Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Subversion of Christianity

Reading Leo Tolstoy's religious writings earlier this year made me want to have another go at reading Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity.  I began to read this book some years ago, only to find that the copy in my hands was a misprint and half the text was missing.  Life intervened, and it took Tolstoy to remind me of it.

In some ways, Ellul was a French equivalent to the Englishman CS Lewis.  Like Lewis he was a prominent Christian intellectual of more or less orthodox Protestant views.  Like Lewis, he had a depth of theological knowledge but was mostly self-taught (although Ellul did complete most of a theology degree before the Second World War intervened) while pursuing an academic career in a different discipline (Ellul in sociology, Lewis in literature).

Of course there are also differences.  Lewis wrote for a popular audience and much of his writing is highly accessible.  Ellul was far more "intellectual" and his writing can be dense and difficult.  However, for both their place outside the theological establishment allowed them to present perspectives and raise issues which would be difficult for someone operating fully within the institution.

The Subversion of Christianity was one of Ellul's later works, first published in French in 1984 and English in 1986 when the author was in his 70s.  In many places he refers the reader to the more detailed analysis of some of the issues in his earlier works.  His basic thesis is that Christianity, by which he means the gospel of Jesus and the apostles, has been subverted and robbed of its power by ideas and approaches imported from elsewhere.

For Ellul, Christianity is not an ideology, an "ism", but the denial of ideology.  It represents a rejection of earthly power and wealth in favour of the crucified Christ.  Nor is it a religion in the usual sense - it is not a way of defining things that are sacred against things that are not but a way of making the whole of life subject to God.  It is not a cultural artefact or even the basis for a culture but God breaking into culture to transform us in his image.  So how is it subverted?

Ellul discusses five sources of subversion.  These are not sequential, but run as themes through the relationship between Christianity and the multiple cultures within which it has been situated.

The first is what he refers to as the process of "sacralisation".  He sees Christianity as the ultimate piece of descralisation in that the boundary between the sacred and the profane is broken down.  In Christianity there are no sacred places or objects because everything is sacred, everything belongs to God.  Christianity did away with the temple in Jerusalem and the shrines in the sacred groves because anywhere and everywhere was the right place to worship God.  It did away with sacred objects or talismans because everything belonged to God.  It did away with priests because anyone could access God directly in humble prayer.  Yet it didn't take long for Christians to recreate their own sacred places, objects and persons - consecrated churches, sacred sites, holy relics and a consecrated priesthood.  The result was that God, who should be understood to permeate all of life and all of creation, was put back into a box, confined to certain places and people while everyone else got on with their lives untouched by his presence.

The second process is the growth of moralism.  Christianity is meant to be a religion of grace, its emphasis on God drawing us to himself through Christ.  Certainly there was a sense that certain behaviours were more appropriate for Christians, but these were consequences of this fundamental act of God's grace, not a moral system in themselves.  Yet from early in its history its leaders began to develop it as a moral system, and to spend their energy on enforcing a set of rules on their followers.  Morality became divorced from grace and the church was turned into an instrument of social control.

The third, perhaps surprisingly, is the adoption during the middle ages of various theological and political ideas borrowed from Islam.  In Ellul's telling, Islam was by far the most advanced and intellectually developed culture of the medieval period and Christian thinkers learned a lot from them, even though this debt was rarely acknowledged.  He points out two particular influences.  One is the emphasis on God as wholly "other" to us and sitting above us in judgement, as opposed to the incarnate God of Christianity.  The second is the idea of the unity of divine law with human law - that God's will can and should express itself in the laws of nations.

This leads on to his fourth process, the process of political perversion or capture.  Of course the paradigm for this is not so much Constantine himself but his lionisation by the church.  Constantine is said to have experienced a charismatic conversion, after which he went into battle with the cross on his banners.  How, asks Ellul, can the cross be turned into a symbol of political power and military conquest?  Yet "Christian" kings and governments have been blessed by the church ever since.  For Ellul this is directly contradictory to Christianity, which sees power itself as a form of idolatry.  He sees Christianity as neither politically neutral, nor as blessing any particular political structure or ideology, but as resolutely anti-political, opposed to political power in any shape or form.

The final process is, in a way, the other side of the coin of the four that have gone before.  Through the 20th century, the certainties of this perverted form of Christianity were stripped away in the face of the rise of nihilistic world views such as Nazi-ism and Leninism, and by the brutalities of the two world wars.  We no longer accepted the sanctity of places, our morality was revealed as hypocrisy, our laws and governments were shown to be completely secular and far from worthy of praise.  Yet at the same time we no longer had a clear sense of what the gospel meant, so Christianity itself became nihilistic, firmly aware of our irredeemable corruption but not of the grace that has come in Christ.

