Wednesday, 16 January 2019

David Warner vs The World

You might remember that I have a bit of a soft spot for disgraced Aussie cricketer David Warner.  It's irrational - after all, he cheated - but rationality is not everything.

For those who came in late...  In March last year Warner, then Australia's cricket vice-captain, was suspended along with captain Steve Smith and fellow opening bat Cameron Bancroft for tampering with the condition of the ball during a test at Newlands, South Africa, and for lying about it afterwards.  Bancroft, at Warner's suggestion and with Smith's knowledge, applied sandpaper to the ball to rough up one side so it would swing.  Warner and Smith got 12 months, Bancroft got nine.

In the last month, as the Aussie cricket season has rolled on, we have heard from both Smith and Bancroft.  Smith was first out of the blocks, featuring in some Vodaphone ads which neatly commercialise his suspension and doing a press conference as well as some interviews.  Here's one he did with former Aussie wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist.  The crucial quote:

SS: ... it was a mistake on my behalf as a leader to allow something like that to happen out in the middle.

AG: The term you 'allowed' it to happen tells me that you were very aware someone's made a decision to do that. Are you at liberty to describe the scenario there, the setting?

SS: I saw the potential for something to happen out in the middle. I didn't particularly know that it was going to happen, but at that point I sorta said "I don't want to know about it". That was my failure of leadership. That's where I should have said "What are you guys doing? Stop it. This isn't on." So that's my failure of leadership and I've owned it and taken responsibility for what happened....

So, he has accepted responsibility, and yet he hasn't.  His culpability was not in actually doing anything, just in not preventing it.

Soon after, it was Cameron Bancroft, who recently returned to playing.  Here he is, also talking to Gilchrist.

AG: Were you asked to do it?

CB: The interesting thing was, at the time, yeah, definitely, I was asked to do it. I guess I just didn't know how to be true to myself in that moment. So, I didn't actually know any better. I didn't know any better because I had no prior experience to kind of go – of course, the act of using sandpaper on a cricket ball is wrong…. I take no other responsibility but the responsibility I have on myself and my own actions, because I am not a victim – I had a choice, and I made a massive mistake. And that's what's in my control.

AG: Who was it who asked you to do it?

CB: At the time, Dave (Warner) suggested to me to carry the action out on the ball, given the situation we were in the game. I didn't know any better. I didn't know any better because I just wanted to fit in and feel valued, really. Simple as that.

So yes, he made a mistake, but Warner suggested it and he didn't know any better, he just wanted to fit in.  Like Smith, he accepts responsibility and deflects it at the same time.

You can see where all this is going, can't you?  Smith formally accepts responsibility, but not for actually doing anything.  Bancroft also accepts responsibility, but mainly for being immature and suggestible.  Both their fingers are not so subtly pointing in the same direction - towards Warner.

Warner, so far, has said nothing.

He will face a difficult decision in the next couple of months.  Does he just swallow his pride and accept all the responsibility?  Does he contradict his partners in crime and suggest they were more culpable than they are prepared to own?  Does he drop some others in the poo as well?  Or does he just keep quiet and let his bat talk for him?

So by way of bucking the trend, here are a few things I think Warner might be able to offer in his defence, should he choose to do so.

1. They have been harshly treated
Ball tampering is cheating.  People who tamper with the ball attract penalties.  The penalties are usually quite mild.  South African captain Faf du Plessis has been caught twice, and has been fined once and suspended once, for one match.  In June 2018, Sri Lankan captain Dinesh Chandimal was pinged for the offence and suspended for one match.  He was so incensed at the charge he took his team from the field, and was suspended for another four matches for bringing the game into disrepute.  In each case, the penalties were handed down by the International Cricket Council.  In each case the national board stood by the players and did not impose any additional penalties.

The ICC's penalty in the Newlands case was similar - one match for Smith, a fine for Bancroft, nothing for Warner.  The difference was that in their case, their Board hung them out to dry.  The reason?  Sponsors.  Money.  TV deals.

2. There is a wider cultural problem
In the wake of the scandal two separate inquiries have identified that there is a bigger problem both in the team and in the Cricket Australia set-up.  The problem is, winning is everything.  Smith, in his interview, describes it this way.

AG: Any moment you can think where we started to go off track to allow that to happen?

SS: I think back to Hobart when we lost there against South Africa (November 2016) and it was our fifth straight lost in Test cricket I think after three Tests in Sri Lanka and I remember James Sutherland and Pat Howard coming into the rooms there and actually saying "We don't pay you to play, we pay you to win". 

This affected Warner in a particular way.  He had been trying to repair his youthful reputation as a hard man, reining in his sledging and keeping quiet on the field.  In the wake of that 2016 loss he was asked to be more confrontational, and duly obliged.  He became Public Enemy Number 1 in world cricket's least likeable team.

Things got very ugly in South Africa, with a campaign both on and off the field to get under Warner's skin via his wife Candice.  In the test prior to Newlands he had an ugly confrontation with South African wicket keeper Quentin de Kock following a comment about Candice's former lover, rugby player Sonny Bill Williams.  Crowds made the same taunt.  Two senior Cricket South Africa officials blocked a move to ban masks of Williams' face from the venue of the test at St George's Park, and were later pictured posing with two spectators wearing them. To make it worse, Candice and the Warner children were on tour with the team.  What protection did the Warners have from this very public shaming? What is worse, to slut-shame a woman or to use some sandpaper on a cricket ball?

3.  Smith is not stupid and Bancroft is not a kid.
Who is more culpable, the person who has the idea, the leader who endorses it, or the person who carries it out?  At the moment we are being steered in the direction of seeing Warner as ultimately to blame.  But Smith, who was captain, knew what was happening and chose to tacitly endorse it.

As for Bancroft, his pleas of youth don't cut it with me.  He was 25 when the incident took place, and had been a professional cricketer since 2011.  He knew the rules.  He was old enough to make up his own mind.  He chose to cheat.

4. Why were three batsmen altering the ball?
The purpose of roughing up one side of the ball is to help the fast bowlers to get movement through the air.  Warner, Smith and Bancroft are all batsmen.  Who is in charge of the condition of the ball in a fielding team?  Yep, the bowlers.  The ball starts off shiny and new, and then after it has been bashed around a bit they decide which side seems to be more damaged and shine the opposite side.  The uneven shine causes the ball to swing.  Batsmen get to do a lot of the shining, but they do what the bowlers tell them.  Shining the ball with your hands, or your pants, and using saliva to do so, are fine.  Using foreign objects or substances to help is not.

So were the bowlers in on the plot?  Cricket Australia investigated and concluded not.  Which leaves two possibilities.  One is that their involvement was kept hidden.  I reckon this is what happened, but based on zero evidence.

The other possibility is that Warner, Bancroft and Smith were incompetent.  They hatched a plan, but not a very good one.  There is no reason to have sandpaper on the field.  There is no plausible deniability there.  Once Bancroft was caught on camera, it was basically all over.  His lame denial just made him look like a naughty schoolkid.

It's not like they didn't have more professional examples to copy.  Chandimal, like dozens of ball-tamperers before him, used lollies.  You suck on the lolly, then use the sugary saliva to heighten the shine.  Teams do it all around the world.  It's against the rules, but there is plausible deniability.  There is no rule against eating lollies on a cricket field.  You can just say it was an accident or an oversight.  You can pop the lolly in your mouth when you know the cameras will be looking elsewhere.  How many do this without getting caught?

Du Plessis used the other popular method, having a bit of dirt in his pocket which would stick to his sweaty fingers as he polished the ball.  Like sandpaper, but with deniability.  There's plenty of dirt on a cricket field.  I didn't realise it was there, your honour.

By contrast, the Aussie's attempt was hopeless. Their incompetence at cheating speaks volumes for their general honesty.


