Saturday, 28 June 2014

Neil Young Wages Heavy Peace

So I've been reading Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream.

It's interesting how the form and language of a book tells you as much about the person as what they actually say about themselves, especially if they're not a professional writer.  Graham Nash's memoir, carefully structured around chronology, focused on his professional life, cautious in what he says about himself and those around him, shows a methodical, cautious and conservative person.  Nash remains firmly in control throughout.

David Crosby's attempt, co-authored with Carl Gottlieb and with contributions by a huge cast of friends and associates, shows a strong-willed, opinionated man but someone fundamentally democratic and collegial.  He retains ultimate control - after all, it's his story - but he gives his co-authors a long rope.  He even allows a former girlfriend to give the lie to his claims of sexual potency.

Young's book shows you someone who is very much in the moment.  He often lets you know where he is and what he's doing as he writes each chapter, and he seems to just write about whatever comes out of the junkpile in his brain.  One minute he'll be reminiscing about Buffalo Springfield.  The next he'll be writing about one of his pet projects - his high end digital sound technology, or his electric car, or perhaps his model trains.  Then perhaps he'll tell a story about one of his friends, or one of his cars, or both at once.  It's like one of his guitar solos - rambling, a bit too long with quite a few boring bits, laced with occasional flashes of brilliance.

At one point he tells the story about how he and his neighbours in Hawaii, where he stays from time to time, go on a shopping trip.  He describes wandering through the Costco supermarket, looking at flat screen TVs and buying new brushes for his electric toothbrush and you sigh and say "why is he telling me this? Can't he afford an editor to cut the crap?"  Then they get to a second hand book and record store and there, in a cardboard box on the floor of a remote aisle, is a complete collection of his CDs, all 34 of them.  He is so deflated he can't go on with the shopping trip and sits at a table outside, gathering his wits, while the others go on.  Just when you think you know what's happening, you suddenly realise he was going somewhere else entirely.

In other words, pretty much like Young's career in general.   He leaps between styles depending on how he feels and which musicians he has met up with recently.  Folk, country, garage rock, grunge, techno.  Albums that baffle everyone, followed by riveting smash hits.  He is a genius without a filter, an intuitive artist who can't be told what art to make. Not won't be told, I should emphasise, can't be.  As soon as he thinks, things go wrong.  If you want the gems, you have to accept the rocks.

In the early 1980s Young switched record companies from Reprise, which had released all his music up to that time, to David Geffen's new company Geffen Records.  He was attracted by Geffen's reputation as a music man, but things did not go well.  He presented Geffen straight up with an environmental-themed record called Island in the Sun, which has never been released.  Geffen didn't like it and asked him to do something else.  Young agreed and produced 1982's Trans, a record inspired by his son Ben's communication struggles (Ben has severe cerebral palsy and can't speak) and using heavy electronic effects and distorted vocals sung through a vocoder.

Geffen reluctantly released it, but didn't promote it and wouldn't fund video production to support it.  In frustration the president of Geffen's Board of Directors intervened and asked him to make some rock'n'roll.  Big mistake!  He was obviously thinking about Rust Never Sleeps but no-one tells someone like Neil Young what sort of music to make.  Young decided to take him literally and made Everybody's Rockin', an album of old school 50's rockabilly.  He even funded his own videos with the band dressed up in sharp suits and greased hair.  Eventually Geffen sued him for "making music unrepresentative of Neil Young", no small claim given Young's broad musical range.  He counter-sued, they eventually settled out of court and parted ways.

