Saturday, 4 November 2017

The People Smuggler

People smugglers are the comic book villains of Australian asylum seeker policy.  When he was Prime Minister in 2009, Kevin Rudd described them this way in the wake of a tragic event on an asylum seeker boat.

People smugglers are engaged in the world's most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.  People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that's why they should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell.

Yet people smuggling has not always had such bad press.  As young Christians we were encouraged to read the inspiring story of Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who was imprisoned by the Nazis for smuggling Jews out of the country.  Later we all heard about Oskar Schindler, the wealthy German industrialist who used his right to Jewish slave labour as a cover for an operation which smuggled some 50,000 Jews out of Poland.

In even more recent history Betty Mahmoody's memoir Not Without My Daughter documented her experience of being trapped inside post-revolutionary Iran in an abusive marriage, with her husband and his family using their daughter as a bargaining chip.  The story's happy ending was achieved, surprise surprise, with the aid of a people smuggler who got her out of Iran after all her attempts to depart legally - including seeking aid from the US embassy - were thwarted.

So I have always suspected that the rhetoric was, at least, a little overblown.  It seems convenient that as well as demonising refugees (a limited tactic since most of us know some actual refugees) we can also demonise a rather shadowy, invisible and poorly understood group of people.  But actual details are always sketchy.  Who are these criminal masterminds?  How do they live?  How does their business work?

You can learn a lot about it by reading Robin de Crespigny's 2012 book The People Smuggler, the life story of Iraqi refugee and people smuggler Ali al Jenabi.  The story, written by de Crespigny in Ali's voice, is based on extensive interviews with the man himself.

 Ali was born in 1970 in the Iraqi town of Diwaniyah, the oldest son of Shiite parents and big brother to a large troop of siblings.  He has memories of a happy childhood but things changed in 1981 when his father was arrested by the Baathist regime for saying 'Saddam is a bastard'.  After nine months of torture he was returned to the family a broken man, and Ali at the tender age of 12 had to take up the responsibility of helping to feed his family as well as living with his father's drunken rages.

Things might have worked out OK in the long run, but in 1991 his brother deserted from the Iraqi military in the midst of the failed Shiite uprising and Ali himself was arrested along with his brother and father.  He was forced to witness his bother's torture as the secret police tried to force him to reveal the names of their non-existent resistance cell.  His brother was presumably tortured to death but Ali survived several years in a crowded cell in Abu Ghraib prison before being finally released and advised in veiled terms to leave the country.

He managed to make it to Kurdistan where he joined a resistance organisation and spent some time sneaking back into Iraq with false ID on various espionage assignments. After a while his next two brothers were also arrested and he arranged for his mother and younger siblings to be be smuggled across the border with him into Kurdistan.  Thus began their long journey as refugees.  First they crossed the border into Iran, where they remained for some years.  Here they applied to be registered as refugees via the UNHCR office in Syria but were refused.  How do these decisions get made?  With one brother missing presumed executed and a father and two brothers held as political prisoners by the Baathist regime, how was it possibly safe for them to return?

They struggled on for some years in Iran, and Ali's oldest sister even managed to make her way to Australia after marrying an Australian resident.  As the situation in Iran deteriorated they finally decided to try and make their own way to join her.  As so often happens, Ali was sent first with the idea that once safely in Australia he would be able to raise the funds to bring his family after him.  He managed to follow the smuggling trail to Indonesia, but there he found himself stuck when the smuggler who had promised to put him on a boat took his money, but then left him stranded on the beach.

The trouble with people smuggling is that, like any black market transaction, there is no quality assurance.  There is no consumer law, there are no police to appeal to.  If you don't get what you paid for you just have to suck it up.  If you can find the person who took your money the chances are they won't return it unless you are accompanied by a group of strong men.  And as we all know, being stranded on the beach is not your biggest quality risk.  There is a lot of temptation for the smuggler to cut corners, buying a cheap boat, overloading it and crewing it with people who don't know what they are doing.  As a result, far too many people have drowned on the passage from Indonesia to Australia.

Having seen this trade, Ali saw an opportunity.  As father figure to a tribe of young siblings, he found himself disgusted at the willingness of the smugglers he encountered to put families at risk and to rip off vulnerable people.  He was sure he could do better, getting people safely to Australia for a fair price.  The income would allow him to pay for his own family's passage.

People smuggling is not simple.  To bring asylum seekers from Iran to Australia requires contacts along the way who can supply false passports and visas, arrange flights and hotels and pay off police and immigratiion officals.  At the Indonesian end you need to find a seaworthy boat and a crew who know what they're doing, and a departure point where the local police will be prepared to take a bribe in exchange for turning a blind eye.

His first attempt was a fiasco as the boat ended up running ashore in Indonesian territory and its passengers were taken into immigration detention.  He learned as he went along and later ventures were more successful.  In the end he managed to transport around 500 people to Australia via Ashmore Reef.  He even managed to take many of the people from his failed first attempt, breaking them out of detention and getting them out to sea before they could be caught.  He charged them what they could afford - on average around $1,500US per person, but at times he let people go for less.  Sometimes he accepted IOUs even though he knew there was a good chance they would never be paid, and he often let women and children go free.

None of his customers drowned, because he bought seaworthy boats and sent them through calm seas to Ashmore Reef.  In the process he didn't get rich - he made nothing on some of the trips, between buying the boats, paying hotels, paying off the police and funding fake passports to get people into Indonesia.  However, he did earn enough to get all his surviving family members, apart from his father, from Iran through to Australia, and also to buy a house for himself and his Indonesian wife and daughter.

Of course it couldn't last.  The Australian police, under pressure from the government, were on his tail and this made it harder for his Indonesian contacts to turn a blind eye.  Once the Howard Government implemented the first version of the Pacific Solution the game was up anyway.  His family were safely in Australia and granted refugee status, while he was left in Indonesia, wanted by Australian authorities and torn between his mother and siblings in Australia and his wife and daughter in Indonesia.

He was reasonably safe in Indonesia, where the Indonesian authorities had little interest in his arrest and no extradition treaty with Australia.  However he also had no way of making a living, and he was eventually enticed to Thailand by a business opportunity, arrested at the Bangkok airport and extradited to Australia to face people smuggling charges.

Of course he was guilty, and after a long period in remand and a long and complex trial he was convicted.  But the court accepted that he dealt honestly with his customers, that no-one drowned on his watch, and that he was motivated by the wellbeing of his own family.  In the end between Thailand and Australia he spent less than five years in prison where he could have been given twenty or more.

However in 21st century Australia you can be punished more severely for being an undocumented refugee than for being an actual criminal.  On his release he was met at the prison door by immigration officials who tried to persuade him to sign a form agreeing to be deported to Iraq.  Instead he applied for asylum and was sent to Villawood detention centre.  At least he was close to his family, who lived nearby and could visit every day.  But despite the law requiring a decision on his application within 90 days, he waited a year and a half for his refusal and another year and a half to be released, on a Removal Pending Bridging Visa.  He is still on it in 2017.  He is to be deported to Iraq 'when it is safe to do so'.  Which will be never.

In the meantime he has no status.  His Indonesian wife divorced him while he was still in immigration detention because without an Indonesian father their daughter can't attend school.  His daughter is not even allowed to travel to Australia on a tourist visa to visit him, and he hasn't seen her in more than a decade.  Not only that, but when he discovered that his childhood sweetheart, who he assumed was long ago married to someone else, had in fact braved abuse from her family to wait for him there was no way he could bring her to Australia.  He can't make any plans, he can't go anywhere, every day is a new 24 hours of waiting.  All this despite discovering that within his original 90 day period his case officer had found him to be a genuine refugee and recommended he be given protection.

The irony cuts deep.  The 500 people he brought to Australia - including his own family - have refugee status and are getting on with their lives.  Many of them visit him.  One of them is a doctor and treated him in hospital.  Yet he himself is stuck in limbo, his life destroyed.  As former Immigration Minister Chris Evans said to him when he fronted him at a campaign event, 'Smuggling is a serious crime and the Australian people won't forget'.


