Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Frankie's Holiday

I don't write a lot about advertising and I don't generally have advertising on this blog.  However, recently my TV has been peppered with something quite intriguing.  It's an ad for Apple that they have titled Frankie's Holiday.

I have heard it said that advertising is, in a certain sense, the height of cinematic art.  Most people only see a particular movie once, but advertising is meant to be seen over and over again, and it has to attract you to the product, not repel you.  Major campaigns for multinationals like Apple can have bigger production budgets per minute of content than most major cinema productions.  The filmmakers have no more than two minutes to tell their story.  The advertisement is the cinematic equivalent of haiku.  Each word and image has to count.

They often crash and burn, but this one hits the spot with precision.  One of the reasons is that it doesn't actually ask you to buy an Apple product.  The i-phone is simply present throughout the story, facilitating the action.  It works more like product placement, or sports sponsorship.  Apple appears as the sponsor of Frankie's tale.

What is this tale?  Frankenstein (the monster, not his creator), living in his remote (but in this version comfortable) home, records the sound of a little old-style music-box on his phone.  Then he shambles into town and makes his way through the crowds (who gasp and shrink away from him) to the foot of the Christmas tree in the town square.  Here, as the crowd looks on warily, he begins to sing his song - There's No Place Like Home (for the holidays), a sentimental Christmas number written by Robert Allen and Al Stillman and originally recorded by Perry Como in 1954.

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays, you can't beat home, sweet home

He grinds to a halt at the end of the first line but is helped out by a young girl who accompanies him on the second line, before the rest of the crowd relent and join in the following two.

As a story, it hits all the buttons and avoids all the possible causes of offence.  The awkward outsider finds acceptance, the child inspires her elders to compassion, everyone is allowed to come home for Christmas.  All the messages are inclusive - the song is sugary but religiously generic, the two main characters are male and female, the whole town is gathered in the square.  The story is a two-minute version of one of those sentimental Christmas moves in which, thanks the the magic of Christmas and the goodwill of a precocious child, everything works out OK in the end.

What gives the story extra depth and makes it genuinely intriguing is its link with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818.  In Shelley's tale, Dr Frankenstein creates a living, intelligent being out of materials which aren't made explicit but appear to be parts of corpses, animating it by channeling lightning into its body.  Once he sees his creation alive he is horrified by what he has done and flees, leaving the creature to his own devices.

The creature wanders alone in the world, exciting fear and loathing wherever he goes, before he finally tracks down his creator and and demands a companion of his own kind. When Frankenstein refuses the monster wreaks a terrible revenge.  Eventually, Frankenstein realises that he needs to accept responsibility for his creation and gives chase in his turn, tracking him down and destroying him.

At the level of plot, the drama centres around the question - is the monster essentially evil, or is he made evil by suffering rejection from his maker and other humans?  By his own account, he yearns for love and acceptance, but every time he reaches out for community he is greeted with fear and loathing.  Eventually he feels he has no choice but violence and destruction.  Frankenstein himself is not so sure, but Shelley allows the question to stand.

Psychologically, the monster represents Frankenstein's shadow self, to use Jung's description - the aspects of himself that he would like to deny and suppress.  Jung suggests that if we attempt to suppress this shadow it will come out in uncontrolled and often destructive ways.  To be psychologically healthy we need to own and become familiar with it in order to turn it to good use and become mature people.  This means that the popular attribution of the maker's name to the monster itself, while technically incorrect, is psychologically perceptive.

Apple rewrites Shelley's story, turning it from a tragedy to a comedy.  The monster is initially rejected but ultimately accepted.  The child who first approaches him takes a huge risk - Shelley's monster is superhumanly strong and resilient, and not to be trusted.  Yet just as Shelley's monster has a tender, even sentimental side, watching the lives of loving families from afar and yearning to join them, so Apple's monster longs for a home and eventually the townspeople provide him with one.

This is an important message for us to hear, despite being brought to us by an ethically questionable global mega-corporation.  We are so quick to demonise people, to assume the worst and to ostracise those we fear - Muslims, black people, bikers, homeless people, terrorists.  Yet the message of Christmas (whether or not we like to use that word) is that grace is available for all of us, that those we most despise are likely to be the most loved by God.

Yet by making the monster a gentle, misunderstood sentimentalist Apple is letting us (and itself) off the hook.  Evil and danger cannot be simply wished away or airbrushed out of the story.  It is not simply misunderstood, it really is evil.   Nor is it simply "out there" in the monsters and criminals of the world, it is also "in here", in each of us.

Jung does not ask us to whitewash our shadows, or to pretend that they are really glowing lights.  He asks us to look them in the eye, own them as part of ourselves and deal with them appropriately.  If we do so early enough, and skillfully enough, we will not have to follow Dr Frankenstein's path and chase a relentless enemy in a fight to the death across the arctic tundra.  We will have them close beside us, directed constructively and thoughtfully rather than allowed to roam unchecked.

I suspect this shadow includes Apple, a corporation that makes clever gadgets but uses third world sweatshops, planned obsolescence and tax avoidance to boost its profits at the expense of the poor.  But it also includes me, with my laziness and self-centredness which often deprives these same poor people of my more modest resources.  And it includes you, with whatever your shadow consists of.  The message of Christmas is that we need not fear these shadows because, as John, tells us, the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Christmas Wars

Another December, another War on Christmas.

This year it is Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, stepping out of his portfolio for a moment to call for an "uprising" to protect Christmas in the face of "political correctness gone mad".  This extraordinary call to arms was prompted by one of his local constituents calling a talkback radio program to complain that the end of year festivities at Kedron State School contained "not one Christmas carol" and that the words to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" had been changed to "we wish you a happy holiday".  Apparently this makes Dutton's blood boil.  We are a Christian country and we should sing Christmas carols.

How much do we care?  Well, personally, not at all.  I would happily join in a song wishing a bunch of young children a happy holiday as they disappear for six weeks of leisure in the balmy Brisbane summer.  I pray that this wish comes true.

Not that I don't care about Christmas.  It's one of my favourite Christian stories and I feel sad when evangelicals devalue it by wanting to skip straight to Easter.  I also felt slightly odd last weekend when we took my little grandson for a drive to see the Christmas lights and saw only one nativity scene among a dozen Santa-festooned suburban homes.

But of course we are a secular nation not a Christian one and most Australians don't attend church.  Christmas has become a very secular event, a celebration of families and generosity.  Also, there is a clear constitutional separation between church and State.  The idea of a supposedly conservative Minister of the Crown inciting Australians to rise up against the nation's constitutional arrangements is a little bizarre, especially over something as trivial as a song sung by a group of primary school children.

As chance would have it, a few days ago I played my guitar to accompany a bit of carol singing at one of Love Makes a Way's Carols for Compassion events, at which Christian activists remind us all that Jesus and his family were refugees and that we should not be locking up similar refugees in our own time.  One of these events, although not the one I was at, was held outside Mr Dutton's office. For some reason he didn't join in.

There is no War on Christmas.  People of no religion are happy to celebrate it as a secular festival.  Nor is our increasing religious diversity a threat to the festival - few if any Muslims are offended by Christmas and many celebrate it, given that they revere Jesus as a prophet second only to Mohammed in importance.

There is, however, a war (or at least a non-violent disagreement) about Christmas.  This dispute is not two-sided.  Rather it is a babel of voices.

There is of course the religious/secular part of the dispute.  Many people are happy to have Christmas but uncomfortable when it becomes too religious.  They are happy to see Santa and tinsel but the baby Jesus makes them uncomfortable. Or they may be happy to sing songs about the baby Jesus, because it's traditional and the tunes are pretty, as long as no-one expects them to take it seriously.  For Christians the season is all about Jesus and we feel uncomfortable when he's not taken seriously, feeling people have missed the point.

There is also a dispute within Christianity.  Conservative Christians see Christmas as a prime evangelistic opportunity.  It is the time, they think, when secular Australians are most open to religion. It is the only time, aside from weddings and funerals, that many Australians attend church.  Evangelical churches bring out the big guns, using it as an opportunity for well crafted gospel sermons which draw the line between Jesus' birth and his death, and then on to our need for repentance and conversion in order to be saved from our sins.

