Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Keeping it Real in Israel and Palestine

My family and friends include a number of stong supporters of Israel.  A lot of conservative Christians feel this way, for reasons which include their understanding of Biblical prophecy, their immersion in the history of Israel via our shared religious heritage, and a fear of the spread of Islam.  This means at a time like now my Facebook feed is flooded with pro-Israeli propaganda.

I find it distressing.  I am not a supporter of Hamas.  As far as I can tell they're an unprincipled group of religious ideologues.  Nor do I have anything against Israelis.  However, in the context of a war in which there are currently 200 Palestinian casualties for every Israeli one I think Israel's supporters need to ask themselves some serious questions.  What could lead someone, particularly a Christian from a neutral country, to lend support to the stronger party in such an asymmetrical war?


In the interests of keeping it real, I've taken to updating the death toll each day on Facebook.  The resulting discussions have been lively.  I'm no expert on Middle Eastern history and politics but I know bullshit when I see it.  There is a lot of it in the pro-Israeli arguments that fly past me each day.  Here are three of the low-lights.

1. "There is no such thing as the Palestinian people."
The argument goes that prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 there was no Palestinian people or nation and never had been, and that it is a creation of the Arabs who want to destroy Israel.

Like a good deal of propaganda, this is a falsehood wrapped in a truth.  It's true that there was no Palestinian nation.  Prior to 1948 there had not been an independent nation of any kind in this location (or in most of the Middle East) since the first century BC, when the Roman Empire took effective control through their puppet Herod the Great.  Since then the area has been controlled by a succession of imperial powers, including the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks.  When the Turks lost their empire at the end of World War 1 the Middle East was divided between the European powers, and their respective territories became the basis of the current national boundaries.

The creation of Israel was unique in this situation.  All the other states took their citizenship from their existing residents and their rulers were taken from the local elites.  The families that provided hereditary governors under the Ottomans became kings of small nation states sponsored by the departing Europeans.  However, in the wake of the Holocaust the United Nations acceded to a long-standing British plan to create a homeland for Jews. The nation of Israel was declared in 1948 in an area which had a mixed population, including some people of Jewish descent but a substantial majority of Arabic background.

The declaration of the Israeli nation brought simmering tensions to a head - war immediately broke out, firstly between the new Jewish rulers and the local Arab communities and quickly drawing in the neighbouring Arab nations.  Israel won a decisive victory and the result was the displacement of some 700,000 people of Arab descent, about 80% of the Arab population.  The majority of these ended up just over the borders in Gaza and the West Bank, controlled respectively by Egypt and Jordan.  There they settled in what were essentially refuge camps and organised their ongoing resistance, giving birth in the process to a sense of Palestinian national identity.  These areas were annexed by Israel in the 1967 war and have been under Israeli military control ever since.

So in a sense, Palestinian national identity was born along with the creation of modern Israel.  But this does not change the fact - people were displaced from their ancestral homes and their lands were taken by immigrants from around the world.  Their descendants remain stateless and largely landless to this day.

2. "Israel is acting in self-defence".
Self defence is the oldest excuse for military aggression in the book.  Once again, fact is mixed with fiction.  The Hamas rulers of Gaza have a considerable supply of primitive rockets which they regularly fire into Israel.  This is certainly an act of aggression. It is undoubtedly harrowing for Israelis who live near the border (and this is a very small country) but the Israeli military has a sophisticated missile interception system which is a highly effective means of self-defence and Hamas rockets rarely hit their targets.  This is not a new situation.  In 2007 the ongoing tension broke out into open war and Israel invaded Gaza, with huge loss of Palestinian life.  After that invasion Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza which is still in place seven years later, sucking the life out of Gaza's economy in an effort to prevent weapons from being smuggled in.

