Friday, 27 January 2017

Farewell, Barack Obama

So, after eight years Barack Obama's presidency is over.


Nothing on my Facebook feed is as polarised as the reaction to Obama's departure and the man who will replace him.  Some are mourning, others are celebrating.  Some are praising his graciousness and his lovely family, and dreaming of his wife Michelle launching her own candidacy in 2020.  Others are celebrating wildly, rejoicing that his destructive reign is finally over.  And that's just my Australian friends.

I'm certainly not a fan of Donald Trump (I'll get to him in a moment) but I find it hard to join in the full-throated weeping for Obama.

To my mind, Obama's presidency is summed up in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009.  At the time he had been President for less than a year.  The Nobel Prize Committee cited 'his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples', his 'vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons', the fact that under his Presidency 'the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.'  'Only very rarely,' they said, 'has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.'  'The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."'

In other words, they gave him the prize for his fine words and noble intentions.

Of course no one person can rule a country.  Even the most ruthless and powerful dictator needs the consent of key elites to remain in power and this means they have to compromise.  For his entire two terms, Obama had to negotiate with a Congress dominated by his opponents.  They were often more intent on thwarting him for their own political purposes than on good governance.  Hence, when we talk about Obama's record this is really shorthand for the record of the US government during his Presidency.

Bearing this in mind, how did they go delivering the hopes of the Nobel Prize Committee?  It started out well, with Obama claiming to have ended the war in Iraq.  In fact, as David Kilcullen points out, they just left it.  The result was not more peace but a rapid deterioration, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its transformation into Islamic State.  His meddling in Syria made matters worse, encouraging rebellion but then not following through with any action, ensuring the country's descent into civil war.  In Israel strong words about settlements and the Road Map for Peace were not matched by any action - settlements went on apace and the blockade and invasion of Gaza destroyed its infrastructure, deepening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the point where it seems all but insoluble.

Are you sensing a theme here?  Obama and his offsiders talked about peace and diplomacy, but the result was war and chaos.  Was this just incompetence, or something more sinister?  Noam Chomsky suggests that this is part of the ongoing deliberate pattern of US foreign policy, which is primarily aimed at protecting and promoting US corporate interests.  Others suggest more charitably that Obama was just too tentative and timid, and perhaps a little naive, in the face of more ruthless rivals like Putin, Assad and Netanyahu.

Either way, Obama has shown himself as someone whose words promise much but whose actions deliver little.

Is it the same in US domestic policy?  There seem to be some genuine gains.  On energy, he reversed Bush's refusal to address climate change and brought in some modest emissions reduction measures.  On health, he managed to run the gauntlet of a huge and baffling campaign and introduced subsidised health care for the country's poorest citizens.  There are a number of other small programs that do some good.

However, as Matt Taibbi shows, the 'War on the Poor' has continued unabated.  Poor people are subject to summary arrest and punitive welfare policies, while undocumented immigrants (on whom much of the economy depends) are harassed and deported.  Meanwhile, corporate criminals get away with fraud and misconduct on a grand scale.

Whenever there was a mass shooting - and they happen far too often in the US - Obama would say something like "this must stop" and talk tough about gun control, but in eight years no effective limitation on access to firearms has eventuated.  Unarmed African Americans continue to be shot by police officers at regular intervals, but there are no changes to policing practices.

Have I said enough to paint you the picture?  Obama is a convincing orator.  He interacts with people respectfully, he talks reasonably, he rejoices at justice and condemns injustice.  He respects facts and knows how to build an argument.  He doesn't steal from the people, he doesn't have affairs, he is a respectful loving husband and a caring father.  He is the personification of sanity.

Yet behind his calm, sane, rational words is a whole world of crazy.  Obama's biggest achievement has been to make it seem somehow less crazy than it really is.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.


If anything is clear about Trump, it is that he will not provide a veneer of sanity on anything.  With Trump, the crazy is right up front.  The question is, what will he do?

Unlike Obama, Trump has a Congress which is at least nominally on his side, although they do not love him.  They were quick to turn against him when they thought he was going to lose the election.  If he wants their cooperation, he will have to earn it.

When he wants to introduce pro-business legislation, cut welfare and cut taxes they will be waving the legislation through.  They will be with him 100% as his cabinet of wealthy climate skeptics dismantles emissions reduction measures.  They will not have to block attempts to improve gun control because he will not present them with any.  On the other hand, Trump has promised that he will simultaneously cut taxes and spend billions on infrastructure, and Congressional Republicans have been loud and proud deficit warriors.  Will they change their tune?

