, can transform and reinvigorate the urban economy.  At the same time, the process can also revive poor village economies.  At first it is the money sent home which helps improve housing and infrastructure, educates children and tides families over crop failures and food shortages.  Over time, as the city becomes home, remittances tend to decrease but the infrastructure remains, and the outflow of village populations allows for those who remain to expand their land holdings to a size where it is worth investing in modern farming methods, dramatically increasing yields and shifting from subsistence to commercial farming.  If it works as it should, both communities win.

If.  This book is, in the end, a big question mark.  It is big on stories but short on data.  How many people escape to the middle class?  How many remain in multi-generational poverty?  How many arrival cities become thriving economic hubs?  How many remain slums?  How many communities do governments embrace and resource, and how many continue to be subject to neglect or slum clearance?  Is it possible for third world governments, mired in debt and corruption, to adequately resource the migration of millions?

One thing is clear, though.  Urbanisation is happening.  People are on the move, and we will not be able to stop them.  The relevant question is not, "is this urbanisation a good thing?" It is with us whether we like it or not.  The only question is, will we handle it well or will we stuff it up?

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Blood Year

I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of David Kilcullen's Blood Year, and finally got to read it this week.  Kilcullen has been appearing a lot on ABC current affairs shows recently giving expert opinion on terrorist-related issues, and he always seems so knowledgeable and articulate.

And so he ought.  Not only does he have a PhD in guerrilla warfare, he is a former Australian military officer who, during various phases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, served as an analyst in the US State Department, an adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq and on the staff of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  These days he runs a private research company which, among other things, advises humanitarian organisations about security issues in war zones and maintains a network of contacts in trouble spots around the world.

The "blood year" of the title is 2014-15, when Islamic State emerged from the pack of extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria to claim large swathes of territory and launch terrorist attacks around the world.  Kilcullen sets out to explain how it came to this.

The killer line in the book (pardon the pun), which the author has been using to sell it in his various interviews, is that the invasion of Iraq was "the biggest strategic blunder since Hitler invaded the USSR".  You may feel that he is overstating his case a little but he justifies the comparison in a fair bit of detail.  Like Hitler, the Bush administration chose to invade a country that was well contained and was not currently posing a threat.  In the process it committed itself to fighting on two fronts, stretching its capabilities to breaking point.  For an additional level of difficulty, unlike the Germans the US did not have a continuous supply line between the two fronts, so that the transfer of resources between them was challenging and slow.

If the decision to invade was the fundamental mistake, it was compounded by many more.  US military planners estimated that the invasion would require about 400,000 military and civilian personnel to carry out the invasion and then secure and rebuild the country.  In the end, they got 200,000.  This meant that while the initial invasion was a pushover, the subsequent occupation struggled to establish effective control.

To increase the degree of difficulty, the US collaborated with the interim Iraqi Government on a process of "de-Ba'athification", disbanding the Iraqi army and removing all Ba'ath Party members from the civil service.  Since party membership was a qualification for holding any kind of responsible position in the Ba'athist regime this meant that any competent administrator was removed from the service, even though their membership may have been a career necessity rather than an expression of deeply held political allegiance.

This led to a dangerous situation from the beginning.  Because the US and its allies were unable to secure the country, many of the army divisions were able to depart with their weapons, withdrawing to secure locations from which they could harass the occupying powers.  They are still there today - according to Kilcullen, about three quarters of the senior IS military commanders are former Iraqi Army officers who were displaced after 2003.

While he is highly critical of the Bush administration, he has at least qualified praise for Bush's later conduct of the "Surge", the insertion of extra troops into Iraq in 2007-08 which led to a dramatic reduction in violence and the securing of large parts of Iraq on behalf of the Maliki government.  He also has strong praise for his sometime boss Condoleezza Rice and for Bush himself, who he says took personal charge of the Surge with at least weekly contact with its commanders.  He comments that while Bush's public persona was folksy and facile, in private he was highly intelligent and engaged.  However, his focus on Iraq came at the cost of attention to to the wider "War on Terrorism" in places like North Africa, other parts of the Middle East or even Afghanistan.

