Wednesday, 18 January 2017

On Being An Ordinary 'Ordinary Radical'

In Irresistible Revolution Shane Claiborne presents himself as an 'ordinary radical', suggesting that he is no-one special and that the way he lives and advocates is open to all.  Even though he presents his case convincingly, I am not so sure.  Certainly Claiborne is an ordinary human being - he eats, he drinks, he gets tired, he shits out of the same hole as the rest of us.  But the direction he has taken in his life is quite extraordinary.  I read about his life and I think "I couldn't do that".

I feel the same when I experience this close to home.  I have some friends who have spent most of the past two decades living in various slums in India.  Their children have grown up living in one-room dwellings without sanitation or running water, surrounded by poverty and hardship.  Of course many people have to live this way but they didn't, they chose it.  I know for sure that they are ordinary people, a lot like me in many ways, and that their children don't feel that they have been deprived in life - indeed, they feel very grateful for the life they have shared with their parents.  However, I still feel like I couldn't do it.

There's a character in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country who I really relate to.  The story, written in South Africa in the 1940s, centres around the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, a rural Zulu pastor who travels to Johannesburg to find his wayward son.  He has a brother John who runs a successful business in that city and is a leader of the anti-apartheid movement.  John is a powerful orator.  In private, holding court in his shop, he will say some quite radical, even incendiary things.  However, when he speaks at rallies he watches his words carefully and avoids saying anything too inflammatory because he is fearful of losing his business and his security.  He is committed to the struggle, but not to the extent of placing himself at risk.

I can identify with John Kumalo's dilemma.  I turned 55 last year.  I have a thirty-plus year career in human services, community development and social policy.  I own a house and have a pretty good balance in my superannuation account.  I run a small consulting business which depends entirely on my reputation.  I have two adult children and a couple of little grandkids who share my comfortable middle class life.  I'm doing pretty well out of the way the world is now.

Another guy I can really relate to is Peter, who I wrote about last Easter.  Peter vows that he will follow Jesus even to death.  When the time comes and Jesus is arrested, Peter follows the arresting party all the way to the High Priest's courtyard, but when the moment of decision arrives he pulls back and denies that he knows Jesus.  As I wrote back then.

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.

This is why Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.  We rich men (and women too, but men especially in our patriarchal society) have a big investment in the current world order.  We are a powerful conservative force, responding with fear and anger at the possibility that our comfortable lifestyle might be curtailed, be it ever so slightly.

The form of Christianity I was converted to, and that I practiced as a teen and a young adult, was quite conservative, even 'fundamentalist' in some ways.  Many of my early teachers advocated either a principle of non-participation in political life, or a highly conservative brand of politics.  In 1987, as Joh Bjelke-Petersen was being deposed by his party in the wake to the Fitzgerald Inquiry's exposure of corruption in his government, a leader of my church asked us all to pray for 'Sir Joh' as the full story was not being told, the implication being that he was being unfairly persecuted.

Yet at the same time, my university education exposed me to more radical ideas - Marxism, Gandhian non-violence, anarchism, social democracy, liberation theology - and much of this struck a chord with me.  For a long time I felt a real dissonance between my work life, which revolved around trying to get more just outcomes for people on the margins, and my faith life which revolved around sustaining a conservative theology.  When my church asked me to pray for Sir Joh, I quietly asked those in authority, "you know he's corrupt, right?".  But I had little power to change things there.

Over time I've been able to bring these things closer together, to find church companions who have a stronger sense of God's call to justice, and to find ways for my faith to more clearly inform my work life.  But there is nothing extraordinary about the way I live.  I'm no Shane Claiborne.  I have made a lot of compromises with my society.  I live a comfortable middle-class life, although I try to do it within a framework of social and ecological responsibility.

When I read about people like Shane Claiborne or talk to my friends who have been in India I wonder, am I doing enough?  Should I be making greater sacrifices?  I feel bad, knowing the state of the world in general and how puny my own efforts at change are.

I tend to respond to this in two ways.  The first, when I'm being honest, is to admit that yes I could and should be doing more.  Much of what holds me back is what holds back John Kumalo or Peter - a fear of consequences, a love for my own safety and security.  I could spend more time and energy trying to bring about change, make more changes in my own lifestyle.  All of this would be moving me towards greater fulfilment of Jesus' call to radical discipleship.

At the same time, beyond the excuses and justifications is a core piece of knowledge - nothing I do will be enough.  One of the hardest lessons for us Westerners to learn is the lesson of humility.  I am one of seven billion people.  Even here in Australia I am one in over 20 million.  If I stopped emitting carbon, the planet would still warm.  If I gave away everything I had, there would still be poverty.  Changing these things is not up to me, it is up to all of us.  I can't solve the problem.  All I can do is be a small part of the solution.

So while he is not exactly my hero, John Kumalo is a comfort to me.  I will not be perfect.  I will be compromised.  I will do less than what I could.  But despite this, I can still make a compromise.  I can devote at least some of my attention to being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  I won't save the world.  But then neither has Shane Claiborne.  If we all do what we can, and perhaps a little bit more, we can bring the Kingdom of God that little bit closer.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Irresistible Revolution

If you've been following this little series on Christian politics (previous posts here, here and here), you will see that I have been moving from optimism to critical engagement, from "cool" analysis to passionate engagement and from theory to practice.  I'm not suggesting that one is superior to the other.  I'm simply trying to paint a reasonably rounded picture.  You might also notice that all the authors are from the US - this was unintentional but at least it shows that there is more to Christian politics in the US than the Religious Right.

By way of completing the journey into practice and passionate engagement, my final exhibit is Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical.  You won't find any heavy theorising here.

Claiborne is in great demand around the English-speaking world as a speaker, and has written a number of books.  This is his first, the story of his life so far, published in 2006 and re-issued in updated form in 2016.  He records his reluctance to write it, the extent to which he sought guidance from friends and co-workers before committing to the project.  His reluctance arises from a conviction that he is no-one special and that he is simply one member of a community and a movement that is trying to be God's people in the world.  This humility and self-deprecation resurface regularly in the book, giving it an engaging feel, a bit of sugar to help swallow its hard but necessary medicine.

Claiborne studied theology at East University, Philadelphia as well as at Wheaton College and Princeton.  However the more important part of his education was his exposure to the realities of poverty.  This included spending evenings in the company of homeless people in downtown Philadelphia, a summer spent working in Mother Theresa's hospice and involvement in the long-running occupation of a disused Philadelphia cathedral by homeless families.

This contact convinced him and a number of his fellow-students that their calling was to live with and serve poor people in their neighbourhods.  They founded a community called 'The Simple Way' in a poor suburb of Philadelphia.  Over time, this has developed (along with other similar communities around the US and elsewhere) into a way of life which has become known as the 'New Monasticism'.  This involves elements of monastic tradition like living in community, sharing possessions, regular prayer and worship and devotion to service, but minus some features like celibacy, seclusion and the wearing of habits (although Claiborne does make his own clothes which sometimes look somewhat monastic).

The Simple Way is based around being present in their community, providing hospitality, helping people who need help, running activities for children and young people and so forth.  However they are more than charity workers - their practice combines the immediate relief of poverty among their neighbours with the challenging of systems which cause poverty, and combines a local focus with an awareness of global issues.  This approach has led them, for instance, to organise a protest on Wall Street which involved publicly giving away sums of cash, and at least one stint as a peace witness in Iraq, spending time with Iraqis in the war zone during the 2003 occupation to provide witness to the actions of US troops and afford vulnerable Iraqi civilians with some level of protection.

In the course of these actions, they are also not afraid to call the church to account.  One of Claiborne's early influences was the gospel singer Rich Mullins, who suggested that Christians have a kind of mental highlighter which marks out certain parts of the Gospel as more important than others.  Thus, Christians of a certain stripe like to emphasise the fact that Jesus said "you must be born again" but seem unaware that he also said "sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor".  Claiborne takes the latter statement as seriously as the former.

