Sunday, 27 April 2008

Fact or Fiction?

For some strange reason I’ve been thinking this week about the movie Galaxy Quest, and its relationship to fundamentalism.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s a very funny send-up of Star Trek. The cast members of “Galaxy Quest”, a long-discontinued TV science fiction series, now eke out a soul-destroying career making appearances at fan conventions and answering inane questions about the show.

After one such appearance the actor who played the Captain is approached by a group of people in Galaxy Quest uniforms saying they need his help to combat hostile aliens. Assuming it’s another request for an appearance, he accepts.

It turns out that an alien civilisation has picked up transmissions of the show, and having no concept of fiction has assumed that they are “historical documents”. In order to win their own war against insect-like alien oppressors they adopt Galaxy Quest technology, building real spaceships on the pattern of the cheesy 1970’s SF sets, modelling their uniforms and command structure on those in the show. They even invent a device to hide their octopus-like form and make themselves appear human.

Unfortunately the war is not going well, and they decide they need the Captain and crew themselves to help out. Unable to explain that it’s just a show, and touched by the faith shown in them by the aliens, these second-rate actors find themselves having to fight a real space war. At the climactic moment, the enemy ship’s commander boards the imitation Galaxy Quest ship and forces the Captain to explain what those transmissions really were. He tries once again to explain that it’s all entertainment and finally has to give up and admit “they were lies”.

Christian fundamentalists view the Bible like that. For them believing in the Bible means believing it is that kind of “historical document”. To believe the Bible one has to believe that the earth was created in six days, 6000 years ago, that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, that there really was a man called Jonah who spent three days inside a whale, and so on. The alternative, from their point of view, is that these stories are lies.

Apart from the authoritarianism and blindness generated by this point of view, the saddest thing about it is that it misses the point. Take Jesus’ parables. Even fundamentalists understand that it is pretty much irrelevant whether or not these are true stories. They are stories with a moral. There may or may not have been a kind Samaritan who helped a poor crime victim when the holy men of Israel refused – the point is that this is how we should all act towards strangers, whether of our race or not.

The same is true of those Old Testament stories. The first chapter of Genesis is a song of praise to the glory of the Creator, as shown through his creation. Whether it describes exactly what happened is beside the point. Jonah’s story is a tale about the perils of resisting God’s mission, and about the depths of God’s compassion contrasted with our petty vindictiveness. Whether Jonah really spent those three days inside the whale is beside the point. And even some of our favourite new testament stories, like the Virgin Birth…I don’t understand how God’s DNA could be transmitted in a non-sexual way, but I get the point – Jesus is God’s son in a special way which ordinary humans are not.

By asking whether these stories are true, we block off the much more useful and interesting understanding we gain from asking what they mean. I know Galaxy Quest is fiction, but its message that we can rise above ourselves, and really become what we once only pretended to be, is something I could aspire to.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Moses and the Stolen Generation

Moses, the greatest of Hebrew prophets, was a member of the first Hebrew stolen generation. As such, he brings a message of hope to current stolen generation people in Australia and around the world.

Moses’ Birth and Rescue

At the time of Moses birth, the Hebrews were a minority race in Egypt, and Pharoah had decided to reduce their numbers by having all their newborn male children thrown into the Nile. No doubt over time the women would then have no choice but to marry Egyptian men, and the Hebrews would be gradually assimilated into the Egyptian population. Sound familiar?

Of course the Hebrews didn’t just comply. Their midwives put themselves at great risk by failing to carry our Pharoah’s instructions. No doubt many mothers hid their children from the Egyptian authorities for as long as possible, and as we will see there would have been plenty of Egyptians who were prepared to help them.

Moses’ mother was one of these resisters. At first she hid her newborn child from view. When he became too big and energetic for her to get away with this, she decided on an act of token compliance – she made a little boat for him, and set him floating on the waters.

To fully understand this act, you have to think like an ancient. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, everything had its own god. The gods were all around, inhabiting and controlling the weather, the growth of crops, the change of seasons, living in every grove and stream. The Nile itself had a god, Hapi, attended by crocodiles, a fat, lazy god but one who it was best not to rouse – his fury, expressed in the regular flooding of the Nile, was a source of both life and death for Egypt.

