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Monday, 31 December 2007

Anglicans in Australia

Tom Frame has done a good job with his most recent book Anglicans in Australia (UNSW Press, 2007) in telling a complex story well. At least that's my view as someone from outside the Anglican tradition though I confess to having spent a fair amount of time churching with Anglican communities.

It is a book that is distinguished by a good tempered tone. a deep commitment to the renewal of the Anglican church and a willingness to be clear about the difficulties facing the church. There is something deeply "Anglican" in the best sense of that term, about the tone and temper of the writing.

I shall look forward to the reviews by his fellow Anglicans and hope that they engage with Tom's argument in the spirit in which it has been written.

On the way through a number of questions occurred to me that arose from my perspective as one who has been deeply influenced in recent years by the Anabaptist tradition. A nest of overlapping questions seemed to be lurking just out of focus as I read the text:
  • whether the Anglican Church in Australia has quite gotten over a hankering for Establishment?
  • How willing it would be to revisit and acknowledge the ambiguities of the Christendom settlement? (there are a couple of unqualified references to Christendom in the book that seem to be in the present tense)
  • How really enthusiastic are Australian Anglicans about mission post-Christendom?
  • What might the implications be for Anglican ecclesiology and theology more generally of active engagement in the post-christendom context in Australia? In posing this question I am asking in my own way about the historical contingencies that have shaped Anglicanism and what forms of church life might survive as something recognisably Anglican in this new context.
These questions are not so much directed at Tom (on the issue of Establishment there is no question as to where he stands - very much against it) but a first attempt to frame some of my own questions.

Claiming an historical heritage as central to their identity as Anglicans do is fair enough. The issue that is rarely explicitly dealt with by those claiming the heritage is the question of the use of state power to enforce matters of worship and theology, whether directly by capital punishment and torture, or less directly by educational, social and economic discrimination against Catholics and dissenters. This it seems to me to be a scandal that needs to be more directly addressed.

I was delighted to note that Tom suggests a revisiting of the Thirty-nine articles. A reconsideration of those articles might provide a useful opportunity for dialogue with descendants of the 'detested anabaptists" over a number of matters canvassed therein.

Christmas as the time of no room

A collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, Watch for the Light, brought me this morning an extract from Thomas Merton's meditation "The Time of No Room" from his collection of essays, Raids on the Unspeakable.

Merton opens up another dimension of the politics of Christmas with a reminder of the critical approach of the Old Testament tradition to the practice of the census.

Why then was the inn crowded? Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the "whole world" in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power. The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.

The Bible had not been friendly to a census in the days when God was ruler of Israel (2 Samuel 24). the numbering of the people of god by an alien emperor and their full consent to it was itself an eschatological sign, preparing those who could understand it to meet judgment with repentance.

Merton provides a powerful reflection on the detail that there was no room for the baby in the inn.

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it and yet must be in it - his place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Luke on Christmas and the Empire

In comments yesterday on the politics of Christmas in Luke, I forgot to mention that the story is located explicitly in the midst of empire. A census is being undertaken to establish the base for revenue and the rake-offs by the various organs of political authority at local and regional levels.

The language of the Christmas story is spare, stark and edgy - there is nothing sentimental here - Mary is told that a "sword would pierce her heart". How did we get into the sentimental mode in which the festival becomes a warm celebration of family insulated by an unrelenting consumption from the reality of life for much of the world and hiding from ourselves the reality of dysfunctional relationships.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

The Politics of Christmas according to Luke

For all the attention paid to the birth of Jesus in the focus on Christmas in both the church and the prevailing culture, the stories that we have are limited to only two of the four gospel accounts of Jesus. This is is in stark contrast to the focus in all four gospels on the last week of Jesus life and his execution.

In Luke's account as in Matthew's account, discussed earlier this week, we land up in the midst of the politics of first century Palestine, not some nice spiritually warm "religious" event.

Luke focuses our attention on the political aspirations of the people of Palestine located against the history of their striving for identity and independence - hoping for liberation - read the poetry of the Magnificat and the prophetic Benedictus, all this is soaked in the language of politics, of justice, pulling down princes, lifting up the poor, freedom from fear and guiding our feet into the path of peace.

All the signs and language of this account are a counter imperial challenge to the claim of the ruling Roman powers and the claims to divinity of Caesar.

With Caesar there was not distinction between the 'political' and the 'religious' - Luke was writing to those in the wider Roman empire. To make the claims Luke does was to call into question the political claims of the empire.

Jesus is bringing into the world, Luke advises us, a new form of politics that calls the claims of Caesar into severe question.

Luke's Christmas account read carefully calls into question any easy alignment of those who claim to be followers of Jesus with the pretensions of Empire - then and now.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Shipwrecked at the Stable Door

Celebrating Christmas as a regular event on the church's calendar, let alone getting swamped by the commercialised family fest has its downside. You can take it for granted and the sheer wonder of the contingency gets lost.

Bruce Cockburn, the Canadian singer, songwriter, poet continues to remind me of the sheer wonder and strangeness with some lines from a song on his 1989 album Big Circumstance, lines which connect the Christmas story with the radical claims of the Sermon on the Mount.

Big circumstance has brought me here wish it would send home
never was clear where home was but its nothing you can own
It can't be bought with cigarettes or nylons or perfume,
And all the highest bidder gets is a voucher for a tomb

Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek
for theirs shall be the Kingdom that the power mongers seek
And blessed are the dead for love and those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth may their gene pool increase ...

Left like a shadow on the step where the body was before
Shipwrecked at the stable door
Bruce Cockburn "Shipwrecked at the Stable door")

This year as in many other Christmases past I find myself shipwrecked at the stable door - with nowhere else to go but step inside stunned at the sheer wonder of this strange disturbing event, this baby who was to radically disturb the peace of this world's rulers, and then to step back out and follow the shepherds back to the everyday life of herding sheep, shepherding ministerial correspondence and this strange counter-cultural call to love the gift of earth and cry for peace.

Left like a shadow on the step where the body was before
Shipwrecked at the stable door

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Christmas in context - violence, grieving and refugees

Jim Barr in his sermon at Canberra Baptist this morning for the fourth Sunday on Advent drew attention to the gaping difference between the nostalgic sentimentality of Christmas in the current consumer and church culture and the stark realities of Matthew's gospel account in chapter 2.

Matthew gives us a story of political realpolitik, genocidal violence and refugees fleeing their homeland. There is in the text a triple layer of reference to grieving - the children massacred by Herod, the quotation of Jeremiah with its grief at the exile in Babylon, referring in further back to Rachel, a mother in the line of the patriarchs in her grieving.

Here is a story that resonates through so much of the experience of the Jewish diaspora for the next twentieth centuries and a story that could be claimed by Palestinian civilians in refugee camps, Gaza and the West Bank today.

The Christian church in its Christendom embrace of empire has frequently aligned itself on the side of practitioners of realpolitik and has ended on the side of Herod rather than the refugees and those who are grieving.

No wonder we in the church, let alone the wider community, collectively avert our eyes and close our hearts to the hard challenging edge of a story that speaks of the coming and presence of God as vulnerability in the midst of violence and grief.

Friday, 21 December 2007

A congregational gathering? The liturgy of a university graduation

Gathering in a sports stadium as a member of a congregation?

The gathering at the AIS arena in Canberra for my son's graduation was to be forcefully reminded of the medieval and ecclesiastical roots of the University.

We were both summoned at the beginning as a congregation and so dismissed at the conclusion of our gathering. the event was broken up by brief musical performances. We had minimal congregational singing but we did receive a homily with the injunction from a distinguished academic calling the graduates to the ongoing exercise of judgement with respect to our professional involvement and our contribution to the community. It was a call to live out in our daily lives with moral awareness and responsibility. it was coherent as these things go but only hinted at the shape of the moral judgement to be exercised. We could have formed some idea of the character of the moral judgements that the lecturer would have commended by taking account of his intellectual career and his own moral commitments.