So was the whole experience a huge failure?  Well, it depends on what you mean.  Commercially, the 1980s were Young's lowest point.  Everybody's Rockin' was not so much an album as an elaborate way of giving Geffen Records the finger, yet it still sold 400,000 copies, no mean feat for a fit of pique.  Trans is another matter.  Electronica dates fast and personally I find the vocoder effect wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  Yet if you listen past this, it is an album packed with great songs, a lost classic of timeless music dressed up in the rags of transient technology.  If Young was misunderstood, this itself is part of the point, part of his own reflection on his son's difficulty in making himself understood without functioning vocal chords.  If you think you hated this album, I encourage you to take another listen.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that Young's fame rests on his early work, and one of his highest points both commercially and creatively was 1972's Harvest.  Let me share a lovely song I rediscovered trolling Youtube as I read the book, 'A Man Needs a Maid'.

I think I prefer this performance to the studio version with its lush orchestral arrangement.  With its stripped back piano accompaniment the vulnerability and bewilderment of the song stand out.  This is not a hugely complex song musically - Young's music never is - but it is quite intricate, with subtle dynamics, modulations and changes of tempo that reflect the moods it goes through.

My life is changin' in so many ways
I don't know who to trust anymore
There's a shadow runnin' thru my days
Like a beggar goin' from door to door

I was thinkin' that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean
Fix my meals and go away

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid

It's hard to make that change
When life and love turns strange, and old

To live a love, you gotta give a love
To give a love, you gotta be part of

When will I see you again?

While ago somewhere I don't know when
I was watchin' a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playin' a part that I could understand

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid, a man needs a maid

When will I see you again?

Young was apparently given a hard time about this song by feminists because it was understood as relegating women to the role of domestic servants.  The critics obviously failed to listen to the song.  This is not a song about gender relations, its a song about being isolated and alone.

At the time he wrote it he was in his mid-20s.  His short-lived first marriage had ended and he was in a fraught relationship with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress of the third verse - it apparently happened much like that in real life.  Other relationships were also struggling.  His initial participation in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had foundered on his fractious relationship with Stephen Stills.  There were issues in his other band, Crazy Horse, as guitarist and singer Danny Whitten's drug addiction made him increasingly dysfunctional.  To make it all harder to bear Young was in constant pain from a spinal injury, performing in a back brace and shambling about the stage like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Young describes himself as a late developer, still emotionally immature and naive well into his 20s.  However, we all get to a point where we realise relationships are much more fraught and complex than we thought they would be.  People we trust betray us, those we thought would help us end up undermining us, friends turn into enemies.  We find things in ourselves that we don't exactly like, although we find them hard to change.  There is shadow where once there was only sunlight.  It's a hard change to get used to, everything has become strange.  How is a man like Neil Young to cope with this, shy, introverted and possibly a little further along the autism spectrum than most people?  This song represents a rather baffled work-in-progress answer.

Of course one option is to simply get a maid.  This is not to say that all a man really needs from a woman is cooking and cleaning, or that that's all she's any good for.  Rather, after you have been hurt it is tempting to put strict boundaries around relationships.  Hiring a maid is strictly a commercial arrangement.  She lives elsewhere, performs certain essential tasks, then leaves.  Both she and her employer are protected emotionally.  The same goes, perhaps, for musicians.  If you hire them you don't have to be their friend, they just have to play what you tell them to play.

The third verse presents another alternative.  You can wear a mask, you can play a role.  When you fall in love with the actress, it's not her you are attracted to but the role she is playing.  And perhaps you understand because you feel like you are playing a part yourself.  For Young in particular, he was playing the part of a rock star, a part to which he often felt unsuited.  His later reflections on his relationship with Snodgrass make depressing reading, a blank few years of unhappiness he would rather not talk about.

Young knows that ultimately neither of these will do.  There is no alternative but to be vulnerable, to take the risk.  "To live a love, you've got to give a love".  You can't cut yourself off or play a part, you have to give something of yourself, risky though it may be.  That longing will not go away.  He asks at the end, "when will I see you again?"  It might seem temporarily easier not to try, but this will not do.  We can't live without love.

