Monday, 29 September 2014

How I Nearly Became an Extremist

I had an epiphany the other day.  I was watching ABC's 7.30 report on Mohammed Ali Baryalei, the Afghani-Australian man who is reputed to be the most senior Australian member of Islamic State.  I had a profound moment of identification.

Baryalei is a man with a colourful history.  He arrived in Australia in the early 1980s as an infant after his family fled Afghanistan, and grew up in Sydney in the home of his violent father.  The trauma of his personal abuse was exacerbated by the World Trade Centre bombing (he would have been about 20 at the time) which made him feel like an outsider in Australia, and his young adulthood included bouts of depression, periodic drug abuse and possibly petty crime.  On the brink of suicide, he turned back to Islam and within a short time became a fervent preacher, evangelising young men on the streets of Sydney.

The 7.30 story included some Youtube footage (which has been cut from the on-line version) of Baryalei talking with a shy, nervous young man about this young man's conversion to Islam.  As I looked at the young man, the thought popped into my head: "That could have been me!"

I had a much happier childhood than Baryalei.  My parents came to Australia from England when I was six, and I grew up in a peaceful, happy family.  I did well at school, went on to university and launched quickly into a professional career.

Nevertheless like most young men, in my teens and early 20s I was struggling to work out my place in the world, and in the universe.  I could see the world wasn't as it should be, and that I wasn't either.  I was searching for something better.  Despite my education, I lacked both the maturity and the intelligence to grasp the complexity of what I was seeing.  I wanted a simple, pre-packaged answer that would fix it.

I turned to Christianity while I was still at high school.  My early experiences were in mainstream churches, firstly in one of Brisbane's premier evangelical Anglican churches, and later in the Uniting Church.  However, although I was solidly middle class myself I felt a little out of place in these churches because my budding career as a social worker was confronting me with aspects of social dysfunction and human misery which my peers at church were not encountering.  I felt confused and disoriented.  I flirted with various things, including declaring myself an anarchist (despite not having a very clear idea what that was) and hanging for a short time on the fringes of Brisbane's rag-tag bunch of International Socialists.

Then at 21, after I finished university, I moved to the regional Queensland town of Maryborough and joined an Open Brethren congregation.  Now don't get me wrong - the Brethren are not extremists.  Although they are a little bit on the fringes of the Christian church, they are essentially orthodox, mostly differing from other fundamentalist Protestant churches on matters of ecclesiology and perhaps a bit more interest in questions of prophecy.  My local church's leadership were kind, peace-loving, conservative men committed to their faith.

However, there are a couple of aspects of the Brethren that make them more open to extreme views than other churches.  They are perhaps the most unstructured of all the mainstream churches, a network of independent congregations bound together by some very loose cooperative arrangements and a set of collective norms.  Unlike other congregational denominations like the Baptists and the Churches of Christ, they have no system for training or accrediting clergy and they have a strong anti-clerical ethos which can easily slide into anti-intellectualism.  This means it can be easy for extreme views to find space within the Brethren, and there are often extremists of various sorts floating around the edges of these churches.

Maryborough was a place that suffered badly from the economic restructuring of the 1980s.  At its economic peak it was the location of Walkers Engineering, a large engineering and ship-building business which employed over a thousand people, plus a number of sawmills, a large sugar mill and a range of associated service providers.  However, by the time I got there a lot of this was gone.  The shipyard was closed altogether and the rest of the engineering works was limping along on the back of government train-building contracts, employing less than 200 people.  A number of the sawmills had closed.  The sugar mill had automated much of its production and downsized its workforce, which was seasonal in any case.  To make it worse the global sugar price had fallen through the floor and the surrounding cane farmers were struggling to pay the bills.

Unemployment was extremely high, particularly among labourers and tradies.  Young men who had taken up apprenticeships at Walkers confident of a job for life found themselves laid off once they had finished their training, with few prospects elsewhere in the town and a specific set of skills which were hard to transfer.  The town had a thriving drug scene and a lot of young people with time on their hands, feeling alienated from and abandoned by their wider society.

Quite a group of these young people were drawn to the Brethren, whose full time worker was a skilled evangelist with a huge amount of compassion and a gift for explaining the Gospel in clear terms that anyone could understand.  Under his influence they gave up drugs, studied the King James Bible with great excitement despite its impenetrable English, attended prayer groups and bible studies and formed a tight-knit little religious community.  This activity was supported by the congregation but often took place on its fringes, in people's homes or on informally organised weekend camping trips.