While he has this level of faint praise for Bush, he has none for Barack Obama.  Bush, he says, was at least prepared to back words with action.  Obama, on the other hand, acted as if merely making statements was enough.  Furthermore, Kilcullen is highly critical of his decision to withdraw troops from Iraq at the end of the Surge, and is scathing about Obama and Hilary Clinton's claim to have "ended the war in Iraq" when all they actually did was leave it.

From here, the book is a sorry tale of decline.  With coalition troops withdrawn and the Maliki Government increasingly aligned with sectarian Shi'a groups against their Sunni rivals, violence rapidly increased.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, all but wiped out in the Surge, bounced back and reformed itself as Islamic State.  All this was aided by the confusions of US and European policy in Syria, where the allies encouraged attempts to overthrow the Assad regime but failed to back them in any meaningful way, throwing the country into the kind of chaos in which groups like IS thrive and providing IS with a safe haven outside Iraq from which it could rebuild.

In the end, the US found itself in an untenable position.  In Syria it ended up having not one enemy but two - the Assad regime and IS - which were fighting each other.  This meant it was unable to respond effectively against either opponent and it became hugely complicit in the mass killing and displacement of Syrian civilians by both sides.  Kilcullen points out that the Assad regime has killed roughly eight times as many Syrians as IS has, and has been guilty of war crimes such as bombing civilian targets with chemical weapons.  Yet after announcing that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for his administration in Syria and would force them to act, when Assad's generals did in fact deploy these weapons the US did nothing.  The signal was clear - you could safely ignore anything the US said because it would not act.

The other really interesting part of this book is Kilcullen's analysis of the terrorist attacks in the West.  First of all, he talks about them in terms of their tactical goals.  These attacks are designed to drain the resources of the allies fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, diverting resources to homeland security.  This tactic has been highly effective - the cost of mounting the attacks is very low for IS, but the costs they have extracted from Western nations have been extraordinary - billions of extra dollars or euros spent on policing, surveillance, airport security and border protection.

Secondly, he applies a sophisticated analysis of the tactics involved.  He describes the 9/11 attacks as "expeditionary terrorism" - terrorists are recruited and trained for their task in one country, then inserted into another to carry out the carefully prepared plan.  Other attacks over the years have followed this plan - for instance, the Mumbai attack carried out by Pakistani terrorists in 2008.  Such attacks can be devastating but they are also complex and expensive, and security improvements since 9/11 make them much more difficult.

Terrorist organisations have adapted by using other methods - remote recruitment particularly over the internet which allows groups to recruit people already in the target country; "leaderless resistance", in which a central group will do no more than issue general instructions (such as IS's public call for supporters to carry out attacks on Western targets) which supporters then carry out without central control or planning.  These two measures result in lower intensity attacks with fewer casualties, but they are also far less resource intensive and far more difficult to detect and prevent.

In addition, tactics have changed, making more use of what Kilcullen calls "guerrilla terrorism" - lightly armed groups of attackers hitting civilian targets (possibly multiple targets at any one time to fragment responses) and compensating for lack of fire-power by conducting sieges which tie up manpower and paralyse city centres for extended periods.  Terrorist groups, he says, are creative and adaptable.  If you take security measures to prevent one sort of attack, they will devise something different.  Defence is always one step behind attack.

Where does all this leave us?  Kilcullen is pessimistic about the future of these conflicts - he doesn't see any quick or easy victory either over IS or over a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Nor does he see any let-up in terrorist attacks in the West.  However, he sees very clearly that these outcomes are the result of decisions the US and its allies have made, not inevitable facts of destiny.

In this spirit he closes with a number of "lessons" to draw from the past 15 years of the War on Terror.