This important because where Obama's symbols were reassuring words it seems that Trump's will be buildings.  After all, he has achieved fame and fortune by placing his name on huge, ugly monumental structures.  His much hyped wall along the Mexican border is a perfect example.  US immigration policy is already harsh and punitive.  In practice a wall will add little of value beyond a minor logistical challenge for those wanting to cross it.  I imagine Plan A will involve ladders.  Or planes.  It will, however, look strong and reassuring and convince voters Trump is serious.  Incidentally it will also be a bonanza for construction contractors, many of whom will probably employ Mexican wage labourers.

Our best hope out of all of this is that once all this crazy is put on public display, Americans will decide they don't like what they see.  In the short term it will not be hard for Trump to undo the modest good that Obama has achieved.  He could, indeed, do some serious damage of his own, especially beyond America's borders where if left to his own devices he will be like a heavily armed wrecking ball swung by a crane with no driver.  But as I say, things are already pretty crazy.

Hilary Clinton, like Obama, would mainly have tried to make the crazy look sane, probably with less success.  Our best hope is that a Trump Presidency will persuade the Democrats to endorse a candidate who will actually try to change the crazy.  In 2016 Bernie Sanders seriously challenged Clinton for the Democrat nomination by refusing corporate donations and mounting a passionate grassroots campaign.  Sanders will not be back - he will be 79 in 2020 - but his supporters will.  Perhaps after eight years of reassuring words and four years of open craziness, Americans will finally get the opportunity to vote for real change.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Phillip Hughes: Cricketers' Grief

It being summer I've been watching copious amounts of cricket and avoiding anything too intellectual or work-related.  As an additional aid to this vegetative process, I've been reading some of the cricket memoirs that have been released over the past few months.  There is Michael Clarke's My Story, Chris Rogers' Bucking the Trend and Mitchell Johnson's Resilient.

I find the thought processes of elite athletes fascinating.  To succeed at their sport, they have to be really focused - not just when they are performing at the elite level, but on the way up.  They have to make sacrifices, as do those around them - their parents, siblings, partners and children.  They have to do this amidst a huge amount of uncertainty.  They might not make the grade.  An injury or an illness can end their career at a single stroke.  Their best may not be quite good enough.

These three men travelled quite different pathways to the top.  Michael Clarke was perhaps the most focused and single-minded.  From an early age he was obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of all else.  His Dad ran an indoor sports centre and he spent every moment he could hitting balls and bowling with whoever would have him.  He was also a golden boy of NSW cricket, given express passage through the junior representative and academy system and all the way to the Australian team, where he made his debut at 23.  He seemed destined for cricket greatness and to a large extent he achieved it.

Chris Rogers' career was a less turbo-charged version of the same pathway.  He was also focused on cricket from an early age and his Dad also ran a sports facility - he was General Manager of Perth's WACA ground.  But he wasn't given the same smooth ride as Clarke.  He was turned down for an academy place and had to work his way through Perth grade cricket and English league cricket before finally establishing himself in the West Australian team and in English country cricket.  Despite making mountains of runs, he was granted only a single Test at the age of 30 and then had to wait another five years for a second crack and a short but successful stint at the top.

Mitchell Johnson's pathway was the outlier in this trio.  It is rare for Cricket Australia's talent scouts to get their first sight of a promising player at age 17 - they have almost always played junior representative competitions and put their names in lights.  Instead, Johnson spent his early years dreaming of winning Wimbledon.  When he gave up his tennis dreams in his mid-teens he started playing club cricket for a bit of fun.  His family were so poor that they couldn't pay for cricket gear or coaching.  Yet the older heads at the Wanderers club in Townsville must have had some idea of how good he was, because they rounded up the money to send him to a fast bowling clinic in Brisbane run by Dennis Lillee.  It took only three deliveries for Lillee to call his old mate Rod Marsh at the Australian Cricket Academy and talk him into making room for the young man.  He arrived with a collection of heavy metal T-shirts but no cricket shoes.  He was soon playing Australian Under 19s and being fast tracked into the Queensland and Australian teams.

Of course it was hard work.  Clarke had to deal with his bad back and a knack for falling out with team-mates.  Rogers had to deal with short-sightedness, colour-blindness and the burden of being more intelligent than the average cricketer.  Johnson had to deal with chronic stress fractures early in his career, and a loss of form and confidence mid-career.  All their families had to put up with them being away more often than they were home - Clarke and Johnson had tolerant, long suffering partners while Rogers remained single.  Yet all of them embraced it - after all, what else would they rather be doing?  Clarke dropped out of school at 16.  Johnson finished Year 12 without distinction and was toying with a military career.  Rogers had a go at university but dropped out, although he did complete a journalism degree later on.  Travelling the world being paid (quite handsomely, in Clarke's and Johnson's case) for playing your favourite game  beats just about anything else.