He also talks about his ongoing relationship with the conservative Willow Creek Church, famous for its pioneering 'seeker-sensitive' approach, where he did a year's internship during his theological training.   On his first arrival there he noted that there were no crosses displayed, and found this uncomfortable given his awareness of Jesus' instruction to his disciples to take up their crosses.  It was explained that displaying the cross was likely to be off-putting to people not acculturated to Christianity and that these were the people they were trying to attract.  He accepted this despite his reservations.

After the foundation of The Simple Way he continued to be invited back to Willow Creek from time to time, and on a visit after the World Trade Centre bombing he noticed that the church had started displaying the American flag.  This was too much for him and his planned sermon was ditched in favour of asking the question - why is the symbol of the Cross excluded from their church but the symbol of American nationalism allowed?  I imagine the discomfort was mutual.  The take-home message is that the cross is not simply a symbol of salvation or an arcane piece of ancient culture.  Rather, it is a symbol of the kind of self-sacrificial life Christians are called to above all else - above family, community and nation.

All of this could seem to forbidding - a commitment to communal living, travel into danger and hardship, confronting people with hard truths.  However, Claiborne is at pains to paint himself as an ordinary person - hence the book's sub-title, Living as an Ordinary Radical.  Reading the book, you feel like you could just drop in on him and have a chat in his kitchen, and he insists that you really could - anyone who turns up at the door at The Simple Way is welcome.  He is also very humble, sharing credit with his many collaborators and acknowledging the many gifts that go into any successful venture.

However, in a very practical sense what he presents in incredibly challenging.  He highlights, by both his words and his life, just how far from Christ's way our "normal" Western lives are, how complicit we are in systems of repression and domination.  In response, he presents us with a practical example of Walter Wink's non-violent confrontation of the powers - a peaceful, loving and humour-filled but very direct challenge to the way the world is, and a deliberate attempt to build an alternative.

So where are we on this short journey?  Miroslav Volf introduces us to the notion that Christianity is a prophetic religion, with a message for the world.  We must be prepared to deliver this message, not withhold it by being passive or withdrawing from the world, but we must avoid the temptation to coercion.  Walter Brueggemann provides us with a summary of this prophetic mission drawn from the Hebrew prophets and from Jesus, in which prophecy challenges the dominant "royal consciousness", mourning the suffering and damage which this consciousness tries to hide while also opening the way for us to imagine something better.

Both these works are theoretical.  Walter Wink provides a practical guide for us to live out this prophetic mission through following Jesus' teaching and example of non-violence.  I'm not sure if Volf or Brueggemann had this in mind exactly, but it fulfils both their requirements - it is neither passive nor coercive, and it both challenges the dominant consciousness and points to a new and better way, the way of Jesus.

What Shane Claiborne is telling us is that this is not simply a nice theory or an impossible ideal.  It is an actual way of life, which he and his friends are living.  This life certainly has its hardships and dangers, but Claiborne's joy and love of life is infectious.  He doesn't regret the potential wealth and prestige he has foregone because he doesn't value these things.  Instead, he delights in the joys of friendship and community, celebrating his relationships in his own suburb and all around the world.  He firmly resists any suggestion that he is someone special - in his estimation he is not the centre of the story, just the one telling it.

What does this mean for us?  That will be the subject of my final post in the series, coming soon....

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Powers That Be

So, to continue this little series on Christian social and political engagement.  Miroslav Volf tells us that Christianity is a prophetic faith, and that our prophetic calling requires us to engage with our wider society in a manner which is neither passive not coercive.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that a prophetic ministry should open up possibilities beyond the dominant consciousness, allowing us to mourn the injustices of our society and dream of something better.

Neither of them tells us how we should do this.  One way to start to think about this more practically is via Walter Wink's The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, first published in 1999.  This is a short, accessible rendering of material from a trilogy of books Wink published between 1984 and 1992.

Wink suggests that institutions, like individuals, have a spiritual as well as a physical reality.  This reality is not inherently good or evil.  Our social institutions often have a good and necessary purpose but like individuals they are fallen, their goodness subverted by evil.  As a result, our major institutions become damaging and oppressive.

The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers need to be redeemed.

The most damaging way these Powers manifest themselves in the world is through what Wink calls the 'Domination System' - the set of arrangements which govern our world, which keep the rich rich and the poor poor, which keep the elites and outsiders in their places.

This system is not simply a single institution or a single party.  It is a combination of different parts of our society which operate towards the same, or similar, ends.  You can change the people in charge of this system but if you don't also change the system itself, it will continue to function in the same way - it's spirit will be unchanged.
 
The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.  It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

He shows how this story pervades human history, from the Babylonian Enuma Elish to modern cartoons, and we can see it every day in our politics, in the War on Terror, the theory of deterrence on criminal justice, the rise of aggressive nationalism.  Just the other day on the radio I heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoking the many Israeli soldiers who had given their lives "in the cause of peace".  We believe that violence will save us, that safety comes from strength, that the only way to peace is through war.

This is an illusion - war only breeds more war, being 'tough on crime' leads to more crime.  But it is a convenient illusion.  Thse domination system keeps the rulers in charge and their subjects subject, keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, keeps men in authority and women and  children in submission, keeps white people rich and comfortable while dark-skinned people struggle.

Jesus presents us with an alternative to this domination system, both in the way his own disciples are to live, and in the way they are to interact with the Powers in the wider society.

In their own community, the logic of domination is to replaced by one of service - the greatest of all must be the servant of all, as he shows both through washing their feet and through his own death.  Economic domination is replaced by equality as the disciples share a common purse and wealthy followers contribute to the wellbeing of poorer ones.  They are not to fight violence with violence.  The taboos about gender relations and the various forms of "uncleanness" such as leprosy, blindness, menstruation and the various issues designated as "demon possession", are overturned as Jesus shares table fellowship indiscriminately.

Crucially, in his own practice and in his teaching Jesus charts a third way between passive acquiescence and armed resistance - the way of non-violence.  When Jesus asks his hearers to turn the other cheek to someone who strikes them, or to go a second mile when asked to carry a soldiers pack the regulation one, he is not simply advising them to accept oppression.  Rather he is inviting them to challenge it without retaliating in kind.  When struck in the face by their oppressors, they are not to slink off, they are to offer to be struck again with the intention of shaming their attacker.  Roman soldiers were entitled to order a civilian to carry their gear for one mile but could be severely disciplined for demanding more, so the civilian who keeps carrying the kit beyond the next way-marker exposes the owner of the kit to risk.  These actions disrupt domination rather than either accepting it or replicating it.

Jesus himself demonstrates this non-violent disruption in his life, particularly in his final week in Jerusalem.  His entry into Jerusalem is a classic piece of protest theatre, turning the Roman triumph on its head.  His symbolic expulsion of the money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles strikes at the heart of the priestly regime, recalling it to its proper purpose.  His subsequent crucifixion shows just how seriously the Roman and Jewish authorities took this challenge.  It also shows that those who practice non-violence take a huge risk - the Domination System has no such commitment to non-violence.  The person who turns their cheek runs the real risk of being hit much harder the second time.  This is why Jesus asks his followers to count the cost before entering into the battle.

In the second half of the book, Wink draws out what this means for us in practice.  He draws on 20th century practitioners of non-violent struggle including Gandhi and King, and the movements they influenced in their home countries and around the world.  He also draws on his own experiences and observations from his contact with non-violent liberation movements in South America and South Africa.  All of these movements spring directly from Jesus' teaching and practice on non-violence, and embody two central principles - the means must be consistent with the ends, and the rule of law must be respected.

The first principle suggests that we need to model the change we are seeking.  If we are seeking peace we need to seek it peacefully.  if we are seeking justice we need to act justly.  We cannot achieve peace through armed struggle, or overcome oppression by oppressing in our turn.  This requires great discipline - it is tempting to suspend the usual rules on the pretext of war or struggle, but inevitably the result is that the change is compromised, the victorious freedom fighters become the new oppressors.

The second is similar and presents similar challenges.  Respecting the rule of law doesn't mean simply doing whatever the Powers say.  Rather, it means choosing carefully which laws will be broken and accepting the consequences of such breaches.  This may involve arrest and imprisonment, it may involve fines, it may even (as it did for Jesus) involve death.  The key is to be punished for doing right, not for doing wrong - to challenge unjust laws rather than break good, beneficial ones.  Accepting this punishment in itself can further highlight the injustice of the laws but it also reinforces the cost of non-violent action.  It is a hard path, but the only way to genuine change.

