Monday, 24 December 2012

The Magic of Christmas

We often hear talk about "the magic of Christmas".  Usually it has something to do with elves and flying reindeer and Santa Claus breaking into your house through the ceiling vent.  However, we shouldn't forget that the original Christmas story (you know, the one with Jesus in it) also features magicians.  Here they are, in the NIV translation of Matthew 2.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Herod consults with his scholars and suggests they try Bethlehem, then asks them to report back to him after they have found the child.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

English translators have struggled with this little group of people over the centuries.  The NIV wimps out and just uses the original Greek word, Magi.  What is a Magus, though?  The King James bible, and many others since, translated the term as "wise men".  JB Phillips renders them as "astrologers".  The Message calls them "a band of scholars". 

The Greek word magus (plural "magi") originally applied to followers of the Persian religious teacher Zoroaster, whose teachings (at least in the popular mind) included an ability to both tell the future by the stars and manipulate that future.  Over time the term came to be used more broadly of those who practiced various forms of magic - astrology, divination, alchemy and other esoteric arts. 

The magi were generally viewed with suspicion in the ancient world, but their arts could also be seen as useful and powerful people would turn to them for help or advice.  The two other times magi appear in the New Testament they are clearly enemies.  In Acts 8 Peter has an encounter with Simon Magus who both the King James and NIV translate as someone who "used sorcery".  Simon loses his following when the apostles arrive on the scene and he tries to buy their healing power from them, earning a stern rebuke from Peter.  He lived on in later Christian tradition as an implacable opponent of Peter and the apostles. 

The other , "Elymas the sorcerer", appears in Acts 13 as an advisor to the Roman official Sergius Paulus.  He opposes the apostle Paul and is struck blind, convincing Paulus to become a follower of Jesus.

These stories represent the more typical Christian attitude to magic as something to be combated, as a suspect source of knowledge to be displaced by the true knowledge of God. 

Matthew's portrayal could not be more different.  It's no wonder the English translators went searching for a different word.  For a start, their science is implicitly praised.  Their astrological knowledge leads them correctly to Jesus' birthplace, and correctly identifies him as King of the Jews.  Furthermore they come to worship, not to compete, and bring appropriate gifts. 

Later Christian traditions recognised the difference, and embroidered their tale to great effect.  They were generally portrayed as three men (no doubt to match the three gifts) although in some versions there were 12.  They were given names.  In the Western tradition they were known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, respectively from Persia, Ethiopia and Arabia, while Eastern traditions gave them other names.  In some versions they were promoted from magicians to kings. 

Sometimes they were portrayed as representing various regions - one from Europe, one from Asia, one from Africa to represent the three continents which adjoin Palestine, all the gentile nations bowing before the King of the Jews.  Early Chinese christians saw them as coming from China, giving themselves a role in the story.  Their gifts also had prophetic significance - gold symbolising Jesus' kingship, frankincense his priesthood and myrrh his suffering.

Matthew didn't put this story here by accident.  He starts his book with Jesus' genealogy, establishing his royal Jewish heritage.  Yet the first people to pay him homage are these Gentile sorcerers, these suspicious practitioners of the dark arts.  As Christians, this story reminds us to put aside our prejudices, to stop demonising those whose knowledge comes from sources we don't trust.  Jesus didn't come into a safe little Jewish cocoon, he came into the wide world, with all its diversity, all its varied practices and varied ethnicities, all its diverse and fascinating sciences, arts and wisdoms.  He came to challenge orthodoxy, not reinforce it.  Everyone is welcome here, and each can add to our store of wisdom.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Sickness unto Death

And now for something completely different...Soren Kierkegaard was an early/mid 19th century Danish theologian, famous as one of the founding figures of what came to be called existentialism before this philosophical school became associated with atheism in the 20th century. 

Kierkegaard trained in theology and toyed with the idea of becoming a pastor in the State Church of Denmark, finally deciding not to follow through.  He also toyed with marriage before breaking off the engagement.  In the end he lived most of his life on the proceeds of an inheritance from his father, acting as a theological and intellectual gadfly, at odds with his church and his society. 

Over his life he published a number of theological works  Many were published under fanciful pseudonyms that seemed designed to suggest he was not fully committed to their content, that they were coats he tried on to see how they looked.  The Sickness unto Death is published under the name Anti-Climacus, "edited by Soren Kierkegaard".

Unlike John Stott, Kierkegaard does not set out to make his writing accessible.  The Sickness unto Death is a mere 130 pages long, but it took me over a week to struggle through it and I'm not sure I really understood it properly.  Yet I've been thinking about it ever since, puzzling over its meaning and its significance.  Here's the best I can make of it.

Appropriately, Kierkegaard himself starts with a puzzle.  In John 11, when Jesus was asked to come and attend to Lazarus, he assured his disciples, "this sickness is not unto death".  Yet Lazarus did in fact die, and even though Jesus raised him again he surely died a second time.  So what did Jesus mean? 

For in human terms death is the last thing of all, and in human terms hope exists only as long as there is life; but to Christian eyes death is by no means the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life....

But then Christianity has discovered in its turn a misery which humanity as such does not know exists.  This misery is the sickness unto death.

This misery is what Kierkegaard labels "despair".   By this he doesn't mean the type of mental illness we would call depression, from which he himself appears to have suffered.  He means the existential despair of being separated from God which he holds is a universal human experience.  This separation is what death means for a Christian.

Different people, he says, experience despair in different ways.  Some are not even aware of it.  They go on living upright, respectable lives, even think they are Christians, without once experiencing the pang of conscious despair.  Yet their despair is all the more real for their lack of awareness of it. 

For others, they experience despair but work hard to deny it, pushing it away and trying to go on with their lives as if it doesn't exist. 

As a third option, some people accept that they are in despair and wallow in it, willfully maintaining their seperation from God with full awareness of what they are doing.

It doesn't seem to be an option to not be in despair, only to become conscious of your despair and act appropriately.  So what is the solution?  Kierkegaard doesn't spell it out in so many words, but in the second part of the book he equates despair with sin.

Sin is: before God in despair not to want to be oneself, or before God in despair to want to be oneself.

In following this definition of sin, he throws aside much of what we would normally understand to be good and evil.  Certainly, he says, all the things we commonly think of as sinful are part of sin - murder, adultery, theft, etc - but these things are sin because they are contrary to God's command.  They are not intrinsically sinful because there is no such thing as intrinsic sin.  They are only sinful in relation to God.

But often this fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked.  The latter (the idea that virtue is the opposite of sin) is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God.  No, the opposite of sin is faith, which is why in Romans 14:23 it says: 'whatsoever is not of faith, is sin'.  And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity: that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.

This then is his answer.  There is no middle ground, no moderate way, no set of deeds we can do which will solve our despair.  We cannot work our way through it, or reason our way past it, or push it away. We would be foolish to embrace it as if it were a good thing.  We can only stand before God in full consciousness of our despair - that is of our sin - and trust his mercy.  We can only have faith.  Nothing else will do.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Guns Kill People

We woke up this morning to read about yet another mass shooting in the USA.  In an all too familiar story, a young man with no criminal history has gone on a shooting rampage in a school in Connecticut, killing 26 people including 20 children before turning the the military-style rifle on himself.