There is a lot of diversity in these stories but the most intense point of each is the same - the death of Phillip Hughes. Young Australian batsman Hughes died on 27 November 2014 of a massive brain haemorrhage after being struck in the neck by a cricket ball.  By this time, Hughes had been in and out of the Australian team for a couple of years and had played State cricket for NSW and South Australia.  By all accounts he was a very popular team-mate, a friendly, easy-going young man who got on with everyone and didn't have any enemies - unusual in the tense, competitive world of elite sport.

Of course everyone was shocked by his death.  Australian, NSW and South Australian players gathered at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the days after his accident, supporting one another and trying to come to terms with what had happened.  A few days later they travelled to his home town of Macksville in rural NSW for his funeral.  His death was a public event, sparking a viral tribute in which cricket lovers around the country put cricket bats on public display in his honour.

But when someone dies, other lives don't stop.  There was a packed international schedule of matches to be played and broadcasting contracts to be honoured - four Tests against India, a 50-over World Cup jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, a tour of the West Indies, an Ashes series in England, plus various bilateral one-day tournaments and T20 games, all packed in between December and August.  The most they got was a delay of a couple of weeks on the start of the first India test, and then they were back playing.

It was difficult for them to put their hearts into it.  Mitchell Johnson puts it best.

...my love of the game was put into perspective before the start of the 2014-15 season.  Not many people loved cricket as much as Phillip Hughes did.  When he died - two days after being struck in the neck by a ball - it was hard to love it or play it the same way I had when he was alive.  That horrible tragedy changed many things.  I feel so awful for his family.  The impact his passing had on the rest of us is irrelevant by comparison but its there.  I was never the same bowler after Phillip died.

Johnson's problem was that Hughes was killed by a bouncer, a ball deliberately aimed at his head.  It was bowled by a moderately fast bowler called Sean Abbott.  Such balls are designed to intimidate the batsman and perhaps even bruise him but not, of course, to kill him.  Mitchell Johnson could bowl a good 10-15 km/h faster than Abbott and intimidation was his thing.  Batsmen knew that if they faced him, the ball would be flying around their ears.  Plenty had bruises to show for it.  South African captain Graeme Smith had his fingers broken twice.  In 2013-14 Johnson blasted Australia to an Ashes whitewash on the back of the most consistently hostile fast bowling seen in Australia since the heyday of Lillee and Thompson.

Yet now the game had changed.  It was one thing to have opponents jumping around and feeling sore.  It was another to think you could kill them. Off the field Johnson is a gentle introvert.  All of a sudden, every ball was a test of nerves.  He had to try and dismiss the thought of harm from his mind, go back to bowling the way that had made him successful.  Every time he hit someone on the helmet his heart missed a beat.  He played on to the end of 2015, but he never returned to the intimidatory heights of 2013-14.  Of course there were other factors at play - he was getting older, he was getting worn down by flat pitches, he had just become a dad - but he was also relieved to not have to walk that tightrope any more.

(Incidentally, if Mitchell Johnson felt this way, spare a thought for Sean Abbot!)

Rogers had the opposite problem.  He was an opening batsmen like Hughes, and every time he batted he was peppered with short balls.  He had, of course, been hit a few times.   Early in his career he lost several teeth after being hit in the jaw playing county cricket.  He had always felt confident in his ability to handle it, but now it started to worry him.  What if he went the same way as Hughes?

Right on cue, he started to get hit more often.  During the Indian series he was fielding at short leg and a full blooded pull shot cannoned into his helmet.  He spent time off the field with concussion.  Then on the tour of the West Indies he was hit again during net practice, and the concussion was worse - he missed both West Indies Tests as he recovered.  Back in the saddle for the Ashes in England he was hit again at Lords, and although he seemed fine at the time he had to go off later in the game when he saw the stadium wobble.

That was enough for him.  He played out the series, scoring plenty of runs along the way, but called it quits at the end.  No-one was surprised, and no-one tried to talk him out of it.

You will notice that both these stories are not about Hughes, they are about Johnson and Rogers.  They are not about grief, they are about anxiety. Neither Johnson nor Rogers was close to Hughes.  They had both shared Australian dressing rooms with him - Johnson more so that Rogers - and liked him, but they lived far apart, they were team-mates and colleagues, not close friends.  They had to put themselves back in their performance bubble as quickly as possible to do what was expected of them.  This meant shutting out the grief in the same way they shut out other distractions.  Shutting things out is what elite athletes do.