Had me thinking about the title of Alistair McIntyre's book - Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

It made me think too of the liturgical form and performance of the Anglican and Catholic churches - everyone attending is reassured by the antiquity of the formality of the robes and structured form of the liturgy - few stop to ask whether the moral, philosophical and theological commitments that they initially embodied are truly represented in their actual performance.

How could we have a conversation about the issue and even know what questions to ask?

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Marriage, christendom and Christian confusion

Is the major issue at stake in the debate between Christian conservatives and those proposing civil unions for homosexuals about the status and character of the family?

Is the real question one about sexuality or about the hangover of Christendom and a Christendom mentality within the Christian church?

The question needs to be considered but has substantial ramifications that take us into questions of ecclesiology, social change and why the church should be subversive.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

No Room at the Inn - an indigenous view

In my Advent readings this week I was reminded that Christmas in the Gospel accounts offered by both Matthew and Luke is about our receiving not our giving.

In the spirit of Christmas as reception as vulnerability, not giving from a position of strength then it might be appropriate to receive as a gift from our indigenous brothers and sisters the following letter.

The letter poses the questions of who is being left in the stable? Jesus was left in the stable in the original stable.

The question might have been even more provocatively phrased - if indigenous people are being left in the stable - they at least are being located somewhere close to Jesus. Where does that place the rest of us - comfortably in the inn but distanced from Jesus.

A letter to inform, to provoke thought and conversation about where we might find Jesus.

11 December 2007

An Open Letter to the Australian Nation
from the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission
of the National Council of Churches in Australia

“No Room at the Inn”

At this time of the year, as we turn our minds to Christmas and reflect on the year that was (and what a year it was) and look forward to the year to come, I cannot help but think of many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters. This season of peace, hope and joy leads me to ask, ‘what peace, hope and joy will be given unto us with the coming of the Christ Child into the world?’ Over the last 237 years since Lt. James Cook arrived, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been denied a proper place within our own country. Just like Jesus’ family on returning to their home country we also have not been able to find a proper place for ourselves in our own land.

Too many other interests seem to distract the country where we once roamed freely. We have been turned away at the door and given scant attention and meagre generosity by the new Innkeepers. It is interesting that we, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, were not part of Federation, were forgotten about as the new wave of Immigrants came from the Mediterranean during the post war years and were not on the radar until the 1967 referendum. Except, of course, when we were allowed to lose our lives fighting for this country, or when we were seen as strange curiosities of a bygone era. Mostly, we were labelled as a troublesome few dissidents who should not expect the same rights as everyone else.

Children were removed from their families because it was perceived that they were not being cared for to acceptable western standards. Or they were taken away simply so they could be given the ‘western makeover’ to fit better into western society. The only problem was that they still had a different colour than those holding up the bar of mainstream society.

This brings me to the question of an apology. The former Howard Government was against any apology as it was seen that the mainstream should not be held accountable for the past, and such an apology could hold the State open to litigation. It’s an interesting irony that in this corporate world we live in, mainstream Australia will hold accountable corporations for their past organisational failings, and yet the nation cannot live up to its own corporate responsibilities. As for the apology itself, the Nation is either Sorry or it’s not. Putting provisos on it (we regret etc.) is not an apology. If we are going to move forward then it is very important that the Nation says Sorry and accepts any consequences that might result. The present Rudd Government must take the lead on this and soon.

The continual denial of the rights of Indigenous peoples, as Australian Citizens, has gone on for too long. We have a right to education, health and the many opportunities that most Australians take for granted. Governments need to act now to correct these situations, which occur around the country not just the Northern Territory, and close the gap between us and the mainstream. As I’ve often said in other Forums, how can Australia set out to save the world when there is so much to be done at home? What credibility does Australia have if it is not working to correct the situations in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

There needs to be a plan, not knee jerk reactions, to address these situations. The Millennium Development Goals help us in this area. These eight time bound and measurable goals discourage empty rhetoric. They encourage us to formulate concrete plans to build a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The first step to any action is recognition of what is currently happening. We have no real voice or say or control in what is happening to us. Outsiders are dictating our future. There is no national representative voice to carry our hopes, dreams and desires forward into the future. Hand picked advisors are not a representative voice. A process needs to be put into place where a representative voice can be heard and acted upon. National conventions need to be held so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can contribute to the process of forming this new voice and eventually own the outcomes.

People say that there is not one voice in Indigenous Australia, but surely that can also be said of mainstream Australia. Our Federal Parliament, with different parties and different factions, continues to exist. The one voice comes when these groups are allowed a forum like Parliament to reach compromise and consensus for the good of all. This forum will help lead us into a better tomorrow for our children and children’s children. The issue of whether we should be included in the preamble to the constitution of Australia can also be debated in these forums and a proposition then put forward to the Australian people in a future referendum. These issues cannot be put off until tomorrow for tomorrow may never come. Many of our great Indigenous leaders are already passing on and we need their valuable input into these forums.

As I reflect this Christmas time, I wonder if Australia will place their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians again in the stable, as Jesus was over 2,000 years ago, or will we be invited in to share fully in the Australia which is so gifted, diverse and forward looking. Will we begin to “Make Indigenous Poverty History” this Christmas?

May the peace, hope and Joy of Christmas fill all Australians with the hope of a new tomorrow!

Graeme Mundine
Executive Secretary
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission
National Council of Churches in Australia

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Values language and violence

In an article on the Evangelical Alliance web site Ian Packer has started the task of challenging the use of the language of values and why it is problematic and linked to the problem of achieving civic discourse.

The language of values is closely linked to the language of choice and to present the christian faith in the language of choice and encouraging people to share certain values is to imply hat we are wanting to force our choices on other people - in other words a form of violence.

The language of values is strategy that enables us to avoid the up front discussion of differing views about the nature of the good.

It avoids facing up directly to the reality of pluralism in a secular society.

Forgiveness and violence

The massacre of Amish children in the school house at Nickel Mines in October 2006 brought an unusual degree of media focus on this community that has its roots in the Anabaptist strand of the Reformation in the early 16th century.

The early gestures of forgiveness by the members of the community towards the family of the man who committed the murders aroused a response of incredulity from US media in particular.

A year later we have the results of an investigation by sociologists that demonstrates how deeply rooted were the habits and practices of the Amish community that underpinned those gestures of forgiveness.

Following the 2 October 2006 shooting that killed five Amish girls and wounded five others in the USA, three investigators (Dr Donald B. Kraybill, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, Dr Steven M. Nolt, Goshen College, Indiana, and Dr David Weaver-Zercher, Messiah College, Pennsylvania) explored why and how the Amish expressed forgiveness in the wake of the shooting. The research methods involved face-to-face interviews with Amish people to probe their practice of forgiveness. In addition the researchers pursued Amish writings on forgiveness as well as historical examples when Amish people forgave those who wronged them. The investigators also reviewed hundreds of media stories and editorials on Amish forgiveness at Nickel Mines. Finally, the investigation compared Amish practices of forgiveness with broader studies of forgiveness in American society. The research was conducted from 1 November 2006 through to 1 April 2007. The results are summarised below and have been released in the new book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

A full report of the findins is available on the Ekkelsia Web site:

This witness to peacemaking stands as a challenge to the prevailing political cuture that focuses on "being tough" and a church culture that focuses on "feel good meeting of needs"

Forgiveness and violence

The massacre of Amish chldren in the school house at Nickel Mines in October 2006 brought an unusual degree of media focus on this community that has its roots in the Anabaptist strand of the Reformation in the early 16th century.

The early gestures of forgiveness by the members of the community towards the family of the man who committed the murders aroused a response of incredulity from US media in particular.

A year later we have the results of an investigation by sociologists that demonstrates how deeply rooted were the habits and practices of the Amish community that underpinned those gestures of forgiveness.