Thus, the children thrown into the Nile were a form of sacrifice, perhaps asking the god to send his floods when needed, but not too much, and spare them both starvation and destruction. Moses’ mother, in placing her son on the water in a waterproof basket, was asking a question of Hapi. Did he truly desire these barbaric sacrifices? Would he be the angry god or would he show mercy? She let him go, reluctantly and with as much care as she could, trusting to the dubious mercy of a foreign god.

The god (or perhaps the Hebrew God who rules all the gods) did not let her down. Moses was carried downstream, washing up near where Pharoah’s daughter was bathing. I like to think (without a shred of evidence) that this was not entirely an accident, and that this is the “underground railroad” of ancient Egypt. Here’s how it worked. The baby was placed in its basket and floated downstream towards where the princess was bathing (how did they know she would be bathing there at that moment?). The baby’s older sister (in the absence of a sister, maybe a cousin or a young aunt) was left to keep watch – she could watch safely as only boys were targeted in this pogrom. The letter of the law was observed, the child was cast into the Nile. The princess saw it and feigned surprise – “What’s this? Oh, a Hebrew baby!” She sent her servant girl to fish it out, looked around and saw a young Hebrew girl watching anxiously. Even if this was not prearranged it wouldn’t take a genius to make the connection. Perhaps the princess had a sly smile as she said to the girl, “Do you happen to know a woman who might be able to take care of this child for me?”

Hence Moses was returned to his mother under the protection of Pharoah’s daughter. Now if the soldiers came around and asked what this woman was doing with a male child and why he hadn’t been cast into the Nile, she’d say “I’m caring for him on behalf of the princess,” and the name would be enough for them to check before taking the child away. Perhaps the soldiers themselves were aware of the ruse, and relieved to be spared another act of infanticide.

Moses Upbringing

In many ways Pharaoh’s daughter is like the white families who cared for Aboriginal children under the policies of forced removal in Australia. Many of these children are torn in their relations with their white families. On the one hand, they are hurt or angry that their Indigenous heritage was kept from them, and that they had no contact with their birth families. Yet aside from the cases where there was actual abuse they often have a genuine love for the foster parents who brought them up in a loving family environment. These foster parents were implementing a policy they did not make, believing that they did the right thing and acting with the best of intentions. They cannot be held entirely innocent in the Stolen Generation fiasco, but they can at least be credited with doing the best they knew how, in the circumstances and historical time they found themselves in.

Pharoah’s daughter would have been much the same. She would have been a wealthy, secure and important woman, but after all she was only a daughter in a patriarchal society. Nor do we know which daughter. The Pharoahs had multiple wives and concubines, and the comparative rank of their children would depend on the rank of their mother. The son of Pharoah’s sister-wife would be destined to inherit the throne. On the other hand, the daughter of a concubine would be a minor royal, perhaps married off at the appropriate age to an important palace official or military officer as a sign of favour and a cementing of loyalty. In any case, she would be important enough to be able to do as she pleased but have little or no influence on Pharoah’s policies – indeed, perhaps rarely even see him. She would be powerless to change Pharoah’s policy of genocide and forced labour, but she would be powerful enough to intervene in the lives of individual Hebrew boys to rescue them from this situation.

This is what she did for Moses. After his infancy in the care of his mother, she took him into her own household. This is not to suggest, as in the Hollywood movies, that he became a “Prince of Egypt” and potential successor to Pharoah. The movies subtly imply that this daughter became the sister-wife of the next Pharoah (although this is too shocking to their audiences to be spelt out) and that Moses as her supposed son became accepted as part of the royal succession. It is more likely that the situation involved a place as foster son or servant - the term “son” is often used to denote loyalty and dependence in this way – in an upper-class Egyptian household. He was brought up to be an Egyptian – to speak and write the Egyptian language, to learn Egyptian manners, and to learn a profession or occupation which would be valued in Egyptian society. He probably knew he was a Hebrew – after all, he knew his mother, and besides he would look like one – but he was taught to value his new Egyptian identity over his Hebrew one, to “walk like an Egyptian”. He was being assimilated.

