Saturday, 27 July 2013

Surviving the Empire

Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the glories of the Israelite kingdom of David and Solomon are greatly exaggerated.  They say the archaeological evidence points to a small territory with a tiny population of limited literacy, and that the united kingdom of Israel and Judah is unlikely to be historical.

They may or may not be right.  I'm hardly qualified to judge.  However, even if the biblical accounts are scrupulously accurate, they were of little help to the Jews who wrote the books of the Apocrypha.  For them these kingdoms were so long ago, and so far from the realities of their lives, that all they provided was a memory of past greatness and a dream of a possible future.

The big problem they faced in their day was this: How do you survive a dominant and often hostile empire?  For most of Israel's ancient history, including the period of the later kings and prophets and the period of the Apocrypha, the Middle East was dominated by a succession of powerful, aggressive empires - the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians and finally in Jesus' day the Romans.  In the face of these threats, the Davidic kingdom had a precarious foothold on the hills of Judaea and was finally destroyed in the 6th century BCE.  After that the Jews, whether living as foreigners in the great centres of the successive empires or as a small community in Judaea, were part of an empire with very different values to their own.  Even when the Hasmoneans managed to set up a tiny independent Jewish state in the second century it was constantly threatened by more powerful neighbours, and in any case most Jews didn't live there.

The three Apocryphal books I've reviewed so far provide three different strategies for living with the empire - resistance, endurance and creative engagement.  The common bedrock of each of these strategies is that the Jews must remain themselves.  They must continue to be the people of God, and remain faithful to Yahweh whatever pressure is put on them to abandon him.  For all these writers, and for the writers of the Old Testament and Apocrypha in general, assimilation is not an option.  However, simple faithfulness is not enough - they also need a strategy.

The first option, provided by Judith, is that of resistance.  The tiny Israelite nation (perhaps the Hasmonean kingdom in disguise) and the town of Bethuliah (which may stand for Jerusalem) are surrounded by an enemy of overwhelming power, and they seem likely to be crushed.  They cannot hope to win a pitched battle, and they have limited ability to survive a siege.  Judith's answer is that you need to be cunning.  You need to entice and trick your enemy, and then behead him.  You need to find your enemy's weakness - in this case, Holofernes' lust - and exploit it for all it is worth.  If you do this, against a background of faithful worship and with God's help, you may just be victorious.

Alternatively, you may not, as Jewish history shows.  You may fail, or your own sin may find you out, and you may be conquered and dispersed.  This is where the other two strategies come in.  The first, the strategy of Tobit, is simply to endure.  Tobit and his son Tobias do their best to remain faithful to God in the capital of their enemies, but within these bounds they keep their heads down and mind their own business.  They keep faith with each other in money matters, they marry judiciously and have children in order to rebuild their kin group, and they leave the empire to go its way.  With God's help they will survive despite their hardships.

This is a practical ethic for ordinary people.  Not many of us get to influence the course of empire, either to transform it or destroy it.  The best we can manage is to do right in our own sphere and leave the rest to God. 

Yet sometimes these opportunities do come our way, and the author of Esther seems to be suggesting that when they do we should take them and engage creatively with the empire.  Indeed, Esther and Mordecai make some difficult choices along this path.  Mordecai spends his days at the gates of the royal palace, a place of influence where public business was conducted.  The clear implication is that he is a leader of his people, and that he is actively operating within the imperial system.  When he has the choice of saving the emperor or abetting his assassins he chooses the former even though this is not obviously the best choice.

Nor is it obvious that Esther should really make the kind of concerted effort she does to become queen.  After all, what sane woman would want to be wife to Ahasuerus?  Yet both she and Mordecai make the choice in favour of the empire, and soon it becomes clear why.  When Haman succeeds in persuading Ahasuerus into an act of genocide against the Jews, there are two Jews in powerful positions within his court - one to whom he owes a debt, another who is his consort - and between them they are able to intervene at court to prevent the slaughter and save their people. 

This strategy is not without risk.  It is dangerous to be faithful to God in the royal court.  Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman places not only himself but his whole people at risk.  In order to advocate for her people Esther must break the imperial law and risk her own execution.  The shadow of the gallows Haman has built hangs over both of them.  The risks are real, but if they do not act the faithfulness of God in allowing them influence will be wasted.  With power comes both risk and responsibility.

We also live in an age of empires - both national and corporate.  They often clothe themselves in benevolence and peace, but when it comes down to it they will be ruthless and exploitive.  We have no choice but to live with them, but we must never sell our souls to them. 

At times we must resist them, and do our best to bring them down.  At other times all we can do is endure, do right in our sphere and wait for the times to change.  At times we can influence them, and it is not wrong to seek this influence provided that we use it to protect the innocent, not to facilitate their continued exploitation and destruction.  None of these alternatives is right or wrong in itself - we need to use our own discernment before God to know which is appropriate for our time and place. 

Above all, we must never lose hope.  Despite appearances, God is with us and can act through us, if only we will let him.