Progressive Christians feel a bit uncomfortable about this procedure.  It seems very exclusive, a way of saying Christmas is only for people who are in our tribe.  If it is successful (and usually it isn't) it leads people into a conservative version of Christianity which is often blind to the wider meaning of the season.  They point out that Jesus was the child of a poor family in a far corner of of the empire.  He was born in a borrowed room during a forced journey to do the bidding of the Emperor's bureaucrats.  Shortly after he and his parents had to take refuge in Egypt to escape a brutal massacre.  The Christmas story shows, as clearly as any story in the Bible, that God identifies not with the rich and powerful but with the poor, the ethnic minorities, the homeless, the world's refugees.  This kind of reversal makes the devoutly evangelical Peter Dutton and his colleagues very nervous, given their day jobs involve protecting the rich and demonising the poor.

When Peter Dutton sings his beloved Christmas carols on Christmas day this year, he will be thinking of a Jesus who will save his soul and take him to heaven, not one who resembles the children who will be spending the day the detention centres he oversees with so much enthusiasm.  This Jesus, and the activists who represent him, make Dutton's blood boil much more than school children singing un-Christmasy lyrics.  Hence his pointed absence as activists sang these very same carols outside his office.

In the end we all feel a bit uncomfortable at Christmas.  This is not an accident, and its not just a result of eating too much turkey.  If we come away from an encounter with Jesus without feeling uncomfortable we are missing the point.  Jesus didn't come to make us feel comfortable.  He came to confront the evils of the world and as long as we participate in these he will be confronting us.

I think the key is to listen to the voice of Jesus, whoever his is speaking through.  Our secular lovers of Christmas remind us that Jesus is not confined to the religious establishment, conservative or progressive.  When people of no formal religion carry out acts of kindness and charity, this too is God's kindness and charity.

As for Dutton and his progressive critics, I am perhaps a little too close to the action to give an unbiased assessment.  I would certainly like to see Dutton experience some genuine repentance and even suffer a little humiliation (or at least be forced into a face-saving backdown).  However, I have been playing the Christian game for long enough to know that when I seek someone else's humiliation I am liable to end up suffering the same myself.  It's no more than Jesus has warned us - first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see to take the speck out of someone else's.

So although I didn't seriously expect it to happen, it would have been great to see Peter Dutton stroll out of his office and join in the singing of 'Oh Holy Night'.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

He would have had to overcome his discomfort at the idea that Jesus is a liberator of slaves and prisoners and not just a saver of souls.  But the members of Love Makes a Way would also have been put to the test, because despite their commitment to loving non-violence they are surely a little angry with Dutton for what he and his government are doing to innocent people.  I like to think they would have risen to the occasion and stood side by side with him, despite their serious differences, as everyone present humbled themselves in song before this amazing child in a manger.

May you all have a happy but slightly uncomfortable Christmas, and may we see more chains broken in 2017.

Friday, 16 December 2016

The Divide

Speaking of hope and despair, I've just finished reading a horrible and wonderful book by Matt Taibbi called The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

Taibbi is an American journalist who has written for publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone and many more.  He is no stranger to controversy and even seems to court it, once writing an article called "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope", which led to the sacking of the editor who approved it for publication.

The Divide was published in 2014 after years of research, and it shows he is far from being a cheap publicity-seeker.  It is a penetrating analysis of the way the 21st century American justice system works.

The book opens with a scene in a New York courtroom in 2013.  A group of bank executives and employees is paraded in chains, charged with fraud.  Their crime?  They signed up mortgages based on minimal and often false documentation, then on-sold these loans to the secondary mortgage market.

There was a lot of this going around in the 1990s and early 2000s.  It led to the Global Financial Crisis in 2007-08 as the weight of worthless US mortgages threatened the entire global banking system.  Lehmann Bothers went bankrupt and a number of other big banks had to be bailed out.  So which bank was getting it in the neck?  It was an outfit called the Abacus Federal Savings Bank.  Never heard of them?  It's not surprising - they were a small, family-owned financial institution operating out of New York's Chinatown, mainly serving that city's Chinese community.  Nor did their sloppy loan practices contribute even slightly to the GFC - the default rate on their loans was well below that of your average well-performing home lender.  Yet this two-bit community bank was the only financial institution to have its executives prosecuted, or to be prosecuted as a company, in the years after the financial industry went into meltdown.

It's not that there was a shortage of other candidates.  In this same period, the global mega-bank HSBC was revealed to have laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for criminal organisations including a brutal Colombian drug cartel and Al Qaeda.  They accepted deposits from these organisations and their proxies with no questions asked, turning them from proceeds of crime into legitimate investments.  Many of their executives were fully aware of what they were doing.  They were able to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement with the US financial regulators in return for agreeing to pay a large fine - not out of the pockets of the executives, note, but from the incredibly wealthy company as a whole.

Then there was Lehmann Brothers, the American mega-bank who took on literally billions of dollars worth of dodgy mortgages, selling them on as A-grade securities.  As the GFC hit they held unimaginable sums of worthless assets but kept up the front that there was no problem.  Then, as the whole thing finally unravelled, their senior executive team accepted huge personal financial incentives to do a late night merger deal with Barclays Bank based on hiding their loss-making assets in a "letter of clarification" filed with the bankruptcy court after the deal was approved.  In the process, creditors and shareholders were cheated out of billions through a misleading set of accounts.  Once again, no-one in either Lehmanns or Barclays was prosecuted.

This is all depressing but we've heard it all before.  Big banks get away with murder.  The excuse is something US corporate regulators call "Collateral Consequences" - if we prosecute this company, innocent people (staff, investors, customers, other banks) will suffer.  Plus, if we can get a negotiated solution which pays substantial fines and penalties, we save drawn out and hugely expensive prosecutions that may result in a "not guilty" verdict in any case.  These cases are hideously complex and involve examining literally millions of documents.

It all sounds plausible until you hear the other side of Taibbi's story.

On this side of the ledger a young homeless man with an intellectual disability is pulled over by the police as he is walking down a New York street doing nothing in particular.  He is made to turn out his pockets and discloses a half-smoked joint.  Private use of small quantities of marijuana is legal in New York, but he has now displayed his in public and is arrested.  The result is a few months in New York's notorious Robben Island prison.

Elsewhere in the city, two black men are pulled out of their car because police suspect it is stolen.  After all, how could black men own such an expensive car?  They are bundled into a paddy wagon full of other people similarly arrested, and taken to the watchhouse.  Turns out the car is not stolen and they are eventually released.  Another black man has a series of similarly mindless arrests including one for smoking inside a shop (he was smoking outside and his two year old son ran in, so he followed him without dousing the cigarette) and another for "obstructing pedestrian traffic" while talking with his neighbour on the footpath outside his home after the end of his bus-driving shift at 1 a.m.  And so it goes on.

All this is happening because in the past two decades US policing has progressively adopted a performance appraisal system based on the number of people arrested.  This is allied with a philosophy and a set of laws which allow them to stop and search anyone on the street without reason, backed by a number of wide-ranging categories of misdemeanour like "creating a public disturbance" which can be interpreted so broadly that anyone at all can be arrested and charged.  This "anyone" is completely theoretical - middle class white people are not arrested under these laws.  They are applied almost exclusively in poor neighbourhoods, and a huge majority of those arrested are black or hispanic.  These disadvantaged people are processed through a sausage machine of lower courts in front of bored judges, represented by duty lawyers who act more like prosecutors than defence lawyers.

The same approach is taken to "illegal immigrants" (like in Australia, the term is debatable), arrested for random or imaginary traffic offences and then detained and eventually deported (usually without trial) to Mexico where they are liable to be kidnapped by criminal gangs.  Even though much of American industry relies on these technically "illegal" immigrants and employers have at times pleaded with authorities to stop harassing their workforce, it is politically expedient to frustrate them at every turn.

And again, since the Clinton administration's welfare reforms anyone who applies for food stamps or income support will wait an entire day in an overcrowded welfare office (which they can't leave, even to go to the toilet, in case they lose their place in the queue) and then be subjected to humiliating and random home invasions by "welfare" investigators who go through their underwear drawers in search of evidence of deception such as a possible hidden male presence in the life of a single mother. Often they will find that not only is their payment cut off on the flimsiest evidence (or perhaps simply because they weren't home when the inspector called without notice), but they can be charged with fraud for falsely claiming assistance and risk jail.  All for a measly few hundred dollars.

