Saturday, 17 July 2010

My new song site

I've just spent the afternoon setting up a Wordpress site to publish the songs I've been writing for my church over the last couple of years. Nothing too flash and still some more to be posted (as well as many not written yet) but feel free to check it out and use the songs if you like them.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Joseph the Just

I'm really enjoying Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. Here's one of the little pieces in it that really struck me.

I wrote a while ago about the message of the book of Ruth being that the law should be interpreted generously and inclusively, and that being about David's ancestors this story provided a model for the governing of Israel. Bailey draws attention to a similar story about David's descendent Joseph in Matthew 1:18-19.

His (Jesus') mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because her husband was a righteous (or "just") man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

This was not just tact. The Old Testament punishment for a woman caught in adultery was stoning to death, and John 8:1-11 shows this was still practiced in the first century. Joseph, knowing that he's not the father of the child, decides to save Mary's life. Subsequently the angel's intervention convinces him to go ahead with the marriage, but Bailey suggests that Mary would not have been out of danger even then. Part of Joseph's motivation in taking Mary to Bethlehem with him despite her advanced preganancy may have been to protect her from her angry relatives at home.

The bit of this story that jars is the use of the word "just" or "righteous" to describe Joseph's action. Why not "kind" or "merciful"? Surely the "just" thing to do is to apply the law without fear of favour, equally to all people? To explain this, Bailey quotes Isaiah 42:3

A bruised reed he will not break
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Here, in Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant who will save Israel, is a version of justice which is not about retribution or equal application of the law, but about the protection of the weak. Joseph, the descendent of David and of Ruth and Boaz, lives by this kind of justice. He is prepared to lower his own dignity in order to protect a defenceless young woman, even before he understands the significance of her pregnancy. He would be within his rights, and upheld by his community, if he insisted on her stoning. Instead he steps out against his community and humiliates himself in order to carry out God's version of justice.

Like Boaz, Joseph is a precursor and shows in a small way the kind of justice God wants in the wider world, writ large by his son Jesus. God is not a law enforcer. His desire is not to hand out justice in an even-handed, impartial way. Instead, God's justice is about protection, mercy and love. We do not flee to the protection of the Son from the hard hand of the Father, because the Son reveals the Father's true justice, as shown here by Joseph right at the start of the story.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Martin Luther King and Blues Music

I recently read Strength to Love, a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King. I was blown away by his eloquence, the coherence of his vision and by his passion. There are quotable quotes on every page. I'll give you a few to whet your appetite.

God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. (from "A Tough Mind and a Tender heart")

The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a non-comforming minority. (from "Transformed Non-conformist")

Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent. (from "Love in action")

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. (from "Loving your enemies")

If an American is concerned only about his nation, he will not be concerned about the peoples of Asia, Africa or South America. Is this not why nations engage in the madness of war without the slightest sense of penitence?...The good neighbour looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers. (from "On being a good neighbour" - I'm sure this applies to Australians too!)

King is known as an activist, not as a thinker, and his gift was to present ideas in a way that moved his listener and reader to action. A lot of these sermons deal in one way or another with the issue of racism and racial segregation which was his special mission. Yet his concerns were much wider - with theology, war, greed, all the evils which beset both his time and ours.

He had plenty of emotion, but he was also highly educated, and built his arguments carefully and thoughtfully, appealing to the mind as well as the heart. This is perhaps one of the reasons he was able to unite black and white opponenets of racial secregation. He could speak both languages, and speak to everyone. He lived what he preached, responding to people as people.

Last night I watched something else that reminded me of this - a DVD called Red, White and Blues, one of a series produced by Martin Scorcese. It tells the story of how blues music crossed the Atlantic and was taken up by white British musicians. In the USA, racial segregation meant that few white people heard this music, and the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and BB King were relatively unknown in the 1960s. However, in the UK (even though racism was alive and well) there was no such segregation, and the white boys who fell in love with this music - people like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the original members of Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones - were often hooked before they even realised it was played by black people.

Eventually these musicians became famous enough in the UK to try their luck in the United States. Of course they were allowed to play white venues, and white kids who enjoyed their music soon learned where it came from and went looking for the originals - the black bluesmen still plying their trade in small clubs around the country.

Music has no race. White men get the blues in just the same way as black men. Neither Mick Jagger nor Muddy Waters was a saint, but there they are on the cover of Red, White and Blues, sharing a stage and even a microphone as they indulge in their common passion. They've looked beyond the external accidents, and discovered their common humanity through their music.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Changing Prime Ministers

Us Aussies are still a little dazed at the sudden replacement of our Prime Minister on June 24th. After a few weeks of low level rumours about a challenge to his leadership, it was announced on Wednesday and was all over by Thursday, with Kevin Rudd not even contesting the vote in the end as he realised he was a long way off having the numbers. The coup is unprecedented in that Rudd is still in his first term, was hugely popular up until the last 12 months, and hasn't been caught out in any sort of misconduct. His failure is purely political - his party just decided that they couldn't win the next election with him as leader. Our new PM, Julia Gillard, has immediately set about getting rid of the various issues standing between her and success.

A lot of people have expressed admiration for Julia Gillard as both the first woman and the first redhead to become Australian Prime Minister, and at her apparently more personable, natural style of relating to people. Even when Rudd was still popular we all loved to laugh at the way he lurched between incomprehensible jargon and lame attempts at Aussie idiom (fair shake of the sauce bottle, Kev!).