Monday, 22 July 2013


Esther is one of those books with one foot in the Old Testament and the other in the Apocrypha - others include Daniel and Ezra.  This is because the book exists in two different forms; the Hebrew version included in the Masoretic Text and a Greek version in the Septuagint that includes an extra 107 verses, plus some subtle but significant variations. 

When Jerome translated it into Latin at the end of the 4th Century CE, he used the Hebrew version as his primary source, but included the extra Greek verses at the end as a kind of appendix.  When the Reformers separated out the apocryphal books from the Old Testament, the extra verses of Esther went with them.  I'm very grateful to the translators of the NRSV for putting the two parts of the Greek edition back together and providing a translation of the whole Greek text. 

Chronologically, this book belongs with Tobit and Judith as a story about the period after the exile.  Its likely date of composition is similar to theirs, in the second or first centuries BCE.  Like these books it could also be considered a work of historical fiction, although the argument for at least some element of historical fact is stronger here than for the other two.  After all, the festival of Purim which it purports to explain must have originated somehow, and other explanations are not especially convincing.  Still, at least three Persian kings have been identified with the character named Ahasuerus in the Hebrew and Artaxerxes in Greek, and Esther and Mordecai are difficult to find in the Greek and Persian accounts of any of them. 

The other interesting thing about the Hebrew text is that it doesn't contain a single mention of God, and it contains no miracles or supernatural events.  For this and other reasons neither Luther nor Calvin believed it should be regarded as canonical.

On the other hand its simple, dramatic storytelling make it a favourite among Christians and Jews alike.  The drama centres around four key characters - the Persian King Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes in the Greek version), his most trusted advisor Haman, his wife Esther and Esther's foster father Mordecai.  It opens with  a six-month long banquet which is capped off by a seven-day drinking party at which Ahasuerus encourages his guests to drink as much as they please.  At the end of this feast, he commands his Queen, Vashti, to come from the harem and display her beauty for his officials and the people.  She refuses, earning herself summary dismissal as queen and lasting status as feminist heroine. 

In this incident we learn two things about Ahasuerus which are confirmed as the story unfolds.  The first is that he is dissolute and self-centred, and the second is that he has no ideas of his own.  He follows the advice of whoever happens to be nearby.

Following Vashti's dismissal as queen, the king's courtiers devise a novel and nauseating plan to find her successor.  Beautiful young women are gathered from all parts of the empire and after careful preparation are ushered in to spend a night with the king.  The one who pleases him the most gets to be queen, while the others are ushered back to the royal harem to await possible recall or alternately to live out the rest of their lives in idle isolation.  By dint of her beauty and her willingness to take the advice of the chief eunuch, the Jewish girl Esther (her ethnic origins kept secret by order of her foster father) wins this dubious contest and is invested with the crown and royal honours.

Meanwhile two other things happen - Mordecai exposes a plot to assassinate the king, and Haman is promoted to first place among the king's advisors.  These two powerful men come into direct conflict.  Contrary to the king's command, Mordecai persistently refuses to bow before Haman.  Haman is not content to simply punish Mordecai and bribes the king into ordering the extermination of the whole Jewish race.  In this extremity, Mordecai asks Esther to intercede for her people.  She is initially reluctant, since she risks execution by coming uninvited into the king's presence, but Mordecai warns her, "Esther, do not say to yourself that you alone among all the Jews will escape alive.  For if you keep quiet at such a time as this, help and protection will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish.  Yet, who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?"  Esther spends three days fasting, asking Mordecai and the Jews of the city to do likewise, and then fearfully approaches the king. 

Haman first experiences a symbolic defeat, than an actual and final one.  Unable to wait for the big extermination day to get rid of Mordecai, he comes to the palace one morning intent on asking the king to authorise his execution then and there.  He is so confident he even builds a huge gallows in preparation.  However, the king suffers a sleepless night and has his servants read to him from the chronicles of his reign, in which he is reminded of Mordecai's role in foiling the plot on his life and learns that Mordecai has not yet been rewarded.  Unable as usual to come up with his own ideas, he summons Haman and asks him, "What shall I do for the person whom I wish to honour?"  Assuming the king is referring to him, Haman outlines a plan to parade the person in the king's robes and on the king's horse, accompanied by a senior court official proclaiming the reason for this honour.  The king likes the idea, and sends Haman off to robe and accompany Mordecai accordingly.

Following this humiliation, of course, Esther's carefully planned appeal is successful and the king changes his mind on the plan of extermination.  Haman is hung from his own gallows, Mordecai takes his place in the king's confidence and the tables are turned with the Jews permitted to defend themselves against any attack.