This was the group I joined when I moved to Maryborough.  I visited other churches, but I was attracted by the lively enthusiasm and questing spirit and the strong sense of community, the way they supported one another and the fact that they were different to me and to the people I had grown up with and in whose company I was dissatisfied.  It was a very good time in my life and I still have friends from there.

The worm in the apple here was that on the fringes of this group was a strong strain of extreme right-wing politics.  I'm not sure now exactly where it came from, and it wasn't part of the "official" teaching of the church.  My first encounter with it, as for many, was through the tracts of American cartoonist Jack Chick.  Chick describes himself as an evangelist and many of his cartoons are proclamations of the gospel according to the most conservative of fundamentalists.  However, he also does a virulent line in hate literature and far-right conspiracy-mongering.  He was (presumably still is) a promoter of the idea that various secret social forces - the Freemasons, the finance industry (controlled by Jewish interests), the communists and their fellow-travellers, the United Nations - were plotting to establish a single world government which would enslave us all, as predicted in the Book of Revelation.

If you wanted to know more than you could find out from his simple cartoons, there were various books in circulation that expounded the idea more fully.  There was Gary Allen and Larry Abraham's None Dare Call It Conspiracy which purported to reveal the secret machinations of these various forces in recent history.  There was Australian revivalist preacher Don Stanton's Mystery 666 which related this version of current events to the story in the Book of Revelation about the coming of the Beast, which he interpreted as this same world government which would usher in the Great Tribulation.  And of course there was Hal Lindsay's monumental best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth.  

There was also an Australian called Peter Sawyer who had his fifteen minutes of fame about that time.  Sawyer was a former clerk in the Department of Social Security in Western Australia.  While on the job he systematically defrauded the Department of a substantial sum of money by claiming payments under false names, then publicly returned the money, claiming he had done it to demonstrate how open the system was to fraud.  Not surprisingly he was sacked, but a magistrate refused to convict him of fraud on the basis that he was conducting a political crusade and had no intention of actually stealing the money.

Sawyer wrote a book about his experiences and briefly became a tabloid media darling and went on a national speaking tour.  He also started editing a magazine called Inside News.  This magazine was a vehicle for all sorts of right wing stuff including conspiracy theories about what was going on at Pine Gap, covert government surveillance of citizens and his own take on the World Government.  A number of church members went to hear him speak, including one of the senior church leaders, and came back mightily impressed.

Personally, despite it appealing to my anti-government stance and general distrust of authority, I didn't end up buying it.  My education came to my aid and I was able to see through the rather transparent flaws in the conspiratorial theories and the crude stereotypes of Chick's comics.  The all-encompassing circularity of the conspiracy theorists fell apart at the slightest poke.

So I emerged intact.  So did all of my friends, as far as I know.  Some of them became missionaries of various sorts, at home and abroad, others continued to live normal lives at home.  None of those I'm still in touch with became right wing political activists - they are all living peaceful lives as ordinary citizens, just like me.  They may not have had university educations, (although some got them later) but they weren't stupid.

Of course there are differences.  For one thing, our 1980s extremists preached fear and even hate, but did not advocate violence.  If they had a political program at all it was to frighten their followers into the arms of the political right.  The main beneficiaries were populists like Joh Bjelke-Petersen and later Pauline Hanson.  Dangerous in many ways, but not literally deadly.

Yet there were also a lot of similarities with what we hear of the recruitment of our young Islamic extremists.  Structurally, Islam has many similarities to the Brethren - although more clericalised, local Islamic congregations have a high level of independence, established and governed by local leaders.  Like our little church group, they often have groups of people loosely attached to them, coming to Friday prayers but running their own show off-site and on the streets.  Like our little group, which included street evangelism in its range of activities, Street Dawah aims to give new life and purpose to lost souls, just like Baryalei himself turned to Islam as a way out of addiction and depression.

Such groups, with uneducated new believers searching for answers, are prime targets for strong voices advocating radical solutions that have an air of certainty.  It could be armed rebellion dressed up in Islamic clothes, or right wing extremism dressed up in Christian clothes  The nature of the solutions proposed in both cases is transparently foolish, but they have an air of certainty and a promise of radical change which can be superficially appealing.