Following the 2 October 2006 shooting that killed five Amish girls and wounded five others in the USA, three investigators (Dr Donald B. Kraybill, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, Dr Steven M. Nolt, Goshen College, Indiana, and Dr David Weaver-Zercher, Messiah College, Pennsylvania) explored why and how the Amish expressed forgiveness in the wake of the shooting. The research methods involved face-to-face interviews with Amish people to probe their practice of forgiveness. In addition the researchers pursued Amish writings on forgiveness as well as historical examples when Amish people forgave those who wronged them. The investigators also reviewed hundreds of media stories and editorials on Amish forgiveness at Nickel Mines. Finally, the investigation compared Amish practices of forgiveness with broader studies of forgiveness in American society. The research was conducted from 1 November 2006 through to 1 April 2007. The results are summarised below and have been released in the new book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

A full report of the findings is available on the Ekkelsia Web site:

This witness to peacemaking stands as a challenge to the prevailing political cuture that focuses on "being tough" and a church culture that focuses on "feel good meeting of needs"

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Election 2007 - why voting and the election result does and does not matter

Having spent most of Saturday at a polling booth in the Canberra suburbs handing out how to vote cards for the Green candidate I was moved to reflect on the significance of what I was doing and how it related to my fundamental convictions as a follower of Jesus.

For a reflection on the moral significance of the election see Adrian Glamorgan:

The key issue that emerged for me was that to frame the activity in terms of active non-violence in the shifting of power was to highlight an element of what was going on that we take for granted. Pacifists are often derided yet to peacefully transfer executive power is a massive achievement when we consider the alternatives and the record of violence in the struggle to control the levers of government.

A friend of mine with a long experience of working in the Philippines in a situation of complex conflict commented:
I suppose you breathed more a weary sigh of relief than shouted with euphoria. Yet, our political atheism as Anabaptists means our work has changed faces not gone away. How does one such as Rudd remain accountable and not drift off into political heights as so many have done.

Framing politics within the Christian task as a "non-religious" issue, from a position as political atheists in which we are called to participate while neither over estimating the significance of political action nor denying it as being a form of service to the neighbour and living with the reality that structures designed to serve human good can become destructive is difficult.

The potential global significance of the election of Kevin Rudd as a factor in accelerating movement for international action on combating both climate change and global poverty should not be underestimated, either.

Australia will now ratify the Kyoto Protocol and actively engage in the debate about shaping a crucial post-Kyoto settlement. The country is now effectively decoupled from alignment with the United States reticence on this issue, and that change of stance will leave the United States further isolated internationally. See my comments in the Ekklesia story "Australian Christians wrestle with a political Ruddslide"

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Grappling with technology

A while since I have posted but I am now experimenting using Firefox as a brwoser with Scribewire add on to give me greater flexibility than was possible using Safari.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Bloggers day for Burma


go to

Bloggers in the UK and globally push Free Burma message
By staff writers
4 Oct 2007

The internet, including social networking site Facebook, has played a major role in galvanising global solidarity and protest on behalf of the repressed democracy movement in Burma. Now bloggers in the UK and elsewhere are joining in on the action.

The "International Bloggers Day for Burma" began earlier today (4 October 2007) and has already drawn support from thousands of people across Britain, and many thousands worldwide.

The think-tank Ekklesia, which reports, researches and comments on religion in society, is joining the action to back peaceful change in Burma - where Buddhist monks and others recently took to the streets to challenge the brutal militart dictatorship which has been in power since the 1960s.

"We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons", said an organiser of the bloggers' day.

"Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on 4 October 2007 and are just putting up one Banner then, underlined with the words 'Free Burma!'."

The Free Burma site also has a petition widget and links to other campaigning organisations.

Saturday 6 October has been declared an international day of action in support of the Burmese people, with public demonstrations and boycotts planned the world over.

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow commented: "No-one should underestimate the scale of the task involved in challenging a heavily armed and ruthless dictatorship in Burma. But as the Burmese people show extraordinary courage, the scale of worldwide nonviolent political and economic action is also unprecedented. This international bloggers' day is a good way of mobilising opinion and support, as well as highlighting fresh approaches to social action for justice and peace."

Whistleblowing and accountability

RS Gilbert in his letter on "Whistleblowing" in the Canberra Times, October 3, 2007 missed a significant element of APS accountability, the accountability to Parliament. Perhaps he missed it because he framed the argument in terms of responsibility rather than accountability.

While APS accountability operates through the Minister, it cannot be reduced without remainder to serving the Minister and the Government of the day.
Parliamentary Committees for example, have asserted APS accountability to Parliament in terms of keeping Parliament informed and assisting parliamentary scrutiny of public administration and expenditure through a range of activities, not least of which are the "dreaded" Senate Estimates hearings. Accountability of the APS to Parliament also takes place through the reports of the Australian National Audit Office and the Ombudsman on the performance of the APS.

To attempt to reduce the role of the public servant to simply serving the Minister reflects the current emphasis on responsiveness to the Minister as the prime, indeed overriding account of how public servants are to understand their role. This is an emphasis that, it is now acknowledged, has lead to episodes that have brought the APS into disrepute, from the Children Overboard Affair onwards.

Given the more nuanced account of public service accountability that has developed in Australian practice, it is hard to see how "whistleblowing" could be subject to the blanket dismissal of R S Gilbert as "contrary to the principles of an apolitical public service and good public administration". It may be on the contrary that specific instances of "whistleblowing" are nothing more than an attempt to make accountability relationships work in situation where the formal mechanisms have broken down.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Dealing with moral panic and why concern with"values' gets us nowhere

Simon Barrow continues to be on target with his commentary on contemporary public debate about morals and values.

I like the following passage from a column that he wrote for the Guardian recently discussing a BBC poll which found that 83% of people in Britain thought that society was experiencing moral decline.

One of the galvanising agents for this used to be religion, something that has clearly shrunk in terms of affiliation and receded as a shaping force in social life in modern Britain. It is interesting, therefore, that while nearly a third of people reject religious purpose as having a constructive role in moral formation, 62% still say it can be a guide for us.

Because "religion", in a plural society, invariably takes many shapes and sizes - a fact that spiritual hardliners and new wave God-bashers alike tend to ignore - it is hard to determine what this actually means, short of a generalised yearning for more "rooted values": things such as a concrete feeling of social obligation to neighbours, personal rather than purely instrumental reason, civility, a sense that freedom requires the cultivation of self-restraint, and the nurturing of traditional commitments (in contrast to "the contract culture").

However it is equally evident that institutional religion (the kind that grew up under Christendom's alliance of church and governing authority) finally failed to deliver such things. By imposing its interests, it took away people's ability to develop a deeper moral sensibility, something that grows out of voluntary mutuality rather than rule-based prescription.

So where from here? The inchoate sense that "something is wrong" soon collapses into a welter of different hypotheses and prescriptions. The clinical psychologist Oliver James terms the problem "affluenza"; John Gray blames too much idealism; Richard Dawkins points accusingly at a tide of irrationalism and residual superstition; Zealous Christians and Muslims believe their way is the only one; and politicians of all parties fail to persuade many of us that they hold the managerial key to a better life in a post-ideological environment.

In these circumstances, trying to reach some theoretical "moral consensus" is increasingly unpromising, and talk of "shared values" rapidly becomes vacuous. What creates commonality is not an idea of "community", which we are then expected to inhabit, but concrete and realisable deeds that point in the directions we want to go. We act, therefore we are.

So, in the face of violence, we need more people willing to experiment with non-violence and take risks for peace. Confronted with selfishness, we need those who can cultivate new possibilities of sharing. To combat xenophobia, we need gestures of hospitality. Instead of waste, we need more people willing to conserve. Where bitterness disables us, we need forgiveness, and so on.

I'm not suggesting that such voluntary "alternative" behaviour diminishes the need for large-scale structural action to combat the gross moral affronts of poverty, war, terror, environmental destruction, sexual abuse, and so on; rather, that a culture of civic action creates the climate for pressing collective responsibility."

This is a passage that could usefully be thought about by leaders from the conservative wings of the Christian church before opening thei mouths in public on the issue of perceived moral decline. Much of their commentary around this topic betrays a wistfulness for a Christendom approach and top down solutions.