So, is Ali al Jenabi a hero or a villain?  This is the kind of question which belongs in a comic book.  Real life is much less clearcut.  Certainly at times Ali gilds the lily.  For instance, he makes much of the notion that people smuggling was not illegal in Indonesia.  Yet this is a little disingenuous.  The act of sending people by boat to Australia may not have been, but falsifying travel documents and bribing police is clearly a crime, even if no-one was in a hurry to prosecute him for it.  And there is a certain amount of luck in all his boats landing safely.

Still there is a lot in his favour.  He is right when he points out that there was no queue to jump.  Even getting accepted as a refugee by the UNHCR is extraordinarily difficult if the nearest office is in a country you can't get to.  Once accepted there is no guarantee that you will be resettled.  Millions of people have been trapped for years and even decades in refugee camps waiting for a few thousand places a year in receiving countries.  Is in any wonder that people take the law into their own hands?

Ali is clearly unrepentant.  When he sees his own family safe and growing in Australia, and meets the other refugees he has helped to their new life, he feels a deep satisfaction that he has done some good in the world.  Yet he has also paid a heavy price.  On top of his years of torture in Abu Ghraib he spent nine months in a notorious Thai prison, where he caught TB.  He spent four years in an Australian prison and another three in Villawood detention centre.  He has lost his marriage and the right to see his daughter and been denied a second chance at marriage with his childhood sweetheart.

It is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch to compare him to Jesus.  Still, Jesus himself said, 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.'  This is what Ali has done.  To ensure the safety of his mother and his brothers and sisters - and in the process, the safety of hundreds of others - he has given up huge parts of his own life.  Even if we were to relent now, those lost years and lost relationships could not be recovered.

This is the shame we live with as a nation.  If we had stopped at imprisoning him on the people smuggling charge, this would still have been bad enough.  But the fact that we continue to pursue him long after his sentence has been completed shows us to be inhumane and unjust.  It is relentless and pointless.  We are not beating him and starving him like his Baathist torturers, but the difference is only one of degree.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Good Cop, Bad War

A few years ago my daughter and I developed an addiction to the American crime drama Bones. The story centres around a group of forensic scientists, the most brilliant of whom is forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.  This team of impossibly good looking and brilliant people work in a shiny laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution and solve grisly murders rapidly on the basis of the tiniest scraps of evidence.  In one episode they solve a murder in which the only evidence is a single finger-bone of the victim.

If we switched the TV on a bit early, we would get to see the end of the previous show, which for a long time was one of those police docu-dramas where the cameras follow a group of real police officers as they go about their daily business.  The contrast could not have been more stark.  Real police work turns out to be amazingly pedestrian.  The officers pull someone over for a faulty tail-light and find drugs in the glove-box.  A serious offender is caught because someone calls the police and reports their current whereabouts.  There's no need for complex forensic evidence because someone saw them commit the crime.  Real criminals are rarely that clever, and real police rely much more on persistence and due process than fancy technology.  A real police station is a slightly run-down building with a lot of messy desks and a tea-room with cracked china.

I thought of this because I've just finished reading a book called Good Cop, Bad War, written by former British detective and undercover operator Neil Woods.

In the early 1990s Woods was a pioneer of what British police call Level 2 undercover policing.  Level 1 is the glamourous stuff, infiltrating the world of high finance, global arms deals and so forth.  Level 2 is less glamorous but probably more dangerous, working at street level to get evidence against local crime networks.  Pretty much all Level 2 work is about the drug trade.

Woods' job, essentially, was to go into communities where he was unknown, impersonate an addict with the aid of some op shop clothes and a cover story, introduce himself to local street addicts and get them to introduce him to their suppliers.  From there he would work his way up the chain until he was able to deal with more serious criminals, at which point arrests would be made.

At the start of the 1990s hardly anyone was doing this in England, and he was the first in the North and Midlands.  His first missions were almost absurdly simple, like the everyday police work I saw on TV.  He just had to ask, run a bit of a gauntlet about who he was, and he would be in.  No-one suspected he might be a cop.  He could then buy drugs from dealers higher up the chain, take them to the lab for testing and: Bingo!

There was the odd dangerous moment but a lot of success.  Woods had a talent for reading people, for convincing them he was genuine, for spotting danger and averting it.  He also had a good eye for evidence and a very agile mind, and soon he had a serious reputation as a crack undercover operator.  As this type of work grew he was asked to train other undercover cops, and was asked to join more and more operations in different towns in between his normal work in more conventional policing.

His doubts began to get serious when he was called in to help rescue an operation in Leicester.  By this time undercover work was managed by a special group, the East Midlands Special Operations Unit, with its own command structure, policy manual and mandated procedures.  It sounded great but there were drawbacks.  Two undercover teams were operating in the city, and their respective Detective Inspectors were fierce rivals and constantly trying to outdo each other.  This meant there was pressure to deliver quick results, and this meant the undercover guys were often pressured to do things a real junkie would never do - like score twice in a day, or repeatedly ring a violent gangster who refused to sell to you.  Even his cover officer, who was supposed to look after his interests, would be pressuring him to work faster.

One evening, feeling stressed by the pressure and danger he was being put into, he was watching a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis and he realised what was going on - just like the Cold War, the War on Drugs led to an arms race in which the police and criminal gangs continually tried to outdo one another in the game of evasion and detection.  And like any war, it is the innocent who get hurt - the low level junkies and user dealers who get caught between the police and the serious criminals.

In the end, despite the pressures, the team managed to make a success of the operation, but it was a close thing.  Towards the end of the operation, with the local gangsters starting to suspect something was up, the team asked him to help with one last bust.  He set up a rendezvous to sell a notorious gangster some stolen jackets and met him and his minders in a deserted park, wearing a clunky piece of surveillance equipment with a recorder the size of a brick in the pocket of his cargo pants, and a camera/microphone unconvincingly disguised as a button.  He almost got away with it, but before the deal was struck and he was out of there one of the minders rumbled him.  He ran for his life as they tried to run him over, only just escaping with his life. Afterwards he learned that the unit actually owned some state of the art concealed recording devices.  His superiors explained that it was reserved for Level 1 operations.  Woods told them where to stick it and swore off undercover work.

His resolve didn't quite last, but a couple of years later a job in Brighton, in the south of England, finally ended his undercover career.  Brighton was one of the first places in England to use undercover policing and had quite a reputation, but lately they had been getting nowhere as the number of overdose deaths went through the roof.  Woods was asked to help, and went out on the streets of Brighton to find that it was impossible to even catch sight of a dealer.  If he asked a street junkie to help him score, his contact would disappear out of sight and come back with stuff, but he could never get so much as a glimpse of anyone higher up the chain.

Eventually he managed to find out why.  He got close enough to a street dealer for this man to explain to him, as a kind of warning, that the drug gangs of Brighton had developed a foolproof system to protect themselves from undercover cops.  They would only sell through selected user/dealers.  If any of their sellers ever so much as allowed their supplier to be seen by anyone else, their next batch of drugs would be contaminated and their death would just seem like an accident.  It was no loss to the supplier, who would just recruit a new addict to do their dirty work.  The addicts of Brighton lived in fatalistic terror, knowing that every time they injected could be their last.

Yet when he took this information back to his superiors and recommended that the way to solve the problem was to properly investigate the overdose deaths they had written off as accidents he was ridiculed and accused of cowardice.  Once again he told a Detective Inspector where to shove his operation, and this time he meant it.

Although this was the final straw, his doubts had been steadily growing over the years.  He had joined the police because he wanted to protect the innocent and defenceless.  However, the more undercover work he did, the more he realised that the the junkies he befriended on the streets were just such defenceless people, people who had often been victims of horrendous violence, who had addictions for which there was little treatment available, and who were themselves at the mercy of violent, unpredictable suppliers.  He also found them frequently kind and generous, sharing their last shilling with one another and doing their best to keep one another safe.  Yet his relationship with them put them in great danger, and at the end they would be arrested along with the more serious gangsters he was targeting.  Often they were jailed for just as long as the murderers and kingpins who supplied their drugs.  His conscience became more and more troubled by this procedure.