It's a tragedy for the children and families involved, including the family of the killer who started his rampage by killing his mother and ended it with his own death.  It should also be a political scandal of the first order.  How did an ordinary, and obviously disturbed, young man get his hands on a piece of powerful military hardware?  Why, after so many such killings, are gun laws still unchanged and all these weapons still lying around in suburban homes?

It's not often I praise former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but my American readers should take note of how he responded in a similar situation.

On 28 April 1996 a young man named Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage at Port Arthur, a former penal colony which is now one of Tasmania's most popular tourist attractions.  He killed 31 people and injured another 19.  My own feeling of sickness at the event was heightened by the fact my family and I had been there ourselves less than two weeks previously.  Yet such a brush with fate wasn't needed for Australians to be shocked.  Nothing like this had happened in Australia since the 19th century.

Howard, not long installed as Prime Minister, acted immediately.  He rallied Australia's State premiers to the cause and passed new, much tougher gun laws, restricting ownership and sale of a wide range of firearms.  He also introduced a time limited buy-back scheme for the now illegal firearms.  Protests from Australia's version of the gun lobby (financially supported by their much more powerful US counterparts) were summarily dismissed and the new laws were in operation by October 1996.  Any nonsense about "guns don't kill people, people do" was dismissed for the idiocy it is.  Bryant would have been a lot less deadly with a knife.

In the next 12 months over 600,000 firearms were handed over to government authorities.  In some States they could be handed in at stations where they would be destroyed in plain sight, placed on a conveyor belt and crushed while their former owners, and other curious onlookers, watched.

Of course this measure didn't end violent crime in Australia.  It didn't even end shootings.  It did show that Australians are not tolerant of such crime.  A 2002 incident at Monash University at which a mentally ill student shot two of his fellow students resulted in further tightening of gun laws.  Organised criminals, of course, can and do possess illicit firearms, but it is virtually impossible for an ordinary person to get the hardware for the kind of shooting that took place last night in Connecticut. 

So, my American friends, turn your shock and grief into action.  Don't let the gun lobby and the ridiculous right get away with rhetoric about freedom and democracy and the sanctity of the constitution.  Don't let Obama, who no longer needs their votes, get away with inaction.  If your congressional representatives try to block legislation, sue them for the deaths of the next group of children killed in such a massacre.  Any country which tolerates a legal right to acquire instruments of mass murder is crazy. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Radical Disciple

For over 50 years, up until his death in 2011, John Stott was a leader of the worldwide Evangelical movement.  He was a key author of the Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelisation in 1974 (he was chair of the drafting committee) and central to the subsequent spin-offs and supplementary statements.

Stott was an ever-present eminence in my youth, an evangelical authority who was assumed to be right until he could be positively proven to be wrong.  You would be hard put to find such proof - his writings are careful and considered, marshalling evidence before laying out a modest, logical conclusion.  His sermons - to which we listened on cassette tapes - were masterpieces of the art of condensing complex subject matter into four alliterative points for easy recall.  He was not so much an original theologian as a gifted teacher, able to explain complex concepts in simple lay terms.

He was a good role model for young evangelicals.  He didn't despise learning but nor did he flaunt it.  He avoided extremes, treated opposing viewpoints with respect, always played the ball not the man.  He also lived what he taught.  He never sought high office in the church, even though he would have made a good bishop, and lived all his life on a modest stipend from his London parish while allocating his substantial book royalities to the charities he founded.

To my mind, though, his biggest contribution to the evangelical movement was his focus on holistic discipleship. For him, it wasn't enough for Christians to preach the gospel - we also had to practice it, to live as far as possible the way Jesus intended.  This led him to adopt and adapt many of the findings of liberation theology into an evangelical context.  In my youth I thought he was too tame and conservative - I still do in many ways - but he was a key influence in moving evangelicals away from a myopic focus on conversion to a concern with justice and human wellbeing.

All these thoughts are prompted by a 50th birthday gift from my friend Trevor of Stott's final book, The Radical Disciple.  I'm not sure why it's taken me until after my 51st birthday to read it, but I have a lot of books on my shelf waiting to be read.  Written when he was not far short of 90, the book is shot through with mortality.  Stott was living in an aged care facility as he wrote it, having broken his hip not long previously in a fall.  He knew he did not have much life left and this would be his last book, and his post-script is a typically self-effacing final farewell to his readers, thanking them for their encouraging letters and explaining the details of his literary will.

This is a deceptively simple book, because although you could read it in a single sitting, it would take a lifetime to put it into practice.  Stott summarises what he sees as the essence of Christian discipleship.  What sort of people should we be striving to become as Christians?  He allows himself eight points rather than four.

Non-conformity for Stott is the mid-point between escapism - a desire to run away from the world - and conformity, a desire to blend in.  Christians are called to live in the world, but to live by Christ's standards even if these are different from those of our neighbours.

Christ-likeness follows directly from this, trying to model our lives on the standard Christ set for us.  This involves us learning humility, service of others, unconditional love, and devotion to our mission.  These things in themselves can be the study of a lifetime, and fortunately he reminds us that we have God's help, and the presence of his Spirit, to guide us.

Maturity is one of Stott's signature themes and the focus of much of his ministry.  His complaint about the church throughout his life was that while the numbers of Christians have increased around the world, so often our Chrisitianity is only skin deep.  We have limited knowledge of our faith, and practice only its most obvious disciplines.  He is particularly focused on Bible study and knowledge, but his meassage could be extended - maturity in prayer, in moral judgement, in theological and political discernment.

Creation care for Stott is a key aspect of living in God's world in the 21st century.  God has put us on earth with the task of caring for it and its creatures, and we need to acknowledge we are failing in that task, and learn to do better.

The chapter on simplicity is drawn from the Lausanne Movement's Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which Stott chaired in 1980.  It touches on our care for creation, our concern to eradicate proverty, our building a new kind of community in the Church, our personal commitment to simplicity, and our desire for justice.  He has no expectation we will acheive this in this life, but believes we should try.

His sixth concept, balance, is quite nuanced and complex.  He points out three dichotomies - between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, between worship and work, and between pilgrimage towards God and citizenship in this world.  For Stott, these are not choices to be made, but elements of our life to be held in balance.

Dependence is perhaps something Stott was well qualified to talk about in his declining years, dependent as he was on others for many of his daily needs.  However, he points out that we are all dependent - on God for our very life, and on one another.  A fierce independence is not a virtue, it is a weakness we need to address.

Death is the final item in Stott's list.  Jesus says if we follow him we need to be willing to take up our cross, and he was not talking metaphorically.  For many Christians persecution and even martyrdom is a reality.  Yet even for those of us who live in safety, mortality is always with us, and part of Christian discipleship is to look it in the face and accept that only through our death can we truly live.

Stott faced his death with equanimity.  He also left us a legacy, both in his writings and in his example.  If we could follow just a small part of it, we would be a genuine blessing to the world around us.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

No News on Climate Change

Most of you will probably be aware that the United Nations Doha Climate Change Conference is lumbering to a close.  Delegates sit in air-conditioned comfort in a country which is perhaps a small foretaste of our future world and struggle to make decisions that are in some way meaningful.

As a result, we have been getting updates on the latest findings of climate science, and the results are not pretty.  Data on increases in emissions, rises in sea levels and trends in average global temperatures are all worse than expected.  Melting permafrost adds an element to warming that most models didn't include because of previously inconclusive evidence. 