All this plays well with the voters of middle America, who have been persuaded (despite the actual evidence) that they are facing a law and order crisis and that their community is being unsustainably burdened by people bludging off welfare and immigrants "taking American jobs".  Yet this system itself is a huge drain on the public purse, with increasing billions spent on this petty enforcement and imprisonment regime.  Meanwhile, corporate regulators struggle on with a tiny fraction of this budget, toothless in the face of sophisticated corporate criminals.

Taibbi is a brilliant journalist.  He tells compelling stories of real people. leavened with just enough data to contextualise them.  The stories are sometimes harrowing, always frustrating, sometimes funny in a macabre, shambolic way.  As you read them you feel a visceral sense of how trapped they are, how precarious their lives are and how constant is the surveillance under which they live.  On the other side of the divide, his detailed accounts of a number of flagrant, large scale crimes in the financial world, unpunished even when they are made public, give you a vivid sense of how the super-rich can break the law with impunity.

My first reaction to this was that America is crazy.  I felt glad to be Australian.  Our banks are better regulated than America's and we only suffered from the GFC because of what happened elsewhere.  Our criminal justice system, though far from perfect, still has a basic underlay of fairness and due process.

Then I thought, perhaps I only feel like this because I am white and middle class.  Aboriginal people make up only about 3% of Australia's population but 27% of its prison population - up from 14% 25 years ago.  Aboriginal people are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians.  Between 2000 and 2010 the Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 51.5% while the non-Indigenous rate increased by 3.1%.

Are the first Australians intrinsically more evil than other Australians?  By no means, but they are under far greater surveillance.  They are more likely to be homeless or live in overcrowded housing, so they spend much more time in public view.  Australian states are increasingly adopting policing ideas drawn from America - paperless arrests, move on powers, "three strikes" policies and heavy handed approaches to minor offences like public drunkenness that give police a license to harass poor and homeless people.  Our prisons too are bulging with minor offenders who in years past who would have been doing fines or community service.  If you are Aboriginal, or homeless, you are likely to feel much like Taibbi's poor informants, under constant surveillance and trapped by the system.

The same goes for undocumented asylum seekers or other migrants with visa problems.  Our increasingly militarised Australian Border Force can and will detain people without notice on the most trivial pretexts, keeping them locked up indefinitely while they pressure them into agreeing to return to countries where their lives are at risk.

As for our welfare system, it has become steadily more punitive over the past two decades.  The political rhetoric about cracking down on welfare fraud and "dole bludgers"; the steady increase in the number of jobs people are required to apply for each fortnight, no matter whether the applications are realistic or not; the pressure on sole parents and people with disabilities to return to work; the move away from cash benefits to cashless "welfare cards" (starting of course in Aboriginal communities)...need I go on?

All of this plays well politically with middle class white voters who are encouraged to see all these people as dysfunctional drains on society.  Meanwhile the real drains on society go untouched.  Each of our major banks has now been embroiled in its own scandal about dodgy financial advice which costs customers substantial sums of money.  None has yet been charged and most of those who provided the advice are still in their jobs.  Meanwhile, multinational companies get away with paying zero Australian tax while making huge profits in offshore tax havens, and mining companies are offered a rails run and public finance to pour more carbon into the overloaded atmosphere.  Yet governments say our corporate regulators are up to the task and everything is working as it should.

It's great to be a middle class Australian.  We enjoy freedoms and privileges undreamed of by billions around the world.  We are well housed, healthy (barring our self-inflicted obesity), financially comfortable and with powerful technology at our fingertips.  Yet we don't have to travel to the other side of the world to see how the other half live.  Often, we just have to walk down the road.  At most, a ten or fifteen minute drive will do it.  We simply have to step across the invisible divide that separates the rich from the poor and we enter another world.

Do we like it?  Are we happy to be helping create it?  I'm not, and I know plenty of others who feel the same.  It's up to us to keep working.  We can still be better than we are now.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Prophetic Imagination

A few weeks ago I reviewed Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith.  Volf suggests that Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a prophetic faith, be bearer of a message from God to the world.  As such we are obliged to be neither passive, neglecting to deliver our message at all, not coercive, trying to force people to heed.

I agreed with him, but found myself frustrated that his book was short on specifics.  Given his emphasis on prophetic mission, the place I turned to next for more ideas was Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination.

Brueggemann is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Western world's leading Old Testament scholars and a renowned preacher.  The Prophetic Imagination is one of his early works, first published in 1978 and re-released in a second edition in 2001.  He describes it as "my first publication in which I more or less found my own voice as a teacher in the church".

His writing is rather dense and the reader has to concentrate.  The book seems to contain a lot of mistakes which make it seem that he is sometimes contradicting himself.  It's a shame these things weren't fixed or made a little clearer in this second edition given that by 2001 he was much more celebrated than he had been in 1978.

Still, despite the density Brueggemann's basic argument is quite simple.  He contrasts two concepts - "prophetic consciousness" and "royal consciousness".  The paradigmatic conflict in which this contrast is expressed is that between Pharaoh and Moses.  Pharaoh's concern is to preserve his own power and so he wants nothing to change, because any change threatens his position.  Not only his ministers and soldiers but his priests and gods are dedicated to keeping things as they are, to denying that change is desirable or even possible.  Even those he enslaves, like the children of Israel, are expected to accept that their oppression is the will of these gods and powers.

Moses, bringing the message of Yahweh from the desert, gives the lie to this royal consciousness, promising (and delivering) liberation to the Israelites.  He doesn't merely shift them from place to place, he creates a new kind of community in which each family possesses it own land by right, wealth is regularly redistributed, justice is administered according to clear laws, the poor are protected and the powerful are reined in.  The result is three centuries of this new community.

However, in the end the Israelites got their own form of royal consciousness, typified and personified by King Solomon.  Solomon effectively dismantled the egalitarian, decentralised and redistributive polity of Moses in favour of a centralised monarchy.  He amassed wealth and power in his own hands, built a large standing army with chariots, and made alliances with the surrounding nations.

This was not simply a political move - he enlisted Yahweh into this royal project, turning him symbolically from a mobile god in a tent to the sedentary resident (perhaps even prisoner) of an elaborate temple, conveniently located near the king's own palace.  All of these measures were designed to preserve a new status quo in which the king ruled and the subjects obeyed, in which wealth flowed to the top.  The system he initiated survived, despite the dangers of the surrounding empires, for the next five centuries.

The tools of royal consciousness are numbness and despair,  We learn not to notice our suffering and fear, and we learn to despair of any alternative.  This numbness and despair is graphically illustrated in the most famous writing attributed to Solomon, the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The reader is assured that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun, so he or she should simply obey God and get on with life.

The later Old Testament prophets were the primary critics of this royal consciousness.  In this task, Brueggemann identifies that they used two main tools - pathos and amazement.  Both of these are tools for opening up the awareness of new possibilities, for helping people to see that all is not as it should be and that it could be better.

"The task of pathos," he says, "is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self deception, so that the God of endings can be confessed as Lord".  This task has three parts:  "To offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness and denial."  "To bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there".  "To speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor in cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion."  The great exponent of this pathos is Jeremiah, whose weeping over Judah was the only truthful voice to be heard as the last of its kings were trying desperately to convince everyone that the regime would live on.

The language of amazement, on the other hand, penetrates the despair with new hope.  The prophet is "to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."  "The prophet must speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the real newness that comes to us and redefines our situation."  He goes on:

The hope-filled language of prophecy, in cutting through the royal despair and hopelessness, is the language of amazement.  It is the language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate.  The language of amazement is against the despair just as the language of grief is against the numbness.

He illustrates this language of amazement primarily from Second Isaiah (generally understood to begin at Isaiah 40 in our bibles), with its visions of restoration, hope, peace and triumph for troubled and oppressed Israel.  The language of amazement provides us with a vision that things can indeed be different to, and infinitely better than, what they are now, that God can bring forth a new song and can bring new nourishment to his people.

Finally, he describes how Jesus of Nazareth practiced both the the language of criticism and pathos, and the language of amazement.  He taught his disciples and the crowds that followed him both to see and mourn the state of the society they lived in, and to see the advent of the newly-instituted Kingdom of God.  His message founded a new type of community which it is our duty to renew and re-energise against the royal consciousness of our own day.

