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

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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?
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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.