Friday, 3 October 2014

Death: Collective Illusions, Cultural Death

One of the things I touched on briefly in previous posts is the collective impact of our illusion of immortality.  Individually we know we will die but we push that idea away and act as if we will live for ever.  This leads us to value the wrong things - to put possessions before people, to waste time on trivialities, to put off until tomorrow what we should be doing today.  At its extremes this illusion can lead us to abuse and exploit others in the belief that our power over them will go on forever.

This same process also works for us as a community.  We see our current culture or "way of life" as something immutable and eternal which needs to be protected and preserved at all costs.  This illusion, and the actions that flow from it, have some very serious consequences for our society and the way we act in the wider world.

We can see this in the way our community responds to three controversial questions facing our country at the moment - our response to the perceived threat of terrorism, the question of asylum seekers, and the response to climate change.  Let me explain.

One of the big justifications being given for us getting involved in the latest Iraqi troubles, and for tougher security laws at home, is that the Islamists are out to destroy our way of life.  This way of life must be protected at all costs, even if this means sending war-planes overseas at huge expense and risk, and giving unprecedented powers to security agencies at home.

Australia has a long history of fearing outsiders.  For much of our history, this has focused on people from China and South-East Asia.  We feared that as a small Anglo-Saxon society in a region of populous Asian nations we were in danger of being overrun.  Our response to this perceived problem was to foster immigration from European countries, especially from the United Kingdom, while restricting it from Asia - what is colloquially referred to as the "White Australia policy".  While we moved to a more inclusive immigration policy in the 1970s, the fear remains.  As recently as the late 1990s Pauline Hanson built a political career on the fear of Asian immigration.

This fear still hasn't gone away, but since the World Trade Centre bombing in 2001 its focus has shifted to people from Islamic backgrounds and particularly those from the Middle East.  We fear that Islamic immigrants are a kind of Trojan horse, planting themselves quietly in our midst and waiting for the opportunity to subvert our culture and impose Sharia Law on us all.  Hence the presence of a small group of disaffected young people in our midst takes on a significance massively out of proportion to the actual objective threat.  The fact that we feel threatened by women in niqabs or burkas is a dead giveaway - how many violent crimes have been committed by women wearing these garments?

We are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to defend ourselves from this threat.  In order to prevent the "uncontrolled" arrival of people we feel threatened by, we are currently detaining over 6,000 people in immigration detention including about 900 children, many of whom are detained indefinitely in extremely harsh conditions.  We have just handed unprecedented powers of surveillance and detention to ASIO and the AFP.  And we are sending fighter planes off to Iraq to assist in the war against IS and its allies.  It seems to me that we are acting like gods, disposing of people as we see fit and imagining that the world will eventually bend to our iron will.

Now don't get me wrong, I actually quite like our way of life.  However, I think in our flurry to protect it at all costs we miss some very important things.

The first is that not everyone sees our way of life as we do.  Why do we have "home grown terrorists", as the government likes to call them?  Because there are young people growing up in our midst who feel excluded from, and vilified by, our culture.  Elsewhere I have written about how one of the most prominent, Mohammed Baryalei, grew up in Australia but never felt at home here despite his often desperate efforts to fit in.  It was Islam, not our way of life, which saved him from suicide.

These young men, and the many like them (Islamic or not) who turn to other alternatives when our society lets them down, are a test for us, a reminder that our culture is not yet all we would like it to be.  We should already know this as Christians.  We are citizens of another kingdom, and much as we love our culture we know that it is temporary and that there is something better coming which will sweep it away.  Jesus' kingdom is one which breaks down walls instead of building them up, which puts a high priority on welcoming the outcast and directs its critique against the powerful.

The other thing we fail to notice is that our culture is changing all the time.  While we have been focused on Islam, the Asians we have forgotten to fear have been moving to Australia in increasing numbers.  We are so used to their presence now we hardly notice it.  Just the other day I realised that the "happy prosperous family" images that scroll across my bank's website include a Chinese family.  We have, in fact, learned that the only really scary thing about Chinese and South-East Asian people is their capacity for hard work.  They have quietly become an accepted, productive part of our community, contributing to our developing culture and embedding themselves seamlessly among us.  Nothing bad has come of it so far, and I'm thinking it probably won't.

Climate change is a slightly different matter.  What is at stake here is our material culture, the ways we produce things, the way we get around, the way we design our cities, the structure of our industry and our economy.  Much of this is founded on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, the use of which powered the Industrial Revolution and helped create and enrich Australia.