Although the Hebrew version of the book doesn't mention God I was always taught (and this explanation makes a lot of sense) that God's presence and protection of the Jews is clearly implied.  Most obviously, when Esther and her Jewish contemporaries fast and put on sackcloth they are of course praying for deliverance.  When Mordecai asks Esther, "who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?", he is implying that God placed her there for a purpose, and the king's sleeplessness and his change of heart are also brought about by God.  Not only that, but Mordecai's persecution should be understood as religious.  He refuses to bow before Haman because of his fidelity to God, in the same way that Daniel refuses to bow to the image of Nebuchadnezzar.  Haman generalises this refusal in his justification to the king: "their laws are different from those of every other nation, and they do not keep the laws of the king."  The persecution is a test of their faithfulness, and the rescue a vindication of it.

What the Hebrew text implies, the Greek makes explicit.  For a start, the name of God is quietly inserted into some key places in the Greek version.  When Mordecai instructs Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity, in the Greek version he adds that "she was to fear God and keep his laws".  Of the king's sleepless night, the Hebrew simply says, "that night the king could not sleep", but the Greek says "the Lord took sleep from the king". 

Yet these subtle amendments are drowned out by the additional sections inserted by the Greek editors.  The Greek version opens with Mordecai receiving a prophetic dream which foreshadows the story to come, and closes with his declaration that "these things come from God, for I remember the dream that I had...".  Esther's request that the Jews fast with her is followed by lengthy prayers put in the mouths of Mordecai and Esther.  After the king relents, the Greek version includes the purported text of his decree (written of course by Mordecai on his behalf) which says that the Jews "are not evildoers, but are governed by most righteous laws and are children of the living God, most high, most mighty...."

What are we to make of all this?  Well, the core message of the book is common to both versions.  The Jews take a genuine risk in remaining faithful to God in the midst of empire, but God will protect them.  However, here he protects them in a very different way to that shown in Judith.  They are to integrate themselves into the empire in the most intimate way possible.  Esther becomes the king's consort.  Mordecai spends his days in his court, and protects him from assassins rather than joining them.  This faithful service to the empire, as much as their faithfulness to God, ensures their survival and that of their people. 

But why the differences?  Was it necessary in the earlier version, for reasons of policy or safety, to downplay their religious distinctions while playing up their service to the empire?  Or was it simply that the later Hellenised Jews lost their ancestors' taste for reading between the lines and needed to have the message spelt out?  Was the first version written for subtle, educated insiders and the second for a wider, less sophisticated audience? 

Either way, the story continues to fascinate and provides grist of the mill on the wider subject common to most of the Old Testament Apocrypha: how do you survive the empire?

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Carbon Tax, Carbon Trading

Amid much hoo-har over the past few days, recycled Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been reported as announcing his government will scrap the carbon tax.   Of course these reports are greatly exaggerated, possibly with Rudd's tacit approval.  Rudd and his supporters will do no such thing. 

When the Gillard Government introduced the carbon tax in 2011 (with operation beginning in July 2012) they did so with a two stage plan.  From July 2012 to July 2015 industries which emit carbon would have to pay a fixed price (a carbon tax) per tonne of carbon emitted - starting at $23 and climbing with inflation.  Then from July 2015 this scheme would be transformed into a market based emissions trading scheme similar to (and linked with) the one in Europe, in which permits to emit are sold through a market mechanism to the highest bidder.  What Rudd has announced is that his government will start the second phase a year earlier, in July 2014.

This gives us a glimpse of the medium term future of climate change politics.  I hesitate to say the "long term future" because we live in a political culture where the words "long term" are a synonym for "never", and this is part of the problem.

So, a quick reminder of the difference between a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme.  Under a carbon tax, companies which emit carbon have to pay a flat fee - a tax - for whatever they emit.  This fee is set by the government.  There is no limit on what they can emit, and if they emit less they just pay less.  This scheme works simply, by making emissions more costly for companies and hence giving them an incentive to reduce these emissions.  The politics of these schemes are also quite simple - emitters hate them, because they reduce their profits.  We need them because there is an urgent need to reduce global emissions, but big emitters don't care about that, they only care about their bottom line, so they will do anything in their power to prevent such a tax or failing that to reduce it.  This is the phase we are in now.

An emissions trading scheme is a much more complicated beast.  Instead of simply charging a tax on emissions, each year the government sells a certain number of emission permits through a carbon trading scheme similar to the stock exchange or the international currency market.  These are sold to the highest bidder at whatever price the market is willing to pay.  Anyone can buy them - emitters will buy enough to cover their expected emissions, but other people might buy them as speculative investments, planning to resell them later.  If you are an emitter you might buy more than you need, in which case you can sell the leftovers, or you might find you didn't buy enough, in which case you can go back to the market and buy more.

This is the type of scheme which currently operates in Europe, and in recent years the price of emissions has dropped dramatically, so that it is currently under $5 per tonne.  This is what has Australian emitters licking their lips over an early transition to a trading scheme, and Rudd is hoping this will neutralise their influence in the upcoming election.  Here is our glimpse of the future of carbon politics.

Unlike a carbon tax, the government does not directly control the price in an emissions trading scheme, it is set by the market.  However, it does control this price indirectly, because it controls the supply of permits.  If it releases more permits, the price will go down, if it reduces the number, the price will go up.  The idea of the original designers of these schemes is that the number of permits would be progressively reduced, so that emitters had a choice of reducing their emissions or paying a high price for more permits. 