How is it that Christianity was so easily and comprehensively subverted?  There are two elements which, according to Ellul, worked together to ensure this subversion.  The first is that the revelation itself is so difficult.  What is difficult for us is not its "religious" or "miraculous" elements, the sense of God's power and the comfort of his presence.  All of these have been welcome and easily accepted for most of history.  What is difficult is its thoroughly anarchic nature - not in the sense that it is chaotic but that it is so thoroughly opposed to human power and system.  We find this difficult to live by, and try to substitute structure, predictability and secure authority for the unpredictable movement of the Spirit.

The second, which abets the first, is that the things which have corrupted the church are, in biblical terms, "powers" in their own right.  Political power, wealth, the ability to control others, the self-will of moralism, are not simply neutral.  They are active spiritual forces, demanding our attention and allegiance.  The gospel of the New Testament, of Jesus and Paul, asks us to follow a difficult, uncertain path.  The powers of this world tempt us from this path, drawing us aside with their claims of holiness and security.  The devil, as it were, appears as an angel of light.

It turns out that I was right to allow Tolstoy's writing to drive me on to Ellul.  Although the two were superficially very different, the heart of their message is remarkably similar.  Ellul was a careful and thorough scholar, Tolstoy an idiosyncratic amateur.  Ellul was an active lay member of the Reformed Church of France, Tolstoy a perpetual outsider and habitual individualist.  Yet Tolstoy, in his own way, put his finger on the very same ills - the capture of the church by the political powers, its focus on a false and hypocritical moralism at the expense of following Christ, its diversion from the teachings of Jesus to the worship of relics and the mystification of the sacraments.

Yet Tolstoy's answer is, perhaps, too simplistic compared to Ellul's.  For Tolstoy, the only thing worth valuing in Christianity was Jesus' moral teaching, summed up in the Golden Rule - "do to others what you would have them do to you", or alternately "love your neighbour as yourself".  Ellul, with a more thorough theological grounding and the resources of a non-state reformed church around him, has a more holistic view of the gospel as an expression of God's grace.  Ellul presents a very similar challenge to Tolstoy, but he also shows a path to God's grace and acceptance, a path to the peace which the tortured Tolstoy never found.

Despite his damning review of the history of Christianity, Ellul remains profoundly positive about the gospel.  In his final chapter he adopts Galileo's phrase: at his trial Galileo recanted of his "heretical" view that the earth orbited the sun, but as he stepped down from the dock he is reported to have said "eppur si muove"- "and yet it moves!".  Likewise with the gospel.  For all that the power of the church and the tangles of theology and law have obscured it, the gospel still lives and still moves among us.  It cannot be stopped, no matter what - as Jesus says, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  In every age it is born anew despite whatever we may do to it.  Thankfully, we are not powerful enough to kill it off.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Little Drummer Boy

It seems that this Christmas I can't get away from renditions of The Little Drummer Boy.  Here is the one I enjoyed most, from Walk Off the Earth.



I don't really know what's with the dogs.  If you prefer something more traditional here's an a capella version by Pentatonix.


In case you haven't had it drummed into you by years of repetition over shopping centre sound systems and in Christmas concerts and pageants, the lyric goes like this:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honour Him, pa rum pum pum pum, 
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give a king, pa rum pum pum
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

In our culture, Christmas has become the season for sentimentality.  We cover our houses and offices with shiny decorations.  We send each other cards with hopeful messages inside.  We feel extra compassion for the poor, putting on special meals for poor families and giving their kids presents.  When tragedies happen, as they have this December, they take on an extra poignancy for us for their potential to ruin the peace and goodwill we expect at this time of year.

Children's songs fit right into the mix.  We hear Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Twinkle Twinkle and even, if we are lucky, Away in a Manger.  Christmas has, for many of us, become something for children, and as adults a way for us to recover our lost childhood, our lost innocence.  It is the only time of the year adults are allowed to wear funny hats.

The Little Drummer Boy is perfect for a 21st century Christmas.  It features a child, it's very sentimental and it certainly appears innocent.  But I couldn't shake the question - who was this drummer, and what was he doing there?