In addition, the more he learned about the business of drugs, the more he realised the futility of the War on Drugs.  This futility was summed up beautifully at the celebratory drinks at the end of one successful operation where his colleagues said, 'Congratulations, you have successfully disrupted the drug trade in this town for a whole seven minutes.'  As fast as they removed one violent criminal gang, another one would move in to take its place.  With each step in the war, the stakes would be raised, the violence of the drug trade would ramp up and addiction would continue untouched.

His conclusion, after 14 years infiltrating the drug trade?  The War on Drugs is futile and counterproductive.  It costs billions but makes no difference to the supply of drugs.  Indeed, it makes criminals rich - of all the enterprises a serious criminal could engage in, the drug trade is by far the most lucrative and is the funding source for a lot of other types of crime including gun running and even terrorism.  With this amount of money on offer, the police themselves become compromised and are forced to accept that the corruption of some of their number is inevitable.

Meanwhile it damages highly vulnerable people.  They are abused and sometimes even killed by their suppliers, and arrested and jailed by the police.  While billions are poured into law enforcement, drug treatment and rehabilitation programs are woefully under-resourced, and many addicts won't use them for fear of exposing themselves to arrest.

As a result, after attempting to continue his police career and work for reform from the inside, and after struggling for years with PTSD from his various experiences of violence, he finally resigned from the police and started to campaign for drug law reform in earnest.  At the time of writing this book he was the UK chairperson of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), an association of current and former police and customs officers who are convinced drug laws need to change.

What Woods is describing is a classic case of first and second order change.  Our drug policies are currently mired in an ever increasing cycle of first order change - more of the same.  We outlaw a substance, criminals supply it on the black market.  We police it more heavily and increase the penalties for those who are caught, and criminals find more brutal and nefarious ways to protect themselves.

Here in the Asia-Pacific we must surely be near the end-point of this game.  The Indonesian Government has recently executed low level Australian drug mules (with the connivance of Australian police) in the hope it would deter others from trying the same thing.  Meanwhile the President of the Philippines has decided to do away with legal process altogether, allowing police to simply shoot anyone they believe is a drug dealer.  So far over 3,000 have been shot and the number may be as high as 8,000.  Since none of them were charged or tried there is no way of knowing how many, if any, were actual drug dealers.  It becomes hard to tell the difference between criminals and police.  Yet no-one has noticed any reduction in drug supply.

LEAP's position is that instead of being outlawed, the supply of various substances should be licensed and placed in government hands.  Drugs should be distributed via safe injecting rooms where addicts can inject under medical supervision and where they can be offered treatment and rehabilitation without fear of arrest.  In places where this has been tried, he says, drug-related deaths and rates of addiction go down, and other crime reduces as well since organised criminals lose one of their main income sources.

Surely it's worth a try.  What do we have to lose?  How many billions of dollars do we need to waste, and how many lives need to be lost, before we accept that the War on Drugs is not working and try something different?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

What is 'Christian Marriage'?

So, over the next couple of months we are going to be talking a lot about same sex marriage thanks to the governments decision to hold a 'national survey' on this question in place of the promised plebiscite.  Debate is hotting up already.  The level of vitriol from some conservative Christians has risen appreciably, and it is not only directed at proponents of same sex marriage.  I have seen savage things said to and about quite conservative Christians who have gently suggested that their fellow Christians could consider voting yes, or even just abstaining without compromising their own view of marriage.  The fear and anger in the air is palpable.

I don't want to rehash those arguments.  You can follow the links or find them, and many like them, on the internet if you are masochistic enough to want to read them.  Personally I will be voting yes, but you need not let that influence your decision.  Follow your own conscience wherever it leads you.

The thing is, I think many, perhaps most, Christians have lost sight of what Christian marriage is.  Nothing shows this better than the previous 'story of the month' about Christian marriage, Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson's sobering expose of church responses to domestic and family violence.  Referring to various pieces of research, official inquiries, the experiences of counsellors and church leaders, and the stories of women themselves, they point out a number of sad truths.

  • Many Christian women have suffered abuse at the hands of Christian husbands.
  • Often these husbands justify this abuse in Christian terms, referring to passages about wives obeying their husbands and so forth.
  • Many women, when they approach church leaders for help, are told to stay with their abusive husbands in the hope that they will repent, and sometimes church leaders even side with the abuser.
  • Some prominent Christian leaders have even said such things publicly and had them published in books about Christian marriage.
Many Christians have responded well to this story, expressing sorrow for the women involved and reaffirming Christian abhorrence of violence against women.  Yet many others, egged on by right-wing commentators like Andrew Bolt, have swarmed all over the article in an attempt to discredit it.

Are these two discussions linked?  My response is, absolutely!  Both are about Christian marriage, and both feature conservative Christians, supporters of both the church and the sanctity of marriage, responding in an angry, defensive manner to what they perceive as threats to the church and to a 'pure' Christianity.  I think this defensiveness, and the ideas about marriage that sit behind it, are mistaken.  This will take a while to explain, but if you have the time and patience, read on.


I've talked about marriage in different contexts before - in discussing opposition to same sex marriage and in relation to a non-legalistic understanding of Paul's teaching on households.  In this post I'd like to talk more directly about what this non-legal ethic means for a Christian understanding of marriage.

What could possibly lead a Christian pastor, a man (usually) who conducts weddings frequently, who often counsels couples and whose life is immersed in the Christian faith, to think that somehow a woman should continue in a marriage in which she is regularly assaulted and humiliated?  It is likely to be a pastor who, like our staunch opponents of same sex marriage, holds what is often thought of as a 'high' view of the sanctity of marriage.

This view is described succinctly by Susan Adams.

It’s the idea that marriage as given by God is one man, one woman, monogamous and for life, that this is God’s design for human flourishing, as well as pointing us to larger mysteries of who God is. 

The Australian Christian Lobby says something similar.

Marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.  It is a bedrock institution of our society.  Marriage provides a natural, timeless and sustainable foundation for our civilisation.

These descriptions seem uncontroversial because they are traditional.  They are what we have always been taught, they are in the vows we take and hear our friends and family members take whenever we attend a wedding.  They are what most heterosexual people (that is, the majority of us) mean if we marry.  It doesn't always work out this way, but this at least is what we intend at the beginning.

Still, just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's Christian.  What these descriptions do is to idealise (or, perhaps, idolise) marriage as an institution.  This takes our focus off real people and their joys and struggles and onto something abstract. Once something becomes an idol in this way, we often find that real people get hurt in protecting it.


If you google the phrase 'Biblical marriage' you will of course see several variations on the meme below, which I'm sure most of my readers have seen before.

Like all memes this is to some extent a cheap shot, but what it illustrates is that not all marriages are the same.  This list of alternative marriage arrangements are all found in the Bible, some explicitly mandated in Torah, some described and at least accepted as 'normal' in the various historical books of the Old Testament.  Many of these differ in various ways from the recent Christian  descriptions given above.  Some are not voluntary, particularly for the women.  Some are not monogamous.  Many, perhaps most, would be rejected by the church today and some could get you arrested.

What's really interesting is that Jesus and the apostles do not go to any trouble to correct this diversity of forms.  Certainly Paul says that an 'overseer' or 'bishop' should be 'husband of one wife' (1 Tim 3:2), but polygamy does not appear in any of his 'sin lists' in the way homosexuality/pederasty (depending on translation) does.  So what explains the subsequent strong Christian advocacy of monogamy?

I suspect that to a large extent it simply reflected the culture in which the church was founded.  Both Roman and Greek marriage law were essentially monogamous, and for a Christian leader to have multiple wives (or husbands) in these cultures would have opened them to contempt.  As the church became more fully integrated into Roman society monogamy became more firmly entrenched as the form of marriage it endorsed.

However, as I have written elsewhere, the simple term 'monogamy' does not exhaust the variety of marriage arrangements that might fit under this broad banner.  Marriages may be arranged by relatives or by the couple themselves, they may be entered into because of romantic love, the desire to secure inheritance, the need to make a political or business alliance.  The couple may live in their own household or in an extended family situation.  Their marriage may be more or less easily dissoluble.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles spend any energy discussing this variety of forms.  I believe this is because, unlike us, they are not much interested in the external form of things.  They don't arbitrate between the forms of 'Biblical marriage' they read about in the Hebrew scriptures, or comment on Roman marriage law.  I suggest this is because they simply accept these as background to their discussion about what marriage means for a follower of Jesus.  If you like, legal marriage is a container into which the new wine of the spirit can be poured.  It is the spirit which gives life, not the container.