Two things sustain this struggle.  The first is the discipline of loving one's enemies, of seeing our enemies not as faceless people but as humans like us who are also in need of redemption.  This leads us to reach out to them in kindness and attempt to build bridges, however difficult this seems, and keeps alive the hope that there can be reconciliation and genuine peace.  The second is prayer, which reminds us that the struggle is not ours but God's and keeps us centred on His way, sustaining us for the long haul.

If you have read the previous two reviews you will see some strong similarities with both Volf and Breuggemann.  Non-violence corresponds with the middle way sought by Volf, the way that is neither coercion nor idleness.  Yet Wink is much closer to Brueggemann in his assessment of our current environment - the Domination System corresponds with Brueggemann's Royal Consciousness, an all-encompassing worldview whose sole aim is its own preservation.  Like Brueggemann. Wink sees Jesus as taking us beyond this system and opening up new possibilities for his followers, but recognises how profoundly counter-cultural and disruptive this way is.

What Wink brings to the analysis is a far stronger and deeper practical focus.  Wink was himself not merely a theorist of non-violence but a deeply engaged practitioner, participating in movements for change around the globe.  He is not writing to satisfy us intellectually but to inspire us to action.  The path he outlines for us is difficult and dangerous but I think he would suggest that the ease of the alternatives is illusory.  The way of Jesus is countercultural in any age but this is what we need.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Frankie's Holiday

I don't write a lot about advertising and I don't generally have advertising on this blog.  However, recently my TV has been peppered with something quite intriguing.  It's an ad for Apple that they have titled Frankie's Holiday.



I have heard it said that advertising is, in a certain sense, the height of cinematic art.  Most people only see a particular movie once, but advertising is meant to be seen over and over again, and it has to attract you to the product, not repel you.  Major campaigns for multinationals like Apple can have bigger production budgets per minute of content than most major cinema productions.  The filmmakers have no more than two minutes to tell their story.  The advertisement is the cinematic equivalent of haiku.  Each word and image has to count.

They often crash and burn, but this one hits the spot with precision.  One of the reasons is that it doesn't actually ask you to buy an Apple product.  The i-phone is simply present throughout the story, facilitating the action.  It works more like product placement, or sports sponsorship.  Apple appears as the sponsor of Frankie's tale.

What is this tale?  Frankenstein (the monster, not his creator), living in his remote (but in this version comfortable) home, records the sound of a little old-style music-box on his phone.  Then he shambles into town and makes his way through the crowds (who gasp and shrink away from him) to the foot of the Christmas tree in the town square.  Here, as the crowd looks on warily, he begins to sing his song - There's No Place Like Home (for the holidays), a sentimental Christmas number written by Robert Allen and Al Stillman and originally recorded by Perry Como in 1954.

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays, you can't beat home, sweet home

He grinds to a halt at the end of the first line but is helped out by a young girl who accompanies him on the second line, before the rest of the crowd relent and join in the following two.

As a story, it hits all the buttons and avoids all the possible causes of offence.  The awkward outsider finds acceptance, the child inspires her elders to compassion, everyone is allowed to come home for Christmas.  All the messages are inclusive - the song is sugary but religiously generic, the two main characters are male and female, the whole town is gathered in the square.  The story is a two-minute version of one of those sentimental Christmas moves in which, thanks the the magic of Christmas and the goodwill of a precocious child, everything works out OK in the end.

What gives the story extra depth and makes it genuinely intriguing is its link with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818.  In Shelley's tale, Dr Frankenstein creates a living, intelligent being out of materials which aren't made explicit but appear to be parts of corpses, animating it by channeling lightning into its body.  Once he sees his creation alive he is horrified by what he has done and flees, leaving the creature to his own devices.

The creature wanders alone in the world, exciting fear and loathing wherever he goes, before he finally tracks down his creator and and demands a companion of his own kind. When Frankenstein refuses the monster wreaks a terrible revenge.  Eventually, Frankenstein realises that he needs to accept responsibility for his creation and gives chase in his turn, tracking him down and destroying him.

At the level of plot, the drama centres around the question - is the monster essentially evil, or is he made evil by suffering rejection from his maker and other humans?  By his own account, he yearns for love and acceptance, but every time he reaches out for community he is greeted with fear and loathing.  Eventually he feels he has no choice but violence and destruction.  Frankenstein himself is not so sure, but Shelley allows the question to stand.

Psychologically, the monster represents Frankenstein's shadow self, to use Jung's description - the aspects of himself that he would like to deny and suppress.  Jung suggests that if we attempt to suppress this shadow it will come out in uncontrolled and often destructive ways.  To be psychologically healthy we need to own and become familiar with it in order to turn it to good use and become mature people.  This means that the popular attribution of the maker's name to the monster itself, while technically incorrect, is psychologically perceptive.

Apple rewrites Shelley's story, turning it from a tragedy to a comedy.  The monster is initially rejected but ultimately accepted.  The child who first approaches him takes a huge risk - Shelley's monster is superhumanly strong and resilient, and not to be trusted.  Yet just as Shelley's monster has a tender, even sentimental side, watching the lives of loving families from afar and yearning to join them, so Apple's monster longs for a home and eventually the townspeople provide him with one.

This is an important message for us to hear, despite being brought to us by an ethically questionable global mega-corporation.  We are so quick to demonise people, to assume the worst and to ostracise those we fear - Muslims, black people, bikers, homeless people, terrorists.  Yet the message of Christmas (whether or not we like to use that word) is that grace is available for all of us, that those we most despise are likely to be the most loved by God.

Yet by making the monster a gentle, misunderstood sentimentalist Apple is letting us (and itself) off the hook.  Evil and danger cannot be simply wished away or airbrushed out of the story.  It is not simply misunderstood, it really is evil.   Nor is it simply "out there" in the monsters and criminals of the world, it is also "in here", in each of us.

Jung does not ask us to whitewash our shadows, or to pretend that they are really glowing lights.  He asks us to look them in the eye, own them as part of ourselves and deal with them appropriately.  If we do so early enough, and skillfully enough, we will not have to follow Dr Frankenstein's path and chase a relentless enemy in a fight to the death across the arctic tundra.  We will have them close beside us, directed constructively and thoughtfully rather than allowed to roam unchecked.

I suspect this shadow includes Apple, a corporation that makes clever gadgets but uses third world sweatshops, planned obsolescence and tax avoidance to boost its profits at the expense of the poor.  But it also includes me, with my laziness and self-centredness which often deprives these same poor people of my more modest resources.  And it includes you, with whatever your shadow consists of.  The message of Christmas is that we need not fear these shadows because, as John, tells us, the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Christmas Wars

Another December, another War on Christmas.

This year it is Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, stepping out of his portfolio for a moment to call for an "uprising" to protect Christmas in the face of "political correctness gone mad".  This extraordinary call to arms was prompted by one of his local constituents calling a talkback radio program to complain that the end of year festivities at Kedron State School contained "not one Christmas carol" and that the words to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" had been changed to "we wish you a happy holiday".  Apparently this makes Dutton's blood boil.  We are a Christian country and we should sing Christmas carols.


How much do we care?  Well, personally, not at all.  I would happily join in a song wishing a bunch of young children a happy holiday as they disappear for six weeks of leisure in the balmy Brisbane summer.  I pray that this wish comes true.

Not that I don't care about Christmas.  It's one of my favourite Christian stories and I feel sad when evangelicals devalue it by wanting to skip straight to Easter.  I also felt slightly odd last weekend when we took my little grandson for a drive to see the Christmas lights and saw only one nativity scene among a dozen Santa-festooned suburban homes.

But of course we are a secular nation not a Christian one and most Australians don't attend church.  Christmas has become a very secular event, a celebration of families and generosity.  Also, there is a clear constitutional separation between church and State.  The idea of a supposedly conservative Minister of the Crown inciting Australians to rise up against the nation's constitutional arrangements is a little bizarre, especially over something as trivial as a song sung by a group of primary school children.