The song was written in 1941 by US composer and music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, under the title "Carol of the Drum".  She suggested it was based on a Czech carol, but no-one seems to have been able to identify a source so we have to think that its creation was largely her own work.  Davis composed for children's choirs and ensembles so she wrote a simple, catchy tune and a lyric that children could relate to.  It began to reach a wider audience in 1955 when it was recorded by the Trapp Family Singers and since then it's been re-recorded by every man and his dog. Even David Bowie apparently had a go at it.

Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941, so if Davis's pupils gave this song its first outing in Christmas of that year its insistent onomatopoeia would have accompanied the marching of soldiers' feet and the quickened beat of American hearts as they prepared for a long and bloody war.  This is more than appropriate - it was almost certainly deliberate - because its central character is a child soldier.

Boy drummers were common in all the armies of the early- and mid-19th century, after which they were replaced by boy buglers.  They didn't generally carry firearms because the rifles of the time were too heavy and had too much recoil for a child to handle.  Nor was their job simply to accompany the soldiers as they marched on the parade ground.

Drums were used for signalling in battle. The noise of a full scale conflict was too great for the officers to shout, and in poor visibility flags and signals wouldn't do the job, so armies used a rhythmic code.  Each rhythm meant a different thing - attack, retreat, regroup, parley, etc.  The drummers would be stationed at intervals just behind the battle lines, where they could pick up and pass on the signal from the commanding officer.

They were favourite subjects of sentimental art in the 19th century, the combination of innocence and heroism appealing to Victorian sentimentality.  They also had a special place in the folklore of the American Civil War, active on both sides of the conflict.  Officially there were age limits but these were routinely ignored.

One of the most famous of these Civil War drummers was John Clem, According to his own story, he ran away from home at the age of 9 and applied to join a number of Union Army regiments before being finally accepted by the 22nd Michigan despite his age.  By the age of 12 he had already been promoted to sergeant and he finally retired as a Brigadier General in 1915, the last serving Civil War veteran.  He is said to have been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and have shot a Confederate colonel in the Battle of Chickamunga with a cut-down musket made especially for him.

Of course many of the tales about Clem and other Civil War drummer boys are more folklore than history.  Clem seems to have been the kind of man who never let the truth interfere with a good story.  However, they do have an historical core.  There were indeed boy drummers around the world, many of them were very young, and many were wounded or killed.  Even though most did not handle arms they were definitely in danger, and if they were not physically wounded they would still have witnessed unspeakable horrors and been traumatised for life.

So here he is in 1941, on the brink of the war that would bring about the murder of 6 million Jews and end with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a child soldier, traumatised and perhaps bleeding from war, standing desperately before Jesus and Mary and offering the one thing he can do, play a signal on his drum.  I wonder, what did he signal?  Did he sound the charge to summon the Messiah to battle?  Was it the retreat, or the signal to regroup?  Or did he beat the request for parley, hoping to hear the same signal acknowledged from the other side of the lines as the guns fell silent? 

How would Jesus have responded?  The song tells us only that he smiled, accepting the child's gift but perhaps also acknowledging that his signal would be honoured, that his prayers and desires would be fulfilled in due time.

Of course the infant Jesus could not yet speak, but what would the adult Jesus have said?  I like to think that, lover of the prophecies of Isaiah as Jesus was, he may have replied with the words from Isaiah 2:3-4.

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

May we all have peace this Christmas, and in Christmases to come.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Uses and Abuses of Fear

A few weeks ago I wrote about the idea of "lone wolf terrorism".  Now we have had our own version of the same thing, a terrifying and spectacular act of violence in which an Iranian immigrant called Man Horan Monis held a group of staff and customers hostage in a cafe in Sydney's Martin Place for 16 hours.  The standoff ended with Monis' death and that of two of his hostages.


In its wake, government leaders and commentators have been asking the same question I did.  Was Monis a terrorist, or was he just a criminal?  On the one hand, he had a history of espousing radical Islamism and claimed to be acting in support of the Islamic State.  On the other hand, he didn't even have an IS flag to display, and had to ask police negotiators to bring him one.  His previous crimes appear to include writing hate letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan along with violence of a less political nature including a string of sexual assaults and being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.  He claimed to be an Islamic cleric but he doesn't appear to have had a congregation.  Whatever his stated religious and political views, he just sounds like a psychopath.

Of course this is a terrible crime, and his choice of location - in the heart of the Sydney CBD, across the road from the Channel 7 studios - ensured maximum publicity.  We have had several suburban sieges in Queensland this year and none have had the kind of saturation media coverage devoted to this one.