You might respond that none of us became terrorists, or even hard-line right-wingers, but this is not that different either.  How many of the young people touched by Street Dawah around the country have joined IS or other Islamist groups?  The government's statements are vague on the subject but somewhere around 50 or 60 people have headed overseas to fight, and the total number of supporters in Australia is not much more than that.  Most of them are young - Baryalei himself is one of the oldest at 33, most of the others named are in their teens or early 20s.  With a supportive community and access to good teaching, most will grow up and move on.  The tragedy, and the one really important difference, is that the advocacy of violence within this movement means that some will never get that opportunity.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, Jesus says we should love our neighbour as ourselves, and that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  I want to make the point than when we see the faces of these young men and women on our TV screens, we should resist the temptation to think of them as "other".  They are not that different from you and me.  They have the same needs, the same vulnerabilities, the same drives and motivations.  Our first reaction on seeing the tragedy of their lives could appropriately be, "there but for the grace of God go I".

The second is that their existence presents a challenge to us.  We have young people in our midst looking for meaning, purpose and acceptance.  They are alienated from mainstream society, struggling to find a place for themselves and often drifting into mental illness and addiction. Should our first response be to criminalise them, to subject them to surveillance, questioning, and summary detention?  Or should we be making room for them in our midst, finding ways to help them find work, kick their addictions, put their lives on track?  Should we be trying to force them to change, or listening respectfully to their critique of our society?  Although they will be naive, idealistic and often just plain wrong, it is also possible they may have something to teach us.  We need to heed Jesus' lesson on driving out demons and find a way to fill the vacancy we create by driving out IS, otherwise we might just be creating space for an even worse devil.

I could have been a right-wing extremist.  Alternatively, if I had stayed in Brisbane and immersed myself a little more deeply in International Socialism, I could have become a left-wing extremist.  As it turned out I became neither.  I'm still uneasy about our society and still looking for a place in it.  I have become a lot more uneasy in the last year or two as our planet and country seem to lurch back to the right.  Yet I am also a lot more wary of easy answers, of programs or theories which attempt to explain everything.  I understand that the world is a lot more complex than that and have learned to live with it.

My prayer for our current young would-be extremists, and those in their orbit, is that they may live to do the same, and that as they do we will support them and help them to grow up.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Death: Where is your Sting?

So, I've written about my own experience of death, about the Genesis account of death's origin, and about the processes of denial, anger and bargaining that we use to try and deal with our mortality.  How do we get to the point of acceptance, and learn to live with the inevitability of our own death?

Of course I'm not going to give you "the answer", and I don't want to try and convince you that I have this one under control.  I'm just as prone to the illusion of immortality as anyone, more than many.  I know I'm going to die but most of the time I live as though I'm not.

However, I think the Bible has two answers for us.  The first is the answer I quoted in the last post, from the book of Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

I think part of the reason we often find Ecclesiastes so dark and wonder why it's even in the Bible is that we are still working hard to maintain our illusion of immortality.  Yet Solomon has gone past this, and is fully aware of his.  It drives him to despair, and he wonders: what is the point of it all?  Why do I bother with all this learning, all this hard work, all these wise choices, when one day soon it will all go up in smoke?

This problem doesn't cease to trouble Solomon throughout his book - he keeps returning to it, which is both honest and kind of comforting.  If anyone tells you they don't fear death, my hunch would be that they are deceiving themselves.  Solomon is honest and aware enough to admit that his answer is difficult to live by.

His answer is simply this - that we should humbly accept our lot, as a gift from God.  This is the opposite of the pretensions of Adam and Eve, who swallow the serpent's line that they can become gods themselves.  It is almost the undoing of the original sin, an acceptance that we are limited and mortal and that everything we have and are comes from God.  It is a deliberate act of submission, a willingness to live under his rule.

This is not the answer we have come to expect as Christians.  We have come to expect that we will be comforted with the promise of eternal life.  I will get to that in a moment, but I've stressed Solomon's answer for two reasons.  The first is that it is much harder for us to hear.  We desperately want to keep our god-illusion alive.  The second is that it is essential if we are to properly understand the New Testament's message.  It is too easy for us to just use eternal life as another way of bargaining with God or denying our mortality.

Death is a teacher which reminds us of our place in the universe.  Although this is  painful lesson, and one we have to relearn many times over, it is important that we learn it for many different reasons, not least of which is that we have to stop playing God with our planet and one another, and start to live out the call of Christ to lay down our lives for one another.

Once we have understood this answer we can move on to the second, and more expected, which comes from 1 Corinthians 15.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
      ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
      ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
              Where, O death, is your sting?’