Climate scientists are pessimistic about our ability to acheive the objective of keeping warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2100, and 4 degrees is being discussed.  A recent World Bank report suggests the human consequences of such a rise would be catastrophic.  Here's a bit of what they say.

Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries...

No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change.  However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt...

A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. 

Warming of 4°C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2°C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.

In other words, climate change is a slow moving train wreck, which will make us all poorer and be a genuine disaster for those who are already poor.  We can minimise it if we act, but we definitely need to act soon.

Meanwhile in Canberra our political leaders have been fully focused on sorting out the important question of what Julia Gillard did or didn't know when she acted as legal representative for the AWU 20 years ago.  Not only did our Prime Minister need to stay home from Doha to sort this issue out,  Climate Change Minister Greg Combet needed to stay home to help.  I'm not sure who is representing Australia in Doha.  

Nor am I sure who is representing any other country. The most important question facing global leaders is being left in the hands of officials who do not have the authority to commit their countries to anything they have not already decided to do. Not surprisingly, it looks as though the result will be what diplomats might refer to as "modest progress".

It so happened that the talks coincided with Australia playing South Africa in the third cricket test in Perth, so instead of the ABC news which at least mentions such things I watched Channel 9.  While some of the alarming research reports released to coincide with the conference were reported, complete with dramatic stock footage of things that look like affects of global warming, the conference itself was not even mentioned.  Obviously there was no decent footage from the conference to be had.  So a large part of the Australian public is likely to be unaware the conference is even happening.

I think this story trumps the absurd cruelty of our country's treatment of asylum seekers as the worst news story of the year.  Both stories leave me feeling frustrated, helpless and angry but the crime involved in neglecting climate change is on such a huge scale it would be hard to imagine anything worse. 

So how is it that we are so sanguine about it?  How is that this comes as just one news story among arguments about 20 year old scandals, interest rate cuts, petty crime and cute animals?  The ABC's Jonathan Green has some thoughts on the subject.  Firstly this:

The problem is of course one of both the scale of the threat and its contemporary invisibility. We are talking about a trend, a prospect, a probability. One that is boggling. Barely conceivable. That both admits idiotic and ideologically motivated "doubt" and subtly invalidates the issue in the eyes of a news media that favours the instantaneous, graphic and loud. If the consequences predicted for 2100 were happening now, well ... then we'd have a story.

The second he quotes from Fairfax journalist Chris Feikin.

Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world's corporations and nations have already quantified and have the legal right to exploit, 80 per cent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within 2 degrees.

Incredulity, distance in space and time and multinational corporations with vested interest in the status quo make a powerful combination.  Doha will pass, there will be a lull in press on the subject and we will be able to spend the summer sitting in front of our fans watching the cricket.  The global warming train wreck will roll slowly on.  Who will be powerful enough, and long sighted enough, to stop it?

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Arab Awakening

Like most people, I guess, I've been following the news from the Middle East over the past two years - the non-violent rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, the protests and bloody repression in Bahrain, Yemen and many other countries, the decades-long conflict in Palestine.  I understand what's happening on the surface, but my knowledge is skin deep, because I know so little about the societies in which they are taking place.

Not so Tariq Ramadan.  His maternal grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his father a prominent Brotherhood figure who was exiled under President Nasser.  He grew up in Switzerland, becoming one of the Western world's leading Islamic scholars.  If anyone is qualified to interpret what's going on for Western readers, it's Tariq Ramadan.

Not that he's unbiased.  He has at times been persona non grata in the US for his outspoken criticism of American and Israeli policy.  He is not necessarily a friend of the European powers despite having lived there all his life.  Yet he is also viewed with suspicion in much of the Middle East.  Certainly it would be hard to accuse him of not being independent.

The Arab Awakening was written in early 2012, as events were still unfolding in much of the Middle East.  Mubarak had fallen but Morsi was still to be elected.  Ghaddafi had been killed but the rebellion in Syria was only just beginning to descend into full-scale civil war.  Events have moved on since he wrote, and perhaps if he was writing now he would say some different things.  (Indeed, you can read some of his more recent thoughts on his blog). Nevertheless, he shines a bright light on some aspects of these stories that lurk in the background of the mainstream Western news coverage.

For a start, he provides an often critical analysis of the role of the US and European powers.  He highlights the fact that while the rebellions across the Middle East were spontaneous in their immediate causes, the groundwork for non-violent protest had been laid through training provided to young activitists by the leaders of the 1998 Serbian uprising that removed Slobodan Milosevic.  These training sessions, funded by US agencies and non-profits, taught about the principles of non-violent protest and the use of social media to galvanise demonstrators.  Armed with these tools, participants became the leaders of the subsequent protest movements. 

The US motivation for this training is not always clear.  Why train protestors to overthrow regimes like Mubarak's in Egypt or Ben Ali's in Tunisia which protected US interests?  Ramadan concludes that the US knew these regimes were shaky as their long-term leaders aged, and wanted to have a hand in the succession.  Yet he doesn't leave it there.  Why did the US and Europe support the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia, while remaining aloof as protests in Bahrain and the other petro-monarchies were mercilessly crushed?  Why did NATO provide military support for the Libyan rebels (led by figures who had only recently defected from the Ghaddafi regime) but stay hands-off in Syria?  His conclusion is that, unsurprisingly, US rhetoric promotes freedom and democracy but its actions promote its own economic and strategic interests.

All this is just the prelude to his main question: what kind of societies will emerge from these rebellions?  For him, it is not enough for the protestors to have some tools and methods, or for the new political leaders to hammer out new clauses in a constitution.  They need to be able to build a political culture and approach which will fit for their own societies - a distinctive Islamic polity for predominantly Islamic societies.

In our mainstream media this question is usually portrayed as a contest between Islamists and secularists, but for Ramadan it is more complex than that.  For a start, secularism doesn't mean the same thing in the Middle East and North Africa as it does for us.  In European countries and their colonies it meant the seperation of church and state and the removal of church power from government.  In the Middle East, starting with Ataturk's Turkey, it meant the subjugation of religion to the State and government supervision of religious teaching.  Hence, it became an aspect of oppression.

Nor is Islamism the monolithic demon we perceive it to be.  Ramadan points out that there are 30 different schools of legal interpretation in Islam.  Commentators in the West and in Israel frequently claim that Islam is inherently violent and extreme.  Here is part of Ramadan's reponse.

Early on, two interpretations of religious practice sprang up: that which applied teachings to the letter without taking either context or easing into account and that which considered not only these factors but also the need for flexibility in the social context of the day, not to mention instances of need and/or necessity.  The overwhelming majority of scholars and of Muslims around the world (whether Sunni or Shiite, irrespective of legal school) have promoted and followed the path of moderation and flexibility in the practice of their religion.

Hence for Ramadan, Islamism needs to find a way to build on this tradition of moderation.  He rejects the path of Osama Bin Laden, who he says was always a marginal political figure in the Middle East, and of the Iranian Islamic Republic which has disappointed the hopes of Islamists by becoming just another corrupt dictatorship and attributing infallibility to certain religious leaders in violation of Islam.  If he has a model for Islamic government then the closest visible manifestation of it is Turkey, where Islamic principles are held side by side with democracy, pluralism and engagement with the wider world. 