Anyhow, we are forgetting something.  Cricket is a game.  People play it for fun.  People watch elite cricket for fun.  You feel happier if your team wins but losing is not the end of the world.  Life goes on.  And while I suppose some people enjoy seeing other humans humiliated, most would much rather see them treating one another with respect and kindness, even while they play hard.

In fact, too much winning becomes boring.  Back in the early 2000s, when the Australian cricket team was thrashing everyone, it got wearying.  It is no accident that the two most memorable series from that era were close, gripping contests that Australia lost - the 2001 series against India in India, and the 2005 Ashes.  Who could forget the image of Andrew Flintoff consoling a tearful Brett Lee after Australia's oh-so-close loss in Edgaston in 2005?  

True or not, here is Flintoff's later version of what he said.

‘Mate, this is embarrassing … you’ve lost, it’s cricket, nobody cares, the trophy’s (tiny), f***ing get over it – it really does not matter.’

It doesn't matter enough to cheat.  It doesn't matter enough to humiliate someone.  It doesn't matter so much that your whole being should be subsumed to it.  It doesn't matter enough to be prevented from playing for a whole year over something stupid.  

I hope Warner gets over it.  Bancroft and Smith too.  And the rest of us.  It's just a game.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The End of Apologetics

I am not a Christian because it makes logical sense or because I can prove the message to be true.  I am a Christian because the teachings and life of Jesus seem to me to be the best and most compelling guide to living a good life.

A few years ago I read lots of apologetics of various sorts.

It started with me reading some of the New Atheist writers - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Shermer - who were getting a lot of airplay.  With the exception of Shermer, these learned gentlemen all have a great certainty that religion is an ancient anachronism.  However, their efforts to refute religion are compromised by their failure to actually learn anything about the religions they are attempting to disprove.  Nuanced, mature faith just seems like a mystery to them - Harris even suggests that religious 'moderates' are dangerous because they provide cover for fundamentalists.  Dawkins seems to believe that if he can disprove young earth creationism he has therefore disproved religion.  Shermer, at least, is humble enough to use the word 'perhaps' in his alternative naturalistic explanations of spiritual phenomena.

Of course lots of Christians have written considered defences of religion in general and Christianity in particular.  For instance, John Lennox talks about the mathematical improbability of life arising by chance.  William Lane Craig mounts a complex, detailed argument in favour of the proposition that whatever has a beginning must have a cause - given that the universe appears to have a beginning, it must also have a First Cause. All of this may be true, or it may not, but at most it tells us there there is a Something behind the universe.  It is a long journey from this to the specific God of Christianity.  Indeed, Craig's argument is called the kalam argument, an Arabic word which Craig traces back to the medieval Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali.  Good Evangelical that he is, is slightly rueful about the fact that modern Islamic scholars have made use of his work.

It seemed to me that the closer the apologists got to trying to demonstrate the specific truth of Christianity, the weaker and more circular their arguments became.  For instance, CS Lewis' much quoted 'lunatic, liar or Lord' argument only carries any force, Lewis' prose skills notwithstanding, if you accept the accuracy of the New Testament stories, in which case you will be a Christian in any case.  The same goes for the argument about the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts.

It seemed to me that the exercise was futile.  You can neither prove nor disprove the truth of Christianity by this path.  In the end, the wisest words I read in this quest were from Karen Armstrong in her badly mis-named book The Case for GodShe suggests that the problem is we are trying to apply logos, rational intellectual knowledge, to questions which require mythos, the contemplation of mysteries and spiritual stories which are beyond rationality.

Perhaps if I had read Karl Barth a little earlier in my journey I could have short-circuited the process somewhat.  Barth is regarded by many as the leading theologian of the 20th century, rescuing theology from the dead-end of liberalism which was proved so bankrupt during the Second World War.  

My problem is that Barth's major work, Church Dogmatics, is over 5,000 pages long.  Recently I saw a copy of Volume 4 in a second hand book-shop, 1,500 pages of tiny print carefully covered by its previous owner (I'm guessing a theology student) but clearly rarely opened if at all.  I briefly considered buying it, but realised it would eventually return to some other second hand shop in much the same condition I found it.

However, last year I found an easier alternative, a slim volume called Dogmatics in Outline.  It consists of a series of lectures Barth delivered in Bonn in 1946 in the bombed out ruins of the university.  He describes how the lectures would start at 7.00 am and end somewhere around 8.00 when the noise of the demolition crew made further lessons impossible.  His subject is the Apostle's Creed, which he dissects phrase by phrase across 24 short chapters.

In the third chapter, 'Faith as Knowledge', he says this.

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks.  Of course, it is the nature and being of this object...that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.  What man can know by his own power according to the measure of his natural powers, his understanding, his feeling, will be at most something like a supreme being, an absolute nature, the idea of an utterly free power, of a being towering over everything.  This absolute and supreme being, the ultimate and most profound, this 'thing in itself', has nothing to do with God.  It is part of the intuitions and marginal possibilities of man's thinking, man's contrivance.  Man is able to think this being, but he has not thereby thought God.  God is thought and known when in His own freedom God makes Himself apprehensible.... There is a perfectly clear division there already, epistemologically, between the true God and the false gods.... Knowledge of God takes place where there is actual experience that God speaks, that He so represents himself to man that he cannot fail to see and hear Him, where, in a situation he has not brought about, in which he becomes incomprehensible to himself, man sees himself faced with the fact that he lives with God and God with him, because it has so pleased God.  Knowledge of God takes place where divine revelation takes place....

It would be hard to find a clearer statement of the futility of apologetics.  We can't find God.  It's impossible for us, beyond our puny intellectual capacities.  We may reason our way to some sort of god but it will be a false god, a god of our own creation, an idol.  We can only know the true God because He chooses to reveal Himself to us.

This takes the question further than Armstrong.  Her mythos, while not the logical reason of our modern apologists, is still a form of human reason, a process of spiritual insight.  It is perhaps what Barth means when he says 'Christian faith is concerned with the illumination of the reason'.  He doesn't see us wandering in a nebulous cloud.  Yet our reason can't illuminate itself, it will only be illuminated by the light of God's revelation.  It is, in a sense, a take it or leave it proposition.  You will come to faith when you hear God speak to you, and not in any other way.

This perhaps explains why, for instance, William Lane Craig sees young people converted as a result of his presentations of apologetics.  Craig's arguments are nowhere near as convincing as he thinks they are, but both he and his students hear, through this means, the illumination of God's revelation.  This comes despite, not because of, the intellectual arguments he presents, which lead to Barth's 'supreme being', 'absolutely free power' or other such false gods.

It may also explain my own experience.  My deepened appreciation of the limitations of apologetics left my faith largely untouched and, if anything, clarified.  I am not a Christian because of any kind of compelling evidence for the existence of God, or because of some supposed proofs of the Resurrection of Christ.  I am a Christian because, in my teenage years, I fell in love with the message of Christ.  My faith has changed over the years but this love has remained, and Christ's words and deeds remain the compass by which, through many failures, I try to guide my life.  The rest I am happy to let be.

Not long after I read Barth's lectures, I read a series of essays by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman called The Accidental Universe.  This book deals pithily and eloquently with different aspects of cosmology - the origin of the universe, its likely end, its amazing symmetry, huge scale, predictability and sheer strangeness.

The third of his essays is called 'The Spiritual Universe', and discusses the question of religion.

I will put my cards on the table.  I am an atheist myself.  I completely endorse the central doctrine of science.  And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world.  However, I certainly agree...that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations....

Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and sometimes without any methodology for proof.  We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us.  We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life to save the life of our child.  We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of 'right' and 'wrong'.  We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all....I cannot prove that the central doctrine of science is true....

Faith, its its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence.  Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand.  Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. 

