Saturday, 18 March 2017

Everybody Loves Me, Baby

Lately I've found myself singing this little gem to myself as I go about my business.

Unless you've been under a rock for the whole of the last 46 years you would surely have heard Don McLean's 'American Pie', his cryptic song about late 60s rock music and the death of Buddy Holly.  You've probably also heard 'Vincent', a beautiful tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.  However, you could be forgiven for not having heard this song, which appears on the same album.

It's funny reading about it on the internet because so many reviewers fail to see what it's about, suggesting it's about an ego-driven singer or self-centred lover.  You have to wonder if they actually listened to it.  Perhaps they are so mesmerised by the album's title track that everything else just goes straight over their heads.  Or perhaps it's true that Americans just don't get irony.

Fortune has me well in hand, 
Armies wait at my command
My gold lies in a foreign land 
Buried deep beneath the sand
The angels guide my ev'ry tread, 
My enemies are sick or dead
But all the victories I've led 
Haven't brought you to my bed

You see, everybody loves me, baby, 
What's the matter with you?
Won't ya tell me what did I do to offend you?

Now the purest race I've bred for thee 
To live in my democracy
And the highest human pedigree 
Awaits the first-born boy baby
And my face on ev'ry coin engraved, 
The anarchists are all enslaved
My own flag is forever waved 
By the grateful people I have saved

Now, no land is beyond my claim 
When the land is seized in the people's name
By evil men who rob and maim, 
If war is hell, I'm not to blame!
Why, you can't blame me, I'm Heaven's child, 
I'm the second son of Mary mild
And I'm twice removed from Oscar Wilde, 
But he didn't mind, why, he just smiled

Yes, and the ocean parts when I walk through, 
And the clouds dissolve and the sky turns blue
I'm held in very great value 
By everyone I meet but you
'cause I've used my talents as I could, 
I've done some bad, I've done some good
I did a whole lot better than they thought I would 
So, c'mon and treat me like you should!

Because everybody loves me, baby, 
What's the matter with you?
Tell me what did I do to offend you?

In 1971, when this song was  released, Richard Nixon was US President and the US was mired in the Vietnam War.  Of course many Vietnamese were not too enamoured of the Americans, who kept bombing them and defoliating their jungles with Agent Orange.  Nor were the young Americans who were protesting against the war on the streets and at their various university campuses, trying in their clumsy idealistic way to build a world based on love not guns.

Not surprising that the song comes to mind in 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House and the US (along with its allies) mired in wars in both Iraq and Syria.  Trump shares Nixon's love of the use of force, his relentless conservatism, his paranoia and his rather casual acquaintance with the truth.  This week he announced his first budget, with cuts to health, welfare, education, environmental protection and overseas aid funding increased military spending and the absurd wall along the Mexican border.

Trump, like Nixon, talks about putting Americans first and suggests (although not in so many words) that if you don't love America you should leave it.  But his actual policies put his cronies first and sell Americans further down the river, leaving poor Americans poorer as well as reducing employment for professional Americans and making everyone live in the midst of worse pollution and ecological degradation.

Meanwhile, as a kind of compensation, they have more chances to enter military service where they could be killed in the various overseas engagements that Trump's sabre-rattling seems intent on provoking.  Which Americans will benefit?  No doubt defence contractors, construction companies (someone has to build that wall) fossil fuel companies and the big businesses whose taxes will be cut.  Including, of course, the Trump family.

Forty-six years after McLean wrote this song, Trump and the rest of the American establishment are still baffled at why everyone doesn't love them.  They are, after all, the fount of wealth and democracy, the guarantor of world peace, the benevolent master race which oversees our globe.

Yet just yesterday, we received news that a mosque in the Syrian village of Al-Jineh was hit by a mysterious air strike, killing 46 civilian worshippers.  In a typical piece of obfuscation, the US first denied that it was responsible for the attack, claiming that it merely coincidentally carried out an attack on Al Qaeda militants in a neighbouring village.  Later it confirmed that the strike which destroyed the mosque was indeed the same strike they were talking about earlier, but disputed the details of the story and promised to 'investigate all civilian casualties'.