Hence we find him, at the end of the book, advocating policies which address education, empowerment of women, pluralism, respect for minority religions and communities, and engagement with the wider world.  He also calls for a deepening of Islamic spirituality beyond mere legalism and repetition of formulae.  Western liberalism, he says, is in crisis, unable to solve the pressing problems of our globalised world.  It would be a huge mistake for Islamic societies to blindly replicate a model that is failing.  By reaching into their own Islamic roots they have the potential to make a unique and positive contribution to solving these problems.

No doubt some of my readers will be unable to hear Ramadan's message.  Anything Islamic is automatically suspect.  Islam frightens us, and we want to either run or fight.  Anyone who criticizes Israel must be silenced or shouted down.  Yet if we fail to listen to voices like Ramadan's, we may in the end be forced to listen much harsher, angrier and less thoughtful ones.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Cultures of Abuse

Obviously I was a bit fired up when I wrote a few days ago about George Pell's response to the announcement of the Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse.  One of the things I was trying to say, though, is that cultures of abuse are widespread and not at all confined to the church. 

One example I cited was the recent and still ongoing Peter Slipper/James Ashby affair.  For those who haven't heard, Peter Slipper resigned from the Liberal Party to take on the job of Speaker in Australia's hung parliament, and was subsequently accused of sexual harassment by a member of his staff, James Ashby.

The accusation was a hot political issue because Slipper's defection shored up Labor's thin majority.  It's quite possible that Ashby's accusations are malicious and he certainly didn't help himself by conferring with senior Liberal Party figures before going public. 

Nonetheless, the way the Labor Party turned on him and set out to discredit him was quite disturbing, because what if he is telling the truth?  What if he, a junior employee, has in fact been harassed by his boss, a powerful political figure?  The risk he has been victimised for making a genuine complaint is quite high, and if so our Labor politicians will be shown to be no better than the Catholic heirarchy which has protected its abusive priests at the expense of their vulnerable victims.

The reason this sticks in my mind is that I know very well that Australian political culture is highly tolerant of abuse, particularly verbal abuse.  I experienced this quite regularly in my 12 years in local government, and I know from employees in various local and state governments that it is widespread and if not openly then at least tacitly condoned.  It is not confined to a single political party or a particular level of government, it's everywhere.  The more senior the political figure, the more acceptable it is seen to be.

I was quite shocked the first time I saw it happen.  I hadn't been in the organisation long and had to front up to a senior councillor along with some colleagues and provide progress reports on our work.  The person we were reporting to sat impatiently through part of the presentation, then seized on something one of my colleagues said and started quizzing him about it.  The answers didn't satisfy, and the councillor tore strips off the staff member about the quality of his work.  My colleagues told me this usually happened in those meetings.  We all dreaded them, but had no choice. 

As time went on, I was often on the receiving end of such behaviour - not from all councillors and not all the time, but frequently enough to add an edge of stress to any working week.  Senior officers reassured me it was not personal and that it was just part of life in  the council.  Over time I got used to it - I still found it stressful but I learnt how to deal with it, how to stick to my guns when I needed to, screen out the verbal aggression and respond to the content of what they were saying, and leave it behind me when I left the room.  I even came to like some of the senior figures who were prone to this behaviour because I also saw their good sides.  Like others, I came to see it as normal.

But then, I am a fairly resilient person.  I've had a good education and a secure family life, by the time I joined that organisation I was an experienced professional and I generally knew more about the subject at hand than anyone else in the room.  I'd also worked for three years in child protection, where you cop a lot worse.  So I didn't really take much damage from the whole experience.

Others weren't so lucky.  Staff would often emerge in tears from such meetings.  We all knew presentations to Councillors and especially groups of them were stressful events, and tended to encourage before and check in after to see if it went OK.  For some it was worse.  One councillor went through advisers at a great rate.  Another had a long-term administrative staff member redeployed after she complained about his behaviour - she was given another job, but nothing happened to the councillor concerned despite a long record of abusive behaviour.  My predecessor left the organisation after six months because she was not prepared to put up with it.

Of course all this is at the low end of abuse compared to the issues the Royal Commission will investigate.  Yet there is a fair bit in common with more serious kinds of abuse.  The abusers were powerful people, their victims were not.  The abusers were not intrinsically bad or malicious but they were immersed in this culture and acted according to its rules.  The victims were not allowed to fight back or deliver abuse in kind, and were told by their superiors that they just had to live with it.  If people didn't like it or refused to put up with it they just had to leave. 

In other words, this was a culture of abuse.  Such cultures exist in most, if not all, of our elected governments.  Public servants are treated like this every day.  Our politicians and many senior public servants think that's OK.  I'm sorry, but I don't.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse

So, after years of discussion we are to have not merely a Royal Commission into the Catholic Church's response to sexual abuse in its ranks, but into abuse in all institutions.  Poor Nicola Roxon gets the unenviable task of designing a set of terms of reference for this behemoth. An Irish judicial inquiry into the same issue took 9 years.  We can expect a lot more on this story before it is over and a lot more people will end up with red faces.

I don't envy Roxon her task.  Our society includes a lot of institutions.  The Catholic Church has been in the news a lot recently and there are many harrowing tales of abuse by priests.  Still the government is right, this is not only a Catholic problem.  Only a few years ago, claims of abuse in the Anglican church in Brisbane revealed similar horror stories, and similar lack of comprehension by senior church leaders.  Former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth lost his job as Governor-General as a result of his astonishingly insensitive public comments on the subject. 

Nor should we forget the risks in non-religious institutions.  In 2000 Queensland Labor MP Bill Darcy was convicted of child sexual assaults committed while he was a teacher in a rural state school.  And in 1993 former Queensland opposition leader Keith Wright was jailed for child sex offences committed while he was in parliament.  I'm assuming that parliaments will also be among the list of institutions to be examined, especially since the recent James Ashby/Peter Slipper debacle (albeit Ashby is not a child) shows that our politicians, like our church leaders, are just as likely to turn on the victims as the perpetrators when one of their own is threatened.  However, it might be too much of a stretch to include our families among the list of institutions, despite the fact that this is where some 90% of child sexual abuse takes place.

Which brings me to what I think is at the heart of the problem.  Child sexual abuse is the clearest example we could possibly have of the powerful exploiting the powerless.  Whether it is parents exploiting their children, teachers exploiting their students, priests exploiting their parishioners, or parliamentarians exploiting their constituents or staff, it involves a person with authority harming those they should be suporting and protecting.  Such abuse is a breach of trust on a grand scale.  And sexual abuse is just one example of this type of misuse of power.

Why, then, are abusers so routinely protected by their institutions?  Why are the heads of these institutions so prone to blaming the victims and accusing them of lying or of somehow sharing responsibility for the abuse?  It is because the abusers are able to exert their power to protect themselves, while the victims are powerless and don't assert their need for protection.  They often don't even know they can.  By the time they are old enough to do so, the opportunity has passed and their veracity is questioned.  The impact of the abuse on their mental health is used against them and they are painted as unreliable witnesses.  They find themselves snookered at every turn.  Many say it is like being abused all over again.

Because the perpetrators are able to speak the language and use the processes of their institutions, they are able to convince even leaders who would have no truck with abuse themselves.  And these leaders want to be convinced, because the exposure of its powerful members - priests, teachers, parliamentarians - brings the institution itself into question.  The abusers are often their friends and almost always their colleagues.  It feels disloyal to accept accusations against them.  It is as if the leaders themselves are being accused.

