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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Afghanistan - what future?

A recent article by Robert Fisk raises severe doubts about the optimistic accounts on future developments in Afghanistan emerging from recent interviews with Australian military officers.

Robert Fisk it should be noted has extensive acquaintance with the country going back to the time of the Russian invasion in the late 1970's. His account of his time there as a war correspondent in the The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East makes for engaging but ultimately highly sobering reading. His background understanding means that his comments should not be dismissed lightly.

In an article dated 27 November entitled 'Nobody supports the Taliban, but people hate the government' Fisk nails the dilemma for the international community:

The collapse of Afghanistan is closer than the world believes. Kandahar is in Taliban hands – all but a square mile at the centre of the city – and the first Taliban checkpoints are scarcely 15 miles from Kabul. Hamid Karzai's deeply corrupted government is almost as powerless as the Iraqi cabinet in Baghdad's "Green Zone"; lorry drivers in the country now carry business permits issued by the Taliban which operate their own courts in remote areas of the country.

The Red Cross has already warned that humanitarian operations are being drastically curtailed in ever larger areas of Afghanistan; more than 4,000 people, at least a third of them civilians, have been killed in the past 11 months, along with scores of Nato troops and about 30 aid workers. Both the Taliban and Mr Karzai's government are executing their prisoners in ever greater numbers. The Afghan authorities hanged five men this month for murder, kidnap or rape – one prisoner, a distant relative of Mr Karzai, predictably had his sentence commuted – and more than 100 others are now on Kabul's death row.

This is not the democratic, peaceful, resurgent, "gender-sensitive" Afghanistan that the world promised to create after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Outside the capital and the far north of the country, almost every woman wears the all-enshrouding burkha, while fighters are now joining the Taliban's ranks from Kashmir, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and even Turkey. More than 300 Turkish fighters are now believed to be in Afghanistan, many of them holding European passports.


Is it really the overriding ambition of Afghans to have "democracy"? Is a strong federal state possible in Afghanistan? Is the international community ready to take on the warlords and drug barons who are within Mr Karzai's own government? And – most important of all – is development really about "securing the country"? The tired old American adage that "where the Tarmac ends, the Taliban begins" is untrue. The Taliban are mounting checkpoints on those very same newly-built roads.

The Afghan Minister of Defence has 65,000 troops under his dubious command but says he needs 500,000 to control Afghanistan. The Soviets failed to contain the country even when they had 100,000 troops here with 150,000 Afghan soldiers in support. And as Barack Obama prepares to send another 7,000 US soldiers into the pit of Afghanistan, the Spanish and Italians are talking of leaving while the Norwegians may pull their 500 troops out of the area north of Heart. Repeatedly, Western leaders talk of the "key" – of training more and more Afghans to fight in the army. But that was the same "key" which the Russians tried – and it did not fit the lock.

"We" are not winning in Afghanistan. Talk of crushing the Taliban seems as bleakly unrealistic as it has ever been. Indeed, when the President of Afghanistan tries to talk to Mullah Omar – one of America's principal targets in this wretched war – you know the writing is on the wall. And even Mullah Omar didn't want to talk to Mr Karzai.

The spiral of violence

Political realism sometimes isn't as realistic as it seems. Underlying its apparent "toughness" lies a faith in the power of military force to provide security in the face of a threatening enemy that is often not supported by evidence of history.

The current situation in Gaza is a case in point. Robert Fisk's acerbic commentary in The Independent makes the point pretty clearly.

The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel's anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas's anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which ... See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and ... Got it? And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel.
Quite a lot of the dead this weekend appear to have been Hamas members, but what is it supposed to solve? Is Hamas going to say: "Wow, this blitz is awesome – we'd better recognise the state of Israel, fall in line with the Palestinian Authority, lay down our weapons and pray we are taken prisoner and locked up indefinitely and support a new American 'peace process' in the Middle East!" Is that what the Israelis and the Americans and Gordon Brown think Hamas is going to do?

Yes, let's remember Hamas's cynicism, the cynicism of all armed Islamist groups. Their need for Muslim martyrs is as crucial to them as Israel's need to create them. The lesson Israel thinks it is teaching – come to heel or we will crush you – is not the lesson Hamas is learning. Hamas needs violence to emphasise the oppression of the Palestinians – and relies on Israel to provide it. A few rockets into Israel and Israel obliges. (Leaders lie, civilians die, and lessons of history are ignored Monday, 29 December 2008)

Israel, however – always swift to announce its imminent destruction of "terrorism" – has never won a war in a built-up city, be it Beirut or Gaza, since its capture of Jerusalem in 1967. And it's important to remember that the Israeli army, famous in song and legend for its supposed "purity of arms" and "elite" units, has proved itself to be a pretty third-rate army over recent years. Not since the 1973 Middle East conflict – 35 years ago – has it won a war. Its 1978 invasion of Lebanon was a failure, its 1982 invasion ended in disaster, propelling Arafat from Beirut but allowing its vicious Phalangist allies into the Sabra and Chatila camps where they committed mass murder. In neither the 1993 bombardment of Lebanon nor the 1996 bombardment of Lebanon – which fizzled out after the massacre of refugees at Qana – nor the 2006 war was its performance anything more than amateur. Indeed, if it wasn't for the fact Arab armies are even more of a rabble than the Israelis, the Israeli state would be genuinely under threat from its neighbours.