This is not an isolated incident.  In January of this year, the US government acknowledged that 188 civilians had been killed since 2014 in its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.  These are only the deaths for which the US has accepted responsibility.  Human rights groups put the total much higher.  UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 399 civilian deaths in just one offensive.  Airwars, an independent monitoring operation, estimates the minimum number of civilian casualties caused by the coalition since the campaign started as 2,590 and still counting.

Now there may be excuses or even justifications for these deaths.  The figure may be higher or lower.  Some reports may be true, some may be exaggerated.  Other people may also be killing civilians.  That is not the point.  The point is that if you think a nation's military is killing non-combatants in your country, province or town, you will not see that country as a paragon of virtue.  You will not love it, however much it wants to be loved.

And over the 46 years since 1971, there are plenty of countries that have had that experience - in South-East Asia, in South America, in the Caribbean, in the Middle East, in Africa.  Not to mention American obfuscation and disruption on global climate agreements, American companies' domination of global trade.  So many things for poor nations not to love.

So maybe it's true that many Americans don't get irony but this is obviously not true of all of them, otherwise how could Don McLean have written this song?  They may have failed to notice, but he has skewered them good and proper and the song is still as true now as it was then.  America is not the great nation it thinks it is.

If even McLean is too subtle, perhaps you should try this little subversive gem from Jimi Hendrix's performance at Woodstock in 1969.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Who Is My Neighbour?

By way of crafting a response to the wasps of mistrust, it's worth taking a close look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37.

The story arises out of a question asked of Jesus by one of the Jewish teachers of the law.

‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Jesus) said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

The lawyer has given the orthodox response to his own question.  However, he follows it up with a classic lawyer's question - what exactly is the definition of the key term, 'neigbour'?  The lawyer wants to know who he should love and who it is OK to not love, even to hate.  

If I understand right, the orthodox response to this follow-up question was that your neighbour is your fellow Jew.  What if you don't know whether the person is a Jew or not?  You are freed from your duty to love. 

See how the responsibility to love is whittled down into tribal loyalty?  Jesus characterises this way of thinking in Matthew 5:43. 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”

He has no patience with this kind of legal slicing and dicing.  Instead, in typical fashion he responds with a story.

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

When we hear this story, we more or less automatically identify with the Samaritan.  After all, what he does is so obviously right while the actions of the priest and Levite are so obviously wrong.  We like to think that in the same situation we would act as the Samaritan did.  But would we?

In March 2006, a 62-year-old woman named Delmae Barton (pictured on the left) lay for five hours next to a pool of her own vomit beside a busy bus stop in the middle of Griffith University's Nathan Campus.  She had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak coherently to ask for help.  As she lay there she was passed by hundreds of people before a group of Japanese students finally stopped to check if she was OK and called an ambulance.

Why did the others not stop?  They were in a safe, public location, there was no chance that stopping would place them in danger.  They were not criminals or fools - they were university students and staff, people who in general are among the more privileged members of our society.

She believed it was because she is Aboriginal and they saw her as a stereotype, a drunk homeless Aboriginal woman passed out by the roadside.  She wasn't drunk or homeless - in fact she is a respected community leader who worked as an Aboriginal elder for the university providing advice and guidance on cultural matters.  But even if she was homeless and drunk, does this mean she didn't need help and could be ignored?

What would I have done?  I like to think that I would have stopped to help, but I'm not self-deluded enough to be sure.  I would have been on my way to an appointment.  I would have had a busy day planned.  Who knows what commitment would be asked of me if I stopped?  My day would be ruined.  Perhaps I would be entangled with a person I didn't really like.  And who knows, maybe she was just resting in the sun or sleeping off the effects of alcohol and would resent me interfering?  So many excuses come to mind that I suspect I would at least have been tempted to use some of them and keep walking.