There is a lot of crossover between Brueggemann and Volf, but Brueggemann dives in deep where Volf skates across the surface.  In naming both our numbness and our despair, and in offering both mourning and hope as alternatives, he urges us to confront the issues of our times.

Since reading this book, I can see royal consciousness all around us.  I can see it in the way our political leaders rush to defend and facilitate the fossil fuel industries even as all the evidence points to an urgent need to stop using these fuels, because "we can't damage the economy".  I can see it in Malcolm Turnbull lecturing State Governments that "energy security must be their number one priority" because even a single day's disruption of "business as usual" is seen as disastrous.

I can see it in the way we brutalise defenceless asylum seekers in order to "preserve the integrity of our borders", continuously ramp up anti-terrorism laws in order to "preserve our way of life" even as we help to wreak havoc in the Middle East, and get presented with the zero sum game that the only way to ensure future prosperity is to cut both services for the poor and taxes for the rich in the name of "jobs and growth".

I can see it in the way we vacillate between politicians who offer us "more of the same" like our steady, seemingly moderate mainstream parties and leaders, and those who offer us "much more of the same", our populist right-wing leaders who offer to "make America (or Australia) great again", to restore the full glories of empire which we fear we are already losing.

I can also feel it in myself.  I am more apt to despair, because things seem to be getting worse and those of us seeking change seem to be pushed further to the margins.  It is tempting to give up, to run away to some safe haven and stop trying to change the world.  This is the temptation of numbness, the temptation to anaesthetise myself and let whatever happens, happen.

Brueggemann encourages me to mourn, to allow that pain to be real, but also to hope.  Despite appearances, new ways are possible, new songs can be sung, new shoots can grow from seemingly dead stumps.  It can be hard, but we must keep going.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Hell in a Nutshell

In the first 30 years of my involvement in church, I would have heard the term 'Universalism' a handful of times.  Most of these were passing, dismissive references from the pulpit or by an established teacher.  I never heard or read a proper explanation of what the term meant.

If I had to depend on my church, nothing would have changed.  I have still never heard the concept explained in my church.  I still hear preachers refer to it dismissively from time to time and now that I know more I realise that they have very little understanding of the thing they are dismissing.

The difference is that now we have the Internet.  Literate, educated Christians are no longer dependent on their local church and the books their local bookshop is prepared to stock.  The full, fascinating and challenging diversity of the world is now at our fingertips.  We can find networks and forums of people interested in all sorts of things.  Our views can be challenged and questioned from all angles.  The "priesthood of all believers" preached by Protestants in particular has never been more real.

Which brings me to a little book called Hell in a Nutshell: The Mystery of His Will by American author Charles Watson Sr.  This is Watson's first book but I have previously "met" him online through a couple of different Universalist forums in which we are both active - he far more than me.

From what I can gather Watson is a layman and a largely self-taught apologist and polemicist.  He learnt his Christianity in a Southern Baptist church, a highly conservative denomination where Universalism never featured.  It was participating in an online forum that led to his more conventional views being challenged and he ended up adopting Christian (or Evangelical) Universalism as a result of the study this prompted.  Hell in a Nutshell is a result of this study.

It has to be said that Watson is not a confident writer.  He tends to beat about the bush, to talk around his points rather than present them clearly and concisely.  It's almost as if he fears premature dismissal.  Such fears are unnecessary because what he has to say makes perfect sense.

Two themes run through this book.  The first is an argument for Christian Universalism - and against the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment - based on the attributes of God.  God, as described in Christian faith, is gracious, merciful, loving and just.  These attributes are agreed by Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox and Universalists alike.  Watson's question is, are these attributes more consistent with the idea that God will condemn some people to eternal torment, or with the idea that he will eventually save everyone?

For Watson, not surprisingly, the answer is clear.  The notion that some people will be condemned to eternal torment places a definite limit on God's grace and mercy, and calls his love into question.  In Christian Universalism, on the other hand, his mercy and grace are unlimited and his love is seen clearly.

The fly in the ointment for this argument is the idea of God's justice.  The standard argument in favour of eternal condemnation is that this is a just punishment for sin and if God were to waive it he would be denying his own nature.

Watson's response to this argument is twofold.  The first is to question why God's offer of grace and mercy expires with our death.  Do we face a different God after we die to the one we learn about in this world?  Or is the offer open for all eternity, repeated over and over until we finally give in and accept it?

His second argument is about the meaning of the word "punishment".  In New Testament Greek there are two works that could be translated by this English word.  The first, timoria, means revenge or retribution.  Its purpose is to balance the ledger, to hurt someone who has hurt you.  The second kolasis, means correction or discipline.  It is administered in the interest of the person who receives it, to help them amend their ways and restore them to favour, as we would punish a child.  This second word is the one used for God's punishment and justice throughout the New Testament.

Hence the appearance of the word kolasis on the book's cover, portrayed in the flames of a crucible.  God's punishment, says Watson, is not implacable revenge but correction, setting us to rights so that we can take our place in his kingdom.  Punishment is ultimately redemptive, an expression of God's love to fallible humans.  After our punishment, and through it, we are restored.

Running alongside this argument for Christian Universalism is a wider appeal to Christians to consider and question what we are taught.  So many of us, says Watson, simply accept the positions preached from our pulpits or presented by approved authors.  Yet many of these positions don't stand up to scrutiny.  We shouldn't check our brains in at the church door.

Of course once you start doing this it is hard to stop.  In Hell in a Nutshell Charles Watson presents a view of Christian Universalism that largely leaves other areas of doctrine alone.  You can accept it without having to abandon cherished beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the necessity of the Cross, God's perfect sovereignty and so forth.  It leaves the Nicene Creed untouched.  Even the concept of biblical inerrancy need only come away with a few scratches.

Yet such boundary busting has a habit of repeating itself.  Once you have tested this boundary and found it wanting, what is to stop you testing another?  If you do, I suspect you will find many others wanting too.  This, I think, is why our church leaders are so strongly resistant to the idea of Christian Universalism.

I belong to a small group which has just finished studying Richard Rohr's Falling Upwards.  At one point he talks about how many of us, clergy and lay people alike, see the church as a security system.  It provides an institutional framework in which we feel safe and are able to avoid uncomfortable challenges to our identity.  We all need security systems as we are growing up, but if we want to become fully mature then at some point we need to step out of them and face the wider world, to allow ourselves to be challenged from a position of humble confidence in the core of who we are.

Hell in a Nutshell provides one pathway into this stepping out.  Ostensibly it is just a simple tweak to our theology, but its implications can be profound.  For instance, it forces us to confront our own vengefulness.  Can we really stand the idea that our enemies will join us in heaven?  It forces us to re-examine the default use of fear as an evangelistic tool.  Do we see value in the gospel besides its providing an escape hatch from eternal damnation?  It forces us to face our portrayal of God as a frightening vengeful deity.  Are we ready to accept a God who purposefully gives up his grandeur and allows himself to be laid in a bed of straw, under the care of a poor teenage girl?

Sooner or later we all have to face these questions.  Perhaps you are not ready to yet?  That's fine, but if you do start rest assured - it does indeed hurt, but not as much as you fear, and the reward is definitely worth it.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Cobbler and the Rich Man

Today as I was out walking at lunchtime I found myself thinking about one of the moral tales that formed part of our primary school reading.  It goes by various names including The Cobbler and the Rich Man, The Cobbler and the Financier or The Cobbler's Song.  This story was first made popular in Europe by Jean de la Fontaine, a seventeenth century French author, although it is much older than that and may originate on the Indian sub-continent.

In this story a poor cobbler works in his shop each day, and as he works he sings loudly and cheerfully.  This singing is intensely annoying to his neighbour, a wealthy financier who lies awake all night worrying about his money and then is unable to sleep during the day because of the cobbler's noise.  Eventually the rich man hits on a plan - he gives the cobbler a purse containing 100 gold pieces.

Immediately the cobbler's peace of mind is shattered and he ceases to sing.  Instead he lies awake at night worrying that someone will steal his gold, shifting it from hiding place to hiding place as he deems each one too unsafe.  He can barely eat for the stress, begins to waste away and spends his days in misery.  His neighbour, meanwhile, has the silence he needs to gain much-needed rest.