Paul doesn't promise us that our life will go on forever.  Nor does he talk of an immortal soul, or of our loved ones looking down on us from heaven.  Death is not an illusion.  It is very real.  Those who die (and we have no special reason for thinking this will not be us) go into the ground and remain there.  We can't use our Christian hope to try and avoid this.

What Paul is saying is that this is not the full story.  Death itself is one of those temporary things, just like our lives.  Death is not an eternal reality.  Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste, the assurance that there is something beyond death.

The details of this "something" are not entirely clear - he is telling us a mystery.  He can only describe it through metaphor and analogy.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 he responds to the question, "with what kind of body do they come?" with a series of images.  The comparison between our form now and our resurrected form is like the difference between a seed and the plant it becomes, or like the difference between the bodies of humans and animals and the bodies of the sun, moon and stars. He says that our weakness, perishability and dishonour will be replaced bu imperishability, honour and power.   Instead of being made out of dust, we will be made out of the substance of heaven.

We don't know what all this means.  We can't picture it or describe it in any more precise terms than this.  All we know is that God has something better in store, and he will bring it about in his good time.  This is the hope with which the New Testament writers want to replace our illusion of immortality and our despair at death.  The Christian assurance is not that death is illusory, but that it precedes something much better than this life.  We will not go on for ever as we are, we will be transformed into something better.  This life of tears and suffering will give way to a life of joy.  As John Donne puts it:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Or for a more contemporary slant, as I've been working on this post I have the voice of Nick Cave and various friends in my head, singing a song written by Bob Dylan and appropriately titled 'Death is Not the End'.  Enjoy, and live in hope!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

I Shall Not Hate

In our fickle media age we've moved on from the Gaza conflict and are now obsessed with the atrocities in Iraq.  However, peace in Gaza is still fragile and temporary, and there is a long way to go before that situation could be considered truly resolved.  So I've been reading Izzeldin Abuelaish's 2010 memoir, I Shall Not Hate.

Abuelaish came to international attention during the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza when his house was bombed by Israeli tanks, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring a number of other family members.  This book tells that story, but puts it in its place in Abuelaish's life and work.  It's a moving, tragic and yet hopeful book.

The Abuelaish family originates from a village called Houg in southern Palestine.  They were wealthy farmers, his grandfather the village muktar.  However in 1948 during the first Israeli/Arab war, known to Palestinians as the Nakba or "Catastrophe", they fled their homes and walked the six miles to the designated safe haven in Gaza.

They always assumed that they would go back, that their refuge in the Jabalia refugee camp was a mere temporary safety measure, but temporary stretched on from weeks to months to years.  They were still there in 1955 when Izzeldin was born.  They were still there in 1973 when their farmland was taken over by Ariel Sharon and he renamed it Havat Shikmim or "Sycamore Ranch".  The Abulaish family were never paid for their land and Izzeldin still has the title deeds in his possession although he harbours no hope of ever being able to reclaim it.

He describes a childhood of grinding poverty, he and his parents and siblings crowded into a single room, his mother made harsh and bitter by the continual struggle for survival, the daily search for enough to eat.  As the oldest child, Izzeldin had to contribute to the family income from an early age, getting up at dawn to trade the family's surplus milk ration for extra cash, doing odd jobs and as he got older working in a variety of jobs before and after school and in the holidays.

His good fortune was that he was a gifted scholar, and despite the fact that he could have contributed more to the family's survival by leaving school as a teenager to work full time, his family supported him to persist and he eventually gained admission to Cairo University, where he studied to be a doctor.  This made it possible for him to lift himself and his siblings out of the direst poverty, building a large multi-storey apartment block in Jabalia in which each of his brothers has a floor.  His gifts also enabled him to become a trailblazer in many ways, becoming the first Palestinian physician to work in an Israeli hospital, pioneering approaches to women's health and public health in the Islamic context and gaining an international reputation for his public health work.

Yet despite his international reputation and his friendship with a number of prominent Israeli medical and public figures, he was not exempted from the daily grind of life as a Palestinian refugee in Gaza.  A huge part of this grind is the difficulty of travelling between Gaza and Israel, a daily or weekly necessity for Abuelaish and thousands of other Palestinians.  This is a journey of only a few kilometres but involves a complex checkpoint at which Palestinians are subjected to multiple document checks, security searches and questioning as to their reason for travel, and frequently turned back without any specified reason.  What should be a half hour or hour journey is transformed into hours of humiliation and frustration.