This stalemate was broken recently by the abduction and murder of three young Israelis in the West Bank. (Unlike Gaza, the West Bank is controlled by a Fatah-led government). The murderers were connected to Hamas but it is not clear that they were acting with any official foreknowledge or approval from the Hamas leadership - Israel says they were, Hamas says they weren't.  In the subsequent Israeli response 350 Palestinians were detained including the entire Hamas West Bank leadership, five Palestinians were killed and further restrictions were placed on already highly regulated movements in and out of Palestinian communities.

Hamas accused Israel of collective punishment and the situation rapidly escalated.  Hamas started firing an increasing barrage of rockets from their bases in Gaza, and in response the Israeli military sent guided missiles at various targets in Gaza which they claimed were missile sites but which also, or instead, were ordinary family homes.  This has been followed by a ground invasion.  As a result while only three Israeli civilians have been killed since the start of this particular exchange, some 800 Palestinian civilians have died including over 200 children.

This history begs two questions.  Firstly, how do you determine who started such a conflict?  Was it started by the murders, the heavy-handed Israeli response, the Hamas rockets, the Israeli counter-rockets?  Do we locate its origin back in the 2007 conflict and the subsequent blockade?  Or do we keep going further back, all the way to 1948 and beyond, the cycle of attack and counter-attack that has been going on for almost a century?

Secondly, in the face of such an overwhelming disparity in firepower, at what point does self-defence become all-out aggression?  When Israel has the technology to prevent any damage from Hamas rockets, where is the justification for the killing of civilians and children in the quest to prevent their launch?

3."Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, making a fight to the death inevitable."
It's true that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Israel is likewise committed to the destruction of Hamas.  It may even be true that Hamas uses civilians as human shields by placing rockets in residential areas, although there is not much else in Gaza.  The Hamas leadership has the morals of a pack of wild dogs.

However, Hamas is not the only Palestinian organisation.  The 1995 Oslo accord between the Israeli government and the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation involved PLO recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli legalisation of the PLO and creation of an interim system of self-government in the West Bank and Gaza.  It envisaged a five-year period of negotiation to settle outstanding issues including the status of Jerusalem, the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and ongoing Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories.

This was a landmark agreement and a rare moment of hope in the conflict.  However the concessions were hugely unequal.  While the PLO agreed to recognise Israel, Israel did not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, merely a form of interim local autonomy.  It did not agree to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territory, to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements or to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement.

It got worse from there.  No movement was gained on the outstanding issues.  Israel became frustrated at ongoing terrorist attacks from extreme Palestinian groups and when the Palestinian Authority couldn't or didn't detain the perpetrators, the Israelis intervened directly.  Restrictions on movement were tightened, Israeli military presence intensified, more Jewish settlements were built.

As time went on, positions on both sides hardened.  Israelis elected a government in which Likud entered into a coalition with right-wing nationalists who advocated a hard line and no concessions.  Meanwhile, the combination of frustration with Israel's immovability on key issues and frustration with corruption and misgovernment by Fatah led to the rise of Hamas, first winning local government elections and finally in 2006 gaining a majority on the Palestinian Authority.  Israel refused to recognise their election or have any dealings with them, and over the next couple of years Palestinian governance descended into chaos.  Fatah seized back control in the West Bank while Hamas remains in control in Gaza meaning that there are in effect two separate Palestinian authorities.  Both are under extreme pressure from Israel, still losing land to expanding Jewish settlement, subject to progressively increasing restrictions on movement including the infamous barrier and the Gaza blockade.  Lip-service is still occasionally paid to the "roadmap to peace", mainly by the Americans, but to all intents and purposes the Oslo process is dead.

You can take whatever message you want from this history.  It seems to me that despair and hope are both possible responses.  It is possible to see this as a story of irredeemable failure.  Negotiation has been tried and failed, and now the only solution possible is a military one.  In the short term there can only be one winner of an all-out war because Israel's firepower is so overwhelmingly superior.  This is the solution advocated by many of my friends and family, and many hard-liners in Israel as well as their supporters overseas.  This is the position of Christians for Israel, a pernicious group which has previously made an appearance on this blog.