As chance would have it, a few days ago I played my guitar to accompany a bit of carol singing at one of Love Makes a Way's Carols for Compassion events, at which Christian activists remind us all that Jesus and his family were refugees and that we should not be locking up similar refugees in our own time.  One of these events, although not the one I was at, was held outside Mr Dutton's office. For some reason he didn't join in.


There is no War on Christmas.  People of no religion are happy to celebrate it as a secular festival.  Nor is our increasing religious diversity a threat to the festival - few if any Muslims are offended by Christmas and many celebrate it, given that they revere Jesus as a prophet second only to Mohammed in importance.

There is, however, a war (or at least a non-violent disagreement) about Christmas.  This dispute is not two-sided.  Rather it is a babel of voices.

There is of course the religious/secular part of the dispute.  Many people are happy to have Christmas but uncomfortable when it becomes too religious.  They are happy to see Santa and tinsel but the baby Jesus makes them uncomfortable. Or they may be happy to sing songs about the baby Jesus, because it's traditional and the tunes are pretty, as long as no-one expects them to take it seriously.  For Christians the season is all about Jesus and we feel uncomfortable when he's not taken seriously, feeling people have missed the point.

There is also a dispute within Christianity.  Conservative Christians see Christmas as a prime evangelistic opportunity.  It is the time, they think, when secular Australians are most open to religion. It is the only time, aside from weddings and funerals, that many Australians attend church.  Evangelical churches bring out the big guns, using it as an opportunity for well crafted gospel sermons which draw the line between Jesus' birth and his death, and then on to our need for repentance and conversion in order to be saved from our sins.

Progressive Christians feel a bit uncomfortable about this procedure.  It seems very exclusive, a way of saying Christmas is only for people who are in our tribe.  If it is successful (and usually it isn't) it leads people into a conservative version of Christianity which is often blind to the wider meaning of the season.  They point out that Jesus was the child of a poor family in a far corner of of the empire.  He was born in a borrowed room during a forced journey to do the bidding of the Emperor's bureaucrats.  Shortly after he and his parents had to take refuge in Egypt to escape a brutal massacre.  The Christmas story shows, as clearly as any story in the Bible, that God identifies not with the rich and powerful but with the poor, the ethnic minorities, the homeless, the world's refugees.  This kind of reversal makes the devoutly evangelical Peter Dutton and his colleagues very nervous, given their day jobs involve protecting the rich and demonising the poor.

When Peter Dutton sings his beloved Christmas carols on Christmas day this year, he will be thinking of a Jesus who will save his soul and take him to heaven, not one who resembles the children who will be spending the day the detention centres he oversees with so much enthusiasm.  This Jesus, and the activists who represent him, make Dutton's blood boil much more than school children singing un-Christmasy lyrics.  Hence his pointed absence as activists sang these very same carols outside his office.

In the end we all feel a bit uncomfortable at Christmas.  This is not an accident, and its not just a result of eating too much turkey.  If we come away from an encounter with Jesus without feeling uncomfortable we are missing the point.  Jesus didn't come to make us feel comfortable.  He came to confront the evils of the world and as long as we participate in these he will be confronting us.

I think the key is to listen to the voice of Jesus, whoever his is speaking through.  Our secular lovers of Christmas remind us that Jesus is not confined to the religious establishment, conservative or progressive.  When people of no formal religion carry out acts of kindness and charity, this too is God's kindness and charity.

As for Dutton and his progressive critics, I am perhaps a little too close to the action to give an unbiased assessment.  I would certainly like to see Dutton experience some genuine repentance and even suffer a little humiliation (or at least be forced into a face-saving backdown).  However, I have been playing the Christian game for long enough to know that when I seek someone else's humiliation I am liable to end up suffering the same myself.  It's no more than Jesus has warned us - first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see to take the speck out of someone else's.

So although I didn't seriously expect it to happen, it would have been great to see Peter Dutton stroll out of his office and join in the singing of 'Oh Holy Night'.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

He would have had to overcome his discomfort at the idea that Jesus is a liberator of slaves and prisoners and not just a saver of souls.  But the members of Love Makes a Way would also have been put to the test, because despite their commitment to loving non-violence they are surely a little angry with Dutton for what he and his government are doing to innocent people.  I like to think they would have risen to the occasion and stood side by side with him, despite their serious differences, as everyone present humbled themselves in song before this amazing child in a manger.

May you all have a happy but slightly uncomfortable Christmas, and may we see more chains broken in 2017.


Friday, 16 December 2016

The Divide

Speaking of hope and despair, I've just finished reading a horrible and wonderful book by Matt Taibbi called The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

Taibbi is an American journalist who has written for publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone and many more.  He is no stranger to controversy and even seems to court it, once writing an article called "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope", which led to the sacking of the editor who approved it for publication.

The Divide was published in 2014 after years of research, and it shows he is far from being a cheap publicity-seeker.  It is a penetrating analysis of the way the 21st century American justice system works.

The book opens with a scene in a New York courtroom in 2013.  A group of bank executives and employees is paraded in chains, charged with fraud.  Their crime?  They signed up mortgages based on minimal and often false documentation, then on-sold these loans to the secondary mortgage market.

There was a lot of this going around in the 1990s and early 2000s.  It led to the Global Financial Crisis in 2007-08 as the weight of worthless US mortgages threatened the entire global banking system.  Lehmann Bothers went bankrupt and a number of other big banks had to be bailed out.  So which bank was getting it in the neck?  It was an outfit called the Abacus Federal Savings Bank.  Never heard of them?  It's not surprising - they were a small, family-owned financial institution operating out of New York's Chinatown, mainly serving that city's Chinese community.  Nor did their sloppy loan practices contribute even slightly to the GFC - the default rate on their loans was well below that of your average well-performing home lender.  Yet this two-bit community bank was the only financial institution to have its executives prosecuted, or to be prosecuted as a company, in the years after the financial industry went into meltdown.

It's not that there was a shortage of other candidates.  In this same period, the global mega-bank HSBC was revealed to have laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for criminal organisations including a brutal Colombian drug cartel and Al Qaeda.  They accepted deposits from these organisations and their proxies with no questions asked, turning them from proceeds of crime into legitimate investments.  Many of their executives were fully aware of what they were doing.  They were able to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement with the US financial regulators in return for agreeing to pay a large fine - not out of the pockets of the executives, note, but from the incredibly wealthy company as a whole.

Then there was Lehmann Brothers, the American mega-bank who took on literally billions of dollars worth of dodgy mortgages, selling them on as A-grade securities.  As the GFC hit they held unimaginable sums of worthless assets but kept up the front that there was no problem.  Then, as the whole thing finally unravelled, their senior executive team accepted huge personal financial incentives to do a late night merger deal with Barclays Bank based on hiding their loss-making assets in a "letter of clarification" filed with the bankruptcy court after the deal was approved.  In the process, creditors and shareholders were cheated out of billions through a misleading set of accounts.  Once again, no-one in either Lehmanns or Barclays was prosecuted.

This is all depressing but we've heard it all before.  Big banks get away with murder.  The excuse is something US corporate regulators call "Collateral Consequences" - if we prosecute this company, innocent people (staff, investors, customers, other banks) will suffer.  Plus, if we can get a negotiated solution which pays substantial fines and penalties, we save drawn out and hugely expensive prosecutions that may result in a "not guilty" verdict in any case.  These cases are hideously complex and involve examining literally millions of documents.

It all sounds plausible until you hear the other side of Taibbi's story.

On this side of the ledger a young homeless man with an intellectual disability is pulled over by the police as he is walking down a New York street doing nothing in particular.  He is made to turn out his pockets and discloses a half-smoked joint.  Private use of small quantities of marijuana is legal in New York, but he has now displayed his in public and is arrested.  The result is a few months in New York's notorious Robben Island prison.

Elsewhere in the city, two black men are pulled out of their car because police suspect it is stolen.  After all, how could black men own such an expensive car?  They are bundled into a paddy wagon full of other people similarly arrested, and taken to the watchhouse.  Turns out the car is not stolen and they are eventually released.  Another black man has a series of similarly mindless arrests including one for smoking inside a shop (he was smoking outside and his two year old son ran in, so he followed him without dousing the cigarette) and another for "obstructing pedestrian traffic" while talking with his neighbour on the footpath outside his home after the end of his bus-driving shift at 1 a.m.  And so it goes on.