Health facilities in Gaza are rudimentary and medicine is often in short supply due to the blockade, so many Palestinians need to travel to Israel, especially Tel Aviv, for treatment.  Not only are sick people subjected to lengthy delays at the border, many are turned back when the border guards deem they can be treated in Palestine, despite the guards having no medical training and no access to medical advice.

With this poverty and harassment added to their original dispossession it is not surprising many Palestinians harbour deep hatred towards Israel.  Not so for Abuelaish.  He is saved from this hatred by his own values of peace and tolerance, and by the fact that he has personal experience of the friendship and kindness of many ordinary Israelis.  He first experienced this when he spent a summer in his teenage years working on an Israeli farm where the owners treated him just like the rest of their employees, despite his often embarrassing ignorance of their lifestyle - like his collecting the pile of discarded clothing to distribute to needy friends and family back home, only to have to return them when the family started wondering what had happened to their dirty laundry.

These experiences increased in number and intensity as his medical career progressed and he developed close friendships with Israeli colleagues, persuading many of them to help with his projects to improve health services in Gaza.  This led him to conclude that the resolution of his people's suffering lay not in a military defeat of Israel but in compromise and peaceful co-existence.  He found that many Israelis felt the same, and they formed bonds across the borders to work towards this peace.

His refusal to hate was sorely tested in 2008 and 2009 by two personal tragedies.  The first was an ordinary one, and nothing to do with the Israelis - his wife Nadia died of an aggressive form of leukemia.  Indeed, Nadia was treated by Israeli doctors in the hospital where Izzeldin worked.  However after her initial treatment, when she appeared to be in remission, Izzeldin left the country to work on a UN health project.  On his way out of the country he was delayed at the checkpoint, with the guards telling him his name was on a security watch-list and he would not be allowed to leave.  Phone calls to various prominent Israeli friends eventually identified that his listing was a mistake and he was allowed to depart.

While he was away, Nadia's condition deteriorated rapidly and he attempted to rush home to be with her.  Palestinians are not allowed to use Israeli airports so he made his flight to neighbouring Jordan, from where he would travel across the West Bank and into Tel Aviv to join his wife in hospital.  What should have been a journey of an hour or two turned into a 36-hour nightmare as he was held up at checkpoint after checkpoint, each one finding his name on the same security watch-list and detaining him interminably as he struggled towards his destination.  He arrived, angry and sleep-deprived, just in time to be with Nadia in her last hours.

This may seem bad enough, but worse was to come.  In late December 2008 the Israeli army began shelling and bombing Gaza, and on 2 January 2009 they sent in their ground troops.  The Abuelaish family found themselves in war zone.  Terrified, with the power off and food supplies extremely limited, Izzeldin, his eight children and other family members huddled in their Jabalia home as the war raged around them, keeping out of the way of the Israeli military and praying for the war to finish quickly.  Because Izzeldin was well known in Israel and understood to be independent, journalists with no access to Gaza would contact him for information and he gave nightly interviews on Israeli television, describing the situation in Gaza as he saw it from his front door.

Then on January 16 an Israeli tank fired on his home twice, destroying his daughters' bedroom, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring various others including severe injuries to another of his daughters.  In his extreme distress, he phoned the TV newscaster for whom he had been reporting on conditions in Gaza.  His call was broadcast on air, as was the story of his subsequent running of the border gauntlet to get his critically injured daughter to the Tel Aviv hospital which represented her only hope of survival.  He became the face of the almost 300 Palestinian children killed in that conflict.

At this point he could have been forgiven for giving up his dream of peaceful resolution, especially as the Israeli army rubbed salt in the wounds by suggesting his home harboured combatants or that a sniper was firing from his roof.  He is still waiting for his apology.  Indeed, the atrocity has made huge changes in his life - soon afterwards he accepted a university position in Toronto, putting the safety of his remaining children ahead of his own desire to stay home.  However, he continues to cling to the belief that the conflict can be resolved, and to put his energy into building that peace.  In his book he expresses the hope that his children will be the last to die in this conflict.  Even when this year's repeat performance dashed that hope he continued to advocate for a peaceful solution.

During the most recent conflict, the public discussion, and much of the commentary from my friends and family, presented it as a "goodies and baddies" event, a zero sum game in which either Israel or Palestine would have to be crippled before the conflict ended.  Izzeldin Abuelaish gives the lie to this simplistic understanding.  He does not shy away from the injustices that continue to be perpetrated on Palestinians.  Yet he is also critical of Hamas and its exploitation of hatred and anger.  He is a faithful practicing Muslim who believes in peace, toleration and the empowerment of women.  He identifies people on both sides of the conflict who long for peace and who work hard for it.  He identifies processes for building friendships and collaboration across racial and religious divides.  He strives against the stereotyping of people of either race.  In his medical practice he treats Israelis and Palestinians exactly the same, and he points to his Israeli colleagues who do likewise.