We can illustrate this from Jesus' words on the subject in Matthew 19.  The incident starts with a question from the Pharisees.

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

It's not clear whether the Pharisees are stating their own belief here, or if they are proposing an extreme interpretation to try and trap Jesus into saying something immoral.  I have heard Jesus' reply quoted endlessly in recent years by defenders of 'traditional marriage'.

‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Much has been made of Jesus' reference to the statement from Genesis, that the Creator 'made them male and female', to suggest that God's intention is for marriage to be heterosexual.  This issue was not part of the discussion here, the immediate subject in view is divorce and the depth of the unity between husband and wife.  This, says Jesus, is not a mere contract that can be terminated by going through the right process.  It is something integral to the people concerned and the relationship between them and God.

‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

It is tempting for Christians to conclude from this (and many have) that Jesus is establishing or restating a more stringent set of rules around marriage.  This suggests that for Christians, marriage is inviolable, one man and one woman for life.  Divorce and remarriage are therefore adultery, save in a single circumstance where one of them has committed this adultery already.  In this case, many Christian teachers will advise that even then if the marriage can be saved through repentance then it should be.

This seems moral and noble, but it is also the thinking which leads pastors to advise women to go back to their abusive husbands - because divorce is a terrible evil, a subverting of God's will.  The sacred bond of marriage must be preserved at all costs.

But is this what Jesus is really trying to do here?  I think not.  Interestingly, this same teaching also appears, in abbreviated form, in Matthew 5.

31 ‘It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'

The Sermon on the Mount features a series of such statements, using the same formula - 'you have heard that it was said....but I say to you....'.  In each case the external, precisely defined law of Moses is substituted with an inner, spiritual attitude or intention.  The one immediately before this is as follows.

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'

What is 'sexual immorality'?.  In the context of this sermon, it is 'looking at a woman (or, presumably, a man) lustfully'.  The act of adultery is replaced by adulterous thoughts and desires.  What Jesus is seeking from his followers is not obedience to a set of external laws, it is a transformation, a change of heart and mind in which they are mindful of their every thought and desire.

Is Jesus then saying any of us can divorce at any time?  Not really, he is discouraging divorce, but he is doing so in a context in which people's minds, and consequently the way they live and treat one another, are transformed.  Christians don't avoid divorce out of respect for God's law, but because they are new people, because they are learning (through many failures) to genuinely love and serve one another.

This is made even clearer when we think about the story of the woman caught in adultery, which appears in John 8.  Once again the 'teachers of the law' test Jesus on a point of Mosaic law, this time bringing him a woman caught in adultery and asking if he agrees that she should be stoned, as the Mosaic law states.  Notice that he doesn't engage in a discussion about this law.  He does not modify it, suggest a softening of it or a different interpretation.  Nor does he endorse it and say, 'you're right, go ahead and stone her'.  Instead he puts the question back on them.

If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

They retreat in shame, and he sends the woman home with the admonition, 'leave your life of sin'.

In this story we see two things.  We are all grappling with sin, and failing at least some of the time; and our sins, including the sin of adultery, can be forgiven.  So, on a strictly legalistic interpretation of Jesus' teaching we could all get divorced, given that in one way or another we have all been unfaithful.  Yet at the same time, even adultery need not lead to divorce, because we can all forgive and be forgiven.  There is no simple, straightforward rule to follow which will make everything easy, there is only the lifelong, difficult path of growth and transformation.

So Matthew 19 continues as the the disciples comment on how difficult this path is.

10 The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

11 Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’

Christian marriage is hard and challenging.  So is Christian singleness.  It is something to which we are called, not something we can simply do by following a guidebook.  It, like the Christian life in general, is not adherence to an external set of forms, but a whole-of-life transformation to which Christians are called by God.


We find a similar teaching in Paul's writings, set out most clearly in Ephesians 5.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

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

I've discussed this passage more fully in an earlier post, so I'll try to be brief.  What Paul is doing here is illustrating a general principle of conduct.  We should 'submit to one another out of reverence for Christ'.  This principle applies to us all, married or single, in all areas of out lives.  It is the principle of selfless love and service which is encapsulated in various phrases Jesus coins or quotes - 'love your neighbour as yourself', 'do to others as you want them to to do you', 'love one another as I have loved you', 'everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another'.  This same principle is exemplified by Jesus himself, who 'gave himself up for us'.  We are called to do the same, as Jesus says in Mark 10.

...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.

Hence, Christian marriage is not about fitting into a pattern dictated by Biblical rules - the submissive wife, the husband who leads lovingly, the obedient children.   It is not an external arrangement of a particular form, a valued social institution, a legal contract with rights and obligations.  It may possibly be 'a bedrock institution of our society' and 'a natural, timeless and sustainable foundation for our civilisation'.  But what is that to us?  Is our society or our civilisation Christian?  As Groucho Marx said, 'marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?'  All those things are aspects of civil marriage, in which Christians take part along with other people. But they are not 'God's design for human flourishing'.

God's design for human flourishing is to live as Jesus lived and serve as he served (and as far as we know, Jesus was single).  It is living out the radical, self giving love of Jesus.  This self-giving love applies between husband and wife, between parents and children, between slaves and masters (masters are to serve their slaves) and by implication in all our other relationships.

We are to be salt and light in our society, and we will only do this if we follow Christ in self-giving love.  In marriage we must show this self-giving love to our partner.  This need not look the same for each of us, because we will give what that person needs.  There is no 'biblical pattern' besides this, no set form that the relationship must take, no biblically defined gender roles.  These are external forms which must be inhabited by the Spirit of Christ which is the only thing that gives them life, that makes them Christian.

I certainly don't live like this.  I am willing to bet that you don't either.  But this is what Jesus calls us all to.  This is Christian marriage.  'The one who can accept this should accept it'.


What does this understanding of Christian marriage mean for our current/recent debates?

For starters, it should be completely clear that a marriage in which one partner is violent to the other is not a 'Christian marriage'.  It is hardly even an idealised human marriage as described by EA or the ACL - it is not 'God's design for human flourishing'.  But it is certainly not marriage as envisaged by Paul or Jesus, a marriage in which each partner lovingly serves the other.  Rather it is a marriage in which one person demands service from the other but gives none in return.  It is bondage, a form of slavery.

Is such a marriage worth preserving?  Clearly not in its present form.  If it were somehow possible for the abuser to repent and learn to serve, then it could possibly be transformed into a Christian marriage.  In the meantime, the pastor lovingly advising the person being abused is hardly in a position to say, 'stay in your marriage and risk death'.  Rather, the pastor will say, 'I am concerned about your safety, how can I help you to be safe'.  Certainly Christians can be called to die for one another and for their faith, but this is not Plan A.

An exceptionally holy woman may discern that it is her duty to return and serve her abusive husband in the hope of showing him Christ-like love.  Based on the evidence, such a strategy is extremely unlikely to work, any more than supplying drugs to an addict will help them to get clean. Nor is this a choice someone else should make for a vulnerable, trapped person, much less present to her as God's will based on an idealisation of the institution of marriage.

What, then, of same sex marriages?  It seems to me that a relationship between two people of the same gender has no less (and also no more) chance of being a Christian marriage by this definition than a relationship between people of the opposite gender.  The couple will face exactly the same challenge - overcoming their selfishness and learning to serve one another in love.  When someone puts their own life on hold to care for a terminally ill partner, it is no less Christ-like because that person is of the same gender.  And when someone abuses their partner, it is not more Christ-like if the partner happens to be of the opposite gender.


Is this a slippery slope?  Will I be arguing next that polygamy might be OK?  Incest?  Marrying your dog?  These questions miss the point entirely.  They are attempts to drag the debate back the the question of external forms.  But this is to approach the question from the wrong direction.  If the way of sacrificial love is a slippery slope then it is one we are called to climb, not to slide down.  Sure we may slip but we need to pick ourselves up and keep climbing.