All this is happening because in the past two decades US policing has progressively adopted a performance appraisal system based on the number of people arrested.  This is allied with a philosophy and a set of laws which allow them to stop and search anyone on the street without reason, backed by a number of wide-ranging categories of misdemeanour like "creating a public disturbance" which can be interpreted so broadly that anyone at all can be arrested and charged.  This "anyone" is completely theoretical - middle class white people are not arrested under these laws.  They are applied almost exclusively in poor neighbourhoods, and a huge majority of those arrested are black or hispanic.  These disadvantaged people are processed through a sausage machine of lower courts in front of bored judges, represented by duty lawyers who act more like prosecutors than defence lawyers.

The same approach is taken to "illegal immigrants" (like in Australia, the term is debatable), arrested for random or imaginary traffic offences and then detained and eventually deported (usually without trial) to Mexico where they are liable to be kidnapped by criminal gangs.  Even though much of American industry relies on these technically "illegal" immigrants and employers have at times pleaded with authorities to stop harassing their workforce, it is politically expedient to frustrate them at every turn.

And again, since the Clinton administration's welfare reforms anyone who applies for food stamps or income support will wait an entire day in an overcrowded welfare office (which they can't leave, even to go to the toilet, in case they lose their place in the queue) and then be subjected to humiliating and random home invasions by "welfare" investigators who go through their underwear drawers in search of evidence of deception such as a possible hidden male presence in the life of a single mother. Often they will find that not only is their payment cut off on the flimsiest evidence (or perhaps simply because they weren't home when the inspector called without notice), but they can be charged with fraud for falsely claiming assistance and risk jail.  All for a measly few hundred dollars.

All this plays well with the voters of middle America, who have been persuaded (despite the actual evidence) that they are facing a law and order crisis and that their community is being unsustainably burdened by people bludging off welfare and immigrants "taking American jobs".  Yet this system itself is a huge drain on the public purse, with increasing billions spent on this petty enforcement and imprisonment regime.  Meanwhile, corporate regulators struggle on with a tiny fraction of this budget, toothless in the face of sophisticated corporate criminals.

Taibbi is a brilliant journalist.  He tells compelling stories of real people. leavened with just enough data to contextualise them.  The stories are sometimes harrowing, always frustrating, sometimes funny in a macabre, shambolic way.  As you read them you feel a visceral sense of how trapped they are, how precarious their lives are and how constant is the surveillance under which they live.  On the other side of the divide, his detailed accounts of a number of flagrant, large scale crimes in the financial world, unpunished even when they are made public, give you a vivid sense of how the super-rich can break the law with impunity.

My first reaction to this was that America is crazy.  I felt glad to be Australian.  Our banks are better regulated than America's and we only suffered from the GFC because of what happened elsewhere.  Our criminal justice system, though far from perfect, still has a basic underlay of fairness and due process.

Then I thought, perhaps I only feel like this because I am white and middle class.  Aboriginal people make up only about 3% of Australia's population but 27% of its prison population - up from 14% 25 years ago.  Aboriginal people are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians.  Between 2000 and 2010 the Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 51.5% while the non-Indigenous rate increased by 3.1%.

Are the first Australians intrinsically more evil than other Australians?  By no means, but they are under far greater surveillance.  They are more likely to be homeless or live in overcrowded housing, so they spend much more time in public view.  Australian states are increasingly adopting policing ideas drawn from America - paperless arrests, move on powers, "three strikes" policies and heavy handed approaches to minor offences like public drunkenness that give police a license to harass poor and homeless people.  Our prisons too are bulging with minor offenders who in years past who would have been doing fines or community service.  If you are Aboriginal, or homeless, you are likely to feel much like Taibbi's poor informants, under constant surveillance and trapped by the system.

The same goes for undocumented asylum seekers or other migrants with visa problems.  Our increasingly militarised Australian Border Force can and will detain people without notice on the most trivial pretexts, keeping them locked up indefinitely while they pressure them into agreeing to return to countries where their lives are at risk.

As for our welfare system, it has become steadily more punitive over the past two decades.  The political rhetoric about cracking down on welfare fraud and "dole bludgers"; the steady increase in the number of jobs people are required to apply for each fortnight, no matter whether the applications are realistic or not; the pressure on sole parents and people with disabilities to return to work; the move away from cash benefits to cashless "welfare cards" (starting of course in Aboriginal communities)...need I go on?

All of this plays well politically with middle class white voters who are encouraged to see all these people as dysfunctional drains on society.  Meanwhile the real drains on society go untouched.  Each of our major banks has now been embroiled in its own scandal about dodgy financial advice which costs customers substantial sums of money.  None has yet been charged and most of those who provided the advice are still in their jobs.  Meanwhile, multinational companies get away with paying zero Australian tax while making huge profits in offshore tax havens, and mining companies are offered a rails run and public finance to pour more carbon into the overloaded atmosphere.  Yet governments say our corporate regulators are up to the task and everything is working as it should.

It's great to be a middle class Australian.  We enjoy freedoms and privileges undreamed of by billions around the world.  We are well housed, healthy (barring our self-inflicted obesity), financially comfortable and with powerful technology at our fingertips.  Yet we don't have to travel to the other side of the world to see how the other half live.  Often, we just have to walk down the road.  At most, a ten or fifteen minute drive will do it.  We simply have to step across the invisible divide that separates the rich from the poor and we enter another world.

Do we like it?  Are we happy to be helping create it?  I'm not, and I know plenty of others who feel the same.  It's up to us to keep working.  We can still be better than we are now.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Prophetic Imagination

A few weeks ago I reviewed Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith.  Volf suggests that Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a prophetic faith, be bearer of a message from God to the world.  As such we are obliged to be neither passive, neglecting to deliver our message at all, not coercive, trying to force people to heed.

I agreed with him, but found myself frustrated that his book was short on specifics.  Given his emphasis on prophetic mission, the place I turned to next for more ideas was Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination.

Brueggemann is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Western world's leading Old Testament scholars and a renowned preacher.  The Prophetic Imagination is one of his early works, first published in 1978 and re-released in a second edition in 2001.  He describes it as "my first publication in which I more or less found my own voice as a teacher in the church".

His writing is rather dense and the reader has to concentrate.  The book seems to contain a lot of mistakes which make it seem that he is sometimes contradicting himself.  It's a shame these things weren't fixed or made a little clearer in this second edition given that by 2001 he was much more celebrated than he had been in 1978.

Still, despite the density Brueggemann's basic argument is quite simple.  He contrasts two concepts - "prophetic consciousness" and "royal consciousness".  The paradigmatic conflict in which this contrast is expressed is that between Pharaoh and Moses.  Pharaoh's concern is to preserve his own power and so he wants nothing to change, because any change threatens his position.  Not only his ministers and soldiers but his priests and gods are dedicated to keeping things as they are, to denying that change is desirable or even possible.  Even those he enslaves, like the children of Israel, are expected to accept that their oppression is the will of these gods and powers.

Moses, bringing the message of Yahweh from the desert, gives the lie to this royal consciousness, promising (and delivering) liberation to the Israelites.  He doesn't merely shift them from place to place, he creates a new kind of community in which each family possesses it own land by right, wealth is regularly redistributed, justice is administered according to clear laws, the poor are protected and the powerful are reined in.  The result is three centuries of this new community.

However, in the end the Israelites got their own form of royal consciousness, typified and personified by King Solomon.  Solomon effectively dismantled the egalitarian, decentralised and redistributive polity of Moses in favour of a centralised monarchy.  He amassed wealth and power in his own hands, built a large standing army with chariots, and made alliances with the surrounding nations.

This was not simply a political move - he enlisted Yahweh into this royal project, turning him symbolically from a mobile god in a tent to the sedentary resident (perhaps even prisoner) of an elaborate temple, conveniently located near the king's own palace.  All of these measures were designed to preserve a new status quo in which the king ruled and the subjects obeyed, in which wealth flowed to the top.  The system he initiated survived, despite the dangers of the surrounding empires, for the next five centuries.