Indigenous Stolen Wages

ANTAR have just released a national survey, Hard Labour, Stolen Wages: National Report on Stolen Wages by Dr Rosalind Kidd that provides a comprehensive survey on what is known about indignous stolen wages in every state and territory.

Ther report can be downloaded for free from the ANTAR website. Read it get angry and chase your local member on the issue.

Each chapter of the report provides a narrative account of the history of controls over indigenous people particularly as it related to their participation in the labour market and what is known about the handling of funds that were managed by pastroal stations, missions, other employers and the state and territory governments.

The detailed account of the conditions of near slavery and the fraud, mismanagement of funds, negligence by public officials and cost shifting by state governments, witholding of Commonwealth govrnment payments to individuals and using those funds to reduce state expenditure on spport of indigenous communities is worthy of the wrath and vocabulary of an Old Testament prophet. Micah or Amos could probably do a good job on this issue. There is an unbelievable amount of grist for their mill in this report.

"In 1934 the government was notified that ex-workers were starving to d death, but it refused to supply rations arguing this was the responsibility of station management" (p.73)

The amount of money that has been ripped out of the indigenous community over the past two centuries cannot be calculated precisely but is likely to run into several hundreds of millions of dollars at bare minimum and probably several times that amount.

And now we are heading off again down the track of government withholding payments to indigenous people. If the lack of recognition of the history of this sort of enterprise were not a matter so laden in pain and marinated in suffering for the indigenous community there might be space for black humour. History repeats itself (Marx said, I think) first as tragedy and then as farce, or was it the other way around?

Saturday, 15 September 2007


The following comments from Simon Barrow's excellent blog Faith inSociety.

I am still workng out how to get the links to work - using the Safari browser seems to be part of the problem. Working on switching to Firefox


Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting Iraq’s war surge to trickle towards peace (Ekklesia, 10 September 2007) Talk of the efficacy or otherwise of the US 'surge' is a smokescreen, says Simon Barrow. There is no long-term military solution to Iraq’s nightmare. But behind the scenes viable alternatives are being sought within civil society - and in conversation with those who have faced the uphill tasks of peace and justice in Ireland and South Africa.

The Daily Star in Lebanon adds: Ironically, Al-Qaeda in Iraq faces some of the same dilemmas as coalition forces in Iraq, though there is certainly no moral equivalency between the two. Both are driven by ideologies that are for the most part alien particularly to Sunni tribal sheikhs. Neither advocates of Western-style democracy nor the champions of strict Islamic orthodoxy offer an appealing vision for Iraq's future. Both sides are led by foreigners and viewed by a majority of Iraqis as occupiers, not liberators. Both are condemned for what is viewed by locals as the indiscriminate killing and brutalization of a civilian population caught in the crossfire of a conflict over which they have little say. Both are well financed and view Iraq as the battlefield for a global struggle that leaves no room for compromise.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

SIEV X memorial - grieving, art and affirming a common humanity

The memorial to the people who died in the sinking of the SIEV X in 2001 has been erected again, for six weeks in Weston Park in Canberra.

The location iof the memorial is on a long finger of parkland fringed by the lake. Each person who died when the SIEV X went down is represented by a pole with artwork, a label of the name of the person, where known (AFP are still not releasing the names of some of the victims), and the name of the group who provided the artwork.

I went out there this morning with my wife who had been present and deeply moved on the previous occasion when this memorial had been erected.

To walk along the line of the poles up the hill from the lake's edge, reading the names on the memorial and responding to the artwork on each pole was a profoundly moving experience. I was reduced to tears.

The background of tall gums, the cheerful call of crimson rosellas and the imposing presence of Black Mountain provided a reflective and respectful setting to remember the deaths of these asylum seekers. Leaving aside the question as to whether political considerations made the difference between living or dying for the people on this boat (noting that the event took place in the run up to a Federal election in 2001 that gave us the Tampa and the 'children overboard' affair), something happened for me as I walked from pole to pole.

I was struck by the reality of each pole as an acknowledgement by Australians of shared humanity and a willingness to join in the act of grieving and of giving these people the dignity of being remembered, through the works of art that were carefully and lovingly prepared by children in schools,students in university colleges, by church communities and community groups families and neighbourhoods across the country.

In a world of abstractions for which we are called to struggle, democracy, australian values and of which we are called to be afraid such as terrorism, 'boat people" and given the overwhelming large numbers of people suffering from poverty, terror and violence, whether at the hands of non-state actors, or states, those officially authorised to kill, there was here a moment of naming and acknowledging the reality of individual human beings.

The quality of attention that was paid by the peopel who prepared these poles was astonishing in the diversity of style and the care paid to the paintings and mosaics.

One pole in particular caught the attention of both my wife and myself. Included in the painting was the following proverb:

"How do we know when it is dawn?
When we have enough light to recognise
in the face of a stranger ... that of our sister."


That proverb seems an appropriate summary of what the memorial was all about.
Those who designed this memorial and those who painted the poles had enough light to recognise, in a time of public and political darkness and moral confusion, that in the face of these strangers there were the faces of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Approaching APEC

The public language used by NSW government ministers and the police in the run up to APEC has had a distinctly aggressive edge to it. There has been an assumption that deonstrations will be violent and a "bring it on" tone.

There has been no attempt to recognise the democratic character of public assembly and no substantive public statement of a willingness to engage in good faith with those people who are committed to the democratic process as manifested through non-violent protest.

Indeed the public stance of the authorities has given great comfort I would judge to those elements that see no difficulty with violence by unwillingness to engage with elements from civil society who wish to use APEC to raise there concerns with a variety of issues. The setting up of an alternative media office by a range of NGO's is an important attempt to engage serously in democratic debate. This too has been greeted with a notable lack of enthusiasm. the presence in this group of faith based age and development agencies like TEAR Australia, who engages with a wide constituency in the evangelical churches should give pause for thought.

A positive approach to engaging with civil society elements who want to raise issues of deep public concern in the context of APEC would have demonstrated a practical commitment to democracy that would have encouraged many people across the world and left those comfortable with the "ultimate forgetfulenss of violence" (Bruce Cockburn "Night Train") isolated.

Instead the militarisation of language and the threat of counterviolence by those in authority (not the upholding of justice be it noted) has proceeded apace.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Stanner on indigenous policy

Rereading WEH Stanner's 1968 Boyer lectures "After the Dreaming" I came across the following comments that forty yeasr laer seem to be relevant to assessment of recent 'policy initiatives' by the howard government on indigenous affairs.

There is he observed "... a certain inability to grasp that on the evidence the aborigines have always been looking for two things: a decent union of their lives with ours but on terms that let them preserve teir own identity, not their inclusion willy-nilly in our scheme of things on a fake identity, but development within a new way of life that has the imprint of their own ideas." (pp.27-28)

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Canadian reflections on Christian engagement with politics - a word to Christians at the heart of empire

The following extracts from a Canadian Christian struck a note and asked some questions that had occurred to me sporadically over the years of reading with appreciation Sojourners magazine.

I also think the Canadian location of the author is significant in raising questions for Christians who find themselves at the heart of empire.

Canadian Comment: Posted: 8/24/2007
** ** ** ** ** **|A+Letter+to+Progressive+Christians+in+the+U.S.

A Letter to Progressive Christians in the U.S by Will Braun - Freelance Author

** ** ** ** ** **

Doesn't the church have a higher calling; a calling qualitatively different than gaining maximum sway in the globe's most intense pursuit of worldly power?
** ** ** ** ** **

I write from a healthy distance: 1,566 miles, one international border and a curious cultural divide away from Capitol Hill, the global epicenter of raw power. Things must look different from out here on the snowy Canadian prairie because I just don't understand how progressive Christians; with whom I generally agree; have become so caught up in the machinations of super-power.

Whether it's Jim Wallis's bestselling God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, the Network of Spiritual Progressives standing up to the Righteous Religious lobby, justice-minded U.S. evangelicals meeting with Britain's Prime Minister-in-waiting to make poverty history, or Barack and Hillary addressing Sojourners magazine's Pentecost event in D.C., it seems increasing attention is paid to what happens in Washington and how close one's favored kind of Christians are to the action.