Responding to climate change means changing this.  It means shifting from an economy based on fossil fuels, especially coal (of which we are the world's largest source) to renewables.  It means ditching our cars in favour of human-powered or renewably powered modes of transport.  It means shifting from big centralised power generation systems to networked distribution with large numbers of localised sources using sun, wind, thermal and wave power.  It means not flying half way across the country or the world at the drop of a hat.

These changes are difficult and costly.  We would like to think that we don't have to face them, that one day we will wake up and discover the whole thing was a bad dream (or a mistake of some crazed bunch of scientists) and that things can go an as normal.  We act as if that was the case.  We work hard to sustain our illusion that our economy will continue as it always has.

In the process we forget two things.  The first thing is that it always hasn't.  Our automobile culture only took off after the second world war.  I can remember a time when air travel was a luxury - my English grandparents only visited Australia once in my childhood because they simply could not afford the plane fare.  Our whole industrial system of production only dates back less than two centuries.  There were thousands of generations who did not live like we do.

The second is that if we open our eyes just ever so slightly we will see that it can't possibly go on as it is forever.  Our economic and industrial structures are not, and cannot possibly be, eternal.  Even in the unlikely event that the scientists turn out to be wrong and climate change is a false alarm, the supply of fossil fuels is strictly limited.  If global warming doesn't bring it to an end, peak oil will.  We don't have the option of not changing, but if we open our eyes and accept the mortality of aspects of our way of life, we have the option of preventing the change from being catastrophic.

Things are changing all around us, and not always in ways that we would like.  Many things that we are used to a take fro granted are coming to an end as we speak.  Richard Leakey talks about the "sixth extinction", the rapid elimination of species and lifeforms that is going on as a direct result of our industrial civilisation and the huge toll it takes on the natural environment.  Bruce Cockburn captures the tragedy of this so beautifully.

There's a knot in my gut as I gaze out today
On the planes of the city all polychrome grey
When the skin is peeled of it what is there to say?
The beautiful creatures are going away

Like a dam on a river my conscience is pressed
By the weight of hard feelings piled up in my breast
The callous and vicious things humans display
The beautiful creatures are going away

Why? Why?

From the stones of the fortress to the shapes in the air
To the ache in the spirit we label despair
We create what destroys, bind ourselves to betray
The beautiful creatures are going away

Then of course there is this.  A big part of the reason we persist in this illusion of immortality is that it seems to us that the alternative is despair.  What we fear most of all is our own annihilation.  David Crosby and Graham Nash capture it so well in their song To the Last Whale.  The song imagines the world's last whale stranded and dying as a result of our overhunting (an eventuality we have fortunately managed to avert so far).

However their final verse captures the problem neatly in a few words.

Maybe we'll go, maybe we'll disappear
It's not that we don't know, it's just that we don't wanna care...

The possibility of our own ending is too terrible to contemplate.  It literally paralyses us with fear.  So we close our eyes and pretend it's not so.  We pretend to be gods, but really we are just frightened children.

Jesus faced the same problem.  The people of first century Palestine faced the very real prospect of the annihilation of their culture and their way of life - indeed it happened within decades of Jesus' own crucifixion.  After his protest in the temple John quotes him as saying "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  His hearers' response in incredulous: "This temple has been under construction for 46 years..." they say.  Even Jesus' own disciples marvel at its grandeur and solidity.  Yet Jesus warns them, "Not one stone will be left upon another".

He faced clearly the imminent destruction of their religion and way of life, and offered them something better.  The Samaritan woman who he asked for water asked him which was right, to worship on Mt Gerazim as the Samaritans did, or in Jerusalem as the Jews did.  Jesus responded, "The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...."

All these things, he's saying - the temple, the mountain shrine, all the customs and practices that go with them - are temporary, powerful and eternal though they may seem.  When their time is up they will be destroyed, and this destruction can indeed be catastrophic as it was for both Jews and Samaritans in the war of 66-70 CE.  Yet we can rely on the fact that the Father is permanent, and when he takes away one thing he will replace it with another, different but better.  The temple had become a den of thieves.  The mountain had become a place to worship a god they hardly knew.  All this needed to be renewed.  Now worshipers must learn once again to worship in a new way, in spirit and in truth.

"So if anyone is in Christ," says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

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