The tools of royal consciousness are numbness and despair,  We learn not to notice our suffering and fear, and we learn to despair of any alternative.  This numbness and despair is graphically illustrated in the most famous writing attributed to Solomon, the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The reader is assured that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun, so he or she should simply obey God and get on with life.

The later Old Testament prophets were the primary critics of this royal consciousness.  In this task, Brueggemann identifies that they used two main tools - pathos and amazement.  Both of these are tools for opening up the awareness of new possibilities, for helping people to see that all is not as it should be and that it could be better.

"The task of pathos," he says, "is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self deception, so that the God of endings can be confessed as Lord".  This task has three parts:  "To offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness and denial."  "To bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there".  "To speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor in cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion."  The great exponent of this pathos is Jeremiah, whose weeping over Judah was the only truthful voice to be heard as the last of its kings were trying desperately to convince everyone that the regime would live on.

The language of amazement, on the other hand, penetrates the despair with new hope.  The prophet is "to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."  "The prophet must speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the real newness that comes to us and redefines our situation."  He goes on:

The hope-filled language of prophecy, in cutting through the royal despair and hopelessness, is the language of amazement.  It is the language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate.  The language of amazement is against the despair just as the language of grief is against the numbness.

He illustrates this language of amazement primarily from Second Isaiah (generally understood to begin at Isaiah 40 in our bibles), with its visions of restoration, hope, peace and triumph for troubled and oppressed Israel.  The language of amazement provides us with a vision that things can indeed be different to, and infinitely better than, what they are now, that God can bring forth a new song and can bring new nourishment to his people.

Finally, he describes how Jesus of Nazareth practiced both the the language of criticism and pathos, and the language of amazement.  He taught his disciples and the crowds that followed him both to see and mourn the state of the society they lived in, and to see the advent of the newly-instituted Kingdom of God.  His message founded a new type of community which it is our duty to renew and re-energise against the royal consciousness of our own day.

There is a lot of crossover between Brueggemann and Volf, but Brueggemann dives in deep where Volf skates across the surface.  In naming both our numbness and our despair, and in offering both mourning and hope as alternatives, he urges us to confront the issues of our times.

Since reading this book, I can see royal consciousness all around us.  I can see it in the way our political leaders rush to defend and facilitate the fossil fuel industries even as all the evidence points to an urgent need to stop using these fuels, because "we can't damage the economy".  I can see it in Malcolm Turnbull lecturing State Governments that "energy security must be their number one priority" because even a single day's disruption of "business as usual" is seen as disastrous.

I can see it in the way we brutalise defenceless asylum seekers in order to "preserve the integrity of our borders", continuously ramp up anti-terrorism laws in order to "preserve our way of life" even as we help to wreak havoc in the Middle East, and get presented with the zero sum game that the only way to ensure future prosperity is to cut both services for the poor and taxes for the rich in the name of "jobs and growth".

I can see it in the way we vacillate between politicians who offer us "more of the same" like our steady, seemingly moderate mainstream parties and leaders, and those who offer us "much more of the same", our populist right-wing leaders who offer to "make America (or Australia) great again", to restore the full glories of empire which we fear we are already losing.

I can also feel it in myself.  I am more apt to despair, because things seem to be getting worse and those of us seeking change seem to be pushed further to the margins.  It is tempting to give up, to run away to some safe haven and stop trying to change the world.  This is the temptation of numbness, the temptation to anaesthetise myself and let whatever happens, happen.

Brueggemann encourages me to mourn, to allow that pain to be real, but also to hope.  Despite appearances, new ways are possible, new songs can be sung, new shoots can grow from seemingly dead stumps.  It can be hard, but we must keep going.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Hell in a Nutshell

In the first 30 years of my involvement in church, I would have heard the term 'Universalism' a handful of times.  Most of these were passing, dismissive references from the pulpit or by an established teacher.  I never heard or read a proper explanation of what the term meant.

If I had to depend on my church, nothing would have changed.  I have still never heard the concept explained in my church.  I still hear preachers refer to it dismissively from time to time and now that I know more I realise that they have very little understanding of the thing they are dismissing.

The difference is that now we have the Internet.  Literate, educated Christians are no longer dependent on their local church and the books their local bookshop is prepared to stock.  The full, fascinating and challenging diversity of the world is now at our fingertips.  We can find networks and forums of people interested in all sorts of things.  Our views can be challenged and questioned from all angles.  The "priesthood of all believers" preached by Protestants in particular has never been more real.

Which brings me to a little book called Hell in a Nutshell: The Mystery of His Will by American author Charles Watson Sr.  This is Watson's first book but I have previously "met" him online through a couple of different Universalist forums in which we are both active - he far more than me.

From what I can gather Watson is a layman and a largely self-taught apologist and polemicist.  He learnt his Christianity in a Southern Baptist church, a highly conservative denomination where Universalism never featured.  It was participating in an online forum that led to his more conventional views being challenged and he ended up adopting Christian (or Evangelical) Universalism as a result of the study this prompted.  Hell in a Nutshell is a result of this study.

It has to be said that Watson is not a confident writer.  He tends to beat about the bush, to talk around his points rather than present them clearly and concisely.  It's almost as if he fears premature dismissal.  Such fears are unnecessary because what he has to say makes perfect sense.

Two themes run through this book.  The first is an argument for Christian Universalism - and against the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment - based on the attributes of God.  God, as described in Christian faith, is gracious, merciful, loving and just.  These attributes are agreed by Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox and Universalists alike.  Watson's question is, are these attributes more consistent with the idea that God will condemn some people to eternal torment, or with the idea that he will eventually save everyone?

For Watson, not surprisingly, the answer is clear.  The notion that some people will be condemned to eternal torment places a definite limit on God's grace and mercy, and calls his love into question.  In Christian Universalism, on the other hand, his mercy and grace are unlimited and his love is seen clearly.

The fly in the ointment for this argument is the idea of God's justice.  The standard argument in favour of eternal condemnation is that this is a just punishment for sin and if God were to waive it he would be denying his own nature.

Watson's response to this argument is twofold.  The first is to question why God's offer of grace and mercy expires with our death.  Do we face a different God after we die to the one we learn about in this world?  Or is the offer open for all eternity, repeated over and over until we finally give in and accept it?

His second argument is about the meaning of the word "punishment".  In New Testament Greek there are two works that could be translated by this English word.  The first, timoria, means revenge or retribution.  Its purpose is to balance the ledger, to hurt someone who has hurt you.  The second kolasis, means correction or discipline.  It is administered in the interest of the person who receives it, to help them amend their ways and restore them to favour, as we would punish a child.  This second word is the one used for God's punishment and justice throughout the New Testament.

Hence the appearance of the word kolasis on the book's cover, portrayed in the flames of a crucible.  God's punishment, says Watson, is not implacable revenge but correction, setting us to rights so that we can take our place in his kingdom.  Punishment is ultimately redemptive, an expression of God's love to fallible humans.  After our punishment, and through it, we are restored.

Running alongside this argument for Christian Universalism is a wider appeal to Christians to consider and question what we are taught.  So many of us, says Watson, simply accept the positions preached from our pulpits or presented by approved authors.  Yet many of these positions don't stand up to scrutiny.  We shouldn't check our brains in at the church door.

Of course once you start doing this it is hard to stop.  In Hell in a Nutshell Charles Watson presents a view of Christian Universalism that largely leaves other areas of doctrine alone.  You can accept it without having to abandon cherished beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the necessity of the Cross, God's perfect sovereignty and so forth.  It leaves the Nicene Creed untouched.  Even the concept of biblical inerrancy need only come away with a few scratches.

Yet such boundary busting has a habit of repeating itself.  Once you have tested this boundary and found it wanting, what is to stop you testing another?  If you do, I suspect you will find many others wanting too.  This, I think, is why our church leaders are so strongly resistant to the idea of Christian Universalism.

I belong to a small group which has just finished studying Richard Rohr's Falling Upwards.  At one point he talks about how many of us, clergy and lay people alike, see the church as a security system.  It provides an institutional framework in which we feel safe and are able to avoid uncomfortable challenges to our identity.  We all need security systems as we are growing up, but if we want to become fully mature then at some point we need to step out of them and face the wider world, to allow ourselves to be challenged from a position of humble confidence in the core of who we are.