I know it makes a huge difference who is president, and I certainly think citizens should apply savvy and creativity to the political process. But this Capitol-intensive Christianity I see among progressives; this form of faith so concerned with being involved in what happens at the top makes me uneasy. Doesn't the church have a higher calling; a calling qualitatively different than gaining maximum sway in the globe's most intense pursuit of worldly power?

So, for what it's worth, here are three admittedly unsolicited suggestions from the political backseat of the continent.

1. Chill

I'm not sure I should say this but I feel y'all in the U.S. are too caught up in the phenomenon of "America." Yep, even the progressive Christians. You take your nation and its politics so seriously. Obviously U.S. politics directly affects the lives of many people and cannot be ignored altogether, but super-power is not the ultimate power. As people of faith we have the luxury of a broader perspective, a perspective that allows us to operate on a plane beyond power-politics.

So have a coffee, chill, turn off the news, maybe take a trip north. We get hyped up over elections here, too; and sometimes I curse the scoundrel who is currently king of our castle; but in the end he's just the Prime Minister. We don't expect him to be a moral or spiritual figurehead. We don't actually care that much if he smoked up two decades ago or even two weeks ago.

Neither our moral nor spiritual center is with our politicians. And our political process is healthier for it. It is less polarized, less moralistic, and God isn't in anyone's corner. Sure we have religious politicians (our public health care system came straight from the social gospel) but because they rarely play the divine trump card, the polemic stakes don't get elevated to the level of God-is-on-my-side dead end absolutes.

It's just the U.S. Here "God Bless Canada" sounds completely bizarre, patriotism is optional, and, as far as I know, no one has ever pledged allegiance to our flag (literally). It's just Canada.

And ya know what folks it's just the U.S. It will fade away, quite possibly within most of our lifetimes (for better or worse). Of course we all need to be responsible citizens but we also have the responsibility of a bigger perspective. The world including the U.S. populace needs less "America," and progressive Christianity tends to offer more.

I fear I may be coming across too harshly. I should say that if Canadians are more humble it has much less to do with virtue than an inferiority complex rooted in our perpetual underdog status on the international stage (and our also-ran status at the Olympics). My intent is not to claim moral high ground but simply to share a perspective from out on the frosty periphery.

And let me add that I do not question the integrity or intentions of the Sojourners crew and others on the progressive front lines. The world owes them a debt for skillfully broadening the debate on politics and morality in the U.S. I just think that debate needs to continue in a broader context.

De-nationalizing belief. Perhaps one way to chill out the hype around D.C. would be for the church to organize on a hemispheric basis the Church of the Americas. Wouldn't it be a relief to rise above national identities and squabbles? The Red versus Blue quagmire would look quite different. Existing national faith organizations could gather under a broader umbrella, and that umbrella group could address both nations and bodies like the IMF and World Bank from an authoritative stance clearly above national partisan interest. I think society would take note and breathe a sigh of relief. And surely such a re-framing would shake loose some fresh, big-perspective thinking.

2. Power-down

As intriguing as it is to read about star-studded national prayer breakfasts, Wallis's parking lot encounters with Bono, or the religious musings of a favored Oval Office hopeful, the Christian scriptures keep pointing me back toward the bottom. Sure Jesus went to the capital, but he was riding a donkey. One can easily identify the political implications of what he said (and I have at times in my life tried to cast him as a political activist) but Jesus modeled a seemingly counter-intuitive, paradoxical approach to power. In the conspicuous absence of revolution or a well-groomed lobbying campaign, Jesus offered a seemingly irrational death on the margins. Sure he stepped on religious and wealthy toes, but those of his time who longed for political change ended up bitterly disappointed.

The rational approach to power in our day, I suppose, would be to create the most effective progressive Christian lobby possible, complete with public organizing campaigns, razor-sharp research and savvy media work; all stuff I love doing and have much experience with. But the paradoxical approach would somehow have to look different, even foolish.

Adopting methods of the Right. Here is the test I use when it comes to church posture in relation to power: to what extent do the methods of progressive Christians mirror those of the Religious Right? (The differences between the two groups are, of course, immense, but they share at least a couple assumptions.) The Holy Right seeks to influence governmental politics. They try to get as close to the White House as possible. They use church organizing infrastructure as political organizing infrastructure. They associate openly with politicians, backing some and bashing others. They court the media. They have their eyes on power.

Not much paradox there. Sometimes; not nearly always; it looks like progressive Christians are trying to out play the Right at its own game, envious of the Religious Right's success in Washington. Surely there is a better option.

What if the church focussed on everything except politics? No matter who is president or how slow the Democratic strategists are to "get it," much else can happen: communities can organize, non-corporatized food can be grown on church lots, fossil fuels can be avoided en masse, churches can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enemies can be boldly loved, massive consumer pressure can be exerted on the bad boys of business, and Christians can be a calming, defiant presence in places of violence. Of course policy changes would help in many cases but the point is that there is more power to be discovered and shared at the bottom than grasped for at the top. That's the paradox.

Of course the progressive faith organizations contribute to, and report on many of these things and for that we all owe them a great debt but I see a tension between the heavy focus on Washington and pursuit of paradoxical power on the margins.

The halls of powerlessness. Involvement on the margins of society will necessarily lead to some engagement with government. In my own faith-based work on indigenous rights and energy issues I have briefed politicians, met with CEOs and received visits from federal security agents. All that is a necessary aspect of ground-level justice work, but circulating within reach of political influence has a problematic appeal. As nice as the resulting eye-brow-raising stories are, the halls of power can easily become a preoccupation. So I believe the church's political engagement must start, finish and always be directly tied in with its presence on the margins, where primary energy should be exerted. There is a difference between occasional forays from the margins to governmental centers and a general orientation toward power politics.

Religion can go so many places politics can't, so why are we headed to Capitol Hill? I want religion to be everything politics is not: gracious, fearless (the powerful are so paranoid), beautiful, trustworthy, healing and strong in weakness. Let's trust the paradox.

3. Be the opposition

I very much appreciate that Wallis and company make an effort to present themselves as non-partisan champions of the moral center ...

Even if this non-partisan posture were fully convincing, much of the progressive dialogue is about, and in relation to, the left-right paradigm of partisan politics. With the U.S. and indeed the world increasingly polarized, we need people who not only re-adjust the binary left-right paradigm, but stand altogether and unmistakably outside it; people who perhaps don't even use left and right as reference points at all.

Surely there are already enough people and groups orbiting D.C. Religion, with its paradoxical view of power and its big perspective can provide a much-needed alternative center of gravity.

Rather than bolstering or advising the opposition party in the US, progressive Christians could be a sort of opposition to politics itself; a healthy counter-balance to the whole hierarchy of power rather than players in it.

God is not a political pundit. As Christians, let's give less credence to the top of the power pyramid rather than more. As much as we may have enjoyed watching the news on election night last November and it wasn't only Americans cheering; let's resist the temptation to place too much of our hope in a revived Democratic party. Instead, let's claim the bottom.

God is not a Republican or a Democrat. Or a backroom campaign strategist, or an American political pundit, or a lobbyist. I take great solace in knowing there is something entirely beyond the realm of Red and Blue, a higher plane that supersedes election cycles, frantic campaigning and the din of the lobbying frenzy. Ultimately our hope is in a paradoxical, unlikely power. And that is why I think the faith community has a higher calling than governmental politics.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Separation of church and state in Australia - some random observations

1. While we have a legal separation of church and state in Australia we have an informal establishment in which church leaders, anglicans, Catholics and increasingly Pentecostals have an access to the political and economic centers of power in Australian society that minority christian groups and other faith communities do not.

2. The scope of delivery of government programs in Australia by non-goverment organisations including church related welfare, health and education programs has been increasing at an apparently exponential rate. This poses risks to both the government and the organisations. The web of connection and complicity is becoming even more deeply woven with each additional discretionary funding program.

3. The requirements attached to funding programs are increasingly raising the question of separation of church and state not because of tengagement of faith related bodies in the public sphere but because of the interference by the state in church related bodies.