Yet he could never become fully Egyptian. Even his name shows his rootlessness. The name “Moses” is Egyptian and means “son of…”. You can read it in the names of various pharaohs – Ramses the son of Ra, Thothmes the son of Thoth, and so forth – but we tend not to notice it because our typical transliterations of their names vary so much. Moses, however, was not given a prefix. He was neither exalted as a son of a god like the Pharoahs, nor named for an earthly father like an ordinary mortal. Instead, he was literally “Son of No-one”, not important enough to receive his foster father’s name, cut off from his birth culture, a man without family, people or inheritance.

Moses Chooses Sides

Moses had a cosy and protected childhood, growing up in his upper class home. He could have gone on to lead a comfortable life in Egyptian society, as perhaps many other Hebrew foster children did. Yet as a young man his conscience was bothered. He knew who he was. Perhaps from time to time he visited his mother, or she would be allowed to visit him. He saw the discrimination, the forced labour, the harsh treatment handed out to his own people, even his own relations. This was a challenge to him, a man brought up to value Egypt’s teachings and culture. Sooner or later, he had to choose sides.

In this he had a problem. While he sympathised with the Hebrew plight, he thought and acted like an upper class Egyptian. He saw their sufferings from the outside. He didn’t really understand what it meant to be a Hebrew, to be at the mercy of the Egyptian overseers. He didn’t understand how deeply rooted their oppression was in Egyptian society. Thus when he finally chose sides he did it in a disastrous way. Seeing an overseer beat a Hebrew, he killed him.

He succumbed to two temptations. First, he acted as if he could force change single-handed. Secondly, he personalised the problem, punishing a minor official without seeing the system. In doing this he placed the Hebrews at greater risk, without their knowledge or consent. Now they saw him not only as an outsider, but as a danger to their wellbeing. When he tried shortly after to settle a dispute between two Hebrews (that assumption of superiority again!), they let him know where he stood – “are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?”

His first foray into the politics of liberation was almost his last – he became an outlaw in Egypt and an outcast from his own people, forced to run for his life.

Moses finds his identity

We are told that Moses spent 40 years in exile. Aside from getting married and earning his living, what this involved was gaining wisdom. Moses was taken into the household of a Midianite priest (we are not told what god this priest served), helped to care for his sheep and married his daughter. We could assume from this that he was learning two types of wisdom – the practical wisdom of working for his living, and the spiritual wisdom learnt from his father-in-law. In the process he acquired a particular kind of identity. In any society a priest occupied a peculiar position, respected but to some extent distant and “different”, set apart from the general populace. Moses was learning how an outsider could still belong.

This process of learning culminated in the scene with the burning bush. The spiritual lessons of this scene are many and complex but think for a moment of the fire which burns but does not consume. Moses had lived without the fire, in the cold comfort of Pharoah’s daughter’s household. Then he had been consumed by the fire to take hold of him, killing the Egyptian overseer and placing himself and others at pointless risk. Now he had to learn the middle course, to live withthe passion of God which gives life, not death, which inspires rather than destroys, which does not burn out at the first inspiration but continues for as long as it takes.

We can see how much wisdom Moses had learnt by his reaction – he acknowledged his inadequacy, and asked for help. Gone is the younger man who single-handedly took on the entire Egyptian army. Nor was his faith strong enough to rely simply on God – he also craved human aid, the heart cry of a lifelong loneliness. God relented and sent his brother Aaron to be his right-hand man.

What was Moses’ role to be? It was an ideal role for a stolen generation man – he was to be the go-between. He was a man caught between not two but three cultures – his Hebrew ancestry, his Egyptian education and training, and his Midianite spiritual and marriage ties. In addition he had that extra something – the fire of God’s spirit, the fire that does not consume, that inspired him to carry through his mission. This was what made him able to serve. As a Hebrew he could be seen as one of them, and gain their trust. Because of his Egyptian education, he could communicate with the Egyptians on their own terms. Because of his exile in Midian, and his acquisition of wisdom there, he could bring something new to the situation, be a circuit breaker. But his task would not be easy, and it would not bring him personal peace, because he remained an outsider, not himself belonging in any of these cultures. He needed that slow-burning flame of God to sustain him through the trial to come.