To understand Jesus' story, you have to understand how his audience would have viewed the Samaritans.

They were the Jews' nearest neighbours and their fiercest rivals.  They lived to the north of Judea in a piece of territory centred around the city of Samaria.  They saw themselves as the descendants of the northern tribes of Israel, the remnant left after the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in the late 8th century BCE.  The Jews saw them as a bastard race created from a mixture of Jews left behind after the invasion and other peoples moved in to repopulate the area (you can read the Jewish version of the story in 2 Kings 17).  Like the Jews they were worshippers of Yahweh, but they had their own scriptures, their own priesthood and their own temple on top of Mt Gerazim which they claimed was the original location of Yahweh's sanctuary, before Solomon set up the rival temple in Jerusalem.

Usually the rivalry simmered just below the surface but occasionally it broke out into open conflict.  Between 113 and 110 BCE the Hasmonean Jewish King John Hyrcanus conducted a brutal conquest of Samaritan territory.  His army destroyed Samaria and enslaved its inhabitants, and also destroyed the temple on Mt Gerazim.  Herod the Great and ultimately the Romans inherited this unstable situation, with all its possibilities for resentment and revenge.

Josephus records an incident closer to Jesus' time - in 9 CE a group of Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem temple by scattering human bones around its precincts, possibly prompted by the long-nursed grudge over Hyracanus' destruction of their own temple over a century earlier.

All this meant that Jews and Samaritans mistrusted each other and went out of their way to avoid one another.  This was literally the case with Jewish Galileans like Jesus and his apostles, who would go the long way around on their regular journeys to Jerusalem to avoid passing through Samaritan country.  The Jews, of course, believed that they were superior.  They were the pure bloodline of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they had the pure law of Moses.  The Samaritans were both bastards and heretics, and hence even more impure than the mere Gentiles who couldn't be expected to know any better.

There are four characters in Jesus' story, travelling along the notoriously unsafe road between Jerusalem and Jericho.  The original traveller who is accosted by thieves and left for dead is presumably a Jew although Jesus doesn't say.  Three men pass the same spot as he lies there helpless from his injuries, possibly dying or even (for all they know) dead.

The first two are Jewish temple officials - a priest and a Levite.  These are men who would be schooled in the Law and dedicated to upholding it.  They are also possibly on their way from their homes in Jericho to do their rostered duty in the Temple.  For this, they would have to retain their ritual purity.

They have much motivation to avoid the man.  If they stop, the bandits could attack them too, and even if they don't and the man turns out to be already dead or a living non-Jew they would be required to undergo a period of purification after touching him, rendering them useless in the Temple.  Against this, what of their duty to the injured man?  Well, they don't know if he's a Jew (and of course they have carefully passed to the other side of the road so they can't tell) so they are not breaking the law by leaving him there.

This behaviour may be a caricature, but it echoes Jesus' general critique of the Jewish leaders and teachers of the Law - that they are hypocrites, that they follow the letter of the Law while violating its spirit, that they are more concerned with appearing righteous than being righteous.

He uses the Samaritan to shame them.  This heretic and enemy of the people, without the benefit of the true Law of Moses and the teaching of the scribes, spontaneously does much more and shows himself to be much better than the supposedly superior custodians of Moses' legacy.  He doesn't pause to ask whether the man is of his own race, whether contact might make him unclean, or whether he might himself be attacked by bandits.  He simply does the right thing.

What you absolutely must understand is the visceral reaction of Jesus' Jewish listeners when he said the word 'Samaritan'.  For them, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.  They would have the same visceral reaction Australians often have when passing a group of Aboriginal people in the street, or a woman in a hijab out with her family.  The reaction is immediate and instinctive, even for those of us who should know better.