Young's music has made him wealthier than most of us can ever imagine being.  This wealth cushions him from a lot of pressures.  Nonetheless his life has more than its share of hardships.  He got dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, suffering from both epilepsy and diabetes and passing both on to his daughter.  He also suffered polio as a child with its legacy of muscle weakness and proneness to injury.  Both his sons were born with cerebral palsy, the older only mildly so but the younger so severe as to be totally dependent on carers.  He faces it all with a kind of baffled optimism and a willingness to keep trying, to keep learning and loving despite it all, which maybe all of us could learn something from.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

School Chaplains

The news of the day is that the Australian High Court has, for the second time, ruled the Commonwealth Government's funding of school chaplains unconstitutional.  This decision has come courtesy of a persistent Queensland litigant by the name of Ron Williams (pictured) who has objected to the placement of a chaplain employed by Scripture Union in his children's school.

I have come across school chaplains in a few ways.  I have a good friend who is a chaplain (government-funded) at a rural school in the community where he is also the Anglican priest.  I have met and interviewed chaplains in the course of a project I worked on a few years ago about youth service delivery.  I also have a leadership role in a local church which employs two chaplains at Brisbane State High School, just across the road from us.  In this capacity I wrote the most recent application to have our permission to place chaplains in the school renewed, and helped negotiate the subsequent contract.

Our church is unusual in two respects.  Firstly, unlike most Queensland chaplains ours are wholly funded by private donations with no government funding.  Secondly, we are one of a very small number of local churches in Queensland to employ chaplains - the overwhelming majority are employed by Scripture Union, a large Evangelical para-church organisation.  However, despite being self-funding our access to the State school system is governed by essentially the same contract as that which governs Scripture Union - a contract which places strict boundaries around the chaplains' role, preventing them from attempting to convert students, from running or organising religious instruction, or from favouring people of any particular religion.  Their role is framed essentially around providing personal, social and emotional support to children - in effect they are intended to operate as school counsellors in the broad sense of the term, although they are not intended to carry out formal counselling and most are not qualified to do so.

The chaplaincy program has been controversial since it was introduced by the Howard Government in 2006.  In the public realm, the controversy has mainly been about the place of religion in Australia's public school system.  The general idea of its opponents is that our public schools (as opposed to church-run schools) should be secular institutions, and that the chaplaincy program breaches this by providing public funding to particular religious bodies to work in schools.  This also seems to be Mr Williams' main objection.

This has been supplemented by other issues.  Chaplains, it is said, are poorly qualified for their role.  The basic qualification for a school chaplain in Queensland is a Certificate IV in youth work, and chaplains can be employed without this if they are undertaking study towards it.  In fact, Scripture Union runs this course (although others do as well) and puts new chaplains through it as a matter of routine.  This qualification could be seen as very low level for the complexity of their role.

If you were to judge by the occasional reports on ABC current affairs, chaplaincy is prone to problems with chaplains overstepping the bounds, either attempting to provide counselling where they are not qualified to do so or overstepping the religious boundaries of their role.  However, in my experience they enjoy quite a broad base of support, not just from religious communities but from parents, teachers and principals with no religious agenda of their own (and even those who are anti-religion in principle) because they provide the kind of support that is not available to students from any other source.

The High Court Judgement is an interesting intervention in this situation.  The Court's role in the matter is constitutional - their job is to determine whether or not the Australian Government is acting within the terms of the Australian Constitution.  This august and somewhat ad hoc foundation document for our nation does in fact have a clause about religion.

116 Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion 
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for  prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. 

The popular argument against the chaplaincy program is that it breaches the spirit of this clause by favouring a particular religious group (in this case, Evangelical Christians) with funding.  There is no objection, on this view, to funding support workers in schools.  In fact that's a great idea but they should be secular rather than explicitly religious.  The Gillard Government did in fact go a little way down this track by providing an option in the program to employ secular support workers or counsellors in place of chaplains, but most schools have not elected to go down this path.  I suspect the reason for this is more pragmatic than ideological. Scripture Union has a well-managed, easily accessible program for placing chaplains in schools.  There is no comparable non-religious alternative.  