It's easy for such voices to be drowned out, but we shouldn't let that happen.  Our world is desperately in need of peacemakers and bridge-builders and they need to be heard.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Death: Do Not Go Gentle

When I was a young social work student we learnt about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's four stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance.  I'm sure there are other models that work as well to help us understand the grieving process, but this is the most widely known and it has a kind of elegant simplicity to it.  Not that grief is elegant or simple.  We don't progress smoothly through these stages and pop out the other end calm and accepting.  We bounce around between them like rubber balls.

James says we are "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" but we're not easy in our minds about that fact.  Most of time, as I said in my last post, we just pretend it's not true and that we will live forever.  However, there comes a time when we can no longer do so.  Someone close to us dies, or comes close to death, or we ourselves feel death's wings brushing us and we can no longer ignore our own mortality.  What are we to do?

One option is to follow Dylan Thomas's advice and fight like hell, going down raging at the injustice of our lives cut short when there is so much left to do.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That's anger.  But anger is exhausting.  It requires a huge amount of adrenaline and after a little while it leaves us drained and numb.  At that point, we are likely to do something like the anonymous author of the old American blues number, 'Death Have Mercy', sung here by Harry Manx.

What is this that I can see?
A cold mist is runnin' all over me.
Wanna stretch my eyes wanna stretch my limbs.
Ain't that the way death begins?

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.
You were a flower, one day death come
Cut you down, oh so soon.

Oh Death!  Death be easy, Death be easy.
Oh Death, pass me over for another year.

We try and make a deal with death.  Just give me one more year.  Just give me a little longer to make my mark, to finish my appointed task.  Let me just put off the day.  In effect, we are asking to be allowed to regain our illusion of immortality for just a little bit longer.

What drives this anger and this bargaining?  I suspect it is a sense of despair, a sense that death renders our lives meaningless, a sense that if we are not eternal, if we are not gods, then we are nothing.  We fight this notion with every nerve and sinew and bone in our bodies.  We refuse to be mere mist! The author of the book of Ecclesiastes (traditionally ascribed to Solomon) put it this way:

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Solomon expresses what we all feel at times - the sense of despair at the point of our existence. Throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes he returns to this theme, reiterating the sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness of life.  Yet although he wavers throughout the book he keeps coming back to his one hope - that God is able to make meaning out of this meaninglessness.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

As for Solomon, so for us, our only hope against the power of death is our existence in and with God. Our relationship with God is the only way we can be relieved of the need to be gods ourselves, and the despair and frustration we feel when we discover we are not.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Jorge Luis Borges

I recently read a collection of  essays and journalistic pieces by William Gibson.  Unlike Gibson's fiction, which I love, his non-fiction wasn't that great.  However, he referred a number of times to the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and I was intrigued enough to check him out.  I sure am glad I did!

Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 and died there in 1986.  He was a classic "man of letters" a person who, although he held various professorships and other positions, never really made his living as anything other than a writer.

I have read other "philosophical" writers of fiction, authors like Camus, Eco, Calvino or Kafka who use fiction as a vehicle for philosophical speculation.  Yet no-one I've read is quite like Borges.  His stories, essays and parables open up fields of speculation, dizzying ways of viewing the world which seem at once plausible and fantastic.

Naturally he wrote in Spanish, but he was fluent in a number of different languages including English and many of his sources are recognisable to the English reader.  Penguin have pulled together translations of a selection of his stories, essays and parables into a collection called Labyrinths.  The title is well chosen because not only do labyrinths feature in a number of his works, the whole forms a sort of labyrinth of its own as you try to navigate your way through his mental world.

There is little of the conventional structure or content of fiction here.  There is little or no characterisation and often no plot.  Instead, each of his stories explores a philosophical or metaphysical conundrum.

Sometimes his intent seems to be satirical, although it's not always easy to be certain.  For instance, in 'Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote' he portrays an author who sets out to recreate Cervantes' famous satirical novel, not by copying, translating or updating it but by so immersing himself in Cervantes' context that he  spontaneously recreates parts of the work word for word.  His imaginary narrator goes on, however, to analyse the works and find different meanings in Menard's version to Cervantes' despite the two being verbally identical.  I laughed, although I still can't be sure if I was meant to.  How much of meaning is contextual?