The problem with this is that it's not actually a solution.   There are currently about 4 million Palestinians packed into the West Bank and Gaza.  They are stateless so they have nowhere else to go.  Every death is another angry family looking for revenge.  Unless the Israelis resort to genocide they will have to find a way to come to terms with this Palestinian presence and find a path to reconciliation.  I'm convinced that genocide would be a bridge too far for the descendants of Holocaust survivors.  If they did go that far, the hatred of their neighbours would be pushed to unprecedented levels, even the US would no longer be able to support them and their days would be numbered.  The fates of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably bound together.

This means that ultimately the problem will only be solved by negotiation, and this will require compromises from both sides.  Palestinians will have to recognise Israel and guarantee its security.  Israel will have to support and assist the creation of a Palestinian state with the land and resources to sustain its citizens.  Or perhaps the parties could pull something unexpected out of the box.  Perhaps they could agree to create a single secular state with equal citizenship for the four million Palestinians alongside the current 8 million Israeli citizens.  Perhaps the UN Security Council will solve the problem by creating a Palestinian homeland in some other country nobody understands with a name no-one can pronounce, like Kyrgyzstan.  After all, no-one lives there, do they?

In the meantime, the situation is difficult and gut-wrenchingly sad.  Children are dying.  They are Palestinians but more than anything they are humans.  The solution is not easy.  None of the parties come out of the conflict smelling of roses.  Israel certainly doesn't.  Whatever excuses you may offer, it's their rockets doing the killing.  I understand that people have different views and that they are passionate about them.  All I ask is that my friends don't expect me to swallow Israeli propaganda.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Reasonable Faith

So, my rather haphazard journey through the world of Christian apologetics has brought me to William Lane Craig.  The much-traveled Craig is perhaps the most prominent conservative evangelical apologist in the English-speaking world, holding debates with militant atheists in all sorts of places in between his day job as Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology in Southern California.  He was even part of a widely advertised debate here in Brisbane City Hall with prominent atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss.  I couldn't get to the debate but friends who did told me I didn't miss much.

Craig is a prolific author and speaker, with over 30 books in print as well as numerous articles, scholarly and popular, and DVD's of his lectures and debates.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics is his attempt to bring all this together in a package.  It started life as material for his seminary courses in apologetics and was originally written as a textbook, but it has reached a much wider audience and spun off a website of the same name and various study guides and discussion forums.

As befits a university textbook this is an introductory work, summarising the ideas and arguments of Craig's apologetics in language plain enough for an educated but non-specialist reader.  There is little here that is individualistic or idiosyncratic like, say, GK Chesterton or Francis Spufford.  Nor is it a merry, populist romp through the territory like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity.  

In contrast to D'Souza's attempt to canvass every argument possible, Craig restricts himself to seven questions, each of which he deals with carefully and exhaustively.  For each question he opens with a historical survey of key arguments and positions on the subject.  The bulk of each chapter is spent on his own arguments, outlining and then explaining and defending a series of philosophical syllogisms, before closing each chapter with some brief advice about practical application.  He also has an overall plan: Start at the highest level of generality and work his way step by step to the specific defence of Christianity.

Craig is remarkably confident of his arguments - the book is salted with anecdotes about young students who have been converted as a result of these arguments, and with advice about their value and use in evangelism.  He clearly finds them convincing.  I am less sure.

First of all he addresses the question of epistemology.  How do we know what we know?  Is it possible to arrive at the truth through reason and investigation?  In Craig's view, the answer is "yes" - we can access the truth through reason and investigation.  In reaching this answer, Craig aligns himself firmly with the modernists against the post-modernists, regarding the latter as incoherent and dishonest.

At first I was inclined to dismiss this section as a kind of preface.  The more I think about it, the more I realise how crucial it is.  For Lane to defend the kind of conservative evangelicalism he espouses, he needs the truth to be objective and certain, to be discoverable.  It is not enough for him, like many other Christians, to accept that our knowledge is partial and hold our faith lightly.  He seeks certainty.  The alternative for him is the meaninglessness of a world without God.  In reaching this duality Craig has laid a heavy burden on himself, because modernism does not just require argument or tradition or spiritual discernment, it demands proof.  If he fails at his task, Christianity collapses.