My question would be, how does this relationship enable a life of mutual service?  I imagine, for instance, that a polygamous relationship would make this much harder.  The husband, in the traditional form of polygamy, would always be in a position of power, a position of superiority.  If it were attempted in our culture the forces of sexual jealousy would eventually tear it apart.  Perhaps in other cultures they have ways to address this, but the challenge would be immense.

The degree of difficulty for incest would seem insurmountable.  Aside from childhood games, I have only ever encountered incest in the context of abuse.  The more powerful party (father, older brother, uncle, etc) forces, tricks or bribes the weaker one and then they are trapped. There is an abuser and a victim.  The victim is scarred for life, the abuser generally also a damaged person. Is this the basis for a Christian marriage?  Such hardly seems possible.  

But this is prurient.  A closing thought.  Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus says the following.

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.'

This is, of course, a warning against hypocrisy, but seen in the context of the rest of the sermon it is also a warning against focusing on the externals of the law.  It is a warning not to be trapped by the things 'you have heard it was said', and instead to be guided by the 'but I say'.  How can you condemn someone else for their adultery when you yourself are consumed by lust?  The Law is a log in our eye which prevents us from seeing the spirit.

Our idealisation of marriage is one such log.  It enables us to notice the speck of same sex marriage even as we fail to see abuse in heterosexual marriages and even urge the preservation of such marriages in God's name.  It enables us to condemn certain obvious behaviour while failing to address the lack of Christ-like love so many of us have in our own relationships.

Jesus, as far as we know, was single.  If we were to imitate him in externals, none of us would marry. But this is not what Christ-likeness involves.  Rather it is about the spirit of love and service - in our singleness or our marriages, in our work or our homes, in our churches or our neighbourhoods, towards our friends, our enemies or total strangers.

This is what it means to be Christian.  Everything else is just packaging.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Game of Mates

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  We all know that.  The question is, how do they do it?

A couple of years ago I reviewed French economist Thomas Piketty's opus, Capital in the 21st Century.  Piketty shows, using an impressive dataset and some simple equations, that the normal state of capitalist economies is that capital generates larger returns than labour, meaning that over time more and more of the resources in a society go to those who have capital.

In Western societies this process was reversed in the immediate post-war decades by a combination of factors.  Rapid economic growth was driven by the recovery from two world wars and the Great Depression.  This led to wages growth and inflation, which redistributed income away from capital and towards labour.  To add to this, governments funded the reconstruction through high rates of inheritance tax, limiting the ability of capital to accumulate across generations.

Since the end of the resulting boom in the 1970s the situation has returned to something more normal - economic growth has dropped back to a couple of percent, wages growth has slowed, and capitalists have succeeded in persuading governments to wind back wealth taxes and provide them with further tax breaks.  As a result inequality has grown steadily and is likely to continue to do so in the absence of any meaningful government intervention.  Calls for economic growth so that 'the rising tide will lift all boats' are just a diversion - unless we tax wealth and support high wages the rich will continue to get richer at the expense both of the poor and of cash-strapped governments.

I've just read a far shorter and more accessible Australian book that deals with the question from a different angle.  It is called Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation, by Cameron K Murray and Paul Frijters.  Murray is a Brisbane-based economic consultant and teacher, while Frijters is an academic at the London School of Economics.  How is it, they ask, that Australia has gone from one of the most equal societies in the Western world to one of the most unequal in the space of a generation?

Their answer is that the Australian economy is controlled by a group of mates, to whom they attach the collective name of 'James', who operate across government and business to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Australians, who they collectively dub 'Bruce'.  Of course neither James nor Bruce is exclusively male, or exclusively Anglo-Celtic, but the names allow them to speak simply about some very complex and opaque relationships.  Rarely, if ever, has a book about serious economic issues been this entertaining.

They illustrate how this mutual enrichment works in a number of different industries - property development, transport, mining, superannuation and banking, as well as a few others they look at in less detail. The Game of Mates operates a little differently in each industry, but the basic processes are the same.

Firstly, there is the giving of grey gifts.  These are opportunities to make money which are conferred by the Jameses in government to their mates in private industry at no or minimal charge, and at the expense of Bruce.  In the property development industry these take the form of land-use planning decisions which confer windfall gains on developers.  In the transport field they take the form of the shift from publicly provided road infrastructure to infrastructure provided by Public-Private Partnerships.  In mining, they take many forms - subsidised infrastructure, low levels of tax, and criminally small bonds for environmental clean-up which leaves huge legacy costs for government.  In banking they take the form of regulatory arrangements which favour the Big 4 banks over smaller financial institutions and keep out foreign competition.

Secondly, there is the network of mates.  If you look at any of these industries over time, people at various senior levels move back and forth between government and the private sector.  Retired government ministers sit on the boards or serve as executives of companies whose industries they oversaw in government.  Property developers become local government councillors.  Retired bank CEOs conduct inquiries into the banking industry.  Government urban planning managers depart for well-paid jobs in the development industry, or vice versa.  They mingle via industry forums, private dinners, consultation events and so forth.  In the process, they provide one another with favours, not through corruption or illegality, but through a shared understanding of what is good for their mutual interest.

All this is bolstered by a set of convenient myths.  The mining industry provides jobs.  Public-Private Partnerships are more efficient.  More housing supply will improve affordability.  Lower taxes are good for everyone.  Lower wages produce more jobs.  Governments must balance their budgets.  These myths, actively promulgated by James and promoted in our media (also owned by James) help to shield Bruce from the truth about how the Game is actually played.  Indeed, many Jameses believe these myths themselves, genuinely convinced that what they are doing is for the best.

How much does all this cost us?  This is a difficult question to answer precisely, but Murray and Frijters have a go.  Their method is to compare Australian practice with national or international 'best practice' in each of the industries.  For instance, in property development they compare the situation in most of Australia with that of the ACT, where a leasehold land-title system enables the ACT government to charge developers for development rights which those in other states get for nothing.  If equivalent charges were levied on developers across Australia they would net our governments an extra $11b per year in revenue which could be spent, for instance, on affordable housing or homelessness services.  In the mining industry, in addition to $36b  in subsidised infrastructure and unfunded environmental liabilities a 'best practice' taxation system based on Norway's would yield an extra $20b per year.

Transport infrastructure is a particularly interesting comparison.  Prior to the 1990s, all Australia's major road and rail projects were planned and managed by government.  Their projections of demand and use were generally accurate (in fact, slightly too conservative) and the infrastructure created was generally well used and fit for purpose.  However, in the 1990s governments, in a bid to avoid debt (in line with the myth that government debt is bad) shifted to using public-private partnerships. Murray and Frijters analyse 38 major projects built using this model and find that on average their actual use was 40% below what was projected during the planning stage.  Some of the resulting losses are borne by government in the form of implicit or explicit guarantees and ongoing maintenance contracts on under-used infrastructure.  Some is borne by ordinary travelers in the form of inflated tolls, 'funneling' away from less expensive public roads and greater congestion.  Their estimate of the total extra cost of these bungles is $42.8b.

And so it goes on from industry to industry, with the total cost of the Game of Mates well north of a hundred billion each year.  This is cost that is paid directly or indirectly by ordinary Australians in increased charges, more tax or reduced services.  However, every dollar lost by Bruce is not necessarily a dollar gained by James.  Much of the money is frittered away in inefficient processes and other forms of waste.  If Bruce loses $100 and James gains $50, this is a good deal for James, and he controls the game.

What can be done?  This is a difficult question, because James controls the organisations that should be fixing the problem.  Hence, more regulation just plays into James's hands not only because he is able to manipulate the process of creating new regulations, but has a monopoly on the expertise needed to comply.  Changing the government will not help because both major parties are in on the game.  Still, there are ways to change the game.  We can reclaim the value of grey gifts through charging for them, or keeping them in public hands.  We can create public competitors for private Mates to keep them honest.  We can open the way to disruptive new players by keeping barriers to new competitors low.  We can disrupt coordination between Mates by rotating key personnel, using overseas regulators for major decisions, and bringing in stricter laws to limit politicians' post-politics corporate and lobbying activities.