If we take Barth seriously, it would make no sense to argue with Lightman.  Perhaps we could convince him, per Craig, that there is indeed a 'Being who lives beyond matter'.  Probably not, but if by chance we could we would only be leading him to a false god, an entity of our own creation.  Indeed, Lightman does already believe in a version of this, 'something larger than ourselves', a gargantuan, mysterious universe about which we can know many things, but before which we gasp in awe.  A move towards the gospel from here is in the hands of God, who chooses to reveal himself to us.

Yet here is also a kind of convergence.  For Barth, the knowledge of God is beyond our logic or investigation and can only come to us as a free gift which illuminates our understanding in a way we could not have done for ourselves.  For Lightman too there are things beyond our rationality, for which evidence is nonexistent or meaningless.  These things are not trivial, for humans they are often the things that make life worth living.

So there we are.  I stopped reading books on apologetics without any serious regret.  It was an interesting and intellectually stimulating pursuit, but ultimately futile.  Now I know that, not surprisingly, I am not the first, nor the smartest, to reach this conclusion.  Once we accept this we can move on to more important things.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Farewell, Johnathan Thurston

In 2019, the National Rugby League will be played without Johnathan Thurston for the first time since 2001.  Cue the obligatory memoir!

The latter part of Thurston's 2018 season was somewhat surreal. His North Queensland Cowboys had a terrible year and were out of title contention by mid-season.  Thurston himself was playing like a man who may possibly have stretched his career one season too many.  If his career had finished with his final on-field act of 2017 - overcoming a busted shoulder to kick a classic curling conversion from the sideline and win Queensland the second State of Origin game - that would have a been a more fitting farewell.  Yet everywhere he went he was feted, with opposing teams presenting him farewell gifts after each game.

His final act on the field, so to speak, was perhaps an appropriate sign-off for both the season and the career.  The match was an otherwise inconsequential game between the Cowboys and the equally struggling Gold Coast Titans, played in front of a small crowd at Robina.  Throughout the game a young woman held a sign.  'I love you JT, can I have your boots?.' After the game was over and the Titans had made their presentation to Thurston he sat down, pulled off the boots, jogged over to the grandstand and handed them to her.  Her face lit up.

Thurston's status as a player is, of course, founded on his playing skills.  He is unchallenged as the best halfback of his generation.  His popularity, on the other hand, is founded on his instinctive and habitual generosity.  He started giving his headgear to young fans back when he was a promising young playmaker at the Canterbury Bulldogs and although his sponsors pay for the gear, it was his idea that they do so.  Instead of leaving the ball-kid to find the kicking tee he picks it up and hands it to them.

There are also bigger acts of generosity.  His first Grand Final win came with the Bulldogs in 2004 after an injury to team captain Steve Price opened a spot on the bench.  After the presentation, he handed his premiership ring to Price.  More than a decade later, after he had led the Cowboys to their long-awaited first premiership in 2015, his satisfaction was soured by a strong feeling that he had been unfairly awarded the Clive Churchill Medal for best player on the ground, naming a number of team-mates he thought had played better.  Not to mention his foundation that supports education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

For all these good qualities, I have to confess that I left his autobiography feeling more disturbed than uplifted.  Along with the catalogue of achievements and the rags to riches story (young Aboriginal boy from poor but caring family, branded too small, gets his chance and becomes a champion) there is a telling glimpse into Rugby League's drinking culture.

It begins with Thurston as a young lad at the Canterbury Bulldogs, insecure, homesick and desperate the fit in.

The Bulldogs were a side that bonded over booze.  It was in pubs and nightclubs that they formed friendships that would never be broken.  Their unofficial motto was party hard and work harder. And oh boy, did they do both!

I had never been a big drinker but I was forced to learn fast.  Being a Bulldog was as much about booze and benders as it was rugby league.  The Bulldogs were a unique side in that they were together seven days a week.  They would train together, play together and drink together....

Most of their games were on Friday nights, and they would go out after the game and drink until Monday.  Seriously.  That was  normal weekend.

What he doesn't say quite so blatantly, although he makes it clear enough, is that in fact the team bonded over booze and sex.  These drunk young men would invite equally drunk young women back to their hotel rooms and have group sex.  Perhaps some of the women enjoyed it but it is abundantly clear that many didn't.  The young Thurston was drawn onto this vortex.  He found himself accused of rape after a session with a young woman and a team-mate.  He insists the sex was consensual and the police concluded that charges were not warranted.

In the subsequent off-season a number of Bulldogs players (not including Thurston this time) found themselves accused of rape in the wake of another group sex session.  This time the case hit the news and the Bulldogs culture came under close scrutiny.  Once again, no-one was charged.

In such circumstances it is hard to establish a lack of consent with the level of certainty that would meet the requirements of criminal law.  Still you have to ask: if everyone is drunk, there are half a dozen aggressive young men and one woman, how exactly is consent established?  If the woman decides she has had enough half-way through, will her pleas be heard?  Thurston is now the father of three little girls.  It's hard to imagine he would be happy to learn in a decade or so that one of them had been subjected to this sort of treatment.

It doesn't seem that Thurston took the sex lessons with him when he moved to the Cowboys in 2005, but the binge drinking stayed with him throughout his career, as did the occasional trouble.  He was introduced to his new team-mates over a pre-season pub crawl.  In 2010 his contract was almost torn up after an arrest for being drunk and disorderly in Brisbane.  He describes how he lived just a few hundred metres from Townsville's nightclub district and took all the advantage he could of the nightlife.  I remember another incident, which he doesn't discuss, in which the police found him in front of his unit unable to remember where he lived.  They took him back to the police station for his own safety until he sobered up enough to remember his address and be taken home.

His discussion of Mal Meninga's time as Queensland coach makes it clear just how much the 'team bonding' of his Bulldogs days remained normal.

A rep coach has to make sure his players are mentally ready to play.  He has to be a master at getting them in the mood and ready to rip.

Part of that was making sure we had a good time, and Mal...doesn't mind having a good time, sometimes even a little more than us.

'Bed at 10pm fellas,' he would say, putting his latest curfew on us.

And then Justin Hodges would give him a red wine, I would give him the next.

"Righto, let's wrap this up at 11pm, boys,' he would say. 'Big day tomorrow'.

Greg Inglis would bring him his next red, filled to the brim.

'OK,' he would say.  'Let's make it midnight.'

Hodgo would then break out the scotch.

'Fuck the curfew,' Mal would say. 'Let's have some shots.'

In 2013 he went to England with the Australian team for the World Cup.

Going out in the UK was always a blast because you could let your hair down.  People didn't recognise you so you didn't have to worry about being caught out doing something silly.... We had a fair crack on the drink during that tour.  We didn't to a lot of sightseeing but we did a heap of drinking.  We made a ritual of going to a place called the Church.  It was open from midday to 4pm and you would get in free if you were dressed up. For 10 pounds you would get four UDL style drinks in a bag....  We would walk out of there thinking it was 4am and it would only be 4pm.  The night was just starting.  It was onto a hotel called the Walkabout.  I can't remember what went on there, given how much we drank at the other joint.

We had plenty of fun on the football field too.  The good times didn't stop us from performing - if anything they helped.... It was an old-school style of tour where we had plenty of good times and played plenty of good football.

Now I'm not a wowser.  I don't mind people drinking and enjoying themselves.  I don't even mind people getting drunk if they must, provided they don't endanger others in the process.  But in these contexts that's hard to guarantee.  In a culture where collective binge-drinking is seen as one of the keys to good performance it's hard to be sure that all these drunk young men will behave responsibly.  In fact the reverse.

Thus it is that four weeks after Thurston's low key departure from the football field, on the night of the 2018 Grand Final, Parramatta star Jarryd Hayne arranged a meeting with a young woman which resulted in her accusing him of rape - and in this case, despite Hayne's denial, the police decided the evidence was strong enough to charge him.