This would daunt me but it doesn't seem to daunt Craig, who is confident that proof is at hand.  However, he seems unaware of, or at least skates across, the other limitation that modernism imposes on him.  Like the defenders of Biblical inerrancy, defenders of modernism risk being diverted from the meaning of the Christian story (which post-modernism directs us towards) to questions of its factuality, to focus on what is "out there" as opposed to what is within.  As Karen Armstrong would put it, Craig has abandoned mythos in favour of logos, at the risk of diluting and flattening our spirituality.

Anyhow, onto his evidence.  The longest section of the book, divided into two chapters, is devoted to Craig's own special subject, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God.  His favourite is what he calls the kalam cosmological argument, derived from the Arabic word for speech and originating with Islamic scholars of the 11th century CE.  This argument is very simple and is summarised in a three-step syllogism.

1. Whatever has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe must have a cause.

He then defends this syllogism with a wealth of detail and reasoning, defending the idea that everything which begins must have a cause, then surveying the astronomical evidence for the finitude of the universe.  Craig's grasp of these arguments and of the evidence behind them is impressive, and he stays firmly in the bounds of mainstream science - indeed, the most widely accepted cosmological theory, popularly known as the "Big Bang" theory, is his biggest ally here.  Equally impressive is his ability to explain these complex questions in a way even a non-scientist like me can understand.

He cheerfully bats aside the favourite Dawkins-ite follow up question, "where did God come from" as incoherent - God is not covered by the argument because he has no beginning and therefore needs no cause.  However, this does not get him completely out of the woods because in arguing that the universe has a beginning he provides a detailed explanation of the logical impossibility of a sequence of numbers going back indefinitely in time.    To avoid this argument also being applied to God he suggests that God is outside time, but at this point the argument becomes rather question-begging.  I suspect that here we are dealing with matters so complex and abstruse that humans are simply out of their depth.

This is the strongest part of the book and the most fascinating.  Yet it only gets him so far.  This First Cause could be anything - the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot or, more to the point, the Islamic Allah or the Hindu Brahma.  Indeed he ruefully comments that he has received letters from Islamic scholars thanking him for his work on this question.  To fulfil his mission as a Christian apologist he has to navigate from here to a set of arguments supporting the claim that this God has revealed himself in Jesus.

He approaches the task with typical care.  He begins by arguing, in line with his general modernism, that the facts of history are knowable in principle.  History is not simply a collection of unverifiable stories and interpretations, rewritten for each new generation.  It is a subject in which research can uncover the truth, even if our knowledge will never be complete.

Secondly, he argues that miracles are also possible in principle, although each individual miracle story requires verification.  In the process he responds to one of the favourite atheist arguments, Hume's idea that a miracle can only be accepted if the falsehood of the testimony to it would require an even greater miracle than the miracle itself.  Craig thinks this method is founded on an assumption that miracles are impossible, and believes the correct way of weighing the evidence is to consider the likelihood of the miracle having taken place against the likelihood of alternative explanations for the appearance of the tale - what he calls the "inference to the best explanation".

In his final two chapters he applies this background reasoning to the story of Jesus.  First of all, he attempts to show from both the New Testament and extra-biblical sources that Jesus claimed divinity, to be God incarnate, sent to redeem humanity.  Then he asks why we should accept this claim and his answer is because of the testimony of Jesus' miracles, and most especially the miracle of the Resurrection.  If the Resurrection took place, it vindicates Jesus' claims.  If not, there is no reason to accept them.

His final chapter, then, is a rehearsal of the evidence for the resurrection, weighed up using the framework of his "inference to the best explanation" method for evaluating miracles.  We know for a historical fact that the early church believed in Jesus' resurrection.  He thus weighs the various alternative explanations for this belief - that the apostles were deceived, that they were lying for their own gain, that the stories referred to something other than a literal physical resurrection, that they are later legends, and so forth - and finds them all wanting for various reasons.  Ergo, Jesus really did rise from the dead and the Christian God is the First Cause deduced from the cosmological arguments.