Others have expressed outrage or even bafflement at how our elected head of state could be deposed mid-term. I've dealt with this one before in relation to the Queensland parliament. A quick recap - Australia has no elected head of state, it has the Queen of England, represented in Australia by the Governor-General. Short of an armed revolution, we can only depose the Queen through a referendum and last time we were offered the chance to do so we refused, mainly because the offered alternative was so lame. Since the Queen's role is mainly ceremonial, the power actually rests with the Prime Minister (literally, the First Minister of the Queen) who is elected by the dominant party in parliament, not by the people. The party placed him there, the party can remove him. Strictly, his only elected position is that of parliamentarian, and last time I looked Kevin Rudd was still the Member for Griffith, just a couple of kilometres down the road from my house.

So how could it all go wrong for poor old Kev, and why did his party decide not to give him a fair shake of the sauce bottle by allowing him to lead them to another election? Theories abound. He was seen as dictatorial, not communicating with his ministers, centralising control in his own hands, sidelining Cabinet in favour of his four-person Strategic Priorities Committee, being a bottleneck for all sorts of decisions which should really have been made by someone else. Some have made it even more personal - a devastating essay by David Marr a couple of weeks before his fall characterised him as driven by deep-seated anger, and some of the press coverage since has portrayed him as somewhere between a sociopath and an Aspergers sufferer.

No doubt Kev does have his faults but I'd be surprised to find Julia Gillard was any more of a saint. There's no time like straight after a fall to bring out the knives. However, given that this is a government and the Australian people are not as stupid as our media often like to make out, I'd suggest that his fall in the polls and subsequent dumping by the party might have something to do with the way he's been governing.

When the Rudd government was elected, I and many other people were excited by four things - an overall willingness to look at grand reform and big ideas, symbolised by the 2020 Summit, and specifically Rudd's determination to respond to climate change, the prospect of more humane treatment of asylum seekers, and the promised apology to the Stolen Generations. In the first year or 18months of their term things went well. The apology happened to great rejoicing, there was a marginal but worthwhile easing of the laws on asylum seekers, Australia signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and played a leading role in trying to broker a deal at Copenhagen, and the 2020 Summit floated a number of big ideas including a "root and branch" reform of the tax system. In addition, the Government's big-spending response to the global financial crisis was seen as instrumental in averting recession as well as delivering great infrastructure.

However, 12 months later things look a lot less rosy. The government has indefinitely postponed the introduction of its carbon trading scheme and has no Plan B for addressing carbon pollution. A recent increase in the number of boatloads of asylum seekers has led to a toughening of laws, overcrowded detention centres and more refugees with uncertain futures - we are back to punishing the victims and it's not a good look. The government's health reforms look like reshuffling the bureaucratic deckchairs rather than actually improving healthcare. Reports of grossly overpriced school infrastructure projects refuse to go away despite the government insisting (without presenting any evidence) that the projects are really value for money.

And the biggest disappointment of all? Tax reform. The Henry review produced a report including 138 recommendations. Instead of releasing this and allowing public discussion, the government held onto it for months and released the report and its own response simultaneously. It accepted just three of the recommendations, and the only one with any real impact was a major new tax on the mining industry. Cue a $50m ad campaign by some of Australia's richest companies. But lurking behind this explosive debate was a deeper disappointment. Our reforming, participatory government had turned timid and aloof, trying to shut down debate and maintaining the status quo while making seemingly random one-off reforms.

So Rudd is gone. Will Gillard be any better? We can only wait and see, but the fact that she was Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the Strategic Priorities Committee suggests that she helped make all the mistakes listed above. As Education Minister she was responsible for the delivery of the school infrastructure program. The key question is, what will she and her party learn from the last year? Will they be able to regain momentum on reform? Will they be able to deliver on the promise of inclusive and open government which seems to have been abandoned? Only time will tell, but I certainly hope so!

Friday, 2 July 2010

Outside of the Inside

I've been listening (again) to one of my favourite songwriters, Richard Thompson, who is also one of the more famous Western adherants of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. This is one of my favourites, Outside of the Inside, from the 2003 album "The Old Kit Bag". Have a listen here.

God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain.
Blasphemer, womaniser
Let a needle numb his pain.
Wash away his monkey music
Damn his demons, damn his pain.

What's the point of Albert Einstein?
What do we need physics for?
Heresy's his inspiration
Corrupt and rotten to the core.
Curse his devious mathematics,
Curse his deadly atom war.

Chorus
There's a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere.
There are signs to deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air.
And when I get to heaven
I won't realise that I'm there.

Shakespeare, Isaac Newton,
Small ideas for little boys.
Adding to the senseless chatter,
Adding to the background noise.
Hard to hear my oratory
Hard to hear my inner voice.

Van Gogh, Botticelli,
Scraping pain onto a board.
Colour is the fuel of madness
That's no way to praise the Lord.
Grey's the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord.

I'm familiar with the cover
I don't need to read the book.
I police the world of action
Inside's where I never look
Got no time to help the worthless
Lotus eaters, mandarins, crooks.

There's a message on the wind...

He describes this song as "a Taliban's-eye view of the world" but adds that he's not a fan of any form of fundamentalism. This song suggests why and in his caustic way it serves as both a tribute and a critique. A tribute to those whose efforts have enriched our ways of seeing the world, and a critique of those who refuse to look. The works of Parker, Einstein, Van Gogh and Shakespeare, human as they were, give us little glimpses of heaven. Yet if we refuse to look, one day we may find ourselves in heaven and not even recognise it.