Current European experience shows just how difficult this is politically.  There is a huge oversupply of permits in Europe, partly because of an oversupply of permits from third world countries which European emitters use to offset their emissions, and partly because of the European economic downturn. 

The logical thing to do would be to reduce the number of permits, but emitters are keen to keep the price low and, like in Australia, they are not scrupulous about the political tactics they will use to get their way.  As a result, in April of this year the European Parliament rejected a proposal from the European Commission for such a reduction.  This means the price will remain low for the foreseeable future.

The decision we make at our election later this year will determine the next Australian steps in this debate.  If we elect an Abbott Coalition government, they will remove any price on carbon and implement what they call "direct action", government funded schemes to develop and implement alternative technologies.  There will still be a political battle, but it will be over how much to spend, and on what.  The battle to price emissions will continue, but it will have received a huge set-back.

On the other hand, if re re-elect the Rudd Labor Government the battle over whether to price emissions will be effectively over, and the ground will shift in the European direction, to a battle over how many permits will be released and hence how high the price will be.  The European experience so far is not encouraging for those who see the urgency of reducing emissions, but it is very encouraging for those in the business of emitting.

The key problem is that in the short term, reducing emissions has costs.  The emissions trading scheme attempts to keep these costs as low as possible while still keeping the momentum up in emissions reduction.  Large emitters, on the other hand, would prefer not to pay at all, and leave the problem up to someone else. 

Climate scientists tell us the long run consequences of continued emissions will be huge and extremely costly but as Lord Keynes once said, "in the long run we are all dead."

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Man's Search for Meaning

Not many books in the world are genuine "must reads" but surely Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is one of them*.  How could it be that I bought this book for two dollars from a throw-out table at my local shopping centre?  How is that none of my teachers, lecturers, pastors or mentors has ever recommended it to me?

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who died in 1997 at the age of 92.  He is famous as the founder and leading light of the psychiatric technique he called "logotherapy", and as a high profile holocaust survivor.  He was interred in Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic in 1942 with his wife and extended family, transferred to Auschwitz in late 1944 and finished the war in a camp affiliated with Dachau. 

Man's Search for Meaning is a collection of three brief essays.  The first and longest, Experiences in a Concentration Camp, describes his time in Auschwitz and Dachau as a means of illustrating his psychological ideas and was written in 1945.  This essay, and its basis in Frankl's own horrific experiences, is what gives this book its power.  The second, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, is a summary for lay readers of the basic concepts behind logotherapy and the third, The Case for a Tragic Optimism,  is a reflection on how we can remain optimistic in the face of pain, guilt and death. 

It is hard to get across to you just how profound this book is.  There is more food for thought in its 130 booklet-size pages than in whole shelves of other books.  The best I can do is give you some extracts and direct you to the book itself - I guarantee you will struggle to find a better way to spend the couple of hours it takes to read it.

He opens by reminding his readers that the overwhelming drive of any prisoner was the simple imperative of survival.

There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues.  Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends....On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.  We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return.

Is this a veiled confession of things in Frankl's story he is too ashamed to admit openly, or is it merely survivor guilt?  In what follows he divides his analysis into three periods: "the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release." 

The first period is characterised by shock, and there could hardly be a bigger shock than arrival in Auschwitz.  They were greeted by a camp guard who sorted them into two groups.

He had assumed an attitude of careless ease, supporting his right elbow with his left hand.  His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left.  None of us had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man's finger, pointing now to the right and now to the left, but far more frequently to the left.

Those sent to the right were assigned to labour gangs, those to the left went straight to the gas chambers.

This was only the beginning of their dehumanisation.  All their possessions, including their clothes, were removed.  Frankl was forced to give up the manuscript of a book he had written in Theresienstadt, his first work on logotherapy.  Even their names were taken, and in place they were assigned numbers by which they were invariably addressed by camp guards. 

Most of the prisoners were given a uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison.  Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it.  It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.  If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would be punished with a blow from a Capo.  And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.

This process of "mortification" and brutalisation was relentless.  The prisoners were forced to sleep huddled together in overcrowded huts with few blankets, to labour long hours in freezing weather on starvation rations, to wear thin rags and broken shoes tied up with scavenged bits of wire, and were beaten on the slightest pretext.  They were forbidden, on pain of beating, to attempt to prevent their fellows from suicide and were forced to watch daily executions, murders and deaths from untreated illness.  Those who became too feeble to work were loaded on carts and sent to "rest camps" which everyone knew to be a euphemism for the gas chambers. 

I shall never forget how  I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare.  Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fretful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man.  Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do.  At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him. 

These horrors are told with remarkable restraint, in a matter of fact way which is perhaps Frankl's own defence against being overwhelmed by the horror.  How was it possible to remain sane in such an environment?  This is the central theme of the essay.

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain...but the damage to their inner selves was less.  They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.  Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a more robust nature....