I am intrigued by Aaron’s role in this drama. He was to be Moses’ spokesman. Why did Moses need such a spokesman? His own explanation, from Exodus 4:10, is “I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue”. One interpretation of this is that Moses had a speech impediment – that his tongue literally did not work. The second is that Moses needed an interpreter – that his Hebrew was poor because he spent too little time amongst the Hebrew people, and that his accent made him incomprehensible to the Hebrews. Aaron would thus be both his language interpreter and his cultural guide, helping him to cope in the new milieu. Many modern Stolen Generation children have benefited from similar cultural guides.

However, there were also times when Aaron played the same role between Moses and Pharoah. Surely Moses would be able to speak Egyptian? Unless his 40 years of exile had led to him losing proficiency in both languages, so that he required the fluency of someone who has spent all his life amongst the Hebrew community in Egypt – local knowledge and local language. If this is the case, Moses was even more the outsider, estranged from both his birth and his education.

There is another aspect of this relationship shown by God’s words to Moses: “It will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” Moses and Aaron were set up as a mirror image of Pharoah himself. Pharoah was seen as an incarnation of the sun god, and appeared before his people and courtiers masked, speaking and giving orders through intermediaries. By adopting the same mode of address, Moses directly challenged Pharoah, denying him the superiority of his godhood, and symbolically asserting the equality and independence of the Hebrew people and the authority of their God.

Moses had learnt another lesson from his earlier mistakes. Before he did anything else he took Aaron to talk to the elders of Israel. He announced God’s message to them, and assured them of God’s intention to force Pharoah to release them. They rejoiced, and although their feelings about the enterprise went up and down with the changing fortunes of the campaign, Moses continued to work with them, reported back to them, instructed them, reassured them. He was no longer a lone ranger, a one man band, but became both their leader and their servant.

Triumph and Tragedy

There’s no need to rehearse the story of the release – the ten plagues, Pharoah’s repeated duplicity, the final tragedy and triumph of the Passover and the escape through the Red Sea. We all know that under Moses’ leadership the Hebrews finally escaped Egypt and travelled towards the Promised Land. It is here that we see both the tragedy and triumph of Moses position.

The Children of Israel travelled from Egypt to Mt Sinai, where Moses went up the mountain to talk with God and receive the commandments. While he was away, the people persuaded Aaron (seemingly without too much difficulty) to make a god for them. “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt” they said, “we don’t know what has happened to him.” Their indifference cuts like a knife, even at this distance. Moses was an outsider and, despite what he had done for them, out of sight was out of mind. Their reverence for him and his God never struck deep, and it only took a short absence for them to turn to Aaron, one of their own, and request the kind of god they were used to – a burnished gold statue of a bull, symbol of power and glory on which so many of the Middle Eastern gods were enthroned.

Moses was incensed but nonetheless interceded with God for them, persuading him to commute their death sentence to 40 years of nomadic existence. They wandered in the wilderness, learning their own wisdom and the art of following their new God. Moses wandered with them and yet at times it seems he is not one of them. Not only was he the scapegoat when things went wrong; even when they were going OK he had his own tent outside the camp in which he talked with God. He emerged with his face veiled, moving amongst them like Pharoah, hardly one of them at all. He was unable to reveal himself fully. His people, even his own brother and sister, never fully understood him or his message.

The final tragedy came at the end of the 40 years. Moses led them to the edge of Palestine. God permitted him to look from the hills at the rich country which is to be his people’s home, but he was not allowed to enter it. He died a wanderer, never knowing rest, peace and home.

Moses and the Stolen Generation

Moses tells us a lot about the fate of the stolen generation. He teaches us that their ability to cross cultures, to bring new insights from the multiple worlds they have inhabited, can be a powerful force for good. He shows them that they have a lot to contribute, and that some of what they contribute is uniquely their own.

However, he also serves as a warning. It will not be easy. They will find that they can never settle, that they will always struggle to truly belong. He shows them that they may never ultimately find their home, their placeof rest, this side of the grave.