However, I would like to challenge my readers to discuss this crime without using the word "terrorism".  The more I hear the term used the more I think it is misleading, a term designed to confuse and distract rather than to explain and promote understanding.  Terrorism is a term people use to defame their enemies.

A terrorist, you might say, is someone who sets out to create fear in order to promote some kind of political aim.  However, all sorts of people and institutions do this.  Sometimes we call it other things.  In criminal law we talk about "deterrence" - we use the fear of the consequences of crime (fines or imprisonment) to dissuade people from committing crimes.  Over a number of years now Australian governments have used fear to dissuade people from arriving by boat to seek asylum, upping the fear level each time it appears the approach is not working.  We maintain a well trained and well equipped army to deter other countries from invading us or attempting to harm our interests overseas.

In order to assess these uses of fear, it is not enough to label someone a "terrorist".  We need a more nuanced and informed approach to the question.  I would suggest that we need to ask three questions of any use of fear.
  1. What is the objective of the use of fear, and is this objective legitimate or supportable?
  2. Is the use of fear, and the methods used to induce it, ethically justifiable?
  3. Is it effective?
The first question is, in many ways, the most difficult.  Who is to say what is a legitimate aim?  We can probably all agree that robbing a bank is not a legitimate objective, while preventing theft or murder is.  All of my readers probably agree with me that the creation of a totalitarian state based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia Law (or indeed any other kind of totalitarian state) is also an illegitimate aim.  

However, others have used fear in pursuit of aims that are more ambivalent.  The IRA bombed civilian targets in pursuit of Northern Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom, an objective which readers may not support but which they could hardly regard as inherently evil.  Menachem Begin's Irgun group in the 1940s used the creation of fear as a weapon in the struggle to create an Israeli state, while Hamas uses similar tactics now to create a Palestinian one.  I have good friends who support both objectives.  The aim of "stopping the boats" is highly contested in Australian politics but most of us would at least agree that it would be much better if people did not have to risk drowning at sea to secure asylum.

The second question is strongly linked to the first but addresses a different issue and can be framed in two parts - is the creation of fear justified by the objective, and is the method and process for its creation reasonable?  Good criminal law has a way of addressing both these questions.  The consequences, and hence the level of fear, are carefully calibrated to the seriousness of the crime - a jay-walker will receive a modest fine, a murderer a long jail sentence.  The means for its administration are also carefully regulated - there is a process of natural justice which ensures the person's guilt is adequately proved before the penalty is applied.  I say "good criminal law"because it is easy to abuse this process.  Australia was founded by men and women who were transported for life as a punishment for petty theft.

It is easy to conclude that Monis' siege was a illegitimate method for creating fear, as is the recent Taliban attack on a Pakistani school that killed 148 people, 132 of them students.  No objective could justify holding a group of non-combatant city workers at gunpoint and ultimately killing some of them, or shooting school children at their lessons.  When Irgun targeted British military installations the answer is a little more ambivalent, although the bombing of the King David Hotel with its staff of civilian administrators, including may Israelis, seems to more clearly tip the balance to the negative.

We could say the same about Scott Morrison's current crusade against asylum seekers,  Whatever you think of the aim of "stopping the boats", surely the process of indefinite detention violates the kind of natural justice and proportionality built into criminal law.  People are imprisoned without trial, the conditions under which they are detained are inhumane and we are detaining children who could not possibly be held responsible for the position in which they find themselves - and all for arriving on our shores without the proper paperwork.

What are we to say of other acts of war?  Was the CIA's torture of prisoners captured in the invasion of Afghanistan (the use of fear to secure cooperation with interrogation) justified by the use to which their information could be put?  Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified by the hastening of the end of the war?  We are forced into a calculation of the value of different people's lives, weighing those of the Japanese civilians against those of the American servicemen whose lives were spared by hastening the surrender.  How can we make such calculations?

The final question is not directly ethical, but will affect our judgement nonetheless - does it work?  Does creating fear achieve the objective, or is it ineffective or even counter-productive?

It is not easy to answer this question in Monis' case because his aims are unclear.  He claimed to support the creation of the Islamic State but this is a very imprecise goal and we don't know if he had any more immediate ones.  Perhaps he revealed an immediate objective to the police negotiators but they were reluctant to publicise it.  Perhaps he didn't have one beyond creating mayhem and drawing attention to himself.