He goes on to describe his experience, marching in the frozen dawn towards a labour assignment and holding an imaginary conversation with his wife. 

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.  I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in contemplation of his beloved....For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."....

Another time I was at work in a trench....I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.  In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.  At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria....Once again I communed with my beloved...I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers.  The feeling was very strong: she was there.  Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

What, then, is Frankl's secret to surviving the concentration camp?  In a sense he recognises that there is none.  There was a lot of luck involved, a lot of chance or circumstance.  It is more accurate to ask: What is the secret to sustaining the will to live?  His answer is deceptively and blindingly simple.

Any attempt at fighting the camp's psychopathological influence on the prisoner...had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him some future goal to which he could look forward....It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future....

Frankl's own future hope was twofold.  For one, as suggested, he fervently hoped to be reunited with his wife.  His second future hope was in his work.  His manuscript had been taken from him on his entry to the camp.  He was determined to rewrite it.

I became disgusted with the state of things which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only...trivial things.  I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject.  Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room.  In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats.  I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp!  All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science.  By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment....The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed.

For Frankl, this is not a question of abstract meaning, or of finding some ultimate "meaning of life".  Instead it is a far more practical, down-to-earth matter.

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly....Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.  Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way...."Life" does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete....No situation repeats itself and each situation calls for a different response.  Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action.  At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realise assets in this way.  Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross.  Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

Frankl survived, although it took him some time to realise that his freedom was a blessing. 

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, towards the market town near the camp.  Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song.  There was no-one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks' jubilation and the freedom of space.  I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky - and then I went down on my knees.  At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world - I had but one sentence in mind - always the same: "I called the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space."

It is perhaps fortunate for Frankl that he had identified not one but two reasons to go on living, because his wife did not survive the Bergen-Belsen camp to which she had been sent.  Frankl's devotion to his work saw him found what has been described as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.  The first, Sigmund Freud's, was focused around the "pleasure principle" or "will to pleasure", the second, founded by Alfred Adler, was based on the "will to power".  Frankl, by contrast, focused on the "will to meaning".  Although his ideas were confirmed and strengthened in Auschwitz and Dachau, they were already part the manuscript taken from him there. 

There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are "nothing but defence mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations".  But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my "defence mechanisms", nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my "reaction formations."  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

As a consequence he shows a healthy, although courteous, contempt for some of the hocus pocus that goes under the name of psychotherapy.  He tells the story of an American diplomat who came to see him to continue a course of psychotherapy he had been following with a psychiatrist in another city.  This man's "problem" was that he could not feel fulfilled in his diplomatic career and had serious reservations about the direction of American foreign policy.  Five years of fruitless therapy had focused on his need to come to terms with his anger against his father, which he was sublimating into resistance to his employer and nation.  It quickly became clear to Frankl, as I am sure most of my friends will realise, that this man did not need psychotherapy, he needed to find a career he could believe in. 

This, I think, is what he would say to all of us. 

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self determining.  What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment - he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Find a copy of this book.  Read it.  You won't be sorry.

*Frankl wrote before the practice of non-gendered language became common, and so he uses male pronouns throughout.  I would mangle his prose if I tried to fix it - apologies to my female readers.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Labor's Faceless Men

I have to confess to being completely over hearing about the Australian Labor Party's "faceless men".  The phrase is trotted out by journalists, egged on by Coalition politicians, every time there is a change of Labor leader - and there have been a few of those recently!

The notion of "Labor's faceless men" originated with Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Reid in 1963.  Reid was a disillusioned Labor man, on the DLP side of the 1955 party split.  In 1963, during the lead-up to the Federal election which saw a Robert Menzies-led Coalition government returned for yet another term, Reid and photographer Vladimir Paral captured images of Labor parliamentary leader Arthur Calwell and deputy Gough Whitlam cooling their heels outside Canberra's Kingston Hotel.  Inside, the 36 members of Labor's National Conference - six representatives from each State - apparently discussed the party's position on the location of a US military base on Australian soil. 

Reid's take on this incident - that the elected leaders of the parliamentary party were left waiting outside while party policy was decided by "36 faceless men" - was enthusiastically picked up by the Coalition in the subsequent election campaign.  They made the Labor Party look like an undemocratic, secretive organisation which could not be trusted.  Their election poster, reproduced here and featuring one of Paral's pictures, says:

...36 unknown men, not elected to Parliament nor responsible to the people, were laying down policy and giving orders on critical questions of defence and foreign relations which could effect every man and woman in the country.  Australia's security and your security are involved when national leadership on great affairs is surrendered to unknown outsiders bitterly fighting with each other about action on national survival.

The symbolism of the photos was incredibly powerful, making Calwell and Whitlam look like mere puppets, servants waiting in attendance on their masters' pleasure.  Whether this is actually what happened is of course open to question - what were Calwell and Whitlam doing there, if they had no say?  And how did Reid know exactly what was being discussed inside given that he too was outside on the street?  Still, the story helped Menzies coast back into power and provided a stick to beat Labor for the next 50 years and counting.