Just a couple of days later Greg Inglis celebrated his appointment as Australian captain with a night of drinking and then the next morning, still under the influence, decided to drive to Sydney to join the team.  Instead he was arrested for drink driving, lost his new title before even touching a ball (along with his drivers licence) and found himself suspended from the team he was meant to lead.  By none other than Mal Meninga, with whom he had shared red wine and shots not so many years earlier.  He can count himself lucky that this was the only consequence, given the all-too-common result of drink driving.

Is this problem soluble?  Well, surely it is.  Plenty of people form close bonds, including team bonds, without binge-drinking together.  The effects of excessive alcohol consumption on physical performance are almost entirely negative.  Only the amazing resilience of youth enables these young men to keep going week after week.

Yet culture is notoriously hard to to change.  How could a 19-year-old Thurston, far from home and eager to please, have resisted the alcoholic induction at the Bulldogs and hoped to succeed?  Why would he when impressive mentors like Steve Price and Mal Meninga, men of integrity and intelligence, swear by this culture?  Why would his younger team-mates, in their turn, resist when he inducts them into the same culture?

Yet for every dozen happy, innocent nights on the town there is one on which a woman is raped or abused, someone is assaulted by a highly tuned athlete, or people are endangered by a drunk young man behind the wheel.  As long as footballers keep doing the same things, they will get the same results.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas Hippopotamus

So it's Christmas. For some reason this year I've been thinking of this wicked little poem by TS Eliot.

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,      
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,      
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ’potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach      
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.  

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way—
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

You know, of course, that Eliot was deeply devout. He was not taking a pot-shot at Jesus. He was taking a shot at the Church, sleeping away in the midst of vast riches.

A hippo is not beautiful, or elegant. It does not sing a sweet song. It spends its days wallowing in cool water, letting its ungainly bulk float. At night it drags itself up the bank and waddles off to graze. Yet the hippo is alive!

So often we let our faith die. We preserve it, perhaps, in a set of rituals, or some beautiful words, music and architecture. Perhaps it is preserved in some fossilised set of doctrines which we defend against all comers, or a set of rules we try to force one another to live by even though we know them to be impossible.

Recently I read a meditation in which someone claimed that the three magi, the 'wise men' of Matthew's gospel, were converted from the false pagan religion of Persia to the true religion of the Old Testament which Jesus fulfilled. But that is not it at all! They did not give their gold, frankincense and myrrh to a theological system. They gave them to a living, breathing child.

The hippopotamus may be clumsy, he may bellow instead of singing, his great bulk may betray a deep vulnerability. Yet he is alive! This life has endless possibilities, the same possibilities that the magi saw in that frail child, laid in a stone feeding trough among the livestock, his parents exhausted and far from home.

This is who we are called to follow. All our systems, rules and institutions count for nothing without this spark of life, this tiny feeble incarnation, this promise of growth.

Yet with this spark we can one day become what we are meant to be. Even the hippo can eventually wash off the river mud, learn to fly and sing the most glorious song. So can we, if we just are willing to begin.

Happy Christmas all you hippos!

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Dark Emu

One of the prevailing myths of Australian history is that the European invaders who arrived after 1788 were the first to 'settle' the land.  In this story, the country's original inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers, wandering randomly over the countryside plucking its riches without doing anything to create them.

It's a myth that dies hard.  Our recent Prime Minister Tony Abbot (now, ironically, the government's 'special envoy on Indigenous affairs') loves to celebrate the wonders created by the arrival of the First Fleet.

I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, great southern land.

The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent.

Yet over recent decades, historians have steadily chipped away at this myth.  Most Australians now know that Aboriginal people did not roam randomly, they travelled on a seasonal rhythm between different areas in a carefully defined country.  Henry Reynolds and others have made us aware of the fact that Aboriginal people did not simply passively accept the peaceful settlement of their lands, they fought and lost a fiercely contested war in which thousands were killed.

More recently we are starting to see a similar dismantling of the myth that Aboriginal people lived passively on the land, accepting whatever it gave them.  As far back as 1975, Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads documented the huge impact Aboriginal burning had on the nature of Australian landscape.  Blainey's depiction seems to suggest that this burning was indiscriminate, but in 2011 Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth carefully documented the highly intentional, skillful strategies involved in Aboriginal land management, with the judicious use  of fire allied with other management strategies to produce a carefully tended patchwork of different types of environment across a nation's various terrains.

I've recently come across a fantastic little book which boldly develops this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion - Dick Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? published in 2014.  Pascoe is a man of Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage who grew up in Victoria.  He is mainly known for his fiction writing, publishing a number of novels for adults and children, and spending a number of years as publisher and editor of Australian Short Stories.  However, he has also written widely on history.

In Dark Emu he takes the hunter-gatherer myth head-on.  The starting point and in a sense the cornerstone of his account is the descriptions of Aboriginal society contained in the diaries of early European explorers.

For instance, there is this from George Grey, travelling in the Kimberley in 1839.

As we wound along the native path my wonder augmented; the path increased in breadth and its beaten appearance, whilst along the side we found frequent wells, some of which were ten and twelve feet deep, and were executed in a superior manner.  .  We now emerged upon a tract of  light fertile soil quite overrun with warran (yam) plants, the root of which is a favourite article of food for the natives.  This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root.... passed two native villages,or as the men termed them, towns the huts of which...(were) built and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.

Wells constructed 'in a superior manner'.  Root vegetables grown in monoculture.  'Fixed places of residence'.  Does this sound like a hunter-gatherer culture?

Or this from Thomas Mitchell in Queensland's Belyando River district.

We crossed some patches of dry swamp where clods had been extensively turned up by the natives.... The whole resembled ground broken with the hoe.... There might be about two acres in the patch we crossed and we perceived at a distance other portions of the ground in a similar state.

Or from Charles Sturt, exploring the Murray-Darling Basin in 1845, when he saw

...grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field, the grass being the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year...large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.

Haycocks? Or this, also from Sturt.

Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being the back of the other, and it appeared to be a singular but universal custom to erect a smaller hut at no great distance from the large ones.

Pascoe describes how the members and search parties associated with the Burke and Wills expedition found food.

King...found a store of grain in an Aboriginal house, which he estimated at four tons.  John Davis, a member of one of the search parties...reported on the vast quantities of nardoo seed waiting to be harvested on the dry floor of Lake Coogiecoogina in the Strzelecki Desert, reminding us that 'desert' is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can't grow wheat and sheep.  

Pascoe is not the first to comment on the irony that Burke and Wills and their companions starved in the midst of plenty, even scaring off the Aboriginal people who were trying to help them.

There is much more of this from various explorers and early landholders in various parts of the country in the mid to late 19th century.  Put together with the findings of archaeology and the traditions of Aboriginal people themselves, a picture emerges that is very different to the 'hunter-gatherer' story we heard in school.

  • Aboriginal people did not simply pluck or dig the food plants they found along the way, they actively cultivated them.  Yam fields were carefully tended, the soil regularly dug to ensure a harvest each year, while various native grasses were cultivated and managed for their seeds.  The explorers describe this quite clearly - fields of grain or root crops, piles of stalks that reminded them of European hay-ricks, and storage huts in which large quantities of grain were placed for future use.  There is also strong evidence that they traded seeds and seedlings, resulting in productive plant varieties spreading across the country.
  • They practiced extensive aquaculture, including building elaborate fish traps, diverting streams to channel fish into these traps, and building pools to trap floodwaters and provide a confined environment to breed fish for food.  Coastal peoples also cultivated cooperative fishing with dolphins and orcas, training these animals to herd fish and even whales in-shore and rewarding them with a share of the catch.
  • Although they did not actively herd kangaroos as Europeans herd cattle or sheep, they did use fire management to cultivate pastures, strategically located at the distance a group of kangaroos would travel in a day so they could predict fairly accurately where they would be. 
  • To support this agriculture they built permanent villages, with sturdy huts made of timber, earth or stone.  
In addition to these evidences of settled agriculture there was a system of governance which, over a period of 40,000 years or more, allowed the Aboriginal nations to co-exist in relative peace - while nations did clearly fight from time to time, there is no evidence in archaeology, traditional stories or genetics to suggest there was invasion or conquest in Australia prior to that of the British, and their system of governance enabled cooperative land and resource management across national boundaries.