For me as a Christian the repeated failure of the churches cuts the most deeply.  This is not only because it is "my" institution, although it is partly that.  It is because it should be different.  Jesus' willingness to be crucified is as strong an identification with the victims, and against those with power, as could be imagined.  If we take his name with any sort of seriousness we should be prepared to do the same - even if it brings about the death of our institution.  After all, what use is the church if it switches sides and no longer follows Jesus?

This is why Cardinal George Pell's response is so gut-wrenchingly awful.  His graceless acceptance of the Royal Commission, couched as it is in his expectation that it will show the claims are exaggerated and his suggestion that the church is being victimised, shows how fearful he is for his own institution and how little he empathises with the victims.  Not to mention how little he learned from the downfall of his former Anglican colleague. 

Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose daughters were abused by a Catholic priest, say in their interview with the ABC that their approach to the church once their daughters disclosed the abuse was frustrating and disheartening, with Cardinal Pell saying that "it's all just gossip until it's proved in court".  Pell's public view that the problem is exaggerated, and that the church is doing a good job of dealing with the issue, must be further disheartening.

What can we do?  Well, I hope the Royal Commission will give us some guidance, but in the meantime I have a suggestion.  We should repent.  Not just say "we're sorry" and then go on as before.  Not find a way to make it go away.  Really repent.  Acknowledge, in sackcloth and ashes if necessary, that our institutions are fundamentally flawed and need to change.  Acknowledge that our addiction to power and our appeasement of the powerful is itself abusive and that abuse (not only sexual, but physical, psychological, financial and social) is the inevitable result of these powers, not just occasional incidents of their misuse.  Place our insititutions in the hands of the victims and invite them to do as they will.

Of course this means it will not be enough to just repent once.  We will need to do so constantly, because our fallen state ensures the problem will not go away.  We will need to learn to conduct ourselves with humility and put the powerless first at every turn.  We will fail again and again, but sometimes we will also succeed, and if we don't eliminate abuse we will at least reduce it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

On Being a Good Public Servant

I'm reading Josephus' The Jewish War, as you do.  I love the bizarre intrigues of the Herod family and the hugely inflated numbers of people involved in everything, although the battles and the long list of forgettable names kind of lose me.  Most of all I love this story, about a Roman general called Petronius who has just become my hero of the week.

In 37 AD the Roman Emperor Tiberius died and was succeeded by his adopted grandson, Gaius Caligula.  Not much good could be said of Tiberius but at least he was not completely crackers.  Caligula on the other hand was as mad as a cut snake and poor Petronius, as the chief imperial administrator in the Middle East, was now required to do whatever this madman said. 

Josephus takes up the story.

Gaius Caesar's accession to power so completely turned his head that he wished to be thought of and addressed as a god, stripped his country of its noblest men, and proceeded to lay sacrilegious hands on Judaea.  He ordered Petronius to march with an army to Jerusalem and erect his statues in the temple: if the Jews refused them, he was to execute the objectors and enslave all the rest of the population.

What will Petronius do?  Will he obey, and bring about the pointless deaths of thousands of Jews who will give their lives to prevent this sacrilege?  Or will he disobey, and add his name to the long list of high-ranking Romans Caligula has summarily executed?  He reluctantly sets out with his army and the offending statues, but when it comes down to it he has no stomach for the slaughter of innocent people.

The Jews with their wives and children massed on the plain near the city, and appealed to Petronious first for their ancestral laws, and then for themselves.  He yielded to the demands of such a formidable crowd, and left the army and the statues in Ptolemais.

Faced with an impossible situation, Petronius does what any good public servant would do - he calls a meeting.  Here he explains the threats that Caligula has made and mounts the argument that everyone else has statues of the Emperor in their temple, so why not the Jews?  It looks positively disloyal.

In reply the Jewish leaders plead their laws and ancient traditions.  Petronius responds:

"Quite so; but I too am bound to keep the law of my sovereign lord: if I break it and spare you, I shall perish as I deserve.  It will be the Emperor himself who will make war on you, not I.  I am subject to authority just as you are."....The Jews replied that for Caesar and the people of Rome they sacrificed twice a day.  But if he wished to set up the images in their midst, he must sacrifice the whole Jewish race: they were ready to offer themselves as victims with their wives and children.

Many of the sorry parade of cruel, corrupt Roman officials who appear in Josephus' account would have been all too ready to accept their offer, push on regardless, win the favour of Caesar and get their hands on the wealth of those they killed.  Petronius was different.

This reply filled Petronius with wonder and pity for the unparalleled religious fervour of these brave men and the courage that made them so ready to die.  So for the time being they were dismissed with nothing settled.

Poor Petronius!  He is walking a tightrope, trying to save his own skin and the skins of his subjects at the same time.  He has not managed to negotiate his way through the impasse, and he is not prepared to achieve the goal through mass slaughter.  His next strategy is to delay.  He sends them away, does nothing, then brings them back for more talks.  Over what sounds like a long series of meetings he cajoles, reasons and threatens, all to no avail.  But although he threatens, at no point does he use his military might to force the issue.

Another of his qualities as a skilled administrator is that he doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Nothing he could think of had any effect, and he saw that the land was in danger of remaining unsown; for it was the seedtime, and the crowds had wasted seven weeks in idleness.  So at last he got them together and said: "it is better for me to take the risk.  With God's help I shall convince Caesar and we can all breathe again: if he is exasperated, I will gladly give my life for so many."  Then he dismissed the throng, who offered many prayers on his behalf.

Like our best public servants, he has compassion.  He neither wants to slaughter his people, nor allow them to starve.  In the end, he does that most difficult thing for a public servant to do - he takes a risk.  He tries to change his boss's mind.  He will need every one of the prayers of that throng because his boss is a raving homicidal lunatic, but he would rather take the risk than watch innocent people die.  He knows that at least he has bought some more time - it is a long way from Antioch to Rome when all you have is horse- or wind-power.

The story has a happy ending, though it is a close thing.

Gaius replied in no gentle terms, threatening Petronius with death for his slowness in carrying out his orders.  But as it happened the messengers who carried this reply were held up for three months by storms at sea, while others who brought news of Gaius' death had a good voyage....

Gaius Caligula was replaced as emperor by the eminently sane Claudius, and the madcap scheme was quietly dropped.  Petronius got to go back to doing his job, no doubt aided by the ongoing prayers and respect of the subjects he had saved from slaughter.

Our public servants are fortunate enough to not risk execution for failing to carry out their masters' often silly and occasionally disastrous commands.  They can be sacked, though, and replaced with more compliant servants.  Still, they have the same resources Petronius used to navigate this situation.  They can consult and negotiate before they act.  They can delay and buy themselves time.  When all else fails, they can risk their own necks in an attempt to make their bosses see reason in preference to carrying out policies that will cause real harm. 

If they are skillful enough, better times may come around before the fatal commmand has to finally be obeyed.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Caligula's reign lasted just on three years....

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Jesus is My Boyfriend

It is fashionable in certain Christian circles to talk disparagingly about what are called "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs.  These are songs which express a love for Jesus without a lot of theological content.  If you swap "Jesus" for the name of your latest flame, the song will work just as well.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've reached the conclusion that there is a lot to be said for the "Jesus is my boyfriend" song.  Certainly a lot more than could be said for the "blood and gore" song.  I suspect that our desire to explain and defend our theology every time we open our mouths shows we are not all that secure about it.  This leads us to overemphasise it and in the process neglect other important aspects of our spirituality.  So here is my defence of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" song.

