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.