Eventually, the cobbler confides the whole story to his wife, who immediately solves the problem by advising him to return the gold to his neighbour.  He does so, and his happiness is immediately restored while the rich man, in the version I read as a child, is "forced to move to somewhere where cobblers do not sing so cheerfully".

The moral of the story, of course, is that money doesn't buy you happiness and that in fact it may do just the opposite.  Is this really true?  Well, it seems so, although the evidence is a little ambiguous. For instance, in 2010 Kahneman and Deaton surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that there was a correlation between income and happiness up to an annual income of about $75,000, after which average happiness plateaued.  However, in 2013 Stevenson and Wolfers conducted a similar survey with a different methodology and found that wellbeing continued to increase as income rose.

The relationship is not simple.  Much depends on what you do with the money.  Accumulating more and more possessions provides little or no extra happiness or wellbeing.  However, having good experiences (which money can facilitate) does make us happier.  These experiences can involve all sorts of things - it may be fun holidays or activities, but it is also spending time with people we love and doing good for others, including giving away part of our wealth to those who need it more than we do.  Wealth does not bring happiness, but it may make it easier for us to do happy things if we are wise enough to discern what these are.

Of course, we should not be fooled by the cobbler's tale into glorifying poverty.  The cobbler is a particular kind of poor person.  He has somewhere to live.  He is married to an intelligent and sensible woman.  He has meaningful work to do, which he clearly enjoys.  He has good health which enables him to do physical work all day.  He has friends who come to his shop to enjoy his singing.  All these things are the conditions of his happiness.  If he was homeless, unemployed, alone in the world, surrounded by enemies or in constant pain he would not sing so cheerfully.  He has achieved the happy medium which the wise man Agur prays for in Proverbs 30.

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

This is a very important story for the situation we find ourselves in right now.  There is abundant evidence for anyone who is willing to look that our current way of life is unsustainable.  Our wealthy Western societies cannot go on amassing wealth and consuming resources at the rate we are now.  Oil is running out, we are on a path to climate disaster, the pressures of poverty and war are creating millions of displaced persons, and an unconscionable proportion of the world's population lives in absolute poverty.  Something has to give, and that something is us.  The only way out of this dilemma is for our societies to give up part of their wealth.

Of course the hero of The Cobbler and the Rich Man is neither the cobbler nor the rich man, but the cobbler's wife.  She is the only person in the story who diagnoses the problem correctly and is able to solve it.  Wealth is making both her husband and their neighbour unhappy.  The difference between the two men is that only her husband is able to accept the solution, which is to have less.  He instantly feels the weight lifted from his shoulders and recommences his singing.

Their rich neighbour, on the other hand, is unable to take this step and instead retreats from the situation into a privatised silence.  We don't know what he does there, but it seems unlikely that he is genuinely happy.  At best he will be able to snatch a little sleep during his daylight hours because he has found a place where his unhappiness is not constantly highlighted by the happiness of his neighbour.

He could serve as an analogue for our entire society.  Our politicians continually tell as that our problems will be solved by "jobs and growth", but they won't.  The message of Brexit, Trump's election, the fences barring refugees from travelling westward into Europe, Australia's fierce commitment to indefinite detention of asylum seekers and the resurgence of protectionism is that we will go to any lengths to hold onto the wealth we have.  The thought of a correction, of giving up some of our riches, makes us afraid.  It makes us feel physically ill.  It stops us from singing and makes us toss restlessly in our beds at night.

Our wealth is not making us happier or healthier.  Levels of depression and anxiety continue to climb upwards.  Obesity - surely the clearest possible sign that we have too much - is on the rise and public health measures are making little difference.  Our public life is disintegrating into a shambles of competing factions without the skill or willingness to forge any kind of consensus.  We are beset by anxieties at every turn, not least the anxiety that someone will steal our hard-earned (or hard-inherited, or ill-gotten) wealth.

We should listen more carefully to the wisdom of the cobbler's wife.  It is not merely that we can get by with less - although this is clearly true - but that we will be a lot better off if we do.  The danger of our current predicament is that as we reach the limits of our current trajectory it will be the poorest people of the globe who are asked, or forced, to give up more.  This will lead to untold suffering.

This would of course be a shocking and unforgivable outcome for them, but it would also be a very bad one for us.  Not only their wellbeing, but ours also, requires us to give up some of our wealth.  Only if we do this can more people around the globe (both in the developed and the majority world) achieve the cobbler's happy medium and be able to return to singing cheerful songs as we work.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Public Faith

I've been reading some books on Christian engagement in politics (with a small "p") and I thought I'd review them to give you some highlights.  A great place to start is with Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.

Volf is a Croatian-born theologian who studied in Germany under Juergen Moltmann and is now a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School in the USA.  Among other things, he is Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, an institute dedicated to the study of the intersection between faith and wider culture.  He is learned and erudite but also a very accessible author.  He is also open to a wide set of influences, drawing on Islamic and Jewish thinkers as well as Christian ones.  His book has a very simple, elegant construction around a set of pairs through which he drives a rather Aristotelian "golden mean".

Volf conceives of Christianity, along with Islam and Judaism, as a prophetic faith.  Such faiths, he says, are characterised by a two-fold movement - ascent to God to receive his message, followed by return to deliver this message to the world.  This ascent and return could be understood literally, as in Moses ascending Mt Sinai and returning with the tablets of the Law, but also metaphorically depicting our ordinary encounters with God and efforts to discern how we should act as his people.

Prophetic religion is subject to various problems which Volf characterises in four ways - two "ascent malfunctions" and two "return malfunctions".  Ascent malfunctions come from our failure understand or remain faithful to the prophetic revelation.  Volf identifies the first of these as "functional reduction", in which the rich content of the faith is reduced to worldly or practical formulae.  Faith is replaced by pop psychology or social analysis.  The second he calls "idolatric substitution", in which a living and complex faith in a living God is replaced by an idol of our making, whether spiritual, political or social.  What both these types of malfunction have in common is a failure to understand the prophetic revelation.

Volf deals with these very briefly.  He devotes much more space to his two "return malfunctions" - idleness and coercion.  Idleness is the practice of withdrawing from engagement with the world, of focusing exclusively on our mystical union with God, the act of making converts or the future hope of heaven.  We have the message of the prophets but we keep it to ourselves, perhaps lacking confidence in its effectiveness.

Coercion is, of course, the practice of trying to forcibly impose our prophetic vision on the wider society.  We convert our religion into a political movement dedicated to suppressing alternative viewpoints and ways of life while enforcing our own.  This is most graphically illustrated in our time by Islamic extremism but also has a long history in Christianity both before and after the Reformation.

If these extremes are to be avoided, what is the golden mean Volf would like us to follow?  He takes us into this by exploring different ideas of human flourishing.  For Augustine, humans ultimately find their wellbeing in the love of God and in loving what God defines as good.  Christians seek this not just for themselves but for those around them, whether Christian or not.  The recent history of Western civilisation has seen this view of flourishing progressively reduced, firstly through the enlightenment view of universal brotherhood and love of humanity without God, and more recently through an atomised focus on individual, experiential satisfaction.

The role of prophetic religion, then, is to call humanity back to this full, divinely centred view of human flourishing.  He sees our current focus on experiential satisfaction as self-defeating - our society's shallow, self-centred view of what satisfaction entails means that if we get what we seek we will still be discontented.  Our mission is to share and enact a deeper, more complete view of what it means to be human.

We are to build and promote things which allow and encourage this full form of flourishing, and to resist those which interfere with it.  This social engagement need not be exclusively Christian - many things which promote this kind of flourishing may be initiated or supported by those of other faiths or none, and Volf sees Christians as collaborating with whoever will support such initiatives, without abandoning or compromising our distinctive faith.

Volf is very confident of the value of the Christian message and sees it is having a unique contribution to make to society.  Hence, he is outwardly focused, wanting to share the particular wisdom of Christianity with the wider world and use it to promote the wellbeing of all.  He sees this as part of Christ's call to love our neighbours and even our enemies.  His is an open, engaged faith, neither defensively closed nor belligerently assertive.  He also seems to be quite optimistic - it is possible to really improve human life, to make our societies more just and humane.