However, the High Court judgement has nothing to do with this clause.  Despite religion being the 'elephant in the room' the actual legal case focuses on the powers of the Commonwealth Government.  Section 51 of the Constitution lists the matters the Commonwealth can make laws about, including the following:

(xxiiiA) the provision of maternity allowances, widows‘ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness  and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances;

Any item not listed in Section 51 is a responsibility of the States, and the Commonwealth does not have direct power to legislate about it, although it can make grants to the States and specify conditions for these grants.  The legal question is, does funding school chaplains come under the heading of 'benefits to students' as listed in the clause above.  The Commonwealth argued that it does, Mr Williams (supported, incidentally, by most if not all of the State Governments) argued that it doesn't and that therefore the Commonwealth has no power to provide direct funding for chaplains in schools.  The Court agreed with Mr Williams.

In other words, this is not a case about religion, it is a case about State and Commonwealth relations.  If the program funded social workers or psychologists instead of chaplains, the judgement would have been the same - except that then Mr Williams would never have brought his case.  The court has not found that it is illegal to have chaplains in schools, only for the Commonwealth to fund them directly.  Instead, it will have to fund them via the State governments.

Mr Williams is happy because he won. The States are happy, because they get more power. The Commonwealth is moderately unhappy but not seriously so.  The program does not need to disappear, it just needs to be channeled through the State Governments.  Scripture Union is probably a little nervous but not overly so, especially since its former CEO is now a Queensland cabinet minister.  It seems likely the program will go on much as before, which will make the majority of people in local schools happy too.  As for what Mr Williams will do next, we will just have to wait and see...

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Law of the Conservation of Red Tape

You're probably aware of the Law of the Conservation of Energy.  This is a law of physics which states that energy cannot be added to or removed from a closed system.  Energy can change its state or type - for instance, the chemical energy in dynamite can be changed into kinetic energy via an explosion - but overall the amount of energy will remain the same.

You are probably not aware that there is a very similar law in public administration - the Law of the Conservation of Red Tape.  This states that red tape cannot be added to or removed from a system of government.  It can be converted from one portfolio or area of business to another, for instance by changes of law or changes of government, but it cannot be completely removed.  This means that when governments promise you that they will "cut red tape" what they actually mean is that they will cut red tape for some people while increasing it for others.

Red tape is used in government departments to bind files - has been for centuries.  Once upon a time it was used to bind together any collection of documents.  In more recent years, cardboard folders and file pins are the technology of choice where the amount of paper is only moderate, but if there is too much to fit in one folder, the folders are still bound together with narrow, non-adhesive cloth tape.  Don't ask me why it is always red but I have never seen any other colour.  The "green tape" which politicians like to claim they are cutting is entirely mythical.  Public servants do in fact cut this tape all the time, since it comes in large rolls and whenever you need some you simply cut off the desired length with a pair of scissors.  Once you have the right length you tie up the files in a bundle - hence the expression "tied up in red tape".

This tape has come to symbolise the heavy hand of government regulation, draining energy from the economy and sucking the life out of business enterprise while feeding the army of pointless, lazy public servants who administer it.  If government could just get out of their way, our business lobbyists say, then business would be able to get on with creating wealth and everyone would be better off.

This is a huge and deliberate caricature of government regulation.  Regulations are there for a reason and many of them are entirely necessary.  We need to protect the environment, make sure important services like health and construction are carried on by properly skilled professionals, make sure the places our children are cared for and educated are safe and well run, and so forth.  All these things require regulation and the files in which records of this regulatory activity are stored are indeed bound up by red tape for easy future retrieval.  However, most business people would prefer as little scrutiny as possible.

Of course there are bad regulations and there are good ones and there are always cases to be made for regulatory reform.  Nonetheless, our current governments at both State and Commonwealth level talk as if all regulation was bad, and commit themselves to global targets like "reducing red tape by 20%", whatever that means.