In a more general sense, fear helps people to gain their objectives in a number of different ways.  Most immediately, it gains compliance from those in the immediate vicinity.  If someone points a gun at me, I will generally do what they tell me even if I wouldn't do so otherwise.

In a wider sense, fear can shape my actions at a distance under a number of conditions.  Firstly, the fear needs to be credible - I need to feel the fear, to believe that the thing I fear will take place if I don't comply.  A man pointing a gun at me is credible and I will do what he says.  However, I remember in my teenage years being held up on my way home from school by a child wielding a cricket ball and demanding all my money.  I laughed at him and kept walking.

Secondly, the actions it seeks to shape need to be rational and premeditated.  Fear of lengthy imprisonment may be enough to stop me plotting and carrying out the murder of my enemy because this is a calculated, deliberate crime.  It is less likely to stop me from killing him in a fit of rage, since at that point I am not thinking rationally.  

Thirdly, the fear needs to outweigh my desire to do the opposite.  If I was a bank teller and a person holding a gun told me to hand over the money I would give it to them without hesitation.  If they commanded me to kill one of my co-workers I would be a lot more likely to refuse - at least I hope so!  This is the practical problem faced by the Australian Government in its efforts to use fear to stop seafaring asylum seekers.  These people are already being driven by other fears - the fear of arbitrary imprisonment, torture or death in their home countries.  It takes a very strong fear to overcome this, and it is the strength of this fear which has eventually driven our own response to its current disproportionate level.  

The Australian government, with the support of almost the entire population (it is never safe to say "all") is determined to continue to oppose Islamic totalitarianism and it will take a much more powerful fear than that created by Man Monis to change that stance.  However, this fear does drive us to agree to some things we would normally reject - increased surveillance, reduced accountability for our security services, greater powers of arbitrary detention and limits on freedom of association.  In this sense, perhaps those who want to use fear to influence our political direction are having more success than we like to admit.

The question of effectiveness is important because it asks us to think more creatively, and perhaps more humanely, about how we achieve our aims.  We know that fear has only limited success in reducing crime, and that alongside this method we need to use strategies that reduce poverty, address the consequences of childhood abuse and support rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction.  Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has drawn attention to a range of alternative policy approaches to the deterrence approach to asylum seekers.  And what of our "anti-terror" laws themselves?  Ironically they rely to a large extent on creating fear amongst would-be offenders.  This is unlikely to work on disturbed young men who are ready to die for the cause.  What is our Plan B?

None of this leads us to a neat conclusion.  The use of fear is not always a bad thing.  Even the use of deadly force can be justified in some circumstances.  Exactly what those circumstances are is a matter of fierce debate.  Few people would agree with Monis that his actions were a justifiable use of fear.  However, he and those like him are far from having a monopoly on unjustifiable fear.  

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cruel Mothers

In the last few weeks we've had some very sad stories in our media.  Police shootings of mentally ill young men, children dying from drinking unprocessed milk, our government winning the right to treat asylum seekers with unprecedented cruelty....  In the midst of this are two tragic crimes.

On November 23 some people out for a Sunday morning cycle heard strange noises coming from a partly covered drain beside Sydney's M7 freeway.  They investigated and found a newborn baby boy abandoned in the drain.  Doctors judged that the child had been there for 6 days.  The lucky boy is now recovering in foster care and his mother has been found and charged with attempted murder.

The drain where the baby was found at Quakers Hill.

Just a week later, two young children playing on Maroubra Beach in Sydney uncovered the remains of another infant who turned out to be a baby girl.  Sadly this child did not survive and the remains were badly decomposed.  The search for her mother is still ongoing.


These stories produce a complex reaction from police, media and the public.  On the one hand, we feel an instinctive horror at the suffering of vulnerable, innocent, tiny children.  On the other hand, we feel a lot of sympathy for the mothers.  What kind of fear or desperation can drive a woman to treat her own child in this way?  All of us who have children know how instinctive is our desire to protect and nurture them.  What can be powerful enough to overcome this urge?

Understandably, the need to protect the children, and their probably troubled mothers, means that the answers to these questions remain confidential.  We can only speculate.  However, this is hardly a new phenomenon.  The scenario of a young mother doing away with her newborn is so pervasive that it inspired not merely a classic folk song but a whole genre, often known as the "cruel mother ballads".  Here is a classic example of the genre, 'Bonnie St Johnstone' from Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Song.