If this book has a limitation it is that it is short on specifics.  If you are looking for guidance on how to respond to specific situations, for a political or activist program, you will have to look elsewhere. This book could be cited by conservatives and progressives, capitalists and socialists with equal confidence. However, what he does provide is a jumping off point - Christians should be seeking the flourishing of those around them.  And there are plenty of others who can supply what he lacks, as we will see.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

In Which My Dad Begins My Musical Education

Whatever modest musical ability I have I owe to my Dad.

It took me a while to work this out.  When I was growing up, there wasn't lot of music in the house.  Mum and Dad had a small record collection and on rare occasions they would put something on the scratchy mono turntable Dad had built himself.  We also had a piano, but no-one played it much.

As I got older I realised this wasn't how it had always been.  Dad was a decent pianist and also quite a good singer.  As boy he trained as a church chorister, and our photo album included a picture of him dressed as a policeman in a production of Pirates of Penzance where he and Mum met and fell in love.

Sadly by the time I was old enough to notice, Dad had lost a lot of his hearing and this ruined his enjoyment of music.  It's just not the same when you can only hear half the notes.  His only piano playing was an occasional rendition of Fur Elise, which he could play fairly fluently by heart despite his lack of practice.  When he was feeling cheerful he would sometimes burst loudly into song, snatches of obscure things we never heard in full.

However, at some point he decided to take my musical education in hand and started to play me his favourite records.  He had fairly broad tastes but the main items in the collection were jazz-influenced comic songs, and classical and modern orchestral and chamber works.

Naturally, he started me on the comic songs.  I had already discovered Rolf Harris as part of my family's attempt to become proper Aussies, and as children we would listen to things like Flanders and Swann and Stanley Holloway's The Ramsbottoms.  Dad started introducing me to more sophisticated jazz-oriented songs like Phil Harris's 'Woodman Spare that Tree' and 'Darktown Poker Club'.  My favourite was Johnny Dankworth's 'Experiments with Mice', which I loved despite the references to various popular jazz musicians going completely over my head.

When he thought I was ready for it he began to introduce me to orchestral music.  The first orchestral piece I remember him playing was Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', which I would have already heard and seen in Disney's Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice.  We had the piece on a 7-inch record with a beautiful cover featuring an artist's impression of the sorcerer.  It was my first lesson in the idea that music could tell a story on its own, lyrics or no lyrics.

From there he tried me out on all sorts of stuff.  He played me Mozart and Beethoven, but I mostly found them boring.  He tried me out on a scratchy copy of Bach's harpsichord music which I found pleasant enough without it really capturing my imagination.  In the end, the pieces that drew me in were two theatrical, story-telling pieces from the 20th Century - Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Holst's The Planets.

To be truthful I think Stravinsky was beyond me, but I enjoyed the beautiful dynamics, the way the dreamy woodwinds build up into the thumping of the cellos and the fanfare of the brass, the sheer frenetic tempo of parts of it, the elemental simplicity of the melodies augmented by complex arrangements.  It gained added street cred when I learned that the audience rioted at the first performance of the ballet for which it formed the score.

However, on the rare occasions I listen to orchestral music these days it is most likely to be The Planets.  Holst's composition consists of seven separate pieces of music, based on the then known planets of our solar system presented in order of their distance from Earth - Mars the Bringer of War, Venus the Bringer of Peace, Mercury the Winged Messenger, Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity, Saturn the Bringer of Old Age, Uranus the Magician and Neptune the Mystic.

The pieces are inspired more by astrology than the Roman gods for whom the planets are named.  Each planet, each piece, has its own mood and personality.  If I was feeling quiet and reflective I could listen to Neptune or Venus, if I felt like dancing and smiling I could listen to Mercury or Jupiter, if I was a bit bullish I could enjoy Mars.  Someone recently gave me a copy on CD and I discovered it is perfect driving music, sweeping you out into space as you roll along the highway.

Other aspects of Dad's attempts to educate me were less successful.  He tried to teach me to play piano but I didn't get very far.  At the time I thought it was because he was a lousy teacher but these days I am more inclined to believe I was a poor pupil, too impatient to dedicate myself to regular practice.  My teenage musical choices were also a disappointment to him - he never got pop music.

Of course in my teenage years I turned to other teachers.  My peers used to pass around bootleg tapes of their favourite records, and I heard whatever teenage boys were listening to in the mid-1970s.  There was a smorgasboard from the poppiest of pop - I loved Paul McCartney and The Sweet for a time, although I never stooped to Abba - through to what in those days passed for heavy metal (Deep Purple, Uriah Heep) and the glories of prog rock.

Yet there were other influences even among my peers.  One of my best friends at high school was Brett Dean, a precocious young musician who went on to become one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary composers.  At one point he lifted my eyes a little from the pop universe by making me a tape of pieces he thought I might enjoy.  I seem to remember there was something by Shostakovich, and Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga and the Great Gate of Kiev among other pieces now forgotten.  I loved it and listened to it a lot.  When I discovered Rick Wakeman's brand of orchestral rock music (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) my ears were ready to enjoy.

It took me a long time to realise how much of this taste I owed to Dad, trapped as I was in the myth that he was a poor teacher.  Yet why did I prefer Pink Floyd to punk, Rick Wakeman to rockabilly?  I believe it was because Dad's musical lessons had prepared me to listen patiently, to understand that music should have dynamics, should tell a story beyond lyrics and even without them.  He taught me that the best music lasted longer than three minutes, and that it could draw you in completely to an alternative emotional world.  Although the techniques and instrumentation are very different Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' and 'Echoes' provide the same kind of story-telling that I first heard from Holst and Stravinsky.

I'm quite sure I didn't properly appreciate my Dad while he was still alive.  Perhaps it takes the nagging pull of absence to really make you understand what you have missed.  Dad was a better teacher than I ever knew, because he taught me out of love, and shared what he loved.  He thought carefully about the choices he played for me, understood young boys better than I gave him credit for (having been one himself) and gave me space and time to find my own place among his favourites.  He never banned anything from the turntable, and even his tutting at some of the music I brought home makes more sense now than it did then.  What did I ever see in Sherbert?  And why did so many Australian singers put on American accents?

I miss him, but I also carry him inside me, and will until the day I die.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Lot's Hospitality

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts on the four fall stories in Genesis.  Ever since, I've been thinking about writing a series on the Patriarchs, the cunning tricksters who are the forefathers of the nation of Israel. Before I do I thought I'd write about Abram/Abraham's nephew and foster son Lot and the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The city of Sodom provides the source for our English word "sodomy", meaning anal sex, because of the incident in this tale where the men of Sodom threaten to pack-rape their male visitors.  However, this is not a story about homosexuality, it is a story about hospitality.

Our story begins in Genesis 18 with Abraham sitting at the door of his tent, pitched in a shady spot under a grove of oak trees.  It starts by telling the reader that 'the Lord appeared to Abraham'.  However, when Abraham looks up he sees three men.  Does he know that this is the Lord and his two angels?  The story is ambiguous on that point.  In any case, Abraham shows what true hospitality involves.  He gets up and runs to the three men, bowing before them and addressing their leader as 'my lord', and begs them to come and sit in the shade of his tent and have something to eat and drink.  This is not just a drink of water and a biscuit.  He provides a feast - he has a servant butcher and cook a calf for them, he has his wife Sarah make fresh cakes, he brings them curds and milk and he waits on them himself, standing by them while they sit and eat.

This is a classic example of the ancient Middle Eastern code of hospitality.  A guest is sacred and needs to be treated like royalty, better even than your own family.  You give up your best bed, your best food, the best seat in the house, the head of the table.  This is how righteous people act.  Abraham has proved his righteousness.

He is rewarded for this in two ways.  First, the Lord reiterates his promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son.  Secondly, he takes Abraham into his confidence regarding his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah.

‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’

Abraham is immediately concerned.  He doesn't explicitly mention Lot, but the reader already knows both that Lot is living in Sodom and that despite some tension between the two Abraham still retains a fatherly concern for his nephew.  Indeed he recently launched a military expedition to rescue him from a Canaanite raiding party.  So he asks the Lord a series of questions.  Will he destroy the city if they find some righteous men there?  What if there are fifty?  What if there are only 45?  40? 30? 20? 10?  Each time the Lord answers that for the sake of these few righteous he will spare the entire city.  However Abraham never gets down to what turns out to be the pertinent number - what if there is only one?