In my youth some friends of mine performed a theatrical version of this story called 'The Parable of the Good Punk Rocker'.  If you were telling the story to 21st Century Israelis you would almost certainly make it 'The Parable of the Good Palestinian'.  I guess for 21st Century Australians you would have to tell 'The Parable of the Good Muslim' or perhaps, to heighten the fear, 'The Parable of the Good Wahhabi'.  Or the old standby would work in any era since colonisation - 'The Parable of the Good Aborigine' (with apologies for the abrasive language).

At the most superficial level, the message of this parable is simply that we should provide our help to those who need it, whoever they may be,  At a deeper level the message is much more challenging - it is a version of the message of enemy-love which Jesus sets out in Matthew 5:43-48. 

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.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, he is providing another pathway into this same idea.  "Why," he is asking, "are you, with all your advantages, not able to perform a simple act of charity such as this despised Samaritan does?"  He punctures their sense of superiority and calls them to repentance and to a true obedience to the spirit of the Law, not just its letter.  For Jesus, righteousness is not loyalty to your own tribe.  Being children of your Father in heaven means acting like he does.

...for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.


When we feel under stress, our responses are relentlessly tribal.  Look at the rise of right-wing movements all across the world, from One Nation here in Australia to the UKIP in Britain, the National Front in France and the Trump regime in the US, to name only a few.  Not only do these parties gain seats and followings themselves, their ideas bleed into the rhetoric and policies of mainstream parties.  Their message is always the same - we must put our nation first, protect ourselves from threatening outsiders and leave others to solve their own troubles.

What is the nation they are putting first?  It is not the sum of all the people who live within our borders, it is a vision of a 'pure' nation - Anglo-Australia, white America, Britain for the true Brits, Gallic France, Jewish Israel.  Those who don't fit the mould - who have dark skin, who wear a hijab, who pray towards Mecca, who speak with an unfamiliar accent or in a different language - are strangers and outsiders who must conform or leave.  Even if they have been here for generations.  Even if their ancestors were here before ours.

If they are challenged about the illiberality of their policies, these politicians will tell us that they're defending freedom.  They will tell us that us Westerners have fine democratic traditions which are being threatened by undemocratic Islam, or uncontrolled Aboriginal criminality, or foreigners wanting to bludge off our over-generous welfare systems.  They make, in other words, a claim to moral superiority.

We need to subject this claim to what I've started to think of as "the Samaritan test".  Do we perform the simple acts of neighbour love that the Samaritan in the story appeared to perform without question?

If we pass a sick Aboriginal woman in the street, do we stop to help, or pass by?  Furthermore, when we learn that many Aboriginal people in Australia live in third world conditions and that their young men are imprisoned at an alarming rate do we pull out all the stops to solve this problem?  Currently the answer is no.

When we see that there are people sleeping on the streets of our cities and towns, do we make it a national priority to get them housed?  No we don't - instead we go on rewarding the speculative investment boom that exacerbates the problem while cutting housing assistance.

When people come to our country seeking protection from war, dictatorship and persecution, do we help them?  Currently, the answer is no - we detain them indefinitely in terrible conditions.

When we witness global poverty and suffering, do we put extra resources into trying to combat it and build a more just, equal world?  Currently the answer is no.  In recent years we have cut our spending on overseas aid even as we have increased our military spending and got involved in more foreign military operations.  We are more ready to bomb people than help them.

Of course its not all such doom and gloom.  There are plenty of Australians who pass at least one of these tests, many who pass all four and more like them, or at least are trying.  I have friends here in Brisbane who have been willing to go on the journey with Aboriginal people, who have worked hard to combat homelessness, who have gone out of their way to build relationships with Muslims, who have supported poor communities around the world in a range of concrete ways.  We are not perfect, but we are trying.

Still, I feel sad that the overall direction of our society is away from this light, not towards it.  We are becoming increasingly tribal, increasingly willing to shut out difference and to say '(Anglo-) Australia First'.  If we want to be true followers of Jesus we will have no part of this, we will repent, and we will attempt to learn and live the simple but oh-so-difficult message of the Good Samaritan.