Sadly, on this subject he has little new to say.  His arguments are little different to those of the historical apologists that have come before him - Frank Morrison, say, or Josh McDowell.  He relies on the same faulty premises and hence reaches the same debatable conclusions.  It is not hard to find holes in the argument.

I have to say there is a lot to like about Craig's apologetics.  I like the depth with which he examines the questions, and the philosophical discipline he brings to the subject, particularly before he strays into history where he is less comfortable.  He is no careless amateur and this is a serious work of scholarship.

Nonetheless, I think the biggest weakness is right at the beginning, with his defence of modernism.  This commitment sets him on the course which leads to him finally attempting to "prove" that the resurrection is a historical event, because such objective proof is required in his preferred philosophical position.  What if the apostles viewed the world differently?  What if the important thing for them was the content of Jesus' message, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the miracle and resurrection stories were merely the clothing in which this message was presented?  What if the New Testament is not a modernist anthology?

In this context, I find Craig's stories of the conversion of young students particularly interesting.  In Craig's telling of the stories, they are convinced by the power of the argument.  Of course this is possible in a superficial way.  Craig is convincing, he has studied deeply, he has great personal warmth and conviction.  An impressionable young man or woman searching for truth and meaning would be easily drawn in.

However, I would suggest they were there in the room listening to him because they were looking for a reason to believe.  They were there because of the power of the Christian story and the attractiveness of Jesus himself.  Without this, all the rest would be nothing.  The apologetic framework is only a pathway leading to that story, a means of smoothing the way, of helping people to get past the barriers and roadblocks that 21st century civilisation puts in the way.

What's important is what happens next.  Once these people (young or old) reach the point of acceptance, what kind of spirituality do we build?  Do we help people to become more Christ-like, or do we turn them into arrogant bigots?  Do we teach them to build the Kingdom of God, like Tolstoy or Walsh and Keesmaat, or to become loyal soldiers in the kingdom of Caesar?  If it is the former, then it is worthwhile.  If the latter, then all Craig's careful reasoning is just so much dust.  Ultimately, the story is everything.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Rolf Harris and The Beatles

We are currently being forced to accept, reluctantly and to our collective sorrow and shame, that for a long time our society has been remarkably tolerant of the sexual abuse of children.  Our Royal Commission here in Australia has been sitting for some time now, hearing horrendous stories of abuse in institutions which are mostly connected to the churches, Catholic and Protestant.  That we are hearing these stories has little or nothing to do with the willingness of churches and institutions to admit fault and change their ways, and everything to do with the courage and persistence of abuse survivors who have fought to be heard every step of the way.

Now, as if to remind us that it's not just the church, the British legal system has finally wound its methodical way to the conclusion that Rolf Harris is guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault committed on four young girls between 1968 and 1986.  These charges seem to be the tip of the iceberg.  A makeup artist he once groped testified that he was known as "the octopus" because of his wandering hands.  Other victims have already started laying complaints.  It seems likely the 84 year old Harris will spend his few remaining years behind bars.

The most revealing thing I've seen about the whole story is the 7.30 Report's interview with Cathy Henkel, a long-time friend of Harris who testified for the prosecution.  In 1986 Henkel, a theatre and film producer, was shepherding a group of young players around the UK and Harris came to one of their performances.  Afterwards he went with them to a nearby pub and socialised with the cast and crew, giving them encouraging feedback on their performance.  However, what seemed to most participants like a happy, convivial occasion was hugely traumatic for one young girl.  Tonya Lee, who was 13 at the time, was sexually assaulted twice by Harris during the course of the evening.