There is something strange about this fact-finding mission.  Why does the Lord, who knows everything, need to walk through the gates in order to find out what is going on?  And why do three men leave Abraham's tent but only two arrive at Sodom?  It seems that somewhere along the way the Lord himself leaves them, and his two companions (who for the first time in Chapter 19 are referred to as 'angels') continue on the mission on their own.

While it's ambiguous whether or not Abraham knows immediately who they are, there is no such ambiguity in Sodom.  These messengers don't appear as fiery cherubim or seraphim, glowing with light or wielding flaming swords.  They appear as ordinary men, walking through the gate of Sodom where Lot is sitting.  It seems to me that the pair are conducting a test, a kind of mystery shopper exercise.  What will happen if they turn up incognito at Sodom's gates?

Lot's response is identical to that of his uncle.  He walks out towards them, bows to them and invites them to his home.  They propose instead to camp out in the town square but Lot will not have it - he insists that they be his guests, takes them to his house and makes them a meal.

So Lot, at least, has passed the test.  They have found at least one righteous man.  But why has the task fallen to Lot, himself a foreign resident in the city?  Why have the city elders not taken this responsibility on themselves, as they should?  The answer is soon clear.  That evening the entire adult male population of Sodom appears at Lot's door and demands that he surrender the visitors to them "so that we may know them" - in the usual euphemism of the Hebrew Scriptures, "so that we may have sex with them".  They are proposing a pack rape.  This is how strangers are treated in the city of Sodom.

How will Lot respond?  How righteous is he?  Will he give the strangers up to his hostile and threatening neighbours?  Far from it.  He takes the sacred duty of hospitality very seriously.  Guests are more important than even your own family.  This leads Lot to a shocking, and to us offensive, offer for the men to abuse his own daughters rather than his guests.  If this was a story about homosexuality the offer would be pointless and perhaps provocative, but in a story about the sanctity of hospitality its meaning is clear. By becoming guests in Lot's house these men have more claim to protection than even his own children.  Lot's neighbours understand what he is saying perfectly well. ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!  Now we will deal worse with you than with them.'

The contrast is stark.  Lot, the representative of righteousness, protects his guests even at the expense of his own family.  The Sodomites do not merely ignore or neglect strangers, they are actively hostile towards them and seek to harm them.  The Lord's suspicions, the reports that have reached his ears, are proved true.  The sequel is well known - the angels rescue Lot and his daughters while the Lord rains down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying them completely.

This story is echoed in various places in the New Testament.  John may have been thinking of it in the prologue to his gospel.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Like the angels, Jesus came incognito, looking like an ordinary man, and those who should have welcomed him treated him instead like the men of Sodom treated their guests.  Yet there were also some like Lot who welcomed him at great risk to themselves.

It was clearly in Jesus' mind in the passage in Matthew 10 where he sends his disciples out in pairs to the towns of Galilee.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

The test for these towns is just like that of Sodom - a pair of messengers of the Lord, who appear to just be ordinary men, arrive in their town.  How will they treat them?

Finally, this story was almost certainly in the mind of the author of the letter to the Hebrews when he said, 'do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.'

At first glance the test seems easy.  How hard is it to offer a stranger a meal and a place to rest, and then send them on their way refreshed?  Yet is is something we humans constantly struggle with.  To welcome a stranger is to take a risk.  It is to step beyond the comfortable boundaries of our daily lives and our established relationships.  What if these strangers are in fact enemies, or spies?  Just a few chapters earlier in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah were invaded by a raiding party and many of their people and possessions were carried off (including Lot and his family) before being rescued by Abraham.  Their suspicion of strangers is not irrational.  Nor is ours. There are people who would take advantage of our hospitality, who would rob or exploit us or even hurt and kill us.

Hence there is not a large step between the notion of being hospitable to strangers and loving our enemies, as Jesus asks us to do in Matthew 5.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the new kingdom God is building.  It is not easy.  It is not safe.  Sometimes it doesn't even seem sensible.  But what if it turns out that the homeless person we ignore, or the refugee we arrest and send to detention, is actually an angel, or perhaps the Lord himself?  This is exactly what Jesus tells us is the case in Matthew 25.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

God is in the stranger, he is the stranger.  How will we treat him?

Friday, 16 September 2016

Turnbull's First Year

So, apparently as of yesterday Malcolm Turnbull has been Australian Prime Minister for a full year.  As a result the media is full of stories assessing what he has achieved in that time.  Everyone is struggling.  Even the man himself nominated his greatest achievement as "having a clear economic plan for Australia".  A plan is not an achievement. It is a plan.

It seems to me that all this is beside the point.  Political leaders want us to think it's all about us, but really it's all about them.  So here's the real list of Malcolm Turnbull's goals and achievements from the past 12 months.

1. Become Prime Minister
You alienated lots of people in your stint as Opposition Leader by sticking to your principles, especially on climate change.  You need to convince people it won't happen again.  It will take lots of secret meetings and clandestine phone calls.  You will have to hope the previous occupant of the job makes some catastrophic mistakes.  Fortunately the previous occupant is Tony Abbott.

2. Don't Say Or Do Anything Really Stupid
Like making Prince Philip a knight.  Or threatening to shirtfront powerful foreign leaders.  Or claiming the abolition of the carbon tax as your greatest achievement in the role of Minster for Women (hint: domestic violence is a thing).  Or suggesting that the provision of aid to our most populous neighbours might be conditional on them not following their own laws.  Best to stick to generalities.  "There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian".

3. Appoint Some Women To Cabinet
Like Susan Ley, Michaela Cash and Marise Payne.  These women turn out to be no less right wing than their male counterparts.  Who knew, right?

4. Be Polite To Journalists
Don't blackball the ones who criticise you.  Whatever they ask you, respond in your "calm and reasonable" voice with a wry smile.  Imply that you are a lot more intelligent than they are and that you have all the answers.  Be regal and condescending.  They really hate that.

5. Keep Your Enemies Close
Make Scott Morrison Treasurer.  Allow Peter Dutton to stay on as Minister for Overseas Torture Camps.  Let George Brandis keep on pontificating pompously.  Do one of the mad things George Christenson is advocating.  Refrain from commenting on anything Tony Abbott says.  Sooner or later they'll shoot themselves in the foot if given enough ammunition.

6. Win The Election
If you win the election you get to stay Prime Minister, which is of course the point of the exercise.  Doesn't matter if it's only by one seat.  No-one disputes that the Cowboys are the 2015 NRL Premiers because they won by a single point in extra time.  A win is a win.

7. Induce Deja Vu
Study everything that went on between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.  Repeat it as closely as possible.  You are Gillard.  Tony Abbott is Rudd.  The Liberal Party is the Labor Party.  Pauline Hanson is Clive Palmer.  Bob Katter is himself.  If you do it well enough voters will be so confused that they may vote for you by mistake in 2019, or whenever the next election happens.

What's most amazing is that Malcolm has achieved every one of these goals despite getting minimal assistance from his party.  He even won the election.  All on his own.

So, on to the next 12 months.  Given he has shown himself to be such a talented leader, here's some things he might like to try in the coming year.

1. Fix The Asylum Seeker Mess
Dutton has shot himself in the foot plenty of times now.  No-one feels sorry for him any more.  It's costing Australia over $3b per year to make people suffer.  We can repair the budget and become more humane at the same time.  There has never been a more exciting time to become an Australian!

2. Make the Taxation System Fairer
Reduce concessions for the super-wealthy.  Get multi-nationals to pay some tax - any amount will do for starters.  Quarantine negative gearing on residential property investments. Humane budget repair. Innovative concept.  There has never been a more exciting time to pay tax!

3. Climate Change Is A Thing
Significantly increase the emissions reduction and renewable energy targets.  Work out a strategy that will actually help us to meet those targets.  You may have heard the interesting theory that getting polluters to pay for the right to pollute incentivises them to reduce pollution.  It also helps repair the budget.  There has never been a more exciting time to invest in wind farms!

4. Make Love, Not War
Instead of bombing the crap out of people who frighten us, we could try diplomacy.  It's amazing how much less angry people feel when they're not being shot at.  Also, bombs are expensive. There has never been a more exciting time to restore foreign aid!