'The Library of Babel' had a similar effect.  This tale is told by a librarian in a library made up of unnumbered - possibly infinite - identical chambers, each of which contains an identical number of books.  These books, across the entire library, contain every possible combination of a set of 25 symbols - 22 letters, the comma, the full stop and the space.  Most combinations are simply nonsensical but occasionally there will be a paragraph or a sentence which appears to convey some meaning.  It is hypothesised that any book that could possibly exist will exist somewhere in this library, in multiple editions, each minutely different.  What could life be like in such a library?  The librarians, it seems, go slowly mad trying to make some sense out of the world in which they find themselves, but ultimately it has no sense.  Even the works that appear to make sense are merely random creations.

These plays on the notion of meaning and meaninglessness are complemented by meditations on the nature of time, and of creation.  For instance 'The Secret Miracle' tells the story of Jaromir Hladik, arrested by the Nazis because of his Jewish ancestry and sentenced to face the firing squad.  He has a play unfinished, and prays to be given the extra year of life he believes will be necessary to bring it to perfection.  At the moment the squad begin to pull their triggers he finds himself frozen in time, fully aware but unable to move as his executioners also stand frozen.  During the subsequent "year" of frozen time he mentally completes the play to his satisfaction, at which point time recommences and he is killed.  As well as the question of time (what exactly could a year be when time is frozen?) is the question of existence.  In what sense does Hladik's play exist, what does it mean for it to have been completed?

I could go on with examples but it would never end.  Those who don't like this sort of thing have already stopped reading.  Those who do will be on their way out to find a copy (I'm about to return one to the Council library for those who live in Brisbane).  Each story has its own conundrum, its own question which it asks and then leaves hanging.  In each, our view of the world is tilted a little sideways.  As his characters find their way through the labyrinths he creates for them, we try to find ours through the mental labyrinth he puts in front of us.  What exactly is real?  Does that question even have any meaning?  It's useless to go on.  I can't go back.  I'm trapped.

It's esoteric, metaphysical.  It hardly touches the earth and when it does you can never be sure if it's the same earth we inhabit.  It won't help you solve any concrete problems, fix poverty, avert our environmental crisis, defeat terrorism or even water the plants.  But it's good to have your mind expanded sometimes, to come back to earth seeing things just that little bit differently.  Give it a read.  You won't be sorry.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Death: The Illusion of Immortality

It's hardly surprising that the Bible introduces death right at the beginning of the story.  I think you'll be familiar with it.  Adam and Eve are placed in the garden, and told they can eat the fruit of any tree except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the eating of which will bring about their death.  However, the serpent convinces Eve to doubt the truth of this prohibition.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

The serpent's claim is obviously absurd.  We are specks of dust, crawling around on the surface of the third planet in a solar system located in one of the spirals of the Milky Way, a galaxy consisting of somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars.  Most astronomers estimate that there are over 100 billion such galaxies in the universe.  Yet the serpent convinces Eve, and via her Adam, that she can be like the God who created all this!  The serpent says Adam and Eve can be "like God, knowing good and evil".  The word translated "knowing" here is the Hebrew yada and it means a lot more than simply intellectual knowledge.  It implies an intimate acquaintance - "Adam knew is wife Eve, and she conceived...."  It also implies the ability to judge and decide - Adam and Eve will be able to decide for themselves what is good and evil.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that Adam and Eve are so far from having the capacity to judge and decide right from wrong that they can let a talking snake convince them that they are gods.  Their attempts, and those of their descendants including us, to act like gods has been a long saga of misrule.  Human history is a story of war, oppression, violence and environmental destruction.  Even when we try to do good - when we dream that the industrial revolution will lift us out of poverty, that the green revolution will end hunger, that the technological revolution will deliver us a life of ease, the results turn out the opposite to our intentions.

Death is God's way of limiting the damage.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Imagine how much damage we could do if we were immortal?  What would there ever be to remind us of our own limitations?  Yet our illusion that we are immortal, that we are gods, persists.  Henri Nouwen puts it this way in his book Reaching Out:

The greatest obstacle to our entering into that profound dimension where our prayer takes place is our all-pervasive illusion of immortality.  At first it seems unlikely or even untrue that we would have such an illusion.... Who thinks that he is immortal?.... Although we keep telling each other and ourselves that we are going to die soon, our daily actions, thoughts and concerns keep revealing to us how hard it is to fully accept the reality of our own statements.