Yet they should not despair. God can give them a slow-burning fire, a passion for good, for justice, that burns brightly but does not burn out, that gives life and warmth without destruction, gives purpose to their pain and alienation. With the aid of this passion, this slow burn, they can become truly great. If the current generation does not appreciate their greatness, perhaps future generations will as they did when they recognised Moses as the greatest of the prophets of Israel.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Not for Sale

I just read one of those horrible books that everyone should read. It’s called Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It and it’s written by David Batstone, former editor of Sojourners magazine and long-time social activist.

Batstone reports that there are somewhere around 27 million slaves in the world today, even though slavery is not lawful anywhere in the world. This book describes how it happens. Beginning with his own discovery that his favourite Indian restaurant in San Francisco was staffed by slaves, he takes us on a tour of slavery around the world. He tells us about:

  • Young girls from poor rural communities recruited to work as waitresses or domestics in the city, only to find themselves forced to work as prostitutes
  • Family groups in South Asia imprisoned on the premises of brickworks or rice mills, forced to work long hours to pay off fictitious debts and hunted down if they try to escape
  • Children abducted to serve as soldiers and “wives” in the Lord’s Revolutionary Army in Uganda
  • Destitute women from the former Soviet republics trafficked into western Europe as sex slaves
  • Homeless children forced into brothels in downtown Lima
  • Immigrants in the USA forced to work as factory workers, prostitutes and domestic slaves.

It’s not a book of dry statistics – it intertwines brief “big picture” descriptions of various aspects of slavery with stories of real people who have been enslaved. It’s not pretty reading – the tales deception, abduction, assault, rape and economic exploitation are made more sickening by the corruption of police forces and judiciaries around the world.

Nor can people in the developed world rest easy, as Batstone’s own experience with his favourite restaurant shows. Some of the most sickening stories are about people you would expect to trust, like the American pastor who recruited Zambian children to tour the US as part of a children’s choir to help raise funds to build schools in Zambia. You can see what’s coming – the children’s parents were promised that they would be provided with education while in the US, then returned in 6 months after which the funds they helped raise would be used to build schools in their communities. In reality they were kept in the US indefinitely, forced to sing or labour for the pastor for long hours, provided with no education, and threatened with violence and imprisonment if they told anyone what was happening. Lots of money was raised, but none of it went to build schools for Zambian children!

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The stories of slavery are balanced with stories of abolitionists – organisations working to rescue and support former slaves and to prevent slavery. This is a story of individuals and small organisations that do incredible work with limited resources. The Italian priest who begins with running a shelter for women escaping sex slavery, and ends up running publicity campaigns in Moldova warning young women not to accept offers of waitressing work in Italy. The woman in Lima who runs a AIDS prevention service in Lima and offers a young boy the option of sleeping the night in her office, only to find herself unable to open the front door of the office later that night because the place is packed solid with hundreds of homeless children.

Perhaps my favourite is the Cameroon immigrant to the US who meets a teenage Cameroon girl who has just escaped from domestic slavery, and persuades her to tell him about other girls she knows in the same position. He then rings their captors’ homes during the day in the hopes of finding them home alone and helps them to escape. In the process, the first girl he rescues turns out to be the daughter of his first cousin!

All this talk of America and Europe made me wonder what the story is in Australia. A 2004 Australian Government briefing note says:

“The number of people trafficked into Australia is unknown. A recent parliamentary inquiry into sexual servitude in Australia was given varying estimates of the number of trafficked women, ranging from 300 to 1000 each year. The inquiry found that most of the women trafficked into Australia are recruited from South East Asia and China for the sex industry. According to the inquiry report, traffickers facilitate the women's entry to Australia by a range of fraudulent means, including providing visas (usually student or holiday visas), false passports and funds. The women are then sent to brothels around the country where their movements are usually restricted. It is not unknown for women to be forced to repay debts of up to $40 000.”


These numbers are small compared to the staggering numbers for the US and Europe, never mind South-East Asia. However, if Australia is like the US this won’t be the whole story – homeless children forced into the sex industry, illegal immigrants enslaved in sweatshops or imprisoned as domestic servants: it seems unlikely that we would be exempt from these outrages when they happen across the world.