But grief cannot be simply shut out.  If it is denied entry by the front door it will climb in through a window, and this window is often anxiety and depression.  Their anxieties were not totally irrational but nor were they totally objective.  The chance of the freak accident that killed Hughes being repeated was very slim.  But when someone you know personally has been killed in just such an accident, probability means nothing - the anxiety is visceral, an echo of your grief.  You can never face the same task in the same way again.

Johnson and Rogers were not close to Hughes, but Clarke was.  He and Hughes bonded from the moment they met at NSW training.  Hughes shared Clarke's house for a while, they socialised together regularly in and out of the cricket season, they exchanged text messages constantly.  When Clarke referred to Hughes as his "little brother" he wasn't playing to the crowd.  This was how he really felt.

There was also a lot else going on for Clarke at this time.  While Johnson and Rogers were at high points in their careers, feeling secure and satisfied with where they stood, Clarke was struggling.  His performances were still good enough, but the degenerating disk in his spine was reaching breaking point.  Over the previous year he had begun to miss more cricket and his physio sessions got longer and more intensive.  There were days where he couldn't do up his own shoelaces.  In the lead-up to the scheduled opening Test of the 2014-15 summer he was struggling to be fit and doing battle with the team heirarchy, who insisted that he prove his fitness and then kept shifting the goalposts on how he needed to do so.  This was just the latest in a string of tensions over his fitness and his training regime.  Clarke felt under siege.  His response?  To tough it out, to plough ahead, to follow his own course doggedly and insistently.  He shut out the distractions.

Hughes' death fed into this siege mentality.  As Hughes was taken to hospital and placed on life support, Clarke rushed to be at his side.  He spent most of the next two days at the hospital, acting as go between for the Hughes family with the throngs of media and team-mates who hung around the hospital waiting for news.  Later, at the funeral back in Hughes' home town, he visited with the family again and delivered a moving eulogy for his "little brother".

After such a calamity, and Clarke's leadership in responding to it, it was impossible for the selectors to leave him out of the team for the rescheduled first Test, which unfolded as an extended tribute to Hughes.  Against their better judgement they allowed him to play.  He scored an emotional century but was clearly in pain throughout the game, and as often happens his back stiffness put strain elsewhere and he tore a hamstring while fielding.

The resulting enforced break from cricket could possibly have been a time for Clarke to step back and process his grief, and maybe re-evaluate where he was going.  Sadly, he was not yet ready to do this.  Instead, he threw himself into an intensive rehab process as only an obsessive, driven athlete can.  His aim was to lead his team to success in the World Cup and then lead them in the mid-year Ashes tour.

He achieved both - just.  He missed the start of the World Cup but was back in time for the important games, scored runs and led his team to victory.  It seemed like a vindication and he soldiered on, leading the team again in the West Indies and England.

However, by the time he got to the UK the adrenaline was running low.  He was in constant pain.  The tension within his team continued to grow and he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  His technique deteriorated and he couldn't buy a run. The team lost the Ashes with calamitous batting collapses in two successive games.  He hated the modified helmet he was forced to wear after Hughes' death,  feeling trapped by it and unable to see properly through the restyled grille - a perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional bubble he had placed around himself to keep the grief at bay.  By the end of the series he had had enough and announced his retirement to everyone's huge relief, not least his increasingly concerned partner.  Finally, he was able to allow himself to grieve.

What these three men all had in common, of course, is that they were getting older.  Clarke's back could no longer stand the strain.  Rogers could feel his reflexes slowing.  Johnson felt increasingly apathetic at the thought of slogging through long days on flat pitches.  Johnson and Clarke were both becoming parents.  Father Time was breathing down their necks.

There is nothing like a death to make us aware of our own mortality, especially when the deceased is younger than us.  It is one thing that is guaranteed to change the way we see our lives.  We see a big hole, an empty chair where our friend used to be, and we think, "Who will be next?  Will it be me?  If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with my life?"  Priorities change.  Hitting a piece of cork and leather with a piece of wood can suddenly seem less meaningful than we previously thought.


I was reminded of Hughes again as I watched the most recent Sydney Test a couple of weeks ago.

David Warner, another man who was close to Hughes, was fielding close to the bat when Hughes was struck.  He was one of the first to realise that something was seriously wrong and he rushed to his side, signalling frantically for medical help and then riding beside him on the medicab as he was taken from the field, already comatose.

After Hughes' death a plaque was put up in his honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground, just beside the race the players walk along on their way out to bat.  Every time Warner goes past it he touches it with his hand and thinks of his friend.  This January he touched the plaque as usual and then set a new record by scoring 100 on the first morning of the match.  Grief doesn't go away, but we learn to live with it, it becomes part of our own personal growth and if we are healthy, it makes us better people.