Anyway, back to my subject.  The Law of the Conservation of Red Tape clearly teaches that red tape cannot be reduced, only displaced into some other, alternative form of red tape.  In the current environment, with governments at all levels who are very chummy with businesses, the only way to deal with this problem is to displace the red tape onto poorer people and those who work with them.  After all, somebody has to do the heavy lifting.

Recently the Queensland Government tried to displace some of its red tape onto the union movement.  Trade unions, their new law said, would need to ballot their members before spending more than $10,000 on political campaigning or donations to political parties.  Thus, instead of a discussion at their governing council, unions would now have to stage a full scale ballot overseen by the Electoral Commission, at enormous expense.  This could displace the red tape from a significant number of environmental protection regulations, saving our favourite mining companies hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Problem was, the unions and their members are not poor enough for this displacement to stick.  Following a successful High Court challenge to a similar law in NSW last year, the Queensland Government was forced to repeal its new law.  The lesson here?  To be effective, red tape displacement must target those who don't have the resources to fight back.  Fortunately, such people are not in short supply.

The Commonwealth government has made a good start in its recent budget with its changes to disability support payments.  It used to be that once you were assessed as having a permanent disability, this assessment didn't then need to be repeated - after all, a permanent disability is, you know....  But now a large number of those assessed in recent years will have to be reassessed against slightly different criteria.  Some of the surplus red tape will be able to be used to tie those files together.

More of it will be used for young people who are unemployed.  Since they need to "earn or learn", they will need to submit evidence that they are doing one or the other, and no doubt this will need to be certified by the person or people they are earning or learning with - hence both the young person and their relevant organisation will need to submit paperwork.  The stipulation that people under 30 can only get benefits for six months will create a lovely round of paperwork as time is kept on the six months payment, exit paperwork is done at the end of six months, hardship claims are made, justified and considered and re-entry to the system is negotiated at the end of the six-month abstention.  Such lovely piles of paper will have to be bound up with something!  We could even give the whole program a progressive sounding title to make it look like we are doing good - how about "Welfare Reform"?  That sounds warm and cuddly....

Of course I have to mention housing, which has become a hugely fruitful repository of displaced red tape in the past few years.  When I first started working in the field, applicants for public housing filled in a four-page form and produced evidence of their identity, income and current address.  Then they waited in a queue that was essentially ordered according to the date of their application.  When their names reached the top of the list, they got a call and were allocated housing, provided nothing dramatic had changed for them in the meantime.  The only paperwork required of them while they waited was to inform the Housing Commission (as it was then) of any changes - new address, new child, new partner, etc.

Nowadays we are in a world of allocation by need.  This means the application form is now 17 pages long and the required supporting information is varied and voluminous as you have to show how you fit the need criteria.  Is your housing substandard?  Submit some proof!  Do you have a chronic health problem?  Submit a doctors letter.  Are you escaping domestic violence?  Provide a police report, or a letter from a domestic violence service.  The list goes on.

Of course all of this is handled at least twice - the person (and usually the agency helping them, since highly disadvantaged people struggle to get all this together) has to find and submit the evidence, and then someone in the Department of Housing has to assess it against a set of complex criteria.  Then of course if they are not housed quickly it all has to be done again as many of these circumstances will have changed.  This is red tape heaven!

But all this, while highly productive in meeting the government's red tape displacement goals, is not sufficient in itself.  So as an adjunct to the heavy lifting by poor people themselves, the organisations that work with them also need to carry some of the load.

One way they do this is through competitive tendering.  In the old days it used to be that once you were funded to provide a service you would go on doing so until the government decided they didn't want to fund that service any more.  However, as the need to displace red tape has grown in recent years, this process has been deemed too simple, and so now these services are periodically put out to tender.  Someone in the relevant government department writes a specification for what the service should deliver (which roughly matches what it is delivering now) organisations submit a detailed proposal as to how they will deliver this service, these proposals are assessed by a panel of public servants and the tender awarded.  This may in fact go to the original organisation, or it may go to someone else who will deliver much the same service, hopefully better but not necessarily, often after recruiting the staff recently made redundant by the organisation that missed out.  In the meantime the amount of paper generated is colossal and it all has be tied together at the end with ... yes, you guessed it!  Of course since tenders are only let for a period of three years, the process is endlessly sustainable.