Us ordinary Aussies are being ripped off.  This is not because James is a bad guy.  Only rarely is he breaking the law.  In his position, most of us would do the same.  He often sincerely believes that what he is doing is for the best.  We don't need to change the players, we need to change the game.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fighting Hislam

The hounding of Yassmin Abdel-Magied is one of the more shameful incidents in the catalogue of Australian media misbehaviour.  Abdel-Magied is a young Sudanese/Australian woman who is proudly Islamic, wearing flamboyant bright-coloured headgear and speaking her mind. Her crimes, if such they be, are twofold.  During an episode of the ABC's Q&A program Senator Jacqui Lambie expressed her well-aired fears about sharia law, and Abdel Magied interrupted to explain forcefully that Lambie knew nothing about sharia and that Islam is 'the most feminist religion'.  A few months later she drew further ire by briefly posting a critical comment on Anzac Day.

 Now it's probably fair to say that she was a little rude in interrupting Senator Lambie, although I doubt the senator would be much phased given that we see worse behaviour every day in parliament. Indeed, later in the same episode the pair joined forces to critique the Coalition Government's changes to early childhood education. And I'm really not sure when it became verboten to use Anzac Day to draw attention to the downside of war.  Yet the two events launched a systematic character assassination in the News Ltd papers of the kind that organisation has honed to a fine art, and a tirade of social media abuse which included threats of rape and murder and urgings to leave the country.

Of course to some extent she is just caught up in forces that have little to do with her.  She is the latest victim of the long-running News Ltd campaign against the ABC, of which she happened to be an employee.  There are also a lot of people who have a stake in keeping us afraid of Muslims, and she is telling us we don't need to be.  Still, you can't help feeling that the reason she was a such an easy target is that she ticks so many boxes on the 'people to target' list.  Muslim? Tick. Female? Tick.  Young? Tick. Brown skin? Tick.  It's so predictable its sickening.

Amidst all the trash it's easy to lose the substance of her argument with Lambie - that Islam, far from being oppressive to women, is more feminist than any other faith.

Islam to me is the most feminist religion. We got equal rights well before the Europeans. We don't take our husbands' last names because we ain't their property.

For those of us who are fed a diet of images from Saudi Arabia and the Taliban this statement seems counter-intuitive.  Surely this is not a faith that liberates women?  Yet here in front of us is a well-educated, articulate Islamic woman who is living evidence of her own claim.  How can we untangle this conundrum?

Susan Carland helps us with this task.  She is an Anglo-Australian woman who converted to Islam in her teens and is on the staff of the Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies.  She also has a high public profile but while she has been targeted to some extent, she has so far managed to escape the type of full-throttle persecution her younger compatriot received.  She has just published a book called Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism which throws a lot of light on the question.  What Abdel-Magied tried to compress into a few short sentences Carland explores in 150 pages.

Fighting Hislam is a 'lay' version of Carland's PhD thesis on Islamic feminism.  The heart of her research was a set of interviews with 23 prominent Islamic anti-sexism advocates from Canada, the USA and Australia.  Rather than talk to critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have left the faith and critique it from the outside, she sought out women who are 'faith-positive' - who remain practicing Muslims while working to overcome sexism within the faith.  Some were happy to speak openly, others chose to be represented pseudonymously for various reasons.

Her first point is that the fight against sexism is not a purely Western phenomenon, and Muslim women did not learn it from the West.

The fight against sexism in the Muslim world is indigenous and is an endeavour that sprang from the soil of Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and has now grown and spread throughout countless communities around the globe.  It's also a fight that Muslim women have been carrying out for themselves, by themselves, against the very real injustices they experience in their varied communities, since the beginning of Islam more than 1400 years ago.

There are such women throughout the Islamic world but Carland focused on those in countries like Australia. The 23 women she interviewed were of various ages and had varying life experiences.  Some were migrants or refugees from Muslim-majority countries, some were born in the West into Muslim families, some were converts.  They were all active within Muslim communities, some as academics, some as writers and publishers, some as leaders of women's organisations and founders child care centres or women's support services.  All of them were highly educated and articulate, many like Carland with doctorates and university careers.

Her interviews, and her own experience, don't lead her into a magical or rosy view of what it means to fight sexism in the Muslim community.  Indeed, many of the woman were driven into activism by the experience of very real sexism in the Muslim community.  For instance, Ify Oyoke became active when she went to pray at her local mosque in Washington DC and was shocked at what she found.  Not only were women required to pray in a separate room in the mosque:

When Ify went to pray there she found they had chained the door to the women's section shut from the inside.  If a fire broke out, there would be no way for the women to escape.  She contacted the mosque board to raise her concerns, but they ignored her,  Frustrated at the way this mosque shunted women into a secluded space for prayer, Ify and her female friends decided to pray in the men's section, still behind the men, as a form of peaceful protest.  She called them 'pray-ins'.  The mosque committee was so enraged they called the police on the group for trespassing.  Calling her a 'troublemaker' and a 'rebellious woman', they banned Ify from the mosque.

Not all the women experienced this level of resistance, but all of them had to struggle for what they believed was right against male resistance.  So why persist?  'Waajida' (a pseudonym), the head of an Islamic women's organisation in Australia, puts it as follows.

...the first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is: because we exist.  We have a right.  We are human beings.  Allah created us, we worship Allah and our love for the deen (way, religion) just makes us come out and serve.

Thus the women serve in various ways - by making a place for women in the mosque, by educating women, by working in their communities to combat domestic violence, by publishing magazines and websites that give a voice to Islamic women.  Along with all of this, many of them are active in the work of developing feminist Islamic theology, building a solid, Qur'anic alternative to the male-centred interpretations that are common in the faith.  For instance, Laleh Baktair, an American/Iranian writer, produced a widely-read English translation of the Qur'an called The Sublime Quran which uses inclusive language, and which translates the controversial verse 4:34, widely read as authorising a man to beat his wife, as meaning 'to go away from' not 'to beat' - based not on her whim, but on solid although contested Arabic scholarship.  Other women have written widely on Islamic theology, contesting 'patriarchal' interpretations of the Qur'an.

While these women experience a lot of resistance in their communities, they also gain a lot of support, not only from other women but from Islamic men.  Many of the women cite their fathers, husbands and imams as their greatest sources of encouragement, and many also see the resistance as generational - older men may resist, but the coming generation are much more open to women's equality.  This means many are hopeful about the future, even if the older women may not live to see their dreams realised.

One of their dilemmas as Muslim women is what Carland refers to as the 'double bind'.  As expressed by 'Karima' (another pseudonym), an Australian professor of anthropology:

I don't want to give ammunition to Islamophobes, but I can't remain silent if something needs to be corrected.  But we need to be tactful and work quietly and persistently rather than being too outspoken and noisy about it.

The dilemma for these women is that they see that the Islamic community as a whole is under attack, and they necessarily stand in solidarity with other Muslims against these attacks, while still needing to address sexism within their ranks.  Their task is made more complex by the fact that 'feminism' is seen in many parts of the Islamic community as a western import, a colonial imposition on Islamic society.  Hence, many of the women reject the feminist label, using Islamic language and frameworks rather than secular feminist ones.

The women choose their words carefully, all the more as they recognise that whatever they say could wind up on the internet, read and heard by people far beyond the intended audience.  For instance Amina Wadud, a highly respected African American Islamic theologian, says this.

I must locate my discussion, that is, give my definitions of Islam, I have to recognise the presence of Islamophobia, I have to recognise the presence of Wahabi-salafism, I have to recognise those things, locate my work relative to those things, and then make my comments.  So by that time 45 minutes is up and I've got 15 minutes to actually make my point...

Addressing sexism among men who feel insecure and under siege themselves means the women have to manage both sets of sensitivities.  In discussing a conference organised to address the way imams limit women's roles and keep them housebound, Adelaide woman 'Latifa' chose to focus on the stories of women who had successfully overcome these restrictions and then invite various imams to comment and be part of discussing solutions.  Carland comments:

Instead of loudly condemning the imams - which, no doubt, would have garnered the attention of the media - Latifa was tactful and gentle in her approach, giving the imams a stage but carefully orchestrating the scenario in which they spoke in order to get her desired outcome.