Rest in peace, Phillip, and may your friends and family continue to be comforted.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

On Being An Ordinary 'Ordinary Radical'

In Irresistible Revolution Shane Claiborne presents himself as an 'ordinary radical', suggesting that he is no-one special and that the way he lives and advocates is open to all.  Even though he presents his case convincingly, I am not so sure.  Certainly Claiborne is an ordinary human being - he eats, he drinks, he gets tired, he shits out of the same hole as the rest of us.  But the direction he has taken in his life is quite extraordinary.  I read about his life and I think "I couldn't do that".

I feel the same when I experience this close to home.  I have some friends who have spent most of the past two decades living in various slums in India.  Their children have grown up living in one-room dwellings without sanitation or running water, surrounded by poverty and hardship.  Of course many people have to live this way but they didn't, they chose it.  I know for sure that they are ordinary people, a lot like me in many ways, and that their children don't feel that they have been deprived in life - indeed, they feel very grateful for the life they have shared with their parents.  However, I still feel like I couldn't do it.

There's a character in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country who I really relate to.  The story, written in South Africa in the 1940s, centres around the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, a rural Zulu pastor who travels to Johannesburg to find his wayward son.  He has a brother John who runs a successful business in that city and is a leader of the anti-apartheid movement.  John is a powerful orator.  In private, holding court in his shop, he will say some quite radical, even incendiary things.  However, when he speaks at rallies he watches his words carefully and avoids saying anything too inflammatory because he is fearful of losing his business and his security.  He is committed to the struggle, but not to the extent of placing himself at risk.

I can identify with John Kumalo's dilemma.  I turned 55 last year.  I have a thirty-plus year career in human services, community development and social policy.  I own a house and have a pretty good balance in my superannuation account.  I run a small consulting business which depends entirely on my reputation.  I have two adult children and a couple of little grandkids who share my comfortable middle class life.  I'm doing pretty well out of the way the world is now.

Another guy I can really relate to is Peter, who I wrote about last Easter.  Peter vows that he will follow Jesus even to death.  When the time comes and Jesus is arrested, Peter follows the arresting party all the way to the High Priest's courtyard, but when the moment of decision arrives he pulls back and denies that he knows Jesus.  As I wrote back then.

I am like Peter.  I see the evil of the world all too clearly.  I have read Jesus' words many times. I know how far I should be prepared to go to serve those who are entitled to my service, to resist the evil that is so clearly revealed on this Easter Friday.  I walk to the edge, I look at what must be done, but I pull back.  My courage fails me, I am weak and afraid.  Often I feel a physical sickness in my stomach at the evil of the world, my own powerlessness to change it, my own complicity in it.

This is why Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.  We rich men (and women too, but men especially in our patriarchal society) have a big investment in the current world order.  We are a powerful conservative force, responding with fear and anger at the possibility that our comfortable lifestyle might be curtailed, be it ever so slightly.

The form of Christianity I was converted to, and that I practiced as a teen and a young adult, was quite conservative, even 'fundamentalist' in some ways.  Many of my early teachers advocated either a principle of non-participation in political life, or a highly conservative brand of politics.  In 1987, as Joh Bjelke-Petersen was being deposed by his party in the wake to the Fitzgerald Inquiry's exposure of corruption in his government, a leader of my church asked us all to pray for 'Sir Joh' as the full story was not being told, the implication being that he was being unfairly persecuted.

Yet at the same time, my university education exposed me to more radical ideas - Marxism, Gandhian non-violence, anarchism, social democracy, liberation theology - and much of this struck a chord with me.  For a long time I felt a real dissonance between my work life, which revolved around trying to get more just outcomes for people on the margins, and my faith life which revolved around sustaining a conservative theology.  When my church asked me to pray for Sir Joh, I quietly asked those in authority, "you know he's corrupt, right?".  But I had little power to change things there.

Over time I've been able to bring these things closer together, to find church companions who have a stronger sense of God's call to justice, and to find ways for my faith to more clearly inform my work life.  But there is nothing extraordinary about the way I live.  I'm no Shane Claiborne.  I have made a lot of compromises with my society.  I live a comfortable middle-class life, although I try to do it within a framework of social and ecological responsibility.

When I read about people like Shane Claiborne or talk to my friends who have been in India I wonder, am I doing enough?  Should I be making greater sacrifices?  I feel bad, knowing the state of the world in general and how puny my own efforts at change are.