So here is my problem.  Leaving aside the propagandistic elements of the original story, it has little relevance to recent Labor events.  First of all, the National Conference was not discussing who would be leader, they were discussing party policy.  Calwell and Whitlam were elected, as leaders have always been, by their parliamentary colleagues.  When Whitlam inherited the leadership a few years later, he drove through party reforms which ensured the parliamentary leader and other parliamentarians would be represented on the party's highest decision-making bodies, but policies of all our major political parties are still decided by the party.  What is surprising or sinister about that?  They tell us their policies (or fail to) and we vote accordingly for the one we like most, or hate least.

Secondly, the telling part of the "faceless men" taunt was that these decision-makers were not elected parliamentarians, they were party officials.  When we come to the revolving door leadership of the Labor Party since 2007 the people labelled as "faceless men" are people like Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten, Joe Ludwig, Don Farrell and David Feeney.  These men may or may not be paragons of virtue but they are anything but faceless in Reid's terms.  You will find their smiling faces on the parliamentary website following their legitimate election, entitling them to vote in leadership ballots as well as canvas their colleagues about leadership issues.  They also, incidentally, have a perfectly legitimate say in policy questions.

It is quite possible - indeed it seems certain - that the leadership turmoil of the past 3 or 4 years is a sign of dysfunction and division in the Labor Party.  It is not, however, a sign that the Labor Party is controlled by "faceless men".  These men all have faces, we know who they are, indeed some of us voted for them!

Saturday, 6 July 2013


So, to continue my journey thought the Apocrypha, here's a look at the Book of Judith.

Just like Tobit, Judith is best seen as a work of historical fiction, except that in this case it is even less historical and more fiction.  It is described as taking place during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar as emperor of Assyria, although historians are unanimous that he was emperor of Babylonia.  Yet the Israelites have already returned from exile and are ruled by their High Priest, something that that did not happen until the rise of the Persian Empire a century later.  Furthermore, the main action happens around the walls of the Israeli city of Bethulia, the location of which is, shall we say, "uncertain".  And this is all before we even get to the actual story!

The story itself is an exciting and amusing tale of deception, a late successor of the kind of holy trickery practiced by the patriarchs and Moses.  You can imagine its origin as a fireside tale, with voices, dramatic description, suspense and a triumphant ending with brings cheers and laughter from the hearers. 

Nebuchadnezzar calls for assistance from the Israelites and the various nations which surround them to put down a rebellion by the King of Media.  They refuse, and so after he has conquered Media he sends his general Holofernes with a huge army to punish them.  Holofernes receives the surrender of most of the nations, destroying their holy places and putting them on notice for future deportation.  However, the Israelites fortify the passes into their mountainous country and prepare to resist.  The city of Bethulia, which guards the main pass into Judea, stands between him and Jerusalem.  Instead of risking his troops in battle he besieges the city, cuts off its water supply, and waits for the inhabitants to expire from thirst.

The situation seems hopeless and the people of Bethulia berate their leaders for refusing to surrender.  However the widow Judith, both wise and beautiful, promises to deliver them.  Dressing in her most seductive finery, she leaves Bethulia for Holofernes camp, where she claims that she has abandoned her city because of its sin, that God has told her it will be destroyed because they have profaned the temple, and that she will help Holofernes identify the precise moment to attack.

Holofernes is taken in, partly by the story and partly by Judith's beauty.  After she has been in the camp a few days he attempts to seduce her.  She appears willing, has dinner with him and assists him to get blind drunk, his servants leave them alone, and she cuts off his head with his own sword.  Then she decamps back to Bethulia, taking his head with her, and urges the soldiers of Bethulia and the surrounding cities to attack while the camp is in chaos.  The victory is duly won and the invaders are chased back to Nineveh.

You could just read this as a fun story, and I'm sure many have down the centuries.  It involves a beautiful and intelligent woman who has become something of a feminist hero, a little bit of titillation, a clever trick perfectly performed, and a feel-good ending where the noble underdog prevails against the cruel tyrant.  What's not to like?

Still, there's more to it than that.  The transparent pastiche of historical periods and imaginary locations is surely a deliberate misdirection.  No-one could mistake this for history.  Perhaps the author just intended to make it clear to his or her readers that this is a work of fiction.  However, it's also possible that this smokescreen concealed a real historical tale close enough to the author and readers to require at least a fig-leaf of deniability. 

The likely date of composition is the late second or first century BCE, and the fictitious empire's drive to religious uniformity may point to the Seleucid empire.  Other scholars have identified Nebuchadnezzar with Tigranes, king of Armenia in the first half of the first century BCE and noted empire builder and destroyer of temples.  Judith, in this interpretation, is identified with Salome Alexandra, widow of King Judah Aristobulus and later wife of his brother Alexander Jannaeus, who successfully resisted Tigranes with a combination of military resistance and diplomacy.  If this latter interpretation is correct, the story is a tribute to this real life Jewish heroine and an encouragement to keep resisting foreign invasion even in the face of overwhelming odds.