So how did we come by the story that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers?  Part of Pascoe's answer is that the invaders were persuaded by the social Darwinism popular in their day to see Aboriginal people as inferior and this coloured what they saw.  Hence Sturt uses the term 'subsistence' despite clearly describing a system of agriculture, and Burke and Wills failed to see the rich food system through which they were travelling.

However, this was perhaps just a superficial justification of more base economic motives.  The explorers were not looking for scientific knowledge or a civilisation with whom to trade.  They were seeking pasture for cattle and sheep, and fertile soil for wheat.  The livestock thrived in the lush grass, and the wheat grew prolifically in the former yam fields.  It suited them to believe, and to tell others, that all of this just occurred naturally.  

Yet before too long the hard hooves of the sheep and cattle, and the neglect of the new 'owners' of the country, had degraded these same fertile fields and pastures, fouled the water sources and drastically reduced the amount of grass that grew each year.  A system that had proved sustainable for thousands of years was replaced by an unstable economy that Jared Diamond perceptively compares to mining.

Pascoe's message is primarily historical, but he also looks forward.  Our degradation of the country and the changing climate present serious challenges to agriculture based on European models.  Pascoe thinks traditional Australian agriculture can help solve these problems.  For instance, while native grasses don't yield the same amount of grain as wheat, they can grow in much drier conditions.  Yams, which are now only found in disturbed places like the edge of roads or railways, can be successfully grown in a range of conditions.  Kangaroos similarly can survive in fairly arid conditions, have less impact on the country than sheep and cattle, don't produce methane like cattle do, and yield tasty, lean meat which is better for us than beef or lamb.  The revival of these crops is still only at the experimental stage, but Pascoe believes it has huge potential.

Of course many, like Tony Abbott and so many ordinary people, will never read this book, or Gammage's, or any of the sources they refer to.  They will continue to see Aboriginal civilisation as an optional prelude to the main story which begins with Captain Cook and the First Fleet.  Myths die hard, especially convenient ones.  The idea that Aboriginal people had nothing and lost nothing in the British invasion is comforting to us British people who have benefited from it.  But those of is who value truth and justice need to resist this seduction and acknowledge the truth, even if it hurts.  It won't hurt us as much as it hurt those who were dispossessed.  

In fact it may even help us, not just to a clear conscience, but to address the environmental problems we have created.  It was unwise, to say the least, for our forebears to so carelessly disregard the knowledge of managing this country that Aboriginal people built up over millennia.  Much of this knowledge has since been lost, but some survives and some can be recovered and re-learnt.  It can help us feed ourselves into the future, better manage bushfire risks, recover soil fertility and water quality, and make better use of native flora and fauna.  Aboriginal people were and are not stupid, and millennia of history and learning must be worth something.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

57, and 500

I turn 57 this week.  I'm at the stage of life where each birthday is not so much a cause for celebration, cake and presents, as a reminder of the passing of time.

My father lived to 77, so if this is any indication I might have about 20 years of life left.  Of course I am healthier than my Dad.  He smoked, and was overweight, and he died of heart failure.  I don't smoke, am barely overweight, and ride my bike to stay fit.  So perhaps I might live longer.  Maybe I have 30 years.

Then again, my Mum was also much healthier than my Dad.  She didn't smoke, and never carried an ounce of extra weight.  But she was cut down by a brain tumour, and died at the age of 71.  So who knows, perhaps I only have 14 years.

Perhaps next time I go for a ride I'll get cleaned up by a careless motorist and die on the spot.

No-one knows the day or hour of their death.

This might sound maudlin and a bit creepy, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, to be honest.  I have a good life, I'm happily married, I have two fantastic adult kids, two lovely kids-in-law, and two gorgeous grandkids.  I have interesting and satisfying work to do.  I have good friends.  What will be, will be.

Still, as the clock ticks I'm more inclined to wonder if I'm using my time well.  Is it a good use of my life to be writing policies and procedures for little organisations, or facilitating strategic planning sessions?  Do those arguments about important issues on Facebook really amount to anything?  Should I be getting my finger out and writing that book I keep talking about and running over in my head? And if so, which book?

The illusion of immortality is definitely wearing off.

Coincidentally, or serendipitously, this is the 500th post on Painting Fakes.  Which I suppose is cause for some celebration, or reflection.

I could give you some stats.  For instance, Blogger tells me that I have had 147,260 visits to the site since I started writing it in early 2008, although I don't really believe that statistic.  A post I wrote in 2013 about the Newman Government's anti-bikie laws had over 4,000 reads thanks to a friend sharing it on a biker chat group.  One I wrote just last year about naive charity had over 1,800 visitors after I shared it myself on my Linkedin page - something I don't do very often, given this is not a work blog.  And a little piece I wrote in 2011 about how Aboriginal people were described in a pamphlet we were given on arrival in Australia back in 1967 has kept attracting readers, who now number almost 1,500.  I am always surprised what gets readers and what doesn't.

I'm also often surprised that anyone reads it at all, so if you are reading this- Thanks!  Other times, I wonder if the small number of people who do read it justifies the effort I put in.  I don't have a word count, but I suspect the 500 posts between them probably equal about 5 books.  Maybe if I had started with those books back in 2008 instead of frittering away 10 years here, I would now have five books in print.

Or maybe not.  Time is an arrow which only moves in one direction.  The clock ticks.  57 years.  20,819 days. 499,662 hours.  29,979,720 minutes.  1,798,983,200 seconds.  500 posts.  No books so far.  But in the year to come, who knows?

Friday, 24 August 2018

Deja Vu

So, it seems that Scott Morrison is our new Prime Minister, less than a year out from the latest possible date from our next election.  This is hardly strange.  Each of our last four Prime Ministers has ascended to the post in exactly the same circumstances, unceremoniously booting their rival mid-term only to be booted just as unceremoniously some three years later.  The last PM not to lose their job this way, unless you count Kevin Rudd's mercifully brief second attempt at the role, was John Howard way back in 2007.  Old fashioned type that he is, he lost his job in the time-honoured manner by leading his party to a crushing election defeat and then retiring gracefully.

In an immediate sense, each of these internal coups has been fuelled by dramas with opinion polls.  In each case, consistent polling over a number of months has shown that the government will lose power if it faces an election.  Mostly (especially with the switches to Rudd and Turnbull) they switched because the alternative leader was popular and would immediately boost the government's chances of survival.  However, the coup itself immediately damaged this popularity and the government only just survived - both Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull, after deposing their predecessors, led their governments to the narrowest of victories and three years of tenuous governing.

What's different this time around is that far from being more popular than Turnbull (who still remains preferred PM against all comers from his own party or his opponents), Morrison attracts single figures in any 'preferred PM' survey.  So why is the Liberal Party turning to him rather than sticking with their current relatively popular figurehead, or switching to someone like Julie Bishop or Tony Abbott who most Australians could at least pick out of a police line-up?

I think the answer points to a number of worrying things about our increasingly diverse and divided political landscape.

1. We are becoming increasingly tribalised.
When I started writing this, it looked like Peter Dutton would become PM.  Mainstream Australia might only know Dutton, if at all, as the unprepossessing political hard-head who says provocative things about immigrants as Home Affairs Minster.  However, for those in the tribe Dutton is a hero.  People on the right of the Liberal Party have been touting him as their preferred PM for a a couple of years now, flaying Turnbull at every opportunity and begging their great white hope to step up and replace him.