I tend to respond to this in two ways.  The first, when I'm being honest, is to admit that yes I could and should be doing more.  Much of what holds me back is what holds back John Kumalo or Peter - a fear of consequences, a love for my own safety and security.  I could spend more time and energy trying to bring about change, make more changes in my own lifestyle.  All of this would be moving me towards greater fulfilment of Jesus' call to radical discipleship.

At the same time, beyond the excuses and justifications is a core piece of knowledge - nothing I do will be enough.  One of the hardest lessons for us Westerners to learn is the lesson of humility.  I am one of seven billion people.  Even here in Australia I am one in over 20 million.  If I stopped emitting carbon, the planet would still warm.  If I gave away everything I had, there would still be poverty.  Changing these things is not up to me, it is up to all of us.  I can't solve the problem.  All I can do is be a small part of the solution.

So while he is not exactly my hero, John Kumalo is a comfort to me.  I will not be perfect.  I will be compromised.  I will do less than what I could.  But despite this, I can still make a compromise.  I can devote at least some of my attention to being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  I won't save the world.  But then neither has Shane Claiborne.  If we all do what we can, and perhaps a little bit more, we can bring the Kingdom of God that little bit closer.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Irresistible Revolution

If you've been following this little series on Christian politics (previous posts here, here and here), you will see that I have been moving from optimism to critical engagement, from "cool" analysis to passionate engagement and from theory to practice.  I'm not suggesting that one is superior to the other.  I'm simply trying to paint a reasonably rounded picture.  You might also notice that all the authors are from the US - this was unintentional but at least it shows that there is more to Christian politics in the US than the Religious Right.

By way of completing the journey into practice and passionate engagement, my final exhibit is Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical.  You won't find any heavy theorising here.

Claiborne is in great demand around the English-speaking world as a speaker, and has written a number of books.  This is his first, the story of his life so far, published in 2006 and re-issued in updated form in 2016.  He records his reluctance to write it, the extent to which he sought guidance from friends and co-workers before committing to the project.  His reluctance arises from a conviction that he is no-one special and that he is simply one member of a community and a movement that is trying to be God's people in the world.  This humility and self-deprecation resurface regularly in the book, giving it an engaging feel, a bit of sugar to help swallow its hard but necessary medicine.

Claiborne studied theology at East University, Philadelphia as well as at Wheaton College and Princeton.  However the more important part of his education was his exposure to the realities of poverty.  This included spending evenings in the company of homeless people in downtown Philadelphia, a summer spent working in Mother Theresa's hospice and involvement in the long-running occupation of a disused Philadelphia cathedral by homeless families.

This contact convinced him and a number of his fellow-students that their calling was to live with and serve poor people in their neighbourhods.  They founded a community called 'The Simple Way' in a poor suburb of Philadelphia.  Over time, this has developed (along with other similar communities around the US and elsewhere) into a way of life which has become known as the 'New Monasticism'.  This involves elements of monastic tradition like living in community, sharing possessions, regular prayer and worship and devotion to service, but minus some features like celibacy, seclusion and the wearing of habits (although Claiborne does make his own clothes which sometimes look somewhat monastic).

The Simple Way is based around being present in their community, providing hospitality, helping people who need help, running activities for children and young people and so forth.  However they are more than charity workers - their practice combines the immediate relief of poverty among their neighbours with the challenging of systems which cause poverty, and combines a local focus with an awareness of global issues.  This approach has led them, for instance, to organise a protest on Wall Street which involved publicly giving away sums of cash, and at least one stint as a peace witness in Iraq, spending time with Iraqis in the war zone during the 2003 occupation to provide witness to the actions of US troops and afford vulnerable Iraqi civilians with some level of protection.

In the course of these actions, they are also not afraid to call the church to account.  One of Claiborne's early influences was the gospel singer Rich Mullins, who suggested that Christians have a kind of mental highlighter which marks out certain parts of the Gospel as more important than others.  Thus, Christians of a certain stripe like to emphasise the fact that Jesus said "you must be born again" but seem unaware that he also said "sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor".  Claiborne takes the latter statement as seriously as the former.

He also talks about his ongoing relationship with the conservative Willow Creek Church, famous for its pioneering 'seeker-sensitive' approach, where he did a year's internship during his theological training.   On his first arrival there he noted that there were no crosses displayed, and found this uncomfortable given his awareness of Jesus' instruction to his disciples to take up their crosses.  It was explained that displaying the cross was likely to be off-putting to people not acculturated to Christianity and that these were the people they were trying to attract.  He accepted this despite his reservations.