4. The increasing pressure of global issues will place increasing pressure on Christian churches to confront the state over issues that cross national boundaries, global warming, questions of war and peace particularly if they recover their own integrity as a body that crosses national boundaries and whose roots are in the first commandment - you shall have no other gods before me.

Godot, Sarajevo and the radical Christian tradition

I have been rereading, for reasons i am not quite clear about, David Toole's challenging reading of philosophy and politics Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. (Radical Traditions, SCM Press, 1998) The subtitle, "Theological Reflections on Nihilism, Tragedy and Apocalypse" puts it into a context where it will likely be ignored by everybody.

Toole on reflection catches me in the opening paragraphs of his preface where he suggests that events in Sarajevo in 1914 marked the real beginning of the twentieth century and in 1992 we reached the end of that century with a further hofrrific outburst of war and genocide in the Balkans.

The book that follows is a reading of Nietzsche, Foucault and the theologians, Milbank and Yoder. This is demanding reading that is academically responsible, not cheap rationalistic Christian apologetics but seriously engaging with the deep themes that these thinkers raise.

Toole explores nihilism, the politics of tragedy and the apolcalyptic politics of John Howard Yoder (the peace church theologian) and the connections between these themes.

Toole is caught between a rock and a hard place. Many Christians of both liberal and fundamentalist persuasion will not take the trouble to go with him into the depths and return via an engaged Christian orthodoxy. Many academics will wonder why he wants to bring theology into the argument.

(Which reminds me of why I get annoyed by media interviews with John Shelby Spong - his presentation seems to suggest that if you do not accept his liberal version of Christianity your only choice is to be a fundamentalist. The radical tradition of Christian intellectual and political engagement gets totally ignored. For an accessible account of a recent trajectory of radical Christianity se Robert Inchausti Subversive orthodoxy: Outlas, Revolutionaries and other Christians in Disguise Brazos Press, 2005)

Toole's reading of Foucault on "apparatus" (p.172-173) opened up questions for me about a connection with Jacques Ellul on "technique" and opened up possible connections with issues of Christian witness and martyrdom in his discssion of physical resistance (pp.186-187).

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Indigenous Stolen Wages - Senate committee report

One indigenous issue on which there has not been a noticeably speedy response by the Federal government, is the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Report Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages.

For a copy of the Report see: (Can't get the link to work properly)

The report was tabled in December 2006 and was remarkably enough unanaimious in its conclusions, thoroughly nonpartisan, and in its recommendations sought the establishment of a number of processes by the Commonwealth and state governments to document more completely the pattern and extent of indigenous stolen wages.

The silence, in terms of a response to the report, 8 months later, so far has been deafening, certainly at a national level. The WA Government has set up a Taskforce to look into the issue in their state. The findings on the evidence so far dug out by historians and on the basis of testimony given the indigenous people might not be pretty.

The extent to which a bunch of 'Aussie Battlers" (indigenous) had been ripped off over the past hundred and fifty years by governments, missions, pastoral companies, retailers, police you would think would have the country up in arms. The silence from mainstream media has been remarkable - with the honorable exception of the National Indigenous Times.

The issue of stolen wages is not a matter of "black arm band history". This is a matter of robbery, misappropriation, fraud, failure of trust. True conservatives who believe in private property and the rule of law should be screaming blue murder.

The option for indigenous people to build an economic stake in this country, to do the things that the government wants them to do in engaging with the market economy was denied them by those who forced them to work for totally inadequate ages and then withheld large proportions of that inadequate amount.

State goverment's are right in the firing line on this issue ad they were resonsible for the managing the welfre of indigenous people.

Ros Kidd's account of the history of misappopriation, fraud, cost shifting by the Queensland government in her recent work Trustees on Trial, based on painstaking archival research, should make your hair stand on end. If doctrines and standards of fiduciary duty currently applied in the commercial sphere were applied to the Queensland Government's handling of money held in trust for indigenous people the government would be tied up in court for a very long time and facing some very hefty pay outs.

A submission to the Senate Committee by the Aboriginal Legal Services of WA subsequent to the tabling of the report provided information on investigations undertaken in 1965-66 into the administration of Commonwealth entitlements in the Kimberley. The investigation showed that there were ongoing abuses into the payment of pensions and the amounts withheld by station owners acting under the authority of the state government indigenous affairs department. Much of the money so withheld appears to have been misappropriated.

Essentially the Department of Social Services investigation showed that misappropriation of pension money, overcharging for goods, complete lack of account keeping and in some cases theft by warrantees, those charged with handling the withheld pension money. What happened? Apparently nothing. Not a good look.

A positive and prompt response to the Senate Committee recommendations to investigate the actions by government in their handling of money held in trust for indigenous people would be a good start and a gesture of good will.

The Senate Committee report paints part of the background against which the critical response of indigenous people to recent government policy initiatives in the Northern Territory can be understood.

Government taking control over portions of payments due to be paid to indigenous people? Have we been here before? what happened last time we went down this track? You can understand why people with memories, with stories passed down the family about withholding of wages and payments might be a trifle suspicious.

You could understand if indigenous people were to take the view that "the whitefellas did a pretty good job of doing the blackfellas over last time around, financially speaking and still haven't got the accounts sorted out. Why sould we trust them this time around?"

Saturday, 18 August 2007

In the meantime

In the meantime ...

I have been off at the Baptists Today conference - some thought on future points of tension between church and state in Australia will follow later in the week as well as some discussion of the Senate committee report on Indigenous stolen wages.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Living in an emergency

The 'state of emergency" that has framed Federal government responses to the threat of terrorism now finds an echo in the urgency of response to the "national emergency" of child abuse in indignous communities.

I was alerted to the parallels between the government responses to terrorism and the intervention in the Northern Territory by the reference to the work of Jerome Binde in the following quote from Scott Bader-Saye's thoughtful account of "Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear."

"Jerome Binde makes the case that our current fearfulness tempts us to live perpetually in what he calls "Emergency Time". He describes it this way. "by giving precedence to the logic of 'just in time' at the expense of any forward looking deliberation, within the contex of ever faster technological transformaton and exchange, our era is opening the way for the tyranny of the emergency. Emergency is a direct means of response that leaves no time for either analysis, forecasting or prevention. It is an immediate protective reflex rather than a sober quest for long-term solutions." (p.129)

To let ourselves accept the state of emergency as a mode of living is to live in fear and impatience. It is also to abandon reason and reflection and to not allow ourselves time for conversation to meet and listen to one another across our differences.

The community of those who seek to follow Jesus need to look at developing forms of life that the development of the virtue of patience and a recovery of the freedom that comes from living out of a conviction that God is love. We need to create spaces for conversation with those who we perceive to be different.

A Great Australian Novel?

Sitting outside the campervan in the tropical evenings during perambulations around the Northern Territory I found myself totally absorbed by the Miles Franklin Literary Qward winning novel Cartentaria by Alexis Wright.

It is a big novel - big in all the senses that Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet is big - length wise, in its tackling of large subjects and in its portrayal of the physical landscape and sea as vivid characters in their own right.

I am still trying to put my finger on why I kept thinking of Winton's writing, particularly in Cloudstreet as I got totally aborbed in Wright's book. Probably the connection is that in their different ways Wright and Winton refuse to allow the material world to be disconnected from the world of spirit.

The story revolves around the coastal town of Desperance, located in the Gulf country of north western Queensland.

This is a novel with an unashamed and unapologetic indigenous voice and viewpoint. The cover notes are absolutely accurate - the storytelling is operatic and surreal, a blend of myth and scripture, politics, farce and the living out of a deeply engrained indigenous spirit with a rollicking and at times tragic who dunnit tale interwoven.

The names of the key characters might suggest a leaning toward farce, Normal Phantom, angel Day, Mozzie Fishman this is not how the book largely plays out. The characters are large, powerful and tragic.