If this is not enough, you can dig still deeper.  Judith's name is the feminine form of "Judah", from whom the Jews get their name.  Hence she represents not merely one woman but the whole nation.  Furthermore the name Bethulia could be either a version of Beth-El, the House of God, or a derivative of betulah meaning "virgin", or betulah-jah, Yahweh's virgin.  This could be a fictionalised Jerusalem, or could be intended allegorically.  Judith is defending the purity of the Holy Land in the face of those who would defile it. 

In the name of defending this holiness many compromises are permissible.  Judith can put aside her widow's garments and flirt with the enemy, but not actually sleep with him.  She can be a guest in his tent but must not defile herself by eating his food.  She can cut off his head and get covered in his blood without making herself impure. 

We can see these choices as literal, relating to the situation in the story, or as figurative.  The tribe of Judah cannot hope to hold out against the surrounding forces by military might alone.  They will need to, as we say, "get inside the tent" with these great empires, either by moving to live in their cities, or by making treaties and alliances with them and playing the political game.  However, they must do so, as Judith did, on terms which allow them to retain their purity.  Just like Tobit in his exile, they must not give up who they are.  But this story adds something extra to Tobit's message - their intention in this foreign tent will be subversive.  If the opportunity arises, they will not hesitate to behead the empire and make a break for freedom.

If you think there is something ethically a little suspect about this, you're not the only one.  Yet what is a small, vulnerable people to do in the face of an overwhelming force with genocidal intentions?  If Judith does not act, thousands of her countrymen will die and the women, including her, will be raped and enslaved.  The temple will be destroyed and the people will once again be homeless. 

These are the real moral calculations we make every day.  They are principled but pragmatic.  They recognise the reality of empire but do not sell their souls to it.  They are still a long way from the radical self-sacrifice of the Gospels, but they are feeling their way towards the Kingdom of God. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

What's So Great About Christianity

My search for a decent Christian apologetic has had mixed results so far.  I have read many fascinating books, as well as some disappointments, and seen some very silly claims made in the name of the Christian faith.  The search has recently brought me to Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity, the lack of a question mark providing a most eloquent summary of the author's views.

I was nervous before I picked up this book.  D'Souza is an unlikely person to write something I would enjoy.  Born in Mumbai, India, he moved to the USA as an exchange student in 1978 and stayed to become a professional right-wing nutter.  He worked as an advisor in the Reagan White House, and has written books with titles like What's So Great About America (also without question mark), The Enemy At Home: The cultural left and its responsibility for 9/11, and most recently The Source of Obama's Rage in which he suggests that Obama's foreign policy is driven by a desire to live out his father's dream of undermining American power.

I was encouraged to read this book by positive reviews from non-nutters, and as it turns out I was pleasantly surprised.  Whats So Great About Christianity is a lucid, well reasoned defence of faith and critique of atheism.

The title is a misnomer, perhaps coined to match his earlier book on America.  Only two chapters at the end discuss Christianity specifically.  The vast bulk of the book is a defence of theism against atheism, and would do equally well for a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu.  In each section and each chapter he begins by quoting the argument of some noted atheist, and moves rapidly through his refutation using the ideas of thinkers who range from avowedly Christian to ambivalently deist.  He covers a vast territory and we can hardly complain if his wide scope means that his analysis is sometimes a little shallow.

I particularly like the way he clears the decks of some typical atheist misconceptions.  In response to the argument that Christianity is a force of oppression and persecution, he traces the origins of the concept of liberty and equality to the Christian notion of the sanctity of life.  The classical philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome which some atheist apologists like to cite as the bedrock of Western liberalism were exclusive, upholding the dignity of patrician men while downgrading that of women, children and slaves.  Christianity, by contrast, regarded all humans as equally created by God and valuable in his sight.  This provided the foundation for the idea of social liberty, the equal application of the law to all citizens, the duty of kings to protect the powerless, and ultimately the modern notion of human rights encoded on the various UN declarations.  Far from being an oppressor, he says, Christianity is the source of the freedoms we enjoy in the West today.

Later on, he discusses the crimes of Christianity such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-hunts and the European wars of religion. While he acknowledges that evil has indeed been done in the name of Christianity, he argues that the contemporary atheist view (and to a large extent the popular view more generally) is greatly exaggerated.  For instance, he points out that there were two sides to the Crusades and that the Islamic side was far from passive; that the Inquisition was responsible for the execution of at most 4,000 peope over more than three centuries; and that no more than 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft over the course of European history.

In order to put these historical realities in perspective, he engages in a little statistical exercise.  He estimates that those three medieval ills, the Crusades, the witch-burnings and the inquisition, between them resulted in about 200,000 deaths.  Given that world population increased five-fold between 1450 and 1950, this translates into the equivalent of a million deaths in mid-20th century terms.  By contrast, he estimates that the three most brutal atheist regimes of the mid 20th century - the German Nazis, the Soviet Union under Stalin and the Chinese Communist Party under Mao - were responsible for approximately 100 million deaths between them. 