Australia has recently followed the US lead and moved from treating freed slaves as illegal immigrants, providing them with bridging visas and protection if they agree to cooperate with police. However, it makes you wonder about the destination of the people smuggled in on boats via Indonesia. Where do those who are not intercepted and detained end up? Are we really detaining the criminals, or punishing the victims?

Anyway, you should read this book. We should all do our bit to stop the trade in people.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Mr Umpherston's legacy

While we were on holidays we visited Mt Gambier in South Australia, famous for its beautiful crater lakes. The lakes were indeed beautiful, and we had fun walking around them. They are the visible part of a much larger water system, most of which is underground in limestone caves and aquifers. It forms the main water source for the 23,000 residents of Mt Gambier town, and the amount of water taken out, along with falling rainfall, means that the water table has dropped and many places which were lakes when Europeans first came here are now dry craters with trees growing in the bottom.

I’m tired of worrying about climate change, and besides I was on holidays. So instead, what caught my imagination were some of the other human interventions. Just up the road from our caravan park is a stone and concrete causeway, running along the side of the road cutting and looking out over Blue Lake. It’s a bulky structure, built entirely by volunteer labour straight after the Great War. A plaque there records that 500 men volunteered their labour and 300 women brought refreshments throughout the day. Most of the structure was built in one day, with subsequent working bees over the next 12 months completing the structure including a set of steps, a 2 metre high retaining wall running for a few hundred metres, a graded pathway and a solid little turret overlooking Blue Lake. Aside from visitors scratching their names in the stone at every available spot it’s weathered remarkably well – no sagging or crumbling after 100 years. How many more recent professional constructions will weather as well?

However, I was most fascinated by Umpherston Sinkhole. A sinkhole is basically a big hole in the ground caused when the roof of an underground cave collapses. There’s lots of them around Mt Gambier, including one on the middle of town, right across the road from the town hall. Umpherston Sinkhole is so called because the surrounding land was once a cattle property owned by the Umpherston family in the mid to late 1800’s. It’s a roughly circular hole about 20 metres in diameter and maybe 30 metres deep, with rough rock sides that slope inwards so that the walls overhang the floor. The fascinating thing about it is that Mt Umpherston decided to improve it, building walkways down into it, creating a little island in the lake at its bottom (now dry) complete with tiny cabin and planting a wide variety of native and exotic plants on every available surface.

If this site were being managed now, it’s possible we may have got the walkways, but otherwise it would be seen as a precious natural site and steps would have been taken to preserve it in its original state. Visitors would be encouraged to understand the natural forces that created it, the delicate ecology which is maintained within it, and the (generally negative) impact of human activity on this ecology.

None of that nonsense for Mr Umpherston! Good Victorian gentleman that he was, he had complete confidence in his capacity to improve on nature. The barren cave could be made to bloom, new varieties of plants could be introduced, human constructions could be added, and the whole thing could be made much more productive and entertaining than mere nature could do unaided.

After Mr Umpherston’s death the property changed hands and the cave was neglected. However, his spirit has survived in surprising ways – after the site was acquired by the SA timber authority in the 1970s its staff got excited about the sinkhole, and the staff social club put a lot of time and effort into repairing his work, fixing the walkways and steps, replanting the sink floor, and erecting fences, seats and BBQs.

To our more tentative, less flamboyant eyes the result looks rather awkward, even gaudy. The variety of plants, the criss-crossing walkways and the viewing huts at different levels seem to be trying too hard to impress. Even the magnificent curtains of creeper than hang from the lip of it sink almost the whole way to the floor seem to be hiding the true grandeur of the rock walls. Yet it’s hard not to feel the loss of the optimism which created it. For us, nature has become once again the frightening force it was to humans in earlier ages, a capricious beast with which we meddle at our peril. The cavalier interventions of the past two centuries are now seen to have created a monster, to have unleashed forces of nature which have the potential to sweep us away. Perhaps, while we learn from the Victorians’ mistakes, we need to recover some of their optimism and “can do” mentality to fix the problems they created.