You can see how sad and conflicted Henkel is in this interview.  Harris was a long-term friend and mentor and she herself has nothing but happy memories of their relationship.  Yet she was so completely convinced of the truth of Lee's story that she was prepared to give corroborating evidence about the evening despite not having witnessed the assaults herself.  She asserts, reluctantly but firmly, that the verdict is the right one and Harris deserves punishment.

What's interesting to me about this interview is how easily Sarah Ferguson lets Henkel off.  Ferguson is renowned for her confrontational interview style and willingness to ask pointed questions, but she keeps her guns in the holster this time.  I would like to know what Henkel thought she was doing.  If she knew Harris well, she would surely have known that he was "the octopus".  She would surely have heard the gossip from makeup artists, administrative assistants and junior performers.  Yet when Tonya Lee sat on his lap in the pub, no alarm bells rang.  It didn't occur to her to keep an eye on Harris in the company of her young charges and she didn't notice when he slipped out to the toilets straight after Lee.  She had it in her power to prevent the assault, but she didn't.

It seems to me that the best thing to come out of such cases is not the jailing of octogenarian offenders, justified though that is.  The best thing is the message these cases hammer home to us, again and again, that we need to watch over the children in in our care and make sure they are safe.  It is the introduction of protocols for abuse prevention - screening adults in positions of responsibility, visibility at all times, the removal of opportunities for abuse, the realisation that such things can never just be a matter of trust.  This cultural change in the way we care for children seems to be the most hopeful outcome of this seemingly endless series of revelations.  Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

However, we still have a long way to go.  One of the things that made me think this was watching the recent ABC documentary on the Beatles' 1964 visit to Australia.  There were scenes familiar from any Beatlemania documentary - the witty interview one-liners, the screaming fans lining the street or massed below hotel windows, the concert footage of young girls hysterical with excitement as their idols played.


Yet the story also had a sinister edge, especially in light of the Royal Commission and the Harris trial.  The hysteria was highly sexually charged.  Young girls hatched schemes to sneak past hotel security and get to the Beatles' rooms.  Some booked rooms in the hotel themselves for easy access.  The Beatles were not shy about taking advantage.  Every night was a party.  The band at that time were heavy users of stimulants which made them hyped up and reckless.  After a gig they would party, and they or their minders would select young girls from the throng and invite them to join in.  Sex was definitely part of the event, lots of it and with many partners.

This practice was even officially sanctioned.  Paul McCartney turned 22 during the tour and a local newspaper ran a competition which gave 10 lucky girls the chance to attend his party.  Girls were encouraged to send a photo of themselves and write a paragraph about why they wanted to attend.  The band themselves chose the winners.  Officially they were chaperoned, but the arrangements were far from watertight.

All this is told in breathless, nostalgic tones as if it was a great adventure.  Those were our wild days, everyone seems to be saying, and weren't they great?  Even some of the young women (no longer young now of course) seem to relish their parts in the occasion.  It's as if these events happened in a different world to that of Harris' crimes, a world in which boys will be boys and girls will be girls and it's all innocent fun.

Of course there are differences.  Harris was almost 40 at the time of his first offences, his victims as young as 11.  The Beatles, by contrast, were still quite young.  Ringo Starr, the oldest, was just short of 24, George Harrison the youngest at 21.  They were sex symbols in a way that Rolf Harris never was.  Girls literally threw themselves at them in a frenzy of adolescent hormones.  It could be that the Beatles never had any occasion to commit sexual assault because they were surrounded by so many willing partners.

Yet I wonder, were these over-stimulated young men and their minders always scrupulous about the age of the girls they bedded, or about issues of consent?  Did the girls themselves really know what they were getting into?  While some smile salaciously on camera at the memories, are there others who watch their TVs with shaking hands and tears running down their cheeks?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we will never know.

Cathy Henkel thought Rolf Harris was a kind, friendly man.  Tonya Lee knew differently.  It took almost 30 years for them to compare stories and piece together the truth.  Is there a similar jigsaw still to put together about the Beatles?  Or about other people we admire?  Have we really learned the lessons we need to learn, or do we still need more high profile cases do drive the message through our thick skulls?