This follows the classic pattern for these songs - the narrative is interspersed with a refrain which, in this case, simply locates the song geographically.  The woman gives birth in secret (in this case, apparently, in the woods), kills the child (in this case, twins) and finally meets with the appropriate consequence, being condemned to hell while her innocent children play happily in somewhere that is perhaps like heaven.

In this particular song the reason for the crime is unexplained, as it is in our recent real life stories.  However, the reasons are well known in the genre - a child conceived out of wedlock, abandonment by the father who may be a nobleman's son, the fear or actuality of public shame and expulsion from the family.  These crimes, and the songs they inspire, are expressions of the vulnerability of young women in a patriarchal and highly moralistic society.  These young women are forced, without the support and advice of their parents or elders, to make a choice between the life of their child and their own reputation and social standing.  Sometimes this is portrayed as Hobson's choice - how can the child survive when the mother is outcast and forced into destitution?

A classic literary variation on this theme is found in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  Tess is an innocent young girl from a poor family who is seduced (perhaps raped) by her wealthy bogus cousin and conceives a child.  She is not abandoned by her family and bears the child, only for it to die in infancy.  Yet the events come back to haunt her when they lead her new husband to reject her, starting her life on a downward spiral which ends in her committing murder.  Hardy has a fine eye for the tragedy of false and hypocritical morality and the way it can destroy innocent people.  No wonder people do everything they can to conceal their mistakes.

One of my favourite songwriters, Jeff Lang, has a contemporary example of the genre, 'Newbridge' from his 2011 album Carried in Mind.  I wish I could find you an online version to listen to, but you'll just have to take my word for it.  Lang uses the same alternating line structure as the traditional ballads but his refrains are more revealing: "never to grow old...never told a soul".  It tells the tale of a young girl raped by a drunk man from the neighbouring mining camp.

He dragged me off into the trees 
(Never to grow old)
He did with me just what he pleased
(Never told a soul)

And when nine months they came to pass...
I stood at the lip of the old mine shaft...

I brought him forth into this world...
Then down his tiny body was hurled...

Unlike 'Bonnie St Johnstone', she is not moralistically consigned to Hell.  Instead, she carries her own hell around with her, while her rapist remains untouched.

Now he lies there in the mines
(Never to grow old)
He never left my troubled mind
(Never told a soul).

Oh child, what demon have I become?....
Oh child, can't take back what's been done...

We like to think that in our day we are better than this.  Sole parents are often demonised by right-wing politicians but having a child out of wedlock is no longer a cause for ostracism and lifelong shame.  Sole parents are eligible for income security and even if their parents are not supportive there is childcare and other support services.  A young sole parent may feel that others look down on her and many may, but she will also find friends and plenty of other women in her situation who will admire her courage and devotion to her child.  Alternatively, for those whose religion or personal morality does not forbid it, abortion is fairly easily available.

All this is true, but both Lang's song, written within the last few years, and these incidents from the past few months, show that we still have some way to go.  There are still many reasons why a woman would be too ashamed to own her pregnancy or bring her child into the community.  We don't know what these reasons are for the women who left their children beside the M7 or on Maroubra Beach but we can imagine a few.

For Lang's fictional but realistic character it is the trauma and shame of rape.  Other forms of abuse can have the same effect.  Many of the victims of institutional abuse who are currently telling their stories at the Royal Commission took decades to come into the open.  A young girl who is the victim of abuse within her family can face an impossible dilemma.  Isolated and confused, such young women may find themselves in a situation beyond their resources and experience, and be driven towards terrible choices.  Or pregnancy can be complicated by mental illness, preventing the mother from making logical decisions.

Whatever the reason, one thing has changed.  People in Hardy's day or the time of 'Bonnie St Johnstone' lived in small, close-knit communities where they were well-known and recognised.  The problem they faced was that they stepped outside the morality of their communities (even if they had no choice in the matter) and their communities were likely to be unforgiving.  They would be ostracised with nowhere else to go.

In our society, this problem is reversed.  Our community is highly tolerant but knit with gigantic stitches.  Almost any aberration will ultimately be forgiven - if not in your original community then in another one to which you can easily move - but it is easy for people to slip through the gaps.  Nothing is more cliched than the phenomenon of being alone in the big city.  A young woman in trouble can find that she has no-one to turn to.  Left to herself and deprived of the wisdom of friends or elders she can make tragic choices.  How do we build communities that ally our forgiving, tolerant attitude with an ethos of care, where a woman with a child will not only be accepted but supported and helped, given a place and assured that her child is precious and welcome?