After the foundation of The Simple Way he continued to be invited back to Willow Creek from time to time, and on a visit after the World Trade Centre bombing he noticed that the church had started displaying the American flag.  This was too much for him and his planned sermon was ditched in favour of asking the question - why is the symbol of the Cross excluded from their church but the symbol of American nationalism allowed?  I imagine the discomfort was mutual.  The take-home message is that the cross is not simply a symbol of salvation or an arcane piece of ancient culture.  Rather, it is a symbol of the kind of self-sacrificial life Christians are called to above all else - above family, community and nation.

All of this could seem to forbidding - a commitment to communal living, travel into danger and hardship, confronting people with hard truths.  However, Claiborne is at pains to paint himself as an ordinary person - hence the book's sub-title, Living as an Ordinary Radical.  Reading the book, you feel like you could just drop in on him and have a chat in his kitchen, and he insists that you really could - anyone who turns up at the door at The Simple Way is welcome.  He is also very humble, sharing credit with his many collaborators and acknowledging the many gifts that go into any successful venture.

However, in a very practical sense what he presents in incredibly challenging.  He highlights, by both his words and his life, just how far from Christ's way our "normal" Western lives are, how complicit we are in systems of repression and domination.  In response, he presents us with a practical example of Walter Wink's non-violent confrontation of the powers - a peaceful, loving and humour-filled but very direct challenge to the way the world is, and a deliberate attempt to build an alternative.

So where are we on this short journey?  Miroslav Volf introduces us to the notion that Christianity is a prophetic religion, with a message for the world.  We must be prepared to deliver this message, not withhold it by being passive or withdrawing from the world, but we must avoid the temptation to coercion.  Walter Brueggemann provides us with a summary of this prophetic mission drawn from the Hebrew prophets and from Jesus, in which prophecy challenges the dominant "royal consciousness", mourning the suffering and damage which this consciousness tries to hide while also opening the way for us to imagine something better.

Both these works are theoretical.  Walter Wink provides a practical guide for us to live out this prophetic mission through following Jesus' teaching and example of non-violence.  I'm not sure if Volf or Brueggemann had this in mind exactly, but it fulfils both their requirements - it is neither passive nor coercive, and it both challenges the dominant consciousness and points to a new and better way, the way of Jesus.

What Shane Claiborne is telling us is that this is not simply a nice theory or an impossible ideal.  It is an actual way of life, which he and his friends are living.  This life certainly has its hardships and dangers, but Claiborne's joy and love of life is infectious.  He doesn't regret the potential wealth and prestige he has foregone because he doesn't value these things.  Instead, he delights in the joys of friendship and community, celebrating his relationships in his own suburb and all around the world.  He firmly resists any suggestion that he is someone special - in his estimation he is not the centre of the story, just the one telling it.

What does this mean for us?  That will be the subject of my final post in the series, coming soon....

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Powers That Be

So, to continue this little series on Christian social and political engagement.  Miroslav Volf tells us that Christianity is a prophetic faith, and that our prophetic calling requires us to engage with our wider society in a manner which is neither passive not coercive.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that a prophetic ministry should open up possibilities beyond the dominant consciousness, allowing us to mourn the injustices of our society and dream of something better.

Neither of them tells us how we should do this.  One way to start to think about this more practically is via Walter Wink's The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, first published in 1999.  This is a short, accessible rendering of material from a trilogy of books Wink published between 1984 and 1992.

Wink suggests that institutions, like individuals, have a spiritual as well as a physical reality.  This reality is not inherently good or evil.  Our social institutions often have a good and necessary purpose but like individuals they are fallen, their goodness subverted by evil.  As a result, our major institutions become damaging and oppressive.

The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers need to be redeemed.

The most damaging way these Powers manifest themselves in the world is through what Wink calls the 'Domination System' - the set of arrangements which govern our world, which keep the rich rich and the poor poor, which keep the elites and outsiders in their places.

This system is not simply a single institution or a single party.  It is a combination of different parts of our society which operate towards the same, or similar, ends.  You can change the people in charge of this system but if you don't also change the system itself, it will continue to function in the same way - it's spirit will be unchanged.
 
The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.  It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

He shows how this story pervades human history, from the Babylonian Enuma Elish to modern cartoons, and we can see it every day in our politics, in the War on Terror, the theory of deterrence on criminal justice, the rise of aggressive nationalism.  Just the other day on the radio I heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoking the many Israeli soldiers who had given their lives "in the cause of peace".  We believe that violence will save us, that safety comes from strength, that the only way to peace is through war.

This is an illusion - war only breeds more war, being 'tough on crime' leads to more crime.  But it is a convenient illusion.  Thse domination system keeps the rulers in charge and their subjects subject, keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, keeps men in authority and women and  children in submission, keeps white people rich and comfortable while dark-skinned people struggle.