Hell in a Nutshell provides one pathway into this stepping out.  Ostensibly it is just a simple tweak to our theology, but its implications can be profound.  For instance, it forces us to confront our own vengefulness.  Can we really stand the idea that our enemies will join us in heaven?  It forces us to re-examine the default use of fear as an evangelistic tool.  Do we see value in the gospel besides its providing an escape hatch from eternal damnation?  It forces us to face our portrayal of God as a frightening vengeful deity.  Are we ready to accept a God who purposefully gives up his grandeur and allows himself to be laid in a bed of straw, under the care of a poor teenage girl?

Sooner or later we all have to face these questions.  Perhaps you are not ready to yet?  That's fine, but if you do start rest assured - it does indeed hurt, but not as much as you fear, and the reward is definitely worth it.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Cobbler and the Rich Man

Today as I was out walking at lunchtime I found myself thinking about one of the moral tales that formed part of our primary school reading.  It goes by various names including The Cobbler and the Rich Man, The Cobbler and the Financier or The Cobbler's Song.  This story was first made popular in Europe by Jean de la Fontaine, a seventeenth century French author, although it is much older than that and may originate on the Indian sub-continent.


In this story a poor cobbler works in his shop each day, and as he works he sings loudly and cheerfully.  This singing is intensely annoying to his neighbour, a wealthy financier who lies awake all night worrying about his money and then is unable to sleep during the day because of the cobbler's noise.  Eventually the rich man hits on a plan - he gives the cobbler a purse containing 100 gold pieces.

Immediately the cobbler's peace of mind is shattered and he ceases to sing.  Instead he lies awake at night worrying that someone will steal his gold, shifting it from hiding place to hiding place as he deems each one too unsafe.  He can barely eat for the stress, begins to waste away and spends his days in misery.  His neighbour, meanwhile, has the silence he needs to gain much-needed rest.

Eventually, the cobbler confides the whole story to his wife, who immediately solves the problem by advising him to return the gold to his neighbour.  He does so, and his happiness is immediately restored while the rich man, in the version I read as a child, is "forced to move to somewhere where cobblers do not sing so cheerfully".

The moral of the story, of course, is that money doesn't buy you happiness and that in fact it may do just the opposite.  Is this really true?  Well, it seems so, although the evidence is a little ambiguous. For instance, in 2010 Kahneman and Deaton surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that there was a correlation between income and happiness up to an annual income of about $75,000, after which average happiness plateaued.  However, in 2013 Stevenson and Wolfers conducted a similar survey with a different methodology and found that wellbeing continued to increase as income rose.

The relationship is not simple.  Much depends on what you do with the money.  Accumulating more and more possessions provides little or no extra happiness or wellbeing.  However, having good experiences (which money can facilitate) does make us happier.  These experiences can involve all sorts of things - it may be fun holidays or activities, but it is also spending time with people we love and doing good for others, including giving away part of our wealth to those who need it more than we do.  Wealth does not bring happiness, but it may make it easier for us to do happy things if we are wise enough to discern what these are.

Of course, we should not be fooled by the cobbler's tale into glorifying poverty.  The cobbler is a particular kind of poor person.  He has somewhere to live.  He is married to an intelligent and sensible woman.  He has meaningful work to do, which he clearly enjoys.  He has good health which enables him to do physical work all day.  He has friends who come to his shop to enjoy his singing.  All these things are the conditions of his happiness.  If he was homeless, unemployed, alone in the world, surrounded by enemies or in constant pain he would not sing so cheerfully.  He has achieved the happy medium which the wise man Agur prays for in Proverbs 30.

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

This is a very important story for the situation we find ourselves in right now.  There is abundant evidence for anyone who is willing to look that our current way of life is unsustainable.  Our wealthy Western societies cannot go on amassing wealth and consuming resources at the rate we are now.  Oil is running out, we are on a path to climate disaster, the pressures of poverty and war are creating millions of displaced persons, and an unconscionable proportion of the world's population lives in absolute poverty.  Something has to give, and that something is us.  The only way out of this dilemma is for our societies to give up part of their wealth.

Of course the hero of The Cobbler and the Rich Man is neither the cobbler nor the rich man, but the cobbler's wife.  She is the only person in the story who diagnoses the problem correctly and is able to solve it.  Wealth is making both her husband and their neighbour unhappy.  The difference between the two men is that only her husband is able to accept the solution, which is to have less.  He instantly feels the weight lifted from his shoulders and recommences his singing.

Their rich neighbour, on the other hand, is unable to take this step and instead retreats from the situation into a privatised silence.  We don't know what he does there, but it seems unlikely that he is genuinely happy.  At best he will be able to snatch a little sleep during his daylight hours because he has found a place where his unhappiness is not constantly highlighted by the happiness of his neighbour.

He could serve as an analogue for our entire society.  Our politicians continually tell as that our problems will be solved by "jobs and growth", but they won't.  The message of Brexit, Trump's election, the fences barring refugees from travelling westward into Europe, Australia's fierce commitment to indefinite detention of asylum seekers and the resurgence of protectionism is that we will go to any lengths to hold onto the wealth we have.  The thought of a correction, of giving up some of our riches, makes us afraid.  It makes us feel physically ill.  It stops us from singing and makes us toss restlessly in our beds at night.

Our wealth is not making us happier or healthier.  Levels of depression and anxiety continue to climb upwards.  Obesity - surely the clearest possible sign that we have too much - is on the rise and public health measures are making little difference.  Our public life is disintegrating into a shambles of competing factions without the skill or willingness to forge any kind of consensus.  We are beset by anxieties at every turn, not least the anxiety that someone will steal our hard-earned (or hard-inherited, or ill-gotten) wealth.

We should listen more carefully to the wisdom of the cobbler's wife.  It is not merely that we can get by with less - although this is clearly true - but that we will be a lot better off if we do.  The danger of our current predicament is that as we reach the limits of our current trajectory it will be the poorest people of the globe who are asked, or forced, to give up more.  This will lead to untold suffering.

This would of course be a shocking and unforgivable outcome for them, but it would also be a very bad one for us.  Not only their wellbeing, but ours also, requires us to give up some of our wealth.  Only if we do this can more people around the globe (both in the developed and the majority world) achieve the cobbler's happy medium and be able to return to singing cheerful songs as we work.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Public Faith

I've been reading some books on Christian engagement in politics (with a small "p") and I thought I'd review them to give you some highlights.  A great place to start is with Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.

Volf is a Croatian-born theologian who studied in Germany under Juergen Moltmann and is now a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School in the USA.  Among other things, he is Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, an institute dedicated to the study of the intersection between faith and wider culture.  He is learned and erudite but also a very accessible author.  He is also open to a wide set of influences, drawing on Islamic and Jewish thinkers as well as Christian ones.  His book has a very simple, elegant construction around a set of pairs through which he drives a rather Aristotelian "golden mean".

Volf conceives of Christianity, along with Islam and Judaism, as a prophetic faith.  Such faiths, he says, are characterised by a two-fold movement - ascent to God to receive his message, followed by return to deliver this message to the world.  This ascent and return could be understood literally, as in Moses ascending Mt Sinai and returning with the tablets of the Law, but also metaphorically depicting our ordinary encounters with God and efforts to discern how we should act as his people.

Prophetic religion is subject to various problems which Volf characterises in four ways - two "ascent malfunctions" and two "return malfunctions".  Ascent malfunctions come from our failure understand or remain faithful to the prophetic revelation.  Volf identifies the first of these as "functional reduction", in which the rich content of the faith is reduced to worldly or practical formulae.  Faith is replaced by pop psychology or social analysis.  The second he calls "idolatric substitution", in which a living and complex faith in a living God is replaced by an idol of our making, whether spiritual, political or social.  What both these types of malfunction have in common is a failure to understand the prophetic revelation.

Volf deals with these very briefly.  He devotes much more space to his two "return malfunctions" - idleness and coercion.  Idleness is the practice of withdrawing from engagement with the world, of focusing exclusively on our mystical union with God, the act of making converts or the future hope of heaven.  We have the message of the prophets but we keep it to ourselves, perhaps lacking confidence in its effectiveness.