"Don't confuse bad management with destiny"

"Never think, 'This is as bad as it gets'"

"Strategy, without resources and sequencing, is fantasy"

"Battlefield success is not victory"

"You can't fight without fighting"

Kilcullen is, or course, a military man and this is a military book - a very enlightening and insightful one.  He is far from ignorant about politics, but his focus is on military successes, failures and prospects.  Within these terms, his pessimism seems more than justified.  However I wonder, is this pessimism because he, and those he has worked for, were seeking military solutions for what were primarily political and social problems?  And what might be the political and social solutions, given that military ones have failed so badly?  Perhaps there are none, but given the alternative is ever-spiralling violence and repression, we need to keep searching for them.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Who Killed Omid Masoumali?

So, over the past two weeks two Nauru-based asylum seekers have set themselves on fire.  The first, a young Iranian man called Omid Masoumali, died of his burns in a Brisbane hospital.  The second, a 21-year-old Somali woman named Hodan Yasin, set herself alight yesterday and is now in a critical condition.  Reports suggest at least one other man has been prevented from doing the same.


As far as I understand this is the tip of the iceberg.  Depression, anger and self-harm are widespread amongst the asylum seekers on Nauru, Manus, Christmas Island and the various detention centres on the Australian mainland.

Who is responsible for this shocking self-harm, these acts of desperation, these signs of hopelessness and despair? Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton wants us to believe it's the fault of human rights advocates, says the Brisbane Times (which, by the way, is the source of the photo).

He expressed anger at advocates and others "who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian Government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures".

"These behaviours have intensified in recent times and as we see, they have turned to extreme acts with terrible consequences," Mr Dutton said.

"Advocates who proclaim to represent and support the interests of refugees and asylum seekers must frankly hear a clear message ... their activities and these behaviours must end."

So, Mr Dutton, self-harm is caused by people who suggest that perhaps somewhere in the make-up of your government there is a shred of humanity, who suggest to them that somewhere, sometime they will have a future?  Whereas if everyone just stayed on message and convinced them that there is no hope, that the world is all black and they may as well give up living now, then this self-harm would stop?

Our humanitarians, those who would like to befriend refugees and settle them here in our prosperous democratic country, are robbing them of hope, are they?  While your government is bringing them hope and light with your determination to ensure their only option is life on an island with no economy aside from housing our unwanted refugees, or on an archipelago with the highest murder rate in the world, or a poor repressive South-East Asian nation?

Your government, which without warning took a depressed and injured Hodan Yasin from her bed in the Brisbane detention centre and bundled her onto a plane back to Nauru against her will and contrary to medical advice ?  Your government, which has poured billions into a system that is specifically designed to rob people of all hope, is not to blame for their despair?

It seems to me, Mr Dutton, that these acts of self-harm are precisely the outcome your billions and your relentless denial of hope are designed to produce.  What could send a clearer signal to the people smugglers and those who might buy their services than a spectacular, public act of suicide?  Perhaps if you filmed the act it would have a bigger impact, but beyond that it is hard to see how you could design a more effective deterrent.  Well done.  I hope you are proud of yourself.

Mr Dutton squares his jaw while his opposite number Richard Marles wrings his hands and promises to do just what Dutton is doing, but more effectively. Meanwhile in the real world where black is not white, lies are not truth and people take responsibility for their own actions we, the Australian People, seem to be about to elect a government in which one of these men will be Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Do we want to do that?  Can we, in all conscience, continue to vote for politicians who deliberately cause suffering to innocent people?  Whether they are steely jawed or hand-wringing, we should do better.  We can do better.  Will we?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Gnostic Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Blue Trees

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Double Disillusion

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Easter Friday: One for the Many

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The serving girl even identifies him:

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

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

I am not.

I am not.

I tell you, I don’t know the man!

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

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

Don’t despair.  

Don’t despair.  

Don’t ever give in to despair. 

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

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Paul on Running a Household

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

There are similar messages to children and slaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way.

What?

...treat your slaves in the same way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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