I am not a literary critic by any means but my guess is that the author has brought large elements of an indignous worldview slap bang into the mainstream of Australian literary culture. I'm guessing that it is going to get some mixed reactions. many of those viscerally opposed to the Federal Government's militarised assimilation project will cheer the satire on white small town racism and the struggle against the Gufurrit mine but are going to have a real struggle with the spiritually rooted connection with the land and the sea. It certainly does not sit easily with the worldview of modernity.

The author does not attempt to present a single 'indigenous" reponse to the challenges facing the 'pricklebush' people who live on the margin of Desperance. She presents a diversity of responses and judgements as to the strategy for dealing with the people who came in and occupied their land.

While it provides moments that resonate with the political issues in the headlines it is not a political tract. It is an engaging read that goes to the depths of an indigenous vision of what it is to be human in a particular time and place.

It is an engaging, spirit expanding, challenging and absorbing read.

While it might not be the "great australian novel" it is a read that touched my heart and expanded my vision of what it is to be human and why any simple response by governments to solve "the indigenous problem" is likely to be misguided and ineffective.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

History, silence and the indigenous community

Over two weeks campervanning around the Northern Territory along with some long plane flights has left me with a good deal of food for thought around the way history is told and the notable silences about what happened on the Australian frontier .

Darwin for example is laden with monuments to the bombin by the Japanese and the impact of Cyclone Tracy. You hav to work hard to find anything beyond that - the monument to John McDowall Stuart, the Scotsman who was the first European to cross the continent from south to North was celebrated by a small obscure plaque. He should be so lucky.

The indigenous community are now acknowledged on notice board in national parks for their role in management of the parks. About the history of conflict between the original occupiers of the land and their response to the invaders there is little to be found. Historical amnesia abounds. In a couple of museum entries their is refeence to conflict but it is so generalised in expression that the reality of invasion is elided from view.

The silence is, or ought to be deafening but we of those who benefited from the invasion remain largely oblivious.

On the long flight home I was reading Henry Reynolds' account of his personal journey as a historian to discover the truth about Australian history 'Why weren't we told?. Invasion and the violence along the frontier are the elements of Australian history that were acknowledged in the nineteenth century writings by Australian writers but were then ignored through the twentieth century.

There is a deep silence at the heart of Australian life, culture and political debate. There have been moments at which this slience has been broken, the struggle of Eddie Mabo that resulted in the High Court overturning of the doctrine of Terra Nullius and the work of historian such as Henry Reynolds come to mind.

Those of us who seek to be people of the way, followers of Jesus in Australia need to learn how to be speak truthfully. On this issue we might find some assistance in the words of the Baptist minister the Rev John Saunders, preached in Sydney on the 14 October 1838.

After setting out the grounds on which indigenous people become invested with all the natural rights that belong to humanity Saunders spells out the wrongs that have been done to the indigenous commuity:

1. We have robbed them withour any anction in moral or revealed law, descending as invaders upon their territory and taking possession of their soil.
2. We have brutalised them, taught them intoxication, bribed them to shed the blood of each other.
3. We have shed their blood, eradicating the possessors of they soil. the blood of the poor and defenceless is upon us, the blood of those we wronged before we slew.

Black arm band history? Sounds like solidly grounded truth telling Christian preaching to me - one that has deep roots in the practice of the Old Testament prophets.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

What 'gods' do we worship?

On my waythrough Nicholas Lash's series of lectures "Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God" I kept coming across passages that were provocative and challenging for both those who would call themselves Christians and those who don't.

"Incidentally, if 'gods'are now beings of a particular kind, then christians, Jews, Muslims and athiestsall have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods. (p.10)"

Lash explains:

"For most of our history, then, 'gods' were what people worshipped. I do not mean that people worshipped things called 'gods'; I mean that the word 'god' simply signified whatever it is that someone worships. In other words, the word 'god' worked rather like the way in which the word 'treasure' still does. A treasure is what someone treasures, what someone highly values. And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour. ... The point is that there is no class of objects known as 'treasures'. ... Valuing is a relationship: treasures are what we value.

Similarly, 'gods' are what people worship, have their hearts ultimately set on. I can only find out what you worship, what your gods are, by asking you and observing your behaviour. And these days it is almost certain that the gods you worship will not be named by you as gods. Most of us are polytheists, inconsistently and confusingly worshipping ourselves, our country, 'freedom', sex or money. There is no class of objects known as 'gods'. Worshipping is a relationship: gods are what we worship." (p.10)

'...those who write so carelessly about other people's 'gods' simply take for granted that the work 'god' names a natural kind, a class of entity. There are bananas, traffic lights, human beings and gods. Or perhpas not: on this account of how the word 'god' works, 'theists' are people who supples the class of gods to have at least one member; 'montheists' are those who maintain that the class has one, and only one, member; and 'atheists' are those who think that, in the real world the class of 'gods' is, like the class of 'unicorns', empty." (p.12)

Each religious tradition is then a school in which we can undergo the learning process of how to speak appropriately and how to worship appropriately, non-idolatrously, in relation to whatever it is that we regard as the mystery of life and the universe.
(Even that is to phrase the matter in a way that would not be agreed on by all traditions)

Outcomes and Development

"Outcomes based funding" is one of the key themes common to grants funders both inside and outside government.

Leaving aside for a moment the difficulties of assessing outcomes in the short term a matter to which little attention has been paid is that outcomes are viewed almost exclusively in relationship to the community receiving the development funding.

What if outcomes from development were viewed in relational terms, if development was understood in terms of mutuality between the parties and communities?

What if we brought into scope the outcomes in the funding organisation and its support base as well as in the receiving organisation and communities? I have in mind NGOs here.

Lurking behind this is an assumption about organisational learning. Any situation of engagement in the development process becomes an opportunity for learning at all sorts of levels. If there are no outcomes in terms of learning by engagement with another community in walking with them for the funding body what sort of organisation is it?

For any development project it suggests that the process of assessing outcomes for the funding organisation needs to be part of the projec development. How can the organisation harvest the learning and the experience of engagement?

(Thanks to Professor Vernon Jantzi from Eastern Mennonite University for raising the issue)

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Doing Theology and the stories that shape our Imagination

What is 'doing theology' all about?

Nicholas Lash in a brief but illuminating book, "Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God" makes the following helpful observations:

... continuing to hold the Gospel's truth make much more serious and dangerous demands than mere lip service paid to undigested information. Unless we make that truth our own through thought and pain and argument - through prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding - it will be chipped away, reshaped, eroded by the power of an imagining fed by other springs, tuned to quite different stories. An this unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things, not just in what we say, but through the ways in which we 'see' the world, is what is known as doing theology." (p.4)

Monday, 16 July 2007

Haneef Charge a problem for NGOs operating in a conflict area

The charging of DR Haneef, apparently for passing on a SIM card to his cousin who a year is associated with an act of violence intending to spread terror, should be causing substantial concern for staff of Australian NGOs delivering aid and supporting development in areas of the world subject to conflict.

Many of the staff are required if they are to effectively deliver aid and assist development in countries subject to conflict will have to deal with people associated with that conflict. Many of them may well wonder whether they may be placed in legal jeopardy for simply doing their job if the charge currently laid against Dr Haneef succeeds.

Christian aid agencies may be in special jeopardy given their underlying ethic of providing hospitality to the stranger and extending love to the enemy.

Is giving a cup of cold water going to become a criminal offence

Indigenous Health checks

ABC news reported this morning the progress of health checks at the Herrmansburg community in the NT. I have been reading Richard Trudgen's Why Warriors lie down and die over the weekend, a reading that has left me with even graver doubts as to the likelihood that this initiative will have any substantial effects. It may even be counter productive.

While his work relates solely to the Yolnju community of eastern Arnhemland the general issues he raises seem likely to have a wider relevance.

His argument is that major problems arise from differences in worldview and subsequent difficulties in communication. He recommends five steps to a Yolnju freindly environment:

1. Take the people's language seriously
2. Train dominanct culture personnel
3. Approach education and training in a different way.
4. Replace existing programs with programs that really empower the people
5. Deal with some basic legal issues.