Carland herself admits to having started her research project tired and frustrated but she came away inspired by the stories of the women she interviewed.  It's worth quoting part of her conclusion.

Negative, condescending attitudes towards Muslim women abound in Western discussions, as does disbelief that fighting sexism within Muslim communities exists.  Muslim women have been fighting sexism within their own communities from a faith-based perspective for a long time - as long as Islam has been around - and for nearly as long, have faced criticism from others for doing so.  What these women are doing is the very definition of jihad.  Far from the gross caricaturisation of 'war against the unbelievers', as it is so lazily mis-defined, jihad is struggle, or exertion of effort, to change oneself and society for the better, and to stand up against oppression.  The Muslim women I spoke with, and so many before and around them, were and are engaged in an important daily jihad - the struggle against sexism....When sexism destroys and limits, this responsive jihad builds, heals and protects.  These women, and this jihad, is changing the world.

This, then, is what Yassmin Abdel-Magied was trying to communicate in the few sentences which are all you have time for on Q&A, and for which she was vilified.  Interestingly, after this incident but before the Anzac Day sequel Carland wrote a strongly worded article in support of Abdel-Magied.  Her point was that this young woman is precisely the kind of Muslim conservative Australians say they want - a modern, educated woman who loves Australia, is committed to following its laws and who promotes a liberating, enlightened view of Islam.  Yet the vilification makes it seem as if the Australian Right actually prefers Islamic fundamentalism.

So what is the take-home message from all of this?

First of all, I think it serves as a reminder to us non-Muslims that Islam is not one thing.  It is a complex, diverse faith, influenced differently by the different cultures in which it is followed, with its own internal divisions, tensions and debates.  In fact, it is a lot like Christianity.  After all, as Christians we have a long history of debate and conflict over the role of women which still goes on today - what in some church circles is called the 'complementarian/egalitarian' issue.  The Anglican Movement for the Ordination of Women struggled for decades to achieve equality in church structures and the struggle continues in many places.  To this day there are still pastors who advise women to stay with abusive husbands, believing this is what the Bible says they should do.  Before we try to take the speck from the collective Islamic eye, we should attend to the log in our own.

Secondly, a lot of our external commentary on Islam is unhelpful and counterproductive.  Islam will not be changed from without.  The more the Ayaan Hirsi Alis and Jacqui Lambies of the world criticise Islam as a whole, the more Islamic leaders will be driven to bunker down and close ranks, and the harder it will be for change agents like Susan Carland and her interviewees to do their work.  If we really want to neutralise the threat of violent extremism within the Islamic community, we need to give them room to breathe and do their work without uninformed attacks from without.  The demonisation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied plays into the hands of the extremists who tell their potential followers that the West is at war with Islam as a whole.  Apparently, we really are.

And this leads straight to the the third thing.  There are powerful elements in our society who actually want us to see Muslims as our enemy.  This demonisation serves a number of purposes.  It bolsters support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are driven by not-so-explicit economic and geopolitical concerns which would never garner majority support.  It distracts us from important issues like increasing inequality, climate change and global hunger, the solution of which would require powerful vested interests to lose some of their wealth.  It leaves progressive forces divided and uncertain, unsure whether we should be pro- or anti-Islamic (the issue, for instance, means I wouldn't vote for Jacqui Lambie despite her strongly expressed support for a more generous welfare state).  In short, the more we fear an external enemy the more we unite behind nationalistic policies, the strong suit of the Right.

We shouldn't fall for the trick.  We certainly have Islamic enemies but we also have Islamic friends.  We should welcome them, make them comfortable in our culture, applaud them when they succeed and mourn with them when they fail.  We should be willing for them to learn what they can from us, and we should also learn what we can from them.  This is how diverse, democratic societies work.  Every time we demonise an innocent outsider we diminish our own democracy and take a step towards totalitarianism.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The (Universalist) Lord's Prayer

Often discussions about universal salvation get bogged down in things like the meanings of particular words and the correct interpretation of certain Bible verses. Duelling lexicons, clash of the commentaries.  If universalism is just an alternative intellectual framework, what's the point? If we remain as exclusive and dogmatic in our practice as we ever were, then no-one's gained by the change.

I've been thinking, then, about how a universalist faith affects our lives. How should it change the way we relayed God and one another?

Perhaps, for instance, we might pray Lord's Prayer a little differently.

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name.

God is righteous and powerful but his righteousness and power are shown above all in love. We come before God in full confidence. Certainly we have shame and perhaps, because of that, some trepidation. But we need not fear, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. We know that whatever punishment we receive will only be for the purpose of our and God's greater joy.

As we see this love and compassion of God and praise it, our greatest praise will be our desire to emulate it. Jesus asks us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We earnestly want to love as he does.

Your Kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as in heaven.

In desiring God's Kingdom to come we pray fervently for the reconciliation of all things and all people. God's Kingdom doesn't rule by the sword and crush its enemies, it rules by the word of love and is reconciled with its opponents. This includes those of other faiths, those of no faith and those that hate faith.

We don't just wait for this Kingdom in heaven, we work for it and try to bring it about here on earth. We pray for the strength and wisdom to bring God's inclusive, all-embracing Kingdom into our daily lives, to see his face in everyone we encounter, to know, "here is someone God loves without fail".

Give us today our daily bread.

When we pray the word "us" we should see not just our family, our tribe, our nation, our fellow Christian, but God's "us". God's universal love is not a theoretical construct, it has urgent practical implications.

Many of God's beloved children do not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, a safe home to sleep in. This is not the way of God's Kingdom! As we pray for the Kingdom to come, so we will do all in our power to ensure the fair distribution of his good things to his beloved children. All of them.

Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.

Once again, when we pray that "our" sins be Forgiven, the "us" is as inclusive as God makes it. We confidently ask God to forgive humankind our many sins, knowing that he wishes it and will do it.

Not least of the sins which require forgiveness is our own unrelenting thirst for revenge. When we pray for the grace to forgive those who sin against us we don't only mean those who have slighted us in everyday life - our over-bearing boss, our schoolyard rival, the sibling with whom we have argued. We also mean those who want to kill us, or dominate us - the terrorist who explodes a bomb in the heart of our city, the enemy soldier who plunders our countryside and overthrows our government, the drug runner who exploits and destroys our vulnerable young people, the paedophile who preys on our children.

This forgiveness is hard and costly. It is easy to recommend it to others but deep hurt is not easily erased  We should not waste time pointing out the speck of unforgiveness in our brother or sister's eye, we should concentrate on the log in our own. This is why we need to pray for it in the same breath that we remind ourselves of God's forgiveness and what it cost him.

Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

We know that we can only stay away from evil with God's help. On our own we are selfish, tribal, unforgiving, dictatorial. We punish those who are not like us, and try to make the world in our own image, imagining ourselves to be God. We even try to make God in our own image.

We beg God to spare us from our own unkindness, our own desire for dominance, our own selfishness.

It is only with God's help that we can truly pray this prayer, and mean it as Jesus meant it.  It is a hard prayer, a challenging prayer, a prayer the fulfilment of which would turn our world upside down.

Do we truly desire God's inclusive Kingdom, or a little principality of our own?

Do we want all God's children to be filled, or are we happy for Lazarus to starve outside our gates as long as we and ours eat our fill?

Do we love our enemies enough both to forgive them ourselves and to plead for them before God, or do we pray and work for their defeat and destruction?

Do we wish to be delivered from our sins, or do we love them and hold onto them as if they were God's own desires?

To some or all of these questions, if we are honest with ourselves, we will answer the second, not the first alternative. This is why we pray this prayer, not once for all time, but over and over, knowing that one day in God's good time it will be fulfilled and we will not need to pray it ever again.