Although we have learned from parents, teachers, friends and many books, sacred and profane, that we are worth more than what the world makes us, we keep giving an eternal value to the things we own, the people we know, the plans we have, and the successes we "collect".  Indeed, it takes only a small disruption to lay our illusion of immortality bare and to reveal how much we have become victimised by our surrounding world suggesting to us that we are "in control".

In other words, we continue to act as if we were gods, as if we could live forever and have absolute control over our environment.  At a personal level this leads us to value the wrong things - to put our income above our relationships, to value things before people, to live for tomorrow not today.  At a social level we treat our planet as if it was inexhaustible, our nation and culture as if it is immutable, other people as if they were instruments to do our will and provide us with comfort.  Our belief in our own divinity is disastrous.

Whenever we think like this, the bible reminds us to think again.  James says:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ 

Or Jesus himself says:

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We are often told that living like this is irresponsible, but the truth is that it is the first step on the journey to understanding that we are mortals and to humbling ourselves in the face of the true God.  We cannot worship God unless we accept, not just with our heads but in our hearts, that we are mortal.

Death: The Brick in Your Pocket

On September 28 I'm delivering a sermon at our evening service on Death.  Death is, of course, a huge subject and I've had a lot of time to think about it.  As a result I have a mental list of short meditations which eventually may come together, if the congregation is lucky, into a coherent message.  I thought that instead of asking everyone to get their heads around it all at once, I would put it out in bite sized chunks for people to chew over as the month progresses.

Death is one of the few universal experiences of humanity.  If you live long enough (and it doesn't have to be that long) sooner or later someone close to you will die - a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a child, a close friend.  It happens to us all.

About a decade ago I lost both my parents within a year of each other.  My Dad died of heart failure in 2004 after a slow decline.  Less than a year later, in early 2005, my Mum died of a brain tumour.  Mum's death was a shock - in January she was a healthy, energetic 70 year old who seemed like she could live for another 20 years.  By the end of February she was gone.

In the months after she died I often passed the Princess Alexandra Hospital, where she died, and out of the corner of my eye I would see her walking through the hospital grounds.  My heart would skip a beat and I would turn for a closer look, only to realise that of course it wasn't her at all, it was some other person who didn't even look like her.  Consciously I knew that she was dead, but my subconscious was not yet ready to accept that fact.

It's a long time since I've had that experience but I still find myself thinking of her and Dad.  Last year my daughter got married, and this year my son and daughter-in-law had our first grandchild.  Both times I could imagine my mum running around doing something practical - serving food at the wedding, making meals for the new parents or cleaning their house.  I imagined teasing Dad about being a great grandfather and him giving me some caustic response.  I wished I could have heard what they thought.  I missed them.

This weekend Lois and I saw a play called The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire.  It portrays the grief of a couple, Becca and Howie, who have recently lost their infant son in a car accident.  In one scene, Becca is cleaning out the son's room with her mother Nat, who has lost a son of her own ten years previously.  Nat reminds Becca of a funny incident in the young son's life, then they fall silent.

Becca: Mom...(Nat looks up at her)...Does it go away?

Nat: What?

Becca: This feeling.  Does it ever go away?

Nat: No I don't think it does.  Not for me it hasn't.  And that's going on eleven years.....  It changes, though.

Becca: How?

Nat:  I don't know.  The weight of it, I guess.  At some point it becomes bearable.  It turns into something you can crawl out from under and carry around.  Like a brick in your pocket.  And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is.  "Oh, right. That." Which can be awful.  But not all the time.  Sometimes it's kinda...not that you like it exactly, but it's what you have instead of your son, so you don't wanna let go of it either.  And it doesn't go away, which is...

Becca: What?

Nat: Fine...actually.

I felt the tears in my eyes because this is exactly how I feel.  I still miss my parents, and I expect I always will.  No-one else can fill the gap they have left in my life.  Yet that very absence has become as much a part of my life as the presence of others I love, an every day reality which I live with because I have no other option.  This is part of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


Billions have staked their futures on her
But she is dying
The death of a hundred billion cuts.

Poisoned slowly in the wastes of her own entrails
Roasted on a low fire
Gasping for breath in an atmosphere of unknown gases
While her killers bicker over what remains.

Aeons of patient craft, slow shaping, intricate artistry
Erased in the blinking of a geological eye.
The stars look on, and weep.

Elsewhere, another star is born.