Coercion is, of course, the practice of trying to forcibly impose our prophetic vision on the wider society.  We convert our religion into a political movement dedicated to suppressing alternative viewpoints and ways of life while enforcing our own.  This is most graphically illustrated in our time by Islamic extremism but also has a long history in Christianity both before and after the Reformation.

If these extremes are to be avoided, what is the golden mean Volf would like us to follow?  He takes us into this by exploring different ideas of human flourishing.  For Augustine, humans ultimately find their wellbeing in the love of God and in loving what God defines as good.  Christians seek this not just for themselves but for those around them, whether Christian or not.  The recent history of Western civilisation has seen this view of flourishing progressively reduced, firstly through the enlightenment view of universal brotherhood and love of humanity without God, and more recently through an atomised focus on individual, experiential satisfaction.

The role of prophetic religion, then, is to call humanity back to this full, divinely centred view of human flourishing.  He sees our current focus on experiential satisfaction as self-defeating - our society's shallow, self-centred view of what satisfaction entails means that if we get what we seek we will still be discontented.  Our mission is to share and enact a deeper, more complete view of what it means to be human.

We are to build and promote things which allow and encourage this full form of flourishing, and to resist those which interfere with it.  This social engagement need not be exclusively Christian - many things which promote this kind of flourishing may be initiated or supported by those of other faiths or none, and Volf sees Christians as collaborating with whoever will support such initiatives, without abandoning or compromising our distinctive faith.

Volf is very confident of the value of the Christian message and sees it is having a unique contribution to make to society.  Hence, he is outwardly focused, wanting to share the particular wisdom of Christianity with the wider world and use it to promote the wellbeing of all.  He sees this as part of Christ's call to love our neighbours and even our enemies.  His is an open, engaged faith, neither defensively closed nor belligerently assertive.  He also seems to be quite optimistic - it is possible to really improve human life, to make our societies more just and humane.

If this book has a limitation it is that it is short on specifics.  If you are looking for guidance on how to respond to specific situations, for a political or activist program, you will have to look elsewhere. This book could be cited by conservatives and progressives, capitalists and socialists with equal confidence. However, what he does provide is a jumping off point - Christians should be seeking the flourishing of those around them.  And there are plenty of others who can supply what he lacks, as we will see.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

In Which My Dad Begins My Musical Education

Whatever modest musical ability I have I owe to my Dad.

It took me a while to work this out.  When I was growing up, there wasn't lot of music in the house.  Mum and Dad had a small record collection and on rare occasions they would put something on the scratchy mono turntable Dad had built himself.  We also had a piano, but no-one played it much.

As I got older I realised this wasn't how it had always been.  Dad was a decent pianist and also quite a good singer.  As boy he trained as a church chorister, and our photo album included a picture of him dressed as a policeman in a production of Pirates of Penzance where he and Mum met and fell in love.

Sadly by the time I was old enough to notice, Dad had lost a lot of his hearing and this ruined his enjoyment of music.  It's just not the same when you can only hear half the notes.  His only piano playing was an occasional rendition of Fur Elise, which he could play fairly fluently by heart despite his lack of practice.  When he was feeling cheerful he would sometimes burst loudly into song, snatches of obscure things we never heard in full.

However, at some point he decided to take my musical education in hand and started to play me his favourite records.  He had fairly broad tastes but the main items in the collection were jazz-influenced comic songs, and classical and modern orchestral and chamber works.

Naturally, he started me on the comic songs.  I had already discovered Rolf Harris as part of my family's attempt to become proper Aussies, and as children we would listen to things like Flanders and Swann and Stanley Holloway's The Ramsbottoms.  Dad started introducing me to more sophisticated jazz-oriented songs like Phil Harris's 'Woodman Spare that Tree' and 'Darktown Poker Club'.  My favourite was Johnny Dankworth's 'Experiments with Mice', which I loved despite the references to various popular jazz musicians going completely over my head.

When he thought I was ready for it he began to introduce me to orchestral music.  The first orchestral piece I remember him playing was Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', which I would have already heard and seen in Disney's Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice.  We had the piece on a 7-inch record with a beautiful cover featuring an artist's impression of the sorcerer.  It was my first lesson in the idea that music could tell a story on its own, lyrics or no lyrics.

From there he tried me out on all sorts of stuff.  He played me Mozart and Beethoven, but I mostly found them boring.  He tried me out on a scratchy copy of Bach's harpsichord music which I found pleasant enough without it really capturing my imagination.  In the end, the pieces that drew me in were two theatrical, story-telling pieces from the 20th Century - Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Holst's The Planets.

To be truthful I think Stravinsky was beyond me, but I enjoyed the beautiful dynamics, the way the dreamy woodwinds build up into the thumping of the cellos and the fanfare of the brass, the sheer frenetic tempo of parts of it, the elemental simplicity of the melodies augmented by complex arrangements.  It gained added street cred when I learned that the audience rioted at the first performance of the ballet for which it formed the score.

However, on the rare occasions I listen to orchestral music these days it is most likely to be The Planets.  Holst's composition consists of seven separate pieces of music, based on the then known planets of our solar system presented in order of their distance from Earth - Mars the Bringer of War, Venus the Bringer of Peace, Mercury the Winged Messenger, Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity, Saturn the Bringer of Old Age, Uranus the Magician and Neptune the Mystic.

The pieces are inspired more by astrology than the Roman gods for whom the planets are named.  Each planet, each piece, has its own mood and personality.  If I was feeling quiet and reflective I could listen to Neptune or Venus, if I felt like dancing and smiling I could listen to Mercury or Jupiter, if I was a bit bullish I could enjoy Mars.  Someone recently gave me a copy on CD and I discovered it is perfect driving music, sweeping you out into space as you roll along the highway.

Other aspects of Dad's attempts to educate me were less successful.  He tried to teach me to play piano but I didn't get very far.  At the time I thought it was because he was a lousy teacher but these days I am more inclined to believe I was a poor pupil, too impatient to dedicate myself to regular practice.  My teenage musical choices were also a disappointment to him - he never got pop music.

Of course in my teenage years I turned to other teachers.  My peers used to pass around bootleg tapes of their favourite records, and I heard whatever teenage boys were listening to in the mid-1970s.  There was a smorgasboard from the poppiest of pop - I loved Paul McCartney and The Sweet for a time, although I never stooped to Abba - through to what in those days passed for heavy metal (Deep Purple, Uriah Heep) and the glories of prog rock.

Yet there were other influences even among my peers.  One of my best friends at high school was Brett Dean, a precocious young musician who went on to become one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary composers.  At one point he lifted my eyes a little from the pop universe by making me a tape of pieces he thought I might enjoy.  I seem to remember there was something by Shostakovich, and Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga and the Great Gate of Kiev among other pieces now forgotten.  I loved it and listened to it a lot.  When I discovered Rick Wakeman's brand of orchestral rock music (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) my ears were ready to enjoy.

It took me a long time to realise how much of this taste I owed to Dad, trapped as I was in the myth that he was a poor teacher.  Yet why did I prefer Pink Floyd to punk, Rick Wakeman to rockabilly?  I believe it was because Dad's musical lessons had prepared me to listen patiently, to understand that music should have dynamics, should tell a story beyond lyrics and even without them.  He taught me that the best music lasted longer than three minutes, and that it could draw you in completely to an alternative emotional world.  Although the techniques and instrumentation are very different Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' and 'Echoes' provide the same kind of story-telling that I first heard from Holst and Stravinsky.

I'm quite sure I didn't properly appreciate my Dad while he was still alive.  Perhaps it takes the nagging pull of absence to really make you understand what you have missed.  Dad was a better teacher than I ever knew, because he taught me out of love, and shared what he loved.  He thought carefully about the choices he played for me, understood young boys better than I gave him credit for (having been one himself) and gave me space and time to find my own place among his favourites.  He never banned anything from the turntable, and even his tutting at some of the music I brought home makes more sense now than it did then.  What did I ever see in Sherbert?  And why did so many Australian singers put on American accents?

I miss him, but I also carry him inside me, and will until the day I die.