In the end, they got part of what they wanted.  They got rid of Turnbull, and although their hero didn't end up winning the job he forced a shift to the right.  Morrison is just as right-wing as Dutton and when he was Minister Against Immigration he was just as inflammatory, but recently he's been treading softly and running interference for Turnbull in the name of stability.  This means that for the right he is a sell-out and we can expect the sniping to continue, but the liberal 'moderates' could at least stomach him as leader and he won with a slender majority.

Of course we get the leaders we deserve.  Other tribes are just as compartmentalised.  The Labor Left and Right have barely papered over their cracks since the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd serial fiasco.  Even the Greens are starting to fray, splitting into their own tribes of inner urban environmentalists and old-style left activists.  As for the far right, it's hard to keep up with the constant warfare that is One Nation, the bizarre alternative worlds of the likes of those who were briefly caught up in Clive Palmer's substantial orbit, the progress of the merger between Family First and Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives, or who exactly it is that supports David Leyonhelm.

But we shouldn't blame this entirely on our politicians.  Neo-liberal economic and social policies have driven us further apart.  There is an increasing divide between rich and poor, between urban and regional, between inner and outer suburbs, between recent migrants and earlier ones, between Aboriginal people and those who displaced them.  We have fewer and fewer opportunities and venues to get to know people in other tribes.  So we increasingly look for politicians who represent our tribe, not who will look after us and our mates in other tribes.

2. Our major parties are pretty much done converging.
With Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and Malcolm Turnbull leading the Liberals back in 2008-09, there was a moment when you honestly couldn't tell who was leading which party.  They seemed in lock step on so many issues - wobbling about on same sex marriage, implementing a bold and expensive National Broadband Network, demonising people smugglers and their customers, continuing to intervene in Aboriginal communities in a way popular with everyone but the Aboriginal people themselves, and most importantly tackling climate change via an ETS. 

Of course the last of these was a bridge to far for the Liberal right and they replaced Turnbull with Abbott.  This signalled the fracturing not only of the consensus on climate change but of the idea of consensus politics in general.  For Abbott, attacking the Labor Party was priority number 1, and he pursued it relentlessly.  Many people thought this made him a great opposition leader even though he turned out to be a hopeless Prime Minster.  I beg to differ.

The accepted wisdom in Australian politics past was that to win government, you needed to capture the centre.  Left voters would vote Labor, right voters would vote Liberal or National, those in the centre would swing one way or another and decide elections.  So each party fought fiercely over this centre.

In the process, however, they left their flanks unguarded, and others attacked.  For Labor, they now face a well-organised Green party on their left, eroding their base in the inner cities and taking valuable Senate seats from them.  The Liberals have the same problem on the right, with assorted right wing movements led by the likes of Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Clive Palmer taking their air away, especially in the regions.  This sees the parties swinging like a pendulum, trying to capture the centre in moments when they feel confident, then swinging back to the right or left when they feel under siege.  The divisions within each party widen under the strain.

3. No-one really wants the job anyway.
Membership of all our major political parties is declining, and their pool of available candidates is shrinking.  Maybe I'm just looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but there doesn't seem to be a Whitlam, a Fraser, a Hawke, a Keating or even a Howard among our current group of politicians - someone who can drive an agenda and take people with them, who can unite people around a program, who can forge the necessary compromises to get a reform program implemented and entrenched.

Instead, we are left with B-grade leaders and tribal warriors.  This is not just the party leaders - their ministers and backbenchers are busy jockeying for position, promoting their factional interests within the party, playing to their 'base' and shoring up their own positions.  This means that leaders with vision and ideas, like Rudd or Turnbull, have to spend so much time herding cats that they get lost and are replaced by factional warriors like Abbott, Morrison, Gillard and Shorten.  Our followers get the leaders they deserve, leadership (and politics in general) becomes a poisoned chalice.  People who lack the temperament for vicious factional warfare stay away.

4. Scapegoating is a thing.
We have seen the rise of scapegoating in our politics in recent years.  Mostly, the scapegoats are the usual powerless outsiders - Aboriginal people, Muslims, 'African gangs', 'dole bludgers'. This scapegoating plays into our increasing fragmentation, mentioned above.  Peter Dutton is a master of the art and Morrison is a dab hand at it too although a little out of practice lately.

Yet we also see leaders themselves scapegoated for the failings of their parties.  Abbott was called a great leader, but the party dropped in the polls and the people who put him there dropped him like a hot potato.  Then, under his bitter influence, the right of the party systematically undermined Turnbull for three years (despite his efforts to appease them) then blamed him for the party's plunge in the polls.  The problem in the Liberal Party is not poor leadership, it is poor followers.  A new leader won't change this, even if Menzies himself were to rise from the dead.

As I have often said, we have a Westminster system, not a Presidential one.  It only works if the government, as a collective, works together in the interests, if not of all people (that would be nice, but perhaps too much to expect) at least of those who elected them.  It's been a decade since we've had a national government do that.


So what sort of Prime Minister will Scott Morrison be?  I find it hard to care.  The only realistic answer is that he will be a short-lived one.  There has to be an election by May next year, but his party is imploding so his chances of lasting that long are slim.  It only takes one person to cross the floor in the House of Representatives and he will be gone.  I don't think he'll wait for that to happen.  He'll call an election, and we'll have a Labor government.  So the real question is, will we then have Rudd/Gillard/Rudd all over again with new names in the old seats?  Or will the Labor Party give us a pleasant surprise and get on with fixing some of the mess they will inherit?

I think it's probably extreme to say our political system is 'broken'.  To me Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria define broken - countries so fragmented that rival factions are literally at war.  We should celebrate the fact that despite the rhetoric all our major players, even the outliers like Hanson, still accept the need to play by the rules, we live at peace and the basics of government still operate.

However, there are clearly some problems and our revolving door of leaders is a visible symptom of these.  As Parker J Palmer writes, public spaces (town squares) are replaced with private spaces (shopping malls).  Voluntary organisations (churches, trade unions, sports clubs, service clubs, etc - including political parties) have declining membership.  Schools and universities are refocused onto performance and vocational training instead of broad education. In each case, our opportunities for democratic engagement outside our 'tribes' are reduced.  All this makes us very vulnerable to manipulation by the wealthy people and companies who control our mass communications, or to the conspiratorial type of thinking that does the rounds on social media.

This means I don't think the problem can be solved long term by a change of government, much less a change of leader.  We've tried that a couple of times now, and it hasn't worked.  It needs to begin in our local communities with processes of engagement and debate, respectful listening and creative compromise.  This type of process needs to then be taken into our political parties, wresting control from the factional warriors, and then it will flow up from there to our leadership.  Things won't change overnight, but change is possible.  Let's make it so!

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The House of Islam

If you want a sympathetic, insiders introduction to Islam you could do a lot worse than Ed Husain's The House of Islam: A Global History.

Husain is British-born of Bangladeshi parents, and grew up in East London.  After a youthful flirtation with Hizb ut-Tahrir and radical Islam, he returned to his parents' Sufi teachings and studied Islam in earnest, travelling to Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia to study under various Sufi divines and explore the origins of Islam.  In 2007 he co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as a counter-extremism foundation, and he also consults for the US-based Council of Foreign Relations.  In sum, he is a devout Muslim who is implacably opposed to extremism.

In The House of Islam he provides an inside look into the Islamic faith.  He aims to both enlighten Western readers as to what Islam should be about, and is about for the majority of Muslims, and to challenge the growing influence of Salafism in the Islamic world.

The book is divided into four parts.  In the first he provides a historical introduction to Islam, including a summary of the most important Islamic beliefs and practices, a brief insight into early Islamic history including the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, the Sunni-Shia split, the current makeup of the Islamic population, an explanation of Sharia and an introduction to Sufism.

The middle two sections present his defence of Sufism and critique of Salafism, along with his explanation of why Salafism appears to be gaining ground in the Islamic world, why it is a perversion of Islam and what should be done about it.