Jesus presents us with an alternative to this domination system, both in the way his own disciples are to live, and in the way they are to interact with the Powers in the wider society.

In their own community, the logic of domination is to replaced by one of service - the greatest of all must be the servant of all, as he shows both through washing their feet and through his own death.  Economic domination is replaced by equality as the disciples share a common purse and wealthy followers contribute to the wellbeing of poorer ones.  They are not to fight violence with violence.  The taboos about gender relations and the various forms of "uncleanness" such as leprosy, blindness, menstruation and the various issues designated as "demon possession", are overturned as Jesus shares table fellowship indiscriminately.

Crucially, in his own practice and in his teaching Jesus charts a third way between passive acquiescence and armed resistance - the way of non-violence.  When Jesus asks his hearers to turn the other cheek to someone who strikes them, or to go a second mile when asked to carry a soldiers pack the regulation one, he is not simply advising them to accept oppression.  Rather he is inviting them to challenge it without retaliating in kind.  When struck in the face by their oppressors, they are not to slink off, they are to offer to be struck again with the intention of shaming their attacker.  Roman soldiers were entitled to order a civilian to carry their gear for one mile but could be severely disciplined for demanding more, so the civilian who keeps carrying the kit beyond the next way-marker exposes the owner of the kit to risk.  These actions disrupt domination rather than either accepting it or replicating it.

Jesus himself demonstrates this non-violent disruption in his life, particularly in his final week in Jerusalem.  His entry into Jerusalem is a classic piece of protest theatre, turning the Roman triumph on its head.  His symbolic expulsion of the money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles strikes at the heart of the priestly regime, recalling it to its proper purpose.  His subsequent crucifixion shows just how seriously the Roman and Jewish authorities took this challenge.  It also shows that those who practice non-violence take a huge risk - the Domination System has no such commitment to non-violence.  The person who turns their cheek runs the real risk of being hit much harder the second time.  This is why Jesus asks his followers to count the cost before entering into the battle.

In the second half of the book, Wink draws out what this means for us in practice.  He draws on 20th century practitioners of non-violent struggle including Gandhi and King, and the movements they influenced in their home countries and around the world.  He also draws on his own experiences and observations from his contact with non-violent liberation movements in South America and South Africa.  All of these movements spring directly from Jesus' teaching and practice on non-violence, and embody two central principles - the means must be consistent with the ends, and the rule of law must be respected.

The first principle suggests that we need to model the change we are seeking.  If we are seeking peace we need to seek it peacefully.  if we are seeking justice we need to act justly.  We cannot achieve peace through armed struggle, or overcome oppression by oppressing in our turn.  This requires great discipline - it is tempting to suspend the usual rules on the pretext of war or struggle, but inevitably the result is that the change is compromised, the victorious freedom fighters become the new oppressors.

The second is similar and presents similar challenges.  Respecting the rule of law doesn't mean simply doing whatever the Powers say.  Rather, it means choosing carefully which laws will be broken and accepting the consequences of such breaches.  This may involve arrest and imprisonment, it may involve fines, it may even (as it did for Jesus) involve death.  The key is to be punished for doing right, not for doing wrong - to challenge unjust laws rather than break good, beneficial ones.  Accepting this punishment in itself can further highlight the injustice of the laws but it also reinforces the cost of non-violent action.  It is a hard path, but the only way to genuine change.

Two things sustain this struggle.  The first is the discipline of loving one's enemies, of seeing our enemies not as faceless people but as humans like us who are also in need of redemption.  This leads us to reach out to them in kindness and attempt to build bridges, however difficult this seems, and keeps alive the hope that there can be reconciliation and genuine peace.  The second is prayer, which reminds us that the struggle is not ours but God's and keeps us centred on His way, sustaining us for the long haul.

If you have read the previous two reviews you will see some strong similarities with both Volf and Breuggemann.  Non-violence corresponds with the middle way sought by Volf, the way that is neither coercion nor idleness.  Yet Wink is much closer to Brueggemann in his assessment of our current environment - the Domination System corresponds with Brueggemann's Royal Consciousness, an all-encompassing worldview whose sole aim is its own preservation.  Like Brueggemann. Wink sees Jesus as taking us beyond this system and opening up new possibilities for his followers, but recognises how profoundly counter-cultural and disruptive this way is.

What Wink brings to the analysis is a far stronger and deeper practical focus.  Wink was himself not merely a theorist of non-violence but a deeply engaged practitioner, participating in movements for change around the globe.  He is not writing to satisfy us intellectually but to inspire us to action.  The path he outlines for us is difficult and dangerous but I think he would suggest that the ease of the alternatives is illusory.  The way of Jesus is countercultural in any age but this is what we need.