One common feature of Middle East wars is the ability of all the antagonists to suffer from massive self-delusion. Israel's promise to "root out terror" – be it of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iranian or any other kind – has always turned out to be false. "War to the bitter end," the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, has promised in Gaza. Nonsense. Just like the PLO's boast – and Hamas' boast and Hizbollah's boast – to "liberate" Jerusalem. Eyewash. But the Israelis have usually shown a dangerous propensity to believe their own propaganda. Calling up more than 6,000 reservists and sitting them round the Gaza fence is one thing; sending them into the hovels of Gaza will be quite another. In 2006, Israel claimed it was sending 30,000 troops into Lebanon. In reality, it sent about 3,000 – and the moment they crossed the border, they were faced down by the Hizbollah. In some cases, Israeli soldiers actually ran back to their own frontier. (The self delusion that plagues both sides in this bloody conflict: Israel has never won a war in a built-up city, that's why threats of 'war to the bitter end' are nonsense, Wednesday, 31 December 2008)

The realism of conversing with enemies, with bitter histories behind them, lies behind the resolution of conflicts, many with deep historical roots - South Africa, Northern Ireland come to mind.

Meanwhile - the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is appalling - Sara Roy in the London Review of Books summarises the situation in horrifying detail.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A prophetic spirituality

The complete series of William Stringfellow's books, long out of print, is being published by Wipf & Stock. Something timely here. A quarter of a century ago he made the following assessment of the United States in The Politics of Spirituality:

... over dependent upon the consumption ethic, with its doctrines of indiscriminant growth, gross development, greedy exploitation of basic resources, uncritical and often stupid reliance upon technological capabilities, and incredible naivete technological competence and crude relentless manipulation of human beings as consumers. Increasingly now people can glimpse that this is no progress, no enhancement of human life, but wanton ;ounder of creation itself. People begin to apprehend that the penultimate implementation of the American consumption ethic is, bluntly, self consumption. In the process it hs become evident as well that the commerce engendered by the American consumption ethic, together with the commerce of weapons proliferation relates cnsequentially to virtually every injustice of which human beings are victims in this nation and in much of the rest of the world. (pp.64-65)

Reading this a few days ago I thought it was a prophetic reading of the culture that had not dated. The spirituality that drove Stringfellow's assessment of his culture was he thought simply the ordinary experience of the Christian in partaking in politics. Religiosity he argued has little to do with the action of the Word of God in its judgement of human history.

Stringfellow was not overawed by either academics or clerics. He simply sought to exercise his gifts in speaking truth to power wherever it was not being appropriately exercised.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Zimbabwe - a voice for nonviolence

In June this year the Mennonite World Conference, the Reformed Ecumenical Council, and the
World Evangelical Alliance wrote to the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to express their distress over the deepening crisis in Zimbabwe. arising from their
strong ties to Zimbabwe through their member churches there. they stated that:

We further believe that, given the potential for ongoing lack of clarity and resolution following the runoff elections, for the long-term re-stabilization of Zimbabwe, it is crucial for international bodies to insist that the ruling party in Zimbabwe come to a negotiating table to map out future directions for the country. This table must also include not only leaders of the Zimbabwean opposition, but members of Zimbabwe’s military and security forces and leaders of church and civil society groups. Only with a carefully negotiated agreement can the deep divisions and distrust that has grown over the past decades begin to be healed.

We insist that the time for quiet diplomacy by friends of Mr. Mugabe to be effective is long past. Any further inaction by the African and international community will result in the continued repression of the people of Zimbabwe, and the deepening instability of the Southern African region.

Six months later there has been little response by the leaders of neighbouring countries.

As we come to celebrate Christmas this reflection from the midst of violence reminds me that the birth of Jesus took place in a time and place of oppression and violence and that the call to discipleship has little in common with the consumerism of the holiday in Australia.

Danny Ndlovu Bishop of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe reflections on "The other cheek - The second mile" on the call to nonviolence in Zimbabwe today makes sobering Christmas reading.

You have heard that it is said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. … If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.—Matthew 5:38-41

When I read these words from the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if what Christ says makes sense for today. Take our current situation in Zimbabwe, for example.

Our people exercised their constitutional right to vote for new leadership. They did so peacefully. But the powers that be were not happy with the outcome, and they have pursued violence against their own people. Some have been brutally assaulted, left with broken bones, scarred for life, and denied access to medical care. A few have lost their lives.

How do we as a people, as Christians, respond? Some have fled, crossing the borders to neighboring countries. Others of us have stayed. We are humiliated and our dignity has been
stolen from us. Many outside our country view us as wimps. If Zimbabweans were really suffering as they would want the world to believe, they say, the people should be out in the
streets violently demonstrating.

How then do these words of Christ speak to us in our situation? Do they have any relevance at all? I find Christ’s words incredibly empowering. In these verses, Jesus suggests that no one should be given the right to be in charge of another person’s destiny, no matter the circumstances. To do so is to allow another person to be God in someone’s life. However, by turning the other cheek, by walking the second mile, we disempower the one who tried to assume power over us.

Perpetrators of violence tend to assume the place of God in other people’s lives and judge
them harshly for non-compliance. According to Christ, we should respond to such injustice
in nonviolent ways. Responding in nonviolent ways exposes hatred and other machinations of the evil one and his agents. Only then can nonviolence triumph over violence. The call of Christ does not mean allowing other people to treat us as they please. