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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.