I suspect the statistics are not worth the envelope on the back of which they were calculated.  However his general point is a good one.  If the undoubted crimes of religion are to be used as arguments against faith, then the crimes of atheist worldviews must be treated likewise.  These crimes are great, and cannot be swept under the carpet by suggesting, as Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris do, that these murderous ideologies are really religions under another name.  Using that logic, all worldviews are religions and it becomes impossible to have any discussion at all.

This is all, in a sense, just preliminary sparring.  The most telling part of D'Souza's book from an apologetic point of view is his discussion of the relation between science and religion.  He starts by pointing out that the notion of the two as opposed is another caricature.  The foundations of science as we know it were laid in Christian universities, by scientists who more often than not were also religious believers, with the approval and cooperation of the church.  The famous religious disputes over science, such as the controversy over the theories of Copernicus and Galileo, were as much scientific as they were religious.  Copernicus and Galileo were subsequently proved to be correct, but the evidence they presented in their lifetimes was far from conclusive and was a matter of great scientific as well as religious controversy.

From here D'Souza moves to the heart of his argument.  Science, he says, must by its nature adopt a kind of "methodological atheism".  Science is the search for natural causes, so to do its job it must assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no divine intervention.  This assumption is a way of defining and limiting the scope of inquiry, of saying what science is all about.  It is not a statement of any kind about religion, it is a statement about science itself. 

Our current crop of atheist scientists have forgotten this and assert that science has disproved God.  Physicist Victor Stenger says, "If we do indeed possess an immaterial soul then we should expect to find some evidence of it," by which of course he means scientific, material evidence.  The answer to his question (even though he believes he is not asking one) is, "no, you wouldn't."  After all, what does the word "immaterial" mean?  It is not possible for science to disprove God's existence because its method rules God out from the beginning.  Science literally and by definition has nothing to say about God's existence.

This leads D'Souza into a discussion of the philosophical limits of science as outlined by Immanual Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason.  I never really understood Kant, but D'Souza's simplified explanation makes sense.  Our current scientific atheists laud reason as the ultimate source of truth.  We should believe what we have evidence of, and disbelieve anything for which there is no evidence.  However, Kant questioned the basis for this rationality.  How do we know that our reason is reasonable?  How do we know we can trust the evidence of our senses?  The answer is that, by definition, we have no way of knowing this.  What we perceive is not reality itself, merely our perception of it.  Ultimately we have no way of proving that this perception actually matches reality because we can only test reality by our senses.  In the end, we are forced to take it on trust.

This is a viable position to take in relation to the material world, and delivers us working models which are useful to us.  However, once we step beyond the physical world into the realms of the unseen or unknown, beyond what we can experience or test, we reach the limits of reason because it has nothing to work with.  Reason on its own can tell us little or nothing about the ultimate nature of reality. 

To my mind it's a shame he didn't leave it there.  He moves on to Pascal's Wager, the notion that the risk of not believing and then finding out there is a God after all is greater than the risk of believing and then finding out there is no God.  In doing so he undermines his own case, trying to reason his way to faith via a kind of cost-benefit analysis, a form of insurance against eternal damnation.  Faith doesn't work like that and the notion of eternal damnation creates more problems than it solves.

The rest of the book is anticlimactic.  His comments on Christian ethics, natural law and atheism as a psychological excuse for bad behaviour are weak, both as logic and as theology.  His reasoning from the Big Bang to the existence of God as necessary cause, and his re-purposing of the argument from design, are decidedly tenuous. 

However, he does make an interesting point about the idea of a designer universe.  Physicists have observed that for whatever reason, our universe is set "just right" for the existence of life.  Miniscule changes to the temperature, level of background radiation, amount of matter or various other constants in the universe would make life impossible.  Religious apologists like to point to this as evidence of design.  One popular atheist answer to this is interesting - our universe, they suggest, may be just one of an infinite number, each of which varies slightly.  Ours just happens to be the one with the right settings and so we came to be. 

The problem, says D'Souza, is that this is a faith position.  We have no way of detecting the existence of such universes since we are unable to go beyond our own.  Furthermore, it is an explanation of stunning complexity.  Why, he asks, are people with such a high view of science able to believe without evidence in an infinite number of universes constantly generating and regenerating, but find a single infinite God incredible?

His closing piece of Christian evangelism comes out of nowhere, as if you can't write a book about Christianity without trying to convert people.  I doubt many will convert as a result.  This is not because this is a bad book but because apologetics is not addressed to non-believers.  Just as you can't reason your way to atheism, you can't reason your way to faith.  The most apologetics will do for you is assure you that your faith has not been disproved, that it is not the nonsense our popular atheists proclaim, and that their arguments are themselves riddled with holes.

Apologetics will take you no further.  You are on the edge of a moving stream.  No logic will tell you whether you should dive in and swim across, or turn back.  You must decide that for yourself.  Good luck and swim well, I'll see you on the other side.