This is a book that should be read by every policy maker and program delivery managers, not to mention politicians - because is effectively challenges many of the comfortable nostrums that have guided policy towards indigenous communities over the past thirty years.

Trudgen provides case after case of the difficulties of communicating about health issues across worldview and language difficulties in ways that make a longterm difference to behaviour and health outcomes. he also provides some examples of how effective communication and improved health outcomes could be achieved.

Beyond this is the challenge of history. Trudgen provides an account of history from a Yojnu perspective over the period of encounter with the wider world. This is profoundly disorienting - and that is its value. The taken for granted view of the world of the Balanda (Europeans) is no longer the only way of viewing what happened in Arnhemland over the past two centuries.

To be unsettled is perhaps the beginning of wisdom?

The cost of military spending

A recent email from the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office noted that:

"This year, President George W. Bush asked Congress for nearly $649 billion to fund the U.S. military in 2008. The president's request includes a base budget of $507 billion plus $141.8 billion for the ongoing cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Senate Armed Services Committee fiddled with some of the president's specific requests, but, in the end, sent a $647.5 billion Defense Authorization Bill to the full Senate, which began debate this week.

Arms manufacturers are the big winners in the 2008 military budget, which includes $138 billion to procure new weapons and military hardware.

U.S. military spending:

* Has more than doubled since Sept. 11, 2001.
* Is equal to the rest of the world's military spending combined.

China, at $112 billion, is the world's next highest military spender.

What is the problem with the dramatic increase in U.S. military spending?

First, it is a form of idolatry, which places our ultimate trust in weapons rather than in God. Second, it limits our national imagination to find nonviolent ways to build security.

Third, it robs resources from programs that would benefit the most vulnerable people.

Finally, it increases the sense of threat and insecurity that other countries feel, leading them to increase their military spending as well.

Ironically, the rapid U.S. military buildup is making the United States and the rest of the world less secure, not more. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found a widespread belief that the United States acts unilaterally in the world. According to the Pew report, "Majorities in 30 of the 46 nations say that when making foreign policy decisions the U.S. does not take into account the interests of countries like theirs."

Militarism cannot create the long-term conditions for peace. Instead, global security would be better enhanced by U.S. policies that:

* Emphasize diplomacy, model mutuality and uphold human rights. The United States should build consensus in international forums, lead the way toward nuclear disarmament and consistently respect international law and human rights.
* Build equitable economies. Policymakers should cancel the debts of poor countries, create just and equitable trade relationships and provide aid to eradicate the worst levels of poverty.
* Develop renewable energy. U.S. dependence on foreign oil has led to inconsistent and harmful policies, especially in the Middle East. Lawmakers should support renewable energy policies and practices."

The Sheer magnitude of the spending on military equipment leaves the mind stunned and the moral imagination overwhelmed. We cannot imagine a world that might be otherwise so we give up on the task of developing and practising alternative ways of responding to conflict.

Just war thinking might claim the mantle of realism but its real problemis that it feeds into the stunting of the moral and political imagination by focussing the debate at the outset on whether violence is jstifiable in this case rather than supporting the development of conflict reducing alternative policies.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Should Christians care about religion?

The confusion, among christians, as well as in the society at large about what the separation of religion from politics and the increasing accummulation of power by the state needs to be untangled. The theologian William Cavanaugh has done some great work in challenging the received wisdom on this issue.

The story of separation of "religion" and “politics” in Europe and the development of the “secular” state, as normally narrated, begins with the wars of religion triggered by the Reformation. A state free from "religious" control was necessary to ensure tolerance and suppress the violence of competing religious forces. This narration gains plausibility against the background of the co-option of the Christian church by the Roman Empire, the emergence of Christendom and the use of imperial violence to enforce conversion to the Christian faith. According to William Cavanaugh (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House – The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State” Modern Theology, 1995)

"The "Wars of Religion" were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birthpangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between "Protestantism" and "Catholicism," but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order. … behind these wars is the creation of "religion" as a set of beliefs which is defined as personal conviction and which can exist separately from one's public loyalty to the State. The creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the Church, is correlative to the rise of the State. "

As a result we have the invention of “religion” as a sphere of life, a realm of individual choice and private concern disconnected from public, community and social life is intertwined with the emergence of the state as "sovereign", with a total monopoly of power within a limited geographic area. In another article Canavanugh argues that

"… the term "religion" has accompanied the domestication of Christianity. It has facilitated the marginalisation of the radical claims of the gospel and the transfer of the Christian's ultimate loyalty to the supposedly rational spheres of nation and the market. The church is now a leisure activity: the state and the market are the only things worth dying for. The modern concept of religion facilitates idolatry, the replacement of the living God with Caesar and Mammon. " ("God is not Religious")

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Compassion in action

Evidence emerging of reports of abuse and violencein indigenous communities that have been ignored by governments at all levels over the past few years is a source of shame and should be a cause for repentance and confession "we have failed to do that which we ought to have done" as the Anglican Prayerbook puts it.

Selfrighteousness is not in order from anyone who has had responsibility in the development and implementation of government programs, from the Minister down.

The question then is - what works for human flourishing and builds community?

If there is one lesson from the frequent failures and multiple reviews, it is that successful programs require indigenous involvement and ownership.

The Productivity Commission in a recent report includes many examples of things that work and they all according to its Chair Gary Banks have these factors in common: co-operative approaches between indigenous people and government, community involvement in program design and decision-making, good governance and ongoing government human and financial support. The process of working together is a significant step in building community.

The goal is the way. We cannot separate the ends we seek from the way we seek to achieve those ends.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Indigenous policy from a development perspective.

Reflecting on the policy framework, style and language employed by the Australian Government in responding to what has been an on-going crisis in the lives of indigenous people and their communities I came across comments in a reflection on development that highlighted our unwillingness to face the realities of cultural difference and spell out the normative framework underlying Government policy.

We all know and agree what developpment is - well don't we?

IN Development to a Different Drummer the authors observe that:

"For persons to be subjects rather than objects of development all parties must willingly listen actively to each other. Active listening indicates the importance of all individual in a development process where people matter. ... For the development process to be people-centered everyone involved must be able to understand and appreciate the different culturesfrom which the various parties come. If some are from outside, they must appreciate and understand the local culture, just as the local parties must do the dame for cultures from outside.

People-centeredness means that development is not unilateral, but a collaborative effort by all parties. ... This will be reinforced by jointly created, culturally appropriate paarticipatory decision-making structures and systems." (p.229)

The discussion by the authors Yoder, Redekop and Jantzi highlight some of the questions that arise in any treatment of the connections between human values, dignity and wellbeing as unproblematic.

The reflexiveness and willingness to be self-critical in this treatment by one faith tradition (Anabaptist/Mennonite) of its engagement with development is revealing and to be commended in the light of the Australian Government's current adventure in militarising the development process with no willingness to be open and honest of its deep implication in the destruction of human community and individual wellbeing that it is now setting out to try and ameliorate.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Violence and Hope

There is an incipient violence and militarisation, lack of reflectiveness about ethical reason and a lack of hope in the current debate about the Australian Government's latest venture into indigenous public policy debate. The argument runs, "nothing elses has worked" so that something anything must be done to prevent further sexual violence against indigenous children.

No moral qualification is allowed. We must do something, anything ...

The value of human life is now sacred - it functions as an absolute in this argument and utilitarian arguments about effectiveness are pushed aside as mere quibbles.

Immauel Kant trumps Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill.

What about character ethics?

Should we trust a Government that has shown a willingness to be less than truthful on previous occasions about the fate of children to further its hold on political power?

So much for ethical reflection ...

The language of 'deployment" in support of a national emergency all in a militatry mode - has the creation of an atmosphere in which the agency of those whom we are supposed to be helping is denied - we are tackling a great evil so no limits can be placed on our action.

We are seeking to do good - so how can anyone question us so runs the government account.

A government which had said sorry for the violence and destruction of child hood innocence of a previous policy initiaitve that sought to do good might, just might have been in a stronger position to make a subtantial intervention to deal with real evils with indigenous suport and trust in their ability to learn from mistakes as they proceeded.