In the final section he returns to Islamic spirituality, outlining the things he finds most attractive and engaging about Islam and the reasons Islam has survived and thrived for the past 1,400 years and continues to attract followers to this day.

Part of the key to his argument is his ability to make a clear distinction between the mainstream of Islam and the various manifestations of  extremism.  This thread runs right through the book.  For instance, he opens his account of Sharia Law with a story from one of the hadiths about an exchange between the Prophet and the man he appointed to lead the mission to Yemen.  The upshot is as follows.

When facing tough questions which require guidance, a Muslim refers to the Quran and the Prophet.  If an answer is not found then a Muslim exercises their independent reasoning, or ijtihad.

He goes on to cite stories in which the Prophet refused to provide specific answers to questions about how his followers should order their lives, either remaining silent or one one occasion responding, 'you know best about the affairs of your world'.

Muslim scholars would later see this as strong evidence that Islam did not seek to control every aspect of a believers life.  Instead, Islam sought to provide broad principles of good morality...

Over the years, of course, questions arose in Muslim societies and an increasingly complex and diverse body of legal interpretation arose.  These essentially identified five kinds of acts.

...obligatory acts, such as prayers or almsgiving....acts rewarded by God that are not compulsory, such as keeping streets clean....acts it is preferable to avoid, but which are not sinful, such as smoking cigarettes....acts that merited punishment by God in the next life, such as murder or theft.... (and two categories of) permissible acts.

Historically the vast majority of Muslim jurists agreed, as have most Muslims, with the principle that everything is Halal (permissible) except for a few limitations.... But the rise of literalism and extremism among Muslims globally has resulted in an important shift.  Now for Muslim puritans and their followers, everything is prohibited - Haram - unless it is specifically permitted.

So what is this Muslim puritanism which he critiques?  He identifies a number of aspects of this belief system.  First of all he identifies its origins in the 'hundred years of humiliation' of Islamic societies in the 19th century, beginning with the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon and ending with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1 and its replacement with a mix of arbitrary national boundaries and European protectorates which fragmented the Islamic homelands of the Middle East and North Africa.  This led to the breakdown of established Islamic authority, both political and religious, and developed fertile ground for radical movements.

Secondly, he identifies a range of versions of Islamism.

Just as Marxism, communism and socialism exist across a spectrum from violent democratic socialist, so it is with Islamism.... Islamists range from violent nationalists (Hamas in Gaza) to rebellious and repressed opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) to those who have moved away from Islamism and become Muslim conservatives, much like Christian Democrats.

The common factor in all of these is to assert a strong role for Islam in the governance of society, as a provider of laws and authority.  Not all Islamists are violent terrorists, but some are.

His second category is that of Salafis or Wahabbis.

Put simply, a Salafi is a Muslim who claims to be following the example of the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims.... After these three generations they consider that Islam grew corrupted through Christian, Roman, Persian, Greek and other influences.  To be pure, therefore, Muslims must adhere only to the practices of the Salaf.

These believers are often referred to as Wahabbis because Abd al-Wahhab was a 18th century Salafi teacher who became dominant in Saudi Arabia and whose teachings are still the official doctrine there.  These believers are often referred to in the West as fundamentalists.  Although the term is a Christian one it is apt, because Christian fundamentalists also recognise only the writings of the New Testament as authoritative, including the life and teachings of Jesus and the writings of those he taught directly, or who were mentored by his apostles - the first three generations.  Hence, ironically, Christian fundamentalists relate strongly to Salafism (which they fear) and find any other form of Islam inexplicable.

Two other elements complete the picture.  The first is the reinterpretation of the call to jihad, a Arabic word meaning 'struggle', from a word describing spiritual striving to a word for holy war.  Hence, Islamic extremists feel themselves called to fight for Islam, whereas historically Islam saw war as a necessary evil and viewed it in similar terms to those of Christian 'just war' theory.  Finally there is the use of takfir, the claiming of a right to declare other Muslims to be unbelievers.  We see this practice and its results across the Middle East, where Sunni extremists declare their rivals to be takfir, not Islamic and hence apostates, and then are entitled to kill them.  This is the justification for persecution of Shi-ites, Sufis and other Islamic believers who the extremists do not regard as pure enough.  Hence the primary victims of Islamic terrorism are not Westerners, or even religious minorities within Islamic countries (although of course both these have been targeted), but other Muslims who do not toe the Salafi line.

Along with these religious steps to extremism, he identifies a number of factors which fuel it.  A key one is a loss of Islamic confidence, which leads Muslims to close down and become controlling.  He points out, for instance, the Muslims historically had a largely peaceful relationship with Jews.  When a number of European nations expelled Jews in the late Middle Ages they found refuge in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where many became prominent members of society.  Yet now Jews are persecuted across the Islamic world.  Similarly, Christians, who were historically protected by Islamic regimes, are now facing increasing persecution.

This loss of confidence is also shown in increasing puritanism and particularly in increased strictures on women and sex.  There is no instruction in the Quran, and little in the hadiths, about women's dress codes, and what there is simply reflects normal Arabic dress of the time.  Sex and marriage are dealt with frankly and openly in early Islamic writings and early European travellers were amazed at the sexual freedom of the Islamic societies they encountered. 

Now the boot is on the foot - in the West we have more sexual freedom than ever, while much of Islamic society has moved towards veiling and segregating its women, placing all the burden of sexual misconduct on them.  He cites the horrific tale of the 2002 fire in a girl's school in Mecca in which the escaping students were barred from exiting the building because they were not appropriately veiled (having removed their veils in the women-only environment of the school) and 15 students and teachers died.  Yet this veiling and segregation neither protects women nor prevents male sexual misconduct.  In Yemen, a fully veiled society, 90% of women report having experienced sexual harassment, and such harassment is almost universal for women in Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, Salafi men are able to find any number of loopholes to authorise sexual misconduct - such as taking non-Muslim women as sex slaves in war zones, or contracting temporary 'marriages' with prostitutes on sex holidays to the West.

Husain estimates that Salafis may comprise as few as 5% of the global Muslim population.  Yet they wield disproportionate influence for a few reasons.  One is their stridency and certainty, and their mastery of modern communication.  The second is their control of Saudi Arabia, which has custody of both the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and of the world's richest oilfields, enabling it to spread Wahhabism around the globe.  The third is that in his view more moderate Muslim leaders have been slow to react to the threat - for instance, condemning the actions of extremists but not making attempts to expel them from the faith altogether.

Ultimately, Husain is wary but hopeful.  He has great faith in Islam and the power of its simple message to which he returns at the end of the book - submission to God, devotion to prayer, the centrality of the family, care for others and the promise of eternity.  In contrast to each of the perversions of Salafism he presents what he sees as good and beautiful in Islamic tradition.  Against stultifying legalism he presents the Sufi vision of deep spirituality and love for God.  Against the puritanical repression of women and sexuality he presents the frank eroticism of Arabic and Persian love poetry.  Against the Salafi destruction of monuments of other cultures and even Sufi shrines he presents the centuries of protection of such heritage in the Middle East.  Against the persecution of Jews and Christians he presents the protection of Christianity in early Islamic regimes and the protection offered to Jewish refugees in the late Middle Ages.

He is hopeful that extremists can be converted to a more moderate and mainstream view, as he was himself and as for instance Tunisia's formerly extremist leader Sheik Rachid al-Ghannouchi was after the Arab Spring.  Things need not always be as they are now.  If not, he believes that with the right approach from mainstream Muslims, supported by Western governments, the extremists can be isolated within Islam and denied legitimacy.

It is tempting for us in the West to see and fear Islam as a monolithic force which is out to destroy us.  Plenty of right-wing Western campaigners would like us to see it that way, because it boosts their own influence in Western societies and sidelines those who argue for inclusion and engagement.  But it ain't necessarily so.  Islam is not perfect and it has its share of violent extremists - perhaps even more than its share.  But it is possible for us to live at peace with wider Islamic society.  And isn't peace what we all at least say we want?