The origin of this type of song can be found in the Jewish and Christian tradition of reading the Song of Songs allegorically, as a portrayal of God's love for his people.  In this type of reading the woman in the song may represent Israel, the church or the individual believer, and the man represents God.

It is a moot point whether this is the way the original author intended the song to be read.  It is possible, for instance, that the monastic interpreters of the middle ages were embarassed by the frank eroticism of some of its verses.

How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”

In my youth various Protestant commentators were busy reclaiming and resanctifying this eroticism, showing that far from regarding sex as sinful God delighted in it and wanted us to enjoy it.  I'm thankful for that, but it would be a shame if in the process we lost this other way of reading.  The allegorical interpretation of this book opens up for us a way of understanding our relationship with God far more visceral and immersive than our doctrinal formulae.  Think about this, for instance, as a spiritual allegory.

I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My beloved is knocking:
"Open to me, my sister, my darling,
my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew,
my hair with the dampness of the night.”

I have taken off my robe—
must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet—
must I soil them again?

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
my heart began to pound for him.
I arose to open for my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh,
on the handles of the bolt.
I opened for my beloved,
but my beloved had left; he was gone.

God desires us, he comes searching for us like a lover in the night, but it is inconvenient for us to allow him entry so we stay in bed - then too late we run for him and find him gone.  So we go out frantically seeking him but instead we fall into the wrong hands and come to harm.

My heart sank at his departure.
I looked for him but did not find him.
I called him but he did not answer.
The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
They beat me, they bruised me;
they took away my cloak,
those watchmen of the walls!

Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you -
if you find my beloved,
what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.

Imagine our joy when we find that God feels the same desire for us, longs for us as much as we long for him, and has never stopped seeking us.

Sixty queens there may be,
and eighty concubines,
and virgins beyond number;
but my dove, my perfect one, is unique,
the only daughter of her mother,
the favourite of the one who bore her.
The young women saw her and called her blessed;
the queens and concubines praised her.

The fact that we are special, that God desires us despite having access to those who are so much better, so much purer or more beautiful, is a great message, but the sheer passion, the depth and overwhelming nature of this love, is what this song gives us and what we will never get from theology.  All this in a song that does not once mention God by name.

The apostle Paul provides us with a starting point for this kind of thinking in the New Testament.  In Ephesians 5 he first addresses wives.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.

Then he turns to the husbands.

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

Of course Paul's immediate intent is for us to look to Jesus' example for how we should live in our marriages, being "subject to one another in love".  Yet the analogy also works the other way.  For most of us, romance is the most passionate, all-consuming emotion we will ever experience.  What else makes us think of another person day and night, feel joyful in their presence and fretful when apart from them, devise creative and elaborate ways to please them, deny them nothing that will make for their happiness?

This, surely, is the love Paul is describing when he says "Christ loved the church and gave himself for her."  It is this love we are to return when we submit to the Lord, not being obedient to a cruel and arbitrary master but returning the passion of a lover who gives everything for us.  Having Jesus as our boyfriend, our lover, our husband, is not a trivial thing.  It is the highest form of love we can imagine.

Not all "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs capture this, but let me give you two that do.  The first is from the late middle ages, John of the Cross's The Dark Night of the Soul, heard here in a beautiful performance by Loreena McKennitt.

This complex piece of mystical imagining is the opening of a larger work in which John describes the process of entering into that state of darkness and blindness in which we cannot perceive God and despair of finding him, only to have him find us.  Here that state is presented in the form of a love song in which, as in the Song of Songs, God is not mentioned by name but is present in every line.

Upon that misty night
in secrecy, beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
than that which burned so deeply in my heart
That fire t'was led me on
and shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where he waited still
it was a place where no one else could come.

Oh night thou was my guide
oh night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other.

My second example, Your Love Broke Through, is more modern and much simpler, and comes from that most conservative of Protestant songwriters, Keith Green. 

This is a song of spiritual awakening which once again doesn't mention God by name.  

All my life I've been searching for that crazy missing part 
And with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart 
And now I see that the answer was as easy as just asking you in 
And I'm so sure I could never doubt your gentle touch again 
It's like the power of the wind 

 Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed 
Until your love broke through 
I'd been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me 
Until your love broke through.

If you heard this song in the context of Green's work, you would have no doubt that it's a song to God.  Green was very outspoken about his beliefs.  Yet Australian-American pop singer Marcia Hines made it a Top 10 hit here in Australia in 1976 and most of her listeners, like me when I first heard it, would have had no idea it was a gospel song.  

You might say this proves the original point and that as a result the message is lost and Green has sold out.  This could only be the case, though, if you think our differences are more important than our commonalities.  Not everyone can relate to theology, but who couldn't relate to this feeling? Who wouldn't remember that love breaking through, or else long for it to be so? If you heard Marcia Hines sing this song on Countdown in 1976 it might not have led you to seek God.  Yet even there it would have given you a purer, holier vision of love than, say, Ted Mulry's Jump in My Car with which it jostled for chart position.  Perhaps in reaching for this love you might just find the "god beyond God" that Tillich speaks of. 

And if we were to allow such passion and longing into our church services, what might be the result then?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Life in the Outer Suburbs

I found this book in the library called The Bogan Delusion by David Nichols.  I took it home purely because of the title.  I found that it was not so much a book as a rant, but very entertaining and at times even enlightening.

Mr Nichols is an urban planner, teaching at the University of Melbourne.  A few years ago he moved from inner city Melbourne to outer suburban Broadmeadows, one of Melbourne's best known public housing estates and supposed Bogan Central.  With the zeal of the convert, he launches a defence of all things outer suburban against all things inner suburban.  His chief target is the notion of the "bogan", the stereotypical uncultured, hard-drinking, mullett-wearing, uneducated outer suburban Australian, for whom Broadmeadows is supposed to be the natural habitat.

His idea is that there is really no such thing as a bogan.  From his description it would be hard to tell because he never really describes clearly what a bogan is, despite his visit to the town of Bogan in rural New South Wales where he took a photo of one.  This is part of his point - the definition of a bogan changes constantly and rapidly to suit the prejudices of its user.  Unfortunately his chief way of combating the bogan stereotype is to create an alternative stereotype, the "anti-bogan", the hypocritical inner city dweller who professes to be socially and environmentally progressive while chewing up more than their share of the ecosystem and avoiding contact with the great unwashed.

It's all good fun but in fact not what the book seems to be really about, which is a solid defence of outer-suburban living and the planners who envisaged it and created the various suburbs we now like to vilify.  Outer suburban living is more environmentally responsible, he says, the suburbs are better planned, the housing is better quality and the people who live there are no worse than those of the inner city.  Even where this is not the case, if people are forced for financial reasons to live in a place with few services, limited access to employment and poor transport, is this their fault, or is the fault of the planners and public servants who created these places then forgot them?  By his telling, of course, these are univerally from the inner city and never visit the places they designed.

In the midst of all this leaping about and stomping on toes he referred to another book, The Lowest Rung by social historian Mark Peel.  It's amazing that I haven't read this book before now because I met the author back in about 1995 while he was researching it, and my name appears in the acknowledgements.  It's in amongst a very long list and all I really did was to provide him with a few phone numbers, but I was very impressed with him.  It's a shame that he took until 2003 to get the book published because by then I had lost track and I've just now read it for the first time.