The other way to get organisations to share the heavy lifting is through regulatory and accreditation schemes.  These are even more fruitful than tendering processes, because you can make organisations undergo an assessment each year, and the processes inevitably involve huge paper mountains - policies and procedures, record-keeping systems, charters, meeting minutes, complaints and risk registers.  Whole armies of worker ants spend their lives managing these systems and tinkering with them to come up with new refinements of paperwork.

Does all this red tape make us better off?  Well, we don't really know, no-one has ever evaluated its impacts.  Anyway, that's hardly the point.  All that red tape has to go somewhere, and if these people are so busy do-gooding that they don't have time to get real jobs, well they just have to take what they are given, don't they?

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Colossians Remixed

Well folks, there's been too much politics on this blog lately and not enough theology, so it's time to review a book I've just finished reading on Paul's letter to the Colossians. Oh, hang on a minute...

The book's title, Colossians Remixed, would not normally have got me in. Sounds dull, and Colossians is one of those books you tend to read quickly on your way between Romans and Hebrews. Still, the subtitle, Subverting the Empire,  was a bit more intriguing.  However, what really got me in were the authors. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat are a couple from Toronto, where Walsh is a university chaplain and Keesmaat an adjunct professor of biblical studies.  A couple of years ago they did a speaking tour of Australia and although I didn't hear them I read the text of one of their presentations and found myself wanting more. The clincher, though, was Walsh's book Kicking at the Darkness, a theological reflection on the songs of Bruce Cockburn. Anyone who is that serious about Cockburn deserves to have his books read!

I wasn't disappointed. This is not only the closest I have ever read the book of Colossians (which runs to a mere two and a half pages in my edition of the NRSV), it opened my eyes to a new way of understanding Paul's writings in general.

This is not really a commentary - in fact it is a response to the authors' frustration with commentaries. In particular, Walsh acted as a reader for NT Wright while he was writing his commentary on Colossians and felt a deep frustration that the limits of the commentary genre didn't allow Wright to take the logical next step from the interpretation of the text in its context to helping us understand it and apply it in our own.  This is, first and foremost, a work of hermeneutics, outlining both what the text meant to inhabitants of the first century Roman empire, and what this same message means in the 21st century Pax Americana and globalised economy.

The first surprise for me, given that our standard readings of Colossians are so conservative and so focused on eternity, was just how subversive this letter is in its first century context, and how easy it is for us to miss this fact. For example, consider this piece of early Christian poetry which forms chapter 1, verses 15-20.

He is the image 
of the invisible God, 
the firstborn of all creation; 
for in him were created all things 
in heaven and on earth, 
things visible and invisible, 
whether thrones or dominions 
or rulers or powers—
all things have been created 
through him and for him.  

He himself is before all things, 
and in  him all things hold together. 
He is the head 
of the body, the church; 

He is the beginning, 
the firstborn from the dead, 
so that he might come 
to have first place in everything. 
For in him all the fullness of God 
was pleased to dwell, 
and through him God was pleased 
to reconcile to himself all things, 
whether on earth or in heaven, 
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

We typically read this passage as a piece of cosmic theology, showing the divinity and eternity of Jesus and the promise of his final victory. What we are unaware of is how profoundly and subversively political these statements are. Jesus is described here in the language used by the Romans to describe the Emperor, who himself expected to be revered as a god. Caesar was the one who was before all things, who held all things together, who had first place in everything. Caesar was the head, and the empire was his body, united in him and directed by him, while all thrones, dominions, rulers and powers were subject to him. Caesar brought peace through the shedding of blood and so established an eternal empire.