5. Ask Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander People What They Want To Do.  Give Them Resources To Do It.
Some people call this "self-determination".  Other people call it "compensation".  Others call it "common sense".  There has never been a more exciting time to be a First Australian!

I'm excited about what might happen in the next 12 months!

Monday, 29 August 2016

Don't Trust the Government

Last time I was in Sydney I took a walk along the harbourside, through Barangaroo and up into Millers Point.  Thereby hangs a tale.

Over the last couple of years I've been intermittently researching the redevelopment of public housing estates in NSW, looking at the strategies adopted by the state government and the evidence which supports or contradicts these strategies.  Millers Point is one of the less glorious tales I've been following.

The area was one of the first in Australia to be occupied by the British, with the First Fleet setting up a flag there in 1788.  It was named for the windmills that stood on its exposed clifftops in the early to mid 1800s, grinding flour for the residents of Sydney Town.  Throughout the 1800s it was one of the more down-at-heel locations in Sydney, with the shabby docks backed by a complex of modest homes, boarding houses, doss houses and pubs inhabited by sailors, wharfies and various other workers - although there were also some palatial homes up on the hilltops where the smell wasn't so bad.

The 1890s depression and an outbreak of bubonic plague at the turn of the century gave the NSW government the impetus to clean out the area and engage in a wholesale redevelopment.  Initially the Sydney Harbour Trust focused on rebuilding the docks themselves, but in the years before and after the first world war it also rebuilt the housing, developing hundreds of modest terrace houses which it rented to dock workers and their families in what was, effectively, some of Australia's earliest public housing.

Until well into the second half of the twentieth century the wealthier residents of Sydney saw Millers Point and the other parts of the inner city as undesirable, even dangerous locations inhabited by poor people. Then the growth of the city, the departure of most of the polluting industries and the increasing popularity of inner city living started to draw greedy eyes to these working class areas.  An attempt to turn the whole of Millers Point and The Rocks over to apartment towers in the 1970s was thwarted by the activism of highly unionised working class residents and the Builders Labourers Federation's green bans.

The result was that Millers Point remained in the hands of what had by then become the Maritime Services Authority, and the area was eventually heritage listed.  Instead of high rise towers the NSW Housing Commission built the controversial Sirius Building, a brutalist set of small cube-like apartments to be used as public housing.  However, by the late 1980s the wharves around Millers Point and Darling Harbour had fallen into disuse.  The Maritime Services Authority, having no further use for its housing, turned it and its tenants over to the Department of Housing.

This transfer was not a bad outcome for the residents at the time.  Certainly, management by the public housing authority was more restrictive and at times even punitive than the rather lax rules sketchily enforced by the MSA.  On the other hand, their tenancies were preserved and the affordability of their rents guaranteed in a way that would never have happened if the housing had simply been sold to the highest bidder.  The essential outline of the suburb as an affordable, livable community for people on low incomes was preserved.  Its long-time residents still had a home.

However, the transfer was followed by a long period of underfunding of public housing which began in the mid 1990s and continues to this day.  One result of this was that the NSW Housing Department and its various successor bodies (housing is currently owned by the Land and Housing Corporation) struggled to keep up with maintenance.  This was particularly bad news for Millers Point residents in their century-old houses, more so as the heritage listing requires special (read expensive) materials in styles no longer readily attainable.

As the years passed the issue became increasingly critical as the housing fell further into disrepair and some of it was sold.  The issue came to a head in 2013 when the government proposed selling all the housing, citing the high value of the land on which it stood, the huge cost of heritage-compliant repairs, the size of the public housing waiting list and the substantially greater amounts of replacement housing that the sale would finance in the outer suburbs.

The residents fought fiercely, staging a "Save Millers Point" campaign, festooning the community with banners and posters and launching petitions to save various long term residents from eviction.  A friendly economist helped them develop an alternative proposal which would see some of the houses sold to fund renovations on others, resulting in the kind of mixed income community the NSW Government is set on creating in other former public housing estates like Minto, Bonnyrigg and Airds-Bradbury.

It was all to no avail.  In March 2014 the then NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward, announced that all the public housing in Millers Point would be sold.  Even the Heritage Council couldn't save it - just this month the NSW Environment Minister has rejected its unanimous recommendation in favour of heritage listing on the Sirius Apartments and their residents are in the process of being evicted in preparation for sale and redevelopment.  The remaining residents are still fighting, but the battle is lost and their numbers are dwindling as residents are progressively relocated to other areas.

What can we learn from this story?  Sadly, the lesson is a depressingly familiar one.  Don't trust the government.  If the housing had been turned over directly to its residents in the 1980s, they and their heirs would now be benefiting from the hugely increased land values.  If it had been turned over to a tenant managed cooperative the tenants would be able to implement their preferred plan and leverage the value of the land to fund maintenance.  Instead, they are now being forced from their homes and given nothing in return but a tenuous foothold in a new community.

Of course the financial dilemmas the government faces in places like Millers Point are real, although somewhat exaggerated, but they are not the full story.  The huge cost of upgrading the properties now is the result of decades of neglect.  The expense of heritage repairs is dictated by government legislation which, as we see in the decision on Sirius, can be changed or overridden.  Indeed, the NSW government could be seen as engaging in one of the most widely used methods of circumventing heritage rules - allowing properties to deteriorate to the point where renovation is no longer feasible, at which point disposal or demolition becomes the only option.

Governments are not neutral players in the world of property development.  Their decisions about appropriate land use and the scale of development are hugely influential in deciding land values and bestowing or withholding riches.  The low income residents of Millers Point and other housing commission suburbs may be politically aware and well organised, but they are no match for the property development industry.  Developers have far easier access to ministers than poor people.  They make handsome donations to political parties and this means their calls get returned.  Nor do they have to rely on friendly economists doing pro bono work in their spare time to make their financial case - they hire the best and brightest and pay them handsomely.

The heritage listing of Millers Point was intended to recognise not only the age of the houses but the status of the suburb as an enduring working class community.  The transfer of the housing to the State housing department in the 1980s should have preserved this heritage and the homes of hundreds of low income households and ensured they, and others like them in years to come, had secure homes in the inner city.

Yet in 2014 the heritage listing was used as justification to move them out, and the ownership of the housing by the state government ensured that they had no avenue for appeal.  They were there at the pleasure of the government and could be moved on at will.  They left with nothing.  The buyers of the property may possibly keep the suburb looking the same but it will not be the same.

You may argue that they will be as well housed, and perhaps better, in their new homes and that in addition the funds will provide similar homes for others.  Yet the residents have made it quite clear that while they will still be housed, they will not be at home.  In any case, what is being offered these new and continuing tenants?  In the parlance of 21st century Australian housing bureaucrats and ministers, social housing is "a pathway, not a destination".  In other words, they are not to think of this housing (which they have somehow won in the lottery that is the hugely oversubscribed public housing waiting list) as their home but as temporary shelter, somewhere they are passing through on their way to their true home which perhaps they will not see this side of heaven.

Meanwhile, right across the road from Millers Point is Sydney's newest rich persons' enclave, Barangaroo.  Thanks to this decision its relentlessly upmarket housing, opulent casino, pretty harbourside walkways and sanitised, carefully policed public spaces will be kept largely free of unsightly poor people.  Unlike the nearby Ultimo Pyrmont redevelopment of the 1990s, the Barangaroo developers are not required to make any contribution to the development of affordable housing.  The government has made it clear that the proceeds of the Millers Point sales will be spent in less prestigious locations.

There is, indeed, one law for the rich and another for the poor.  "Social mix" is now  established policy for public housing redevelopments.  Public housing tenants are to make up no more than 30% of the communities which were once exclusively developed for them.  They will thereby get the benefit of mixing with home owners and private tenants and learning their more productive and responsible ways.

Such mixing, however, is deemed unnecessary for the super-rich, who are to be permitted to keep their ghettos.  It's a shame, because they will miss out on the opportunities for social modelling that would be presented by living alongside poorer neighbours.  They will be deprived of the chance to learn thrift, frugality, mutual aid and community spirit from low income social housing tenants.  Instead we will simply perpetuate their culture of entitlement.  Their horizons will be limited and this will reinforce their social irresponsibility in living off tax breaks and government handouts instead of placing them on a pathway to responsible independence.

Talk about creating dysfunctional communities!