The Lowest Rung is about three outer suburban public housing estates - Broadmeadows in Melbourne, Mt Druitt in Sydney and Inala in Brisbane.  It is as careful and thoughtful as The Bogan Delusion  is cavalier and slipshod.  Peel interviewed over 250 residents and community workers in these three highly disadvantaged suburbs, inviting them to talk freely about their lives, their histories, their feelings about their community and their hopes and fears for the future.  He handles their views respectfully but not with undue reverence.  Their words are sprinkled liberally throughout the book and their voices come through loud and clear, but he is also not afraid to gently question and challenge them - first of all to their faces in various interviews, and later in his evaluation of what they say.

It can't be doubted that life is hard in these suburbs.  Unemployment is high, poverty is a constant foe and many of those he interviewed were losing hope and running out of steam as the welfare cuts and punitive regimes of the Howard years began to take their toll.   Peel is clear it is not people's fault they are poor, and poverty will not be solved by punishing or reforming them.  If there are no jobs, how can they find work?  Nor does he have any truck with the media obsession with crisis and violence, allowing his interviewees to poke wicked fun at portrayals of rioting and racial warfare through their tales of the way the media staged bits of the events and encouraged people to show aggression for the camera.

Yet these are stories of hope and resilience. People in Mt Druitt, Broadmeadows and Inala have long histories of local activism, aided by sympathetic welfare and church workers, and have created lasting social infrastructure by their own efforts.  Women in particular learn the skills to survive.  While people may sometimes speak in racist terms, in practice the level of tolerance is high in these most multi-cultural of Australian communities.  Women in particular have found ways to reach across racial barriers and share their survival skills and their cultural knowledge.  Even the men, struggling with unemployment and not knowing what to do instead of work, struggle towards ways to rebuild their lives and create meaningful roles for themselves in family and community life.

They don't need charity or punitive "earning or learning" regimes.  What they need, says Peel, is for people to listen to them, take them seriously, and help them to meet their own needs.  They need to be treated not as passive recipients but as active makers of their own destiny.  In the end they don't ask for a lot.  As one of his informants says: "You put up with the struggle, you know, just get by, if you get respect and if you're treated right."  Another responds: "That's right.  It's not being treated like an idiot, like you're a criminal."

No too much to ask, surely.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

25 Years of Queensland Shelter

Tomorrow evening is a function celebrating the 25th anniversary of the creation of Queensland Shelter, the State's peak housing organisation.  I helped create it back in 1987, so I get to say a few words.  Here they are, or at least some of them.

1987 was famous in Queensland history as the year the Tony Fitzgerald was commissioned to conduct a 6-week inquiry into police corruption in Queensland.  Less famously, it was also International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.  A few of us formed a State committee, got some money from Brotherhood of St Laurence, did roadshows around the State on housing and homelessness issues. 

At the end of 1987 we were quite happy with what we had acheived, but we realised we were still a little short of our objective - ending homelessness in Queensland - so we decided to keep going.  We reconstituted ourselves as Queensland Shelter so we could be part of the nationwide network of Shelter organisations.  Helen Wallace, who is now my business partner, even designed us a logo based on the National Shelter one .  Theirs showed two human figures in a tiny house.  Helen carefully whited them out and replaced them with two tiny pineapples. 

Obviously we were operating on a shoestring.  People dropped away early in the next year and at one stage I remember us having 4 people at a meeting at Rosemary Grundy’s house – Rosemary herself, Ross Wiseman, Helen (by then pregnant with Grace, who is now 24!) and myself.  We gradually rebuilt from there thanks to the enthusiasm of some new people, particularly Deidre Coghlan, who replaced Helen at the Catholic Social Welfare Commission, a number of people who worked in Brisbane's homelessness sector, and a young architecture student who became our treasurer and took care of our bank account which steadily rose to the heady sum of $600.

In the late 1980s Queensland was very definitely the poor cousin amongst Australian states when it came to housing and homelessness services.  In 1988 a small group piled into the minibus which belonged to the Maryborough Housing Action Group where I worked, skirted carefully around the Expo 88 traffic and drove down to the National Shelter conference at the University of Wollongong.  We stayed in the student quarters and in the evening we sat in front of the big TV in the student common room, watching news updates on the Fitzgerald Inquiry which was well into its second year and working its way through the ranks of senior police and politicians.  NSW had a new government and the conference was dominated by their angst over cuts to various housing programs.  We were less sympathetic than perhaps we should have been because as they listed the things being cut we were going “never had that”, “never had any of those” “never had that” and we realised that even post-cut they were much better serviced than we were.

“Success has many parents, failure is an orphan”, as they say.  There has been a huge improvement in housing and homelessness services in Queensland since 1987 and many people can share credit for that, but Queensland Shelter has been at the centre of that change, lobbying, bringing people together, developing solutions and promoting good ideas.  It has been continuously funded since 1990 and these days it has 9 or 10 full-time staff and a Statewide network of branches, as well as being the main driver for National Shelter.  In that time the organisation has had three outstanding and long-serving executive officers - Eleri Morgan-Thomas, Roksana Khan and the current incumbent Adrian Pisarski - who have kept the wheels on the track in good times and bad.

However, despite all this we still haven’t eliminated homelessness. Not time to give up yet!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Fall of the Evangelical Nation

When I was writing about John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious I concluded that he had misread the mood of the times, and that "the growing churches of our time are not the intellectual, post-theistic churches of the likes of Spong and his fellow progressives. They are the booming fundamentalist megachurches of the pentecostal movement, and the bastions of conservative Catholicism promoted by John Paul II and his followers."

Then I read Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.  Wicker is a religious affairs reporter who spent 17 years writing for the Dallas Morning News, during which she wrote this book.  It was published in 2008, conceived in the wake of George W Bush's re-election as US President supposedly on the votes of evangelical Christians who made up 25% of the US population.

These figures are Wicker's first target.  Using data published by evangelical churches themselves, she finds that the true number of active evangelicals in the USA is closer to 7% than the widely publicised 25%, and even fewer are highly committed.  Many more people claim allegiance to evangelical religion in surveys and censuses, but are not actually active members of any church.

Nor are evangelical churches growing, she says.  Their growth lags behind population growth, and they struggle to make new adult converts .  The fastest growing religious group in the USA, she says, is those who say they have no religion.

You might be forgiven for thinking at this point that we are dealing with a hostile foe intent on tearing the church down, but this is not so.  Wicker is clearly a former evangelical rather than a current one, but she is a highly sympathetic observer. 

As part of her research she embedded herself in an evangelical megachurch in Dallas, and spent time interviewing evanglicals from other parts of the country.  She came away with a collection of positive stories, a sample of which she presents to us in highly sympathetic pen portraits.  There is Van Grubbs, the man in charge of Lake Pointe Church's relief fund, who deals compassionately all day with people in need.  Or Mike and Michelle Tauzin, victims of Hurricane Katrina who found new comfort and purpose as well as a loving community through their conversion.  There are many others like them whose lives were transformed and given meaning by their faith.

So if this is a faith that changes lives and builds communities, she asks, why are so few people accepting it?  Why are churches struggling to make converts when the message and its ambassadors are so attractive?  Why are megachurches under threat when they seem so strong and do so much good?