Walsh and Keesmaat explain that the image of the Emperor was everywhere. His face was on the coins, his statues stood in all the public squares and on street corners, even in the temples. Not only that, but private homes would be adorned by by dozens of items that bore his image - lampshades, water jugs, cups, plates, all stamped or printed with the Emperor's face.  So when Paul applies this message instead to Jesus, this is a direct challenge to the empire. The empire is no longer the dominant force in the lives of Christians because Jesus and his kingdom take its place. No wonder the Christians were persecuted.

Nor is this simply an abstract set of ideas. The practical instructions Paul gives the Colossians also represent a direct challenge to the imperial system. This system was a very efficient means of distributing wealth from the poor to the rich. Unable to pay their crippling taxes, poor farmers and business people would be forced to sell not only their goods, but their own freedom, to the wealthiest citizens of their cities and provinces, who also occupied the most prominent official positions in the local imperial hierarchy. Hence the rich got richer, amassing huge estates, which were then worked by their newly enslaved former owners for little or no reward at the pleasure of their new masters. This empire was strictly hierarchical. Everyone was under the patronage of someone else, to command as they chose. Children were at the mercy of their fathers, wives of their husbands, slaves of their masters. Nor could you break free or opt out.  Roman laws required widows to remarry after a maximum of three years.

Paul turns this on its head.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

He is asking them to change the way they live, not just in an internal, spiritual way but in the way they relate to one another. Gone is the arrogance and the relationships of power that pervaded the empire. In its place is a relationship of equality. There are no racial divisions, no divisions between slave and free. They are instead to be humble towards each other, seeking one another's forgiveness for wrongs, treating one another with love, following the example of the Head of this alternative kingdom.  

This has many implications for the way they were to live back then. For instance, while the letter does not explicitly command them to release their slaves, they are warned; "you know that you have a master in heaven". Slavery is relativised. This letter was, is seems, accompanied by another, the letter from Paul to Philemon asking him to accept back his runaway slave as a son and treat him as he would treat Paul, his spiritual father and mentor. Hence, Walsh and Keesmaat suggest that its first readers would have been able to read between the lines a message Paul was not prepared to commit openly to writing for fear of endangering his followers' lives - that slavery was incompatible with the equality they had in Christ.

However, the real power of Colossians Remixed is in how its authors translate Colossians for 21st century readers. If this book directly challenged the imperial system of the Roman Empire in the first century, what is its equivalent in the 21st? They believe the signs of our time point clearly and unequivocally to the forces of globalisation led by the American empire. Like the Roman oligarchs, the powers of global capitalism - the multinational corporations and the governments that back them - seek complete domination. They ruthlessly move into any country or community they can reach, usurping local businesses and replacing them by global brands, leaving poor residents with no option but to work in their sweatshops and buy their products in their supermarkets and department stores. Wealth is systematically funneled from the poor to the rich. Those who challenge this system are invaded or boycotted in the name of peace.

We feel disempowered before this system, that we have no choice. That is what empires do. They are totalising systems. They drive us to participate in exploitation and oppression because we feel there is no other choice, this is all there is. Paul, as interpreted by Walsh and Keesmaat, begs to differ. Into this total global system he inserts an alternative, the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus, where we are asked, indeed commanded, to treat people differently, to see things differently, to put the poor before the rich, to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed, to release our slaves, to treat our women and children with love and respect.

Living in this kingdom is not easy. Paul wrote this letter from prison. Many of its readers were likely to have died or been imprisoned in their turn. Before that, its wealthier readers would have been guided to give up substantial parts of the wealth. Following Jesus comes at a cost - not merely a spiritual cost but a concrete social, political and economic one. Yet it also has benefits, for the poor and the rich alike, in the building of a new, loving kingdom, a body in which all take responsibility for one another, in a new living community based on genuine justice and peace, not war and oppression disguised by those labels. Do we have the courage to live in this kingdom, and wear the consequences?