For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Four Days of Easter

Easter stretches over four days, with the day measured from sundown to sundown - for us it begins on Thursday evening and stretches through to the close of the day on Monday.  It is an emotionally harrowing time for those who take it seriously and hence requires preparation, which is why Christian traditions include Lent, a period of fasting and reflection, in the month beforehand.

The period describes the four literal days of Jesus' death and resurrection, but also four figurative days or periods of time, four states of being in which Jesus' followers live and which we pass through over time.  Let me explain.

Easter Friday is a day of fear and anxiety.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, defenceless and surrounded by powerful enemies who are closing in on them.  The idyllic, hopeful life they lived as a band of brothers and sisters, travelling together and creating a new Kingdom of God, appears to be collapsing.  As the day progresses, things get worse - they are ambushed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested, put on trial and finally crucified.

I often feel that we are living through Easter Friday right now.  I feel very pessimistic about the future of our world and our culture, groaning under the pressure of climate change, resource depletion, global inequality and the rise of right wing nationalism.  Of course for many these are very "lefty" concerns but although other people's unease takes a different form, its emotional content is the same - a fear of the rise of radical Islam, the loss of cultural identity and the collapse of traditional moral frameworks.  We disagree about diagnosis and prescription, but we share the fear and anxiety.

Throughout Easter Friday, the death is avoidable.  Other decisions can be made, it is possible to turn back from the brink.  This is what we campaign for, and what we pray for.  It may yet come about, but also it may not.  Jesus was crucified.  We often skip over the pain and fear of this event in our worship, mashing the crucifixion with the resurrection, but this will not do.  We have to live through the pain of Friday and Saturday before we get to Sunday.

I imagine that this kind of fear and anxiety is what people were living through in the 1930s.  They could see that their society was groaning under multiple stresses and strains.  The global economy had gone belly-up and ordinary people struggled to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.  Various countries were re-arming and becoming more aggressive.  But who was the greater threat - was it the rise of fascism, or was it the rise of communism?  Across the decade people rode a roller-coaster of hope ("Peace in our time!") and despair up until the Germans invaded Poland and all hell broke loose.

Easter Saturday is the day of mourning and despair.  The worst has happened, Jesus has been crucified, the one who was the source of hope is dead and buried.  There is nothing the disciples can do but live through it.  Inside they feel empty, hollowed out, barely able to even put one foot in front of the other, or prepare and eat the food their brains know they need but their bodies reject.  They huddle dejectedly in their borrowed room and dare not think about the future.

It is, to some extent, analogous of the years from 1939 to 1945.  The war had come.  It would not end until millions had died, soldiers and civilians, old and young, from bullets, disease and famine, and millions more had been displaced, their homes destroyed.  Those who survived could only watch in horror and feel that numbness of trauma and grief.

Yet there is another side to this moment, expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he wrote in his German prison.

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,
are bound; in helplessness now you see your action
is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing
to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.

The challenge of faith becomes real because now there is no alternative, you cannot take action, you can only trust in the power above you or beyond you, whether that be God, or Fate, or History.  Your action is on hold, you can only watch and wait in pain and anguish.

Easter Sunday is the day when hope breaks through.  The hope is tentative.  The one the disciples  thought was dead appears to have risen from the tomb.  At least, the tomb is empty and reports are circulating.  Can they trust them?  They're not sure.  It seems absurd that it could be so, especially after they have resigned themselves to despair, when their grief and mourning are still fresh and raw.  And what does this new hope mean?  They hoped before, when they were travelling with Jesus through Galilee learning about the Kingdom and attempting to practice its life among themselves.  Look what happened to that!  Surely the enemy will snuff out this new hope in the same way.

So they still can't do anything.  They can still only wait and see, perhaps cautiously investigate a little to find out the truth, but still keeping a low profile, knowing the authorities are still watching them.  Yet this is a different waiting.  There is still fear, there is still some level of despair and pessimism, but there is also a glimmer of hope.

I imagine that this is how people felt in 1945 as news of the war's end started to filter through.  At first people would not credit the truth.  After all, they had been living the war for six years.  Then for some it was a huge relief, and there was dancing and partying in the streets as the truth of peace started to dawn.  But for others it was not so joyous.  Where were those loved ones they hadn't heard from for so long?  Would they come home, or were they gone forever?  Could the threads of the old life really be taken up again after so much death and destruction?  The war had ended, but what would the peace be like?  Big Country capture it well in their song, Come Back to Me.

The day they had a party
Right out in the street
Flags and flowers and singing
For the homecome hero's treat
I sat in the kitchen
Without a fire on the range
I knew this house had lost the cause
To ever make me warm again

Come back to me
Days are all too long
Come back to me
You never should have gone
I was so young and full of pride
And you were wild and strong
I never knew how weak I was

I watched them gather round him
When he stepped down from the car
While tears fell on my cigarette
He handed out cigars
I have your child inside me
But you will never know
I never will forget you
While I watch that child grow

When we go to church on Easter Sunday we should not be too quick to celebrate as if it was all over.  There is no easy escape from the fear and pain of Friday and Saturday.  Many of those who walk through the doors of our churches are still mourning.  Indeed, many of us like me are still living in Easter Friday, still looking at the future with trepidation.  Many are still grieving over actual losses of various sorts.  Peter's painful realisation that he was not as courageous as he thought still resonates on Easter Sunday, his personal loss will not heal overnight.  Many things have been lost forever.  Resurrection or not, those days in Galilee are gone and will not return.  It is a new hope, born out of pain and renunciation, hope still tinged with and indeed born in grief and loss.

Many of us have experienced the easy joy of evangelical conversion, and found it wanting.  We were assured that Jesus had risen from the dead and so all was well, but as time passed we realised that all is not well.  Hope is not to be so easily won.  It is a discipline which needs to be learned and practiced amidst fear, uncertainty and grief.  Easter Sunday reminds us that even when it seems otherwise hope is still possible, rebirth is still part of the story.

Easter Monday is the day for beginning the rebuilding.  This is not simply restoring what was lost.  There will be no return to those heady days in Galilee.  Their Master will no longer travel with them in the flesh, although they feel him with them in the spirit.  Instead, out of the ruins of the old they build the new.  The old ended in Jerusalem and this is where the new begins, in the very teeth of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus killed, and from there they build not a replica of their Galilean life but something wholly new and different.  What they build is not perfect.  There are many tensions and divisions, and over time it is partly subverted by the Powers that Be.  Nonetheless, the resurrection, the rebirth of hope, allows them to build, and continues to allow rebuilding time and again.

This was also the task of 1946 and the years and decades that followed.  The dead could not be brought back to life, but their widows and orphans could be provided for.  The bombed out buildings could not be rebuilt, but something else could be built in their place.  Many considered it unwise to try to pretend the war had not happened.  The ruins of Coventry Cathedral were left in place as a reminder of the destructiveness of war and the new cathedral built next door.  The Nazi concentration camps were not bulldozed but turned into harrowing museums of genocide to remind later generations not to do the same.  But new social and political relationships were devised, new political and social institutions were built, whole new nations emerged, new infrastructure was put in place.

If we forget Easter Monday we leave the job incomplete.  New hope remains just that if it does not give birth to new life.  We are not asked to rejoice at the mouth of the empty tomb, we are asked to "go into all the world".  Jesus says, "As my father sent me, so I send you".  We have work to do.  This work is informed by grief and pain as well as by hope, and comes out of living through all three and looking them squarely in the eye.  It is not naive optimism, it is clear eyed determination to bring good out of evil, to answer destruction with rebuilding, to respond to death with life.

The four days of Easter need to be understood as a cycle not just of death and new life, but as a four step process that encompasses all of life.  Sometimes in our lives we will experience the fear and anxiety of Friday, sometimes the grief and emptiness of Saturday, sometimes the tentative but exciting new hope of Sunday, sometimes the energy and determination of Monday.  Sometimes we will feel a bit of all four.  Easter reminds of to observe all four steps, to look out for where our fellows are on the journey and respond with love and understanding.  It reminds is that where we are now is not where we will always be.  If we hope or are full of energy now a day will come when we suffer and mourn.  If we suffer and mourn now, new hope will dawn and we will be re-energised.

Wherever you are on the cycle, may you have a blessed Easter.