Friday, 20 July 2018

Nicodemus and the Rich Young Ruler

Shane Claiborne loves to quote his friend, the late singer and songwriter Rich Mullins, on the way Christians read the Bible.  Mullins used to say that it was as if we had highlighters for certain verses.  Jesus says, "you must be born again", so we must all be born again. But didn't Jesus also say, "sell all you have and give to the poor"?  Why don't we all have to do that too?

Since I read that, the story of the rich young ruler keeps coming up in my reading.  It features in two of Walter Brueggemann's collected sermons, as well as in the first two of the Second Series of George MacDonald's amazing Unspoken Sermons, where once again he is contrasted with Nicodemus.

All this started me thinking.  Are these stories alternative visions of Jesus - one 'spiritual', one 'political'?  Or is there something that holds them together?

The story of the rich young man is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with only slight variations.  Here is the version from Mark 10.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This is perhaps the earliest version of the story, and identifies the man as neither young nor a ruler - Matthew adds a reference to his youth, Luke describes him as a ruler but not as young.  What they all agree on, however, is that he was rich.  In first century Palestine, wealth and power went together.  This is someone who was a member of the Jewish elite, whether a young, up-and-coming leader or a mature established one.

Nicodemus is a similarly elite, powerful figure.  Here is the beginning of the story of his encounter with Jesus, from John 3.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?..."

John often provides more detail than the other gospels, so we see Nicodemus placed more precisely - a Pharisee, a member of the 'Jewish ruling council' (perhaps the Sanhedrin or ruling Jewish religious body) and a person who at least thinks of himself as 'old'.

So what ties these stories together at the most superficial level is that they are encounters with members of the Jewish elite - a man who is at least rich and possibly occupies a formal leadership position in the community, and one who occupies a powerful position in the Jewish hierarchy.  In addition, both seem to be devout, observant Jews.  Nicodemus is a teacher of the Law.  When Jesus provides a short list of commandments for the rich man, he replies, all these I have kept since I was a boy.

Of course Jesus has many encounters with the Jewish elite, but they mostly involve conflict. The Jewish leaders criticise Jesus, or attempt to trap him into self-incrimination.  In his turn, he accuses them of hypocrisy and of betraying the legacy of Moses and the prophets.  Jesus is the friend of outcasts and sinners, and the enemy of the hierarchy.

These two men are rare exceptions.  Both seem to be approaching Jesus in a spirit of openness and inquiry.  Both men seem to genuinely want to hear what Jesus says.  With Nicodemus, the night-time visit gives a sense of something clandestine, as if he is taking a risk and wants to avoid his fellow councillors knowing about the visit.

It seems that both can see that there is something lacking in their lives.  Both have wealth and position.  Both are also attempting, by the standards of their time, to be followers of God, keeping his commandments and in Nicodemus' case teaching others to do so.  Yet both come to Jesus.  The rich ruler wants to know how to find eternal life - he obviously has not found it in his wealth or his commandment-keeping.  Nicodemus doesn't say what he wants explicitly, but his visit itself speaks volumes.

So what is the content of Jesus' message to these two men, and how can the different messages be reconciled?  The answer is that both are asked to do something which seems impossible to them.  They are asked to give up their core identity and start again.

In the case of the rich man, Jesus tells him that in order to inherit eternal life he must give up his wealth (which may similarly be inherited) and then come and follow Jesus.  He must exchange one inheritance for another.  For the rich man this seems impossible and he goes away grieving 'for he had great wealth'.  Does this man's wealth cut him off from the life that comes from God (which is what 'eternal life' means)?  Well clearly it does, otherwise why would Jesus command him to give it up?  He confirms this by walking away sad - he sees the truth of what Jesus says, but is unable to comply.  Jesus' follow-up comments to his disciples reinforce and clarify the point: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. That is to say, it is impossible.  But then he adds a caveat: all things are possible with God.

Nicodemus is also set an impossible task - to be born again.  This is not unlike the task given the rich man.  Just as a camel can't possibly fit through the eye of a needle, so a full-grown man can't fit back inside his mother's womb.  But Jesus makes it clear he is not referring to physical rebirth but to spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus must be 'born of water and the Spirit' - in other words, through baptism and spiritual inspiration.  But to do this, he must start at the beginning.  He must exchange his current deep learning for a new learning in which he is a rank beginner, a novice, a mere infant.

So what we see here are two steps these two pious and well-connected men must take to begin their spiritual journey.
  1. They must renounce the things they most value and which define them.  The rich man must renounce his wealth, the very thing which provides him with security and position.  Nicodemus must renounce his status as a teacher and leader.  
  2. They must begin again by following Jesus.  The rich man must do so as someone who has nothing, reliant on others for his daily food and shelter.  Nicodemus must do so as someone who knows nothing, who is as a tiny child and must blindly trust his elders and learn the basics all over again.
A big part of this message is that we shouldn't underestimate how hard it is to follow Jesus.  Elsewhere he warns those who want to be his disciples that they need to count the cost.  Later on he tells them that they must take up their crosses to follow him.  The road to the kingdom of God is not easy.  It is not simply a matter of obeying some commands, as the rich man seems to believe.  It is not even just a matter of carving out a successful religious career, as Nicodemus did.  Rather, it involves confronting and changing who we are.

So is it OK for some people to keep their wealth?  Was it simply because this particular man idolised his wealth that he was told to give it up?  Maybe, but the thing is, you don't know how hard it is to give something up - how much you idolise it - until you are tested.  If you asked the rich man what he valued more, his wealth or God, he would almost certainly have said 'God'.  But when put to the test it became clear that he valued his wealth more highly.  Let's not fool ourselves.  How many of us rich Westerners would do differently?  Jesus has no doubts at all about how hard it is.

But it is just as hard to be humble, especially when you are perfect in every way.  After all his labouring over dusty manuscripts and memorising huge chunks of Scripture and interpretation, how easy was it for Nicodemus to accept the role of elementary student and relearn the very basics of faith?  His whole identity is bound up in being the one who gives instruction.  How prepared is he to receive it, especially from an uneducated Galilean peasant?

It is worth us focusing on this, as privileged Westerners, because by and large we are the rich men and women and the rulers of the world.  Our battles are not with poverty and suffering (although all of us will suffer at some point) but with wealth and status.  The challenges faced by Nicodemus and the rich man are those faced by most of us. 

Walter Wink says:

...rebirth is not a private, inward event only.  For it also includes the necessity of dying to whatever in our social surroundings has shaped us inauthentically....

Those born to privilege and wealth may miss life by having been installed at the centre of a universe revolving around their own desires.  Others, born to merciless poverty and the contempt of the ruling class, may miss life by never feeling really human at all.  If the advantaged must die to their egocentricity the underprivileged must die to their hopelessness, fatalism and acquiescence in their own despoiling.

Rationalists may need to die to idolatry of the mind; dominating personalities to their power; proud achievers to their accomplishments.....Even those whose lives have been stolen from them must lose their lives to find them.  They must die to what has killed them.

This is not an easy road.  Not for any of us.  If we had to do it alone, we would soon give up.  Fortunately God does not leave us alone.  After his encounter with the rich man Jesus assures his disciples:

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.

More cryptically, he tells Nicodemus:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

You don't control the wind (the Greek word 'pneuma' means 'wind', 'breath' and 'spirit') it blows where it will, it is greater than you are.  And in his coda to the story John assures his readers, in the words we were all taught to memorise as young people:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

We don't know anything more about the unnamed rich man, but later in the story John has Nicodemus assisting Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus' burial, and Christian tradition names him as a believer.  He held rebirth to be impossible, but this did not prevent him from at least trying to follow that path.

We are assured again and again that we are not alone, that this is not our fight but God's.  So however difficult the way, we know he is with us on it and will not leave us to struggle alone.