Some of the problems, she says, are within the church.  The mega-church model, built around large debts and charismatic leaders, is vulnerable as the first generation of leaders pass on and as their communities change from growing urban fringes to established suburbs.  Many evangelicals are seeking a deeper, more personal style of faith and moving beyond the institutional church to independent house churches that quickly depart from orthodoxy.  Worst of all, evangelical churches have a wide "back door" with people leaving the faith in large numbers.  She tells these stories with as much sympathy as those of conversion.  Like Amy, who abandoned evangelical faith after her devout husband came out of the closet.  Or Cathy, whose deconversion started when her son said he didn't believe in hell and she discovered she was not at all shocked.  Or Helen, who in the midst of a strident campaign to expose heresy in a weight loss program promoted by conservative churches suddenly realised just how un-Christian she was being.

These threats from inside the church combine with threats from without.  These are mainly a result of a growing gap between the attitudes of evangelicals and those of non-evangelical Americans.  The "fundamentals" of evangelical Chrsitianity - the literal truth of the Bible, the seven day creation from nothing, the miracles - are increasingly hard for secular Americans to adopt in the face of scientific and historical knowledge.  While evangelicalism relies on acceptance of authority, non-evangelical parents consistently teach their children to question, think for themselves and challenge accepted wisdom.  Americans, including Christians, increasingly accept "golden rule" morality in preference to obedience to detailed biblical commands.  The gap between unbelief and belief, or between liberal and conservative belief, has become so much greater than it used to be, and conversion so much harder.

I enjoyed Wicker's nuanced description of the state of evangelicalism, her sympathetic portrayal of the benefits of belief alongside her hard-nosed realism about how these churches are performing.  Yet the thing I enjoyed the most was her final chapter, where she described a kind of second conversion of her own.  Having abandoned her childhood faith and been through a divorce, she got to a point in her mid-30s where she took a look in the mirror and didn't like what she saw.  She was an unfeeling person who strung men along to meet her own needs but gave nothing, brushing them off when they became inconvenient.  She was needy and unloving, flirtatious and cruel. 

She realised she wanted to change but didn't know how.  So she prayed, something she hadn't done for years.  She asked God, even though she didn't quite know who God was, to help her to genuinely love.  Then she went home from an interstate assignment to the man she was dating and planning to brush off and found the love she prayed for growing.  She married him, and has continued her life of love, faith and prayer - not evangelical faith, not even conventional Christianity, but God is nonetheless real to her, and she has seen his power.

Perhaps this is a practical, everyday example of what Spong and his forerunners Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind.  For Wicker the trappings of religion - the doctrines, the church structures, the rigid expectations - were stripped away, and when they were well and truly gone she found within herself the thing that remained, the thing she could not live without.  Being Itself, perhaps, and Tillich's Courage to Be.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Spong on Atheism

Following on from my review of John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious, here's something more.  I had always thought that atheism and Christianity were incompatible belief systems but  Spong has confounded me by proclaiming himself to be both an atheist and a Christian. 

He cites three arguments in support of his atheism, each of which would be worthy of our most radical 21st century atheists.  First of all,  he asserts that science has disproved theism.  The evidence of cosmology shows that there is no God above the sky.  The evidence of paleontology shows that life on earth developed gradually by natural processes.  Our understanding of science in general shows that the processes of physics, chemistry and biology are driven by natural laws which are not amenable to random divine intervention.  Richard Dawkins would certainly be pleased to read such a clear statement of his own views, although a large number of other scientists would not necessarily agree and some of the dissenters would also be atheists.

Secondly, he describes the evolution of the religious impulse itself, through the emergence of consciousness, the development of language and symbol systems, the awareness of our own mortality and our need for security in the face of this fear.  Religion, he says, was a survival strategy which kept death at bay and bound together groups of people around a common belief and ethos.  However, the tribalism and neurosis at its base are now becoming dangerous, placing humanity at risk.  I think perhaps Daniel Dennett would read his own arguments with a smile.

Finally, he protests the extreme cruelty and barbarism perpetrated in the name of religion, citing in particular the medieval torturors and the white Americans who cited the Bible in support of the oppression of their African-American neighbours.  Religion, he says, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I can hear Sam Harris and Michel Onfray cheering.  This argument is the most surprising of the three to read from the pen of a former bishop, not so much for its irreligion as for its silliness.  Surely Spong is aware that the medieval torturers were persecuting fervent believers, while the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were just as Christian as the segregationists, if not more so.  Perhaps something other than religion explains this problem?

Be that as it may, just when our favourite militant atheists are beginning to urge him down the home straight and claim a prize scalp in their quest for converts, he punctures their bubble and exposes the weak underbelly of their own position - that they know nothing of theology beyond its crudest, most popularistic manifestations.

The word "atheist", for starters, does not mean, as many people assume, one who asserts that there is no such thing as God.  It means, rather, that one rejects the theistic definition of God.  It is quite possible, therefore, to reject theism without rejecting God....I am a God-intoxicated human being, but I no longer define my God experience inside the boundaries of a theistic definition of God.

...So our experience of Jesus must shift in a revolutionary new direction. What was the experience that his disciples were trying to articulate when they declared in a thousand different ways that in the human Jesus, the theistic God had been revealed? Is a dying theism the only way to make sense out of the God experience? Can we remove the theistic concept of God from our understanding of God and still be worshippers? Can we lift the theistic God overlay from the life of Jesus and still be Christians? I believe we can. Indeed, I believe there is no other alternative if we want to live as Christians in this twenty-first century.

This is how Spong maintains his Christian faith alongside his version of atheism.  The problem, he says, is that God is ultimately indescribable.  Humans have to fall back on whatever resources we can use in our own world to describe him.  The ancient Hebrews and the early Christians operated within a scientific framework in which the earth was the centre of the universe, the events of nature were random occurrences directed by God and the spirits, and everything beyond was a mystery.  So they placed God above the sky, and prayed for his benevolent intervention in their dangerous, unpredictable world.  Jesus then became for them the manifestation of this God from beyond the sky.

With the passing of this scientific world view and its replacement with our own, it no longer makes sense to talk of God in this way.  This does not mean there is no God, only that the old ways of describing divinity have now become outdated and need to be replaced.  So how does Spong propose to replace them?

...I came to perceive that Jesus had become for me primarily the familiar but nonetheless the human face of the ultimate reality I called God. My spiritual life, I now came to recognise, was destined to be an endless journey into that mystery. One of my shaping theological teachers, Paul Tillich, referred to this God as "Being Itself", which meant to me that my search for God would be identical with my search for my own identity.

Tillich's idea of God as "Being Itself" or the "Ground of Being" is hardly new, but it continues to be profound and hugely influential more than 50 years after he first coined the term.  Its meaning is hard to grasp, slippery and elusive as an eel.  But then, how else could finite humans talk about the infinite God?  How is it possible that such a god could be simply explained?

I think what this shows is that for all his controversy and his tendency to hyperbole, for all that conservative Christians see him as irreligious and as a destroyer of the faith, Spong is at heart a bridge-builder.  To Christians he says "take a look at these arguments against your faith, and be honest - don't you think they have merit?".  Because he is a bishop, perhaps they will listen to him.  But then he says to the atheists, "sure, your arguments are persuasive, but have a think about this."

No doubt Harris dismisses Spong as one of those dangerous moderate religious people who mask the deeply pernicious nature of religion.  Harris would be wrong.  Spong hates injustice as much as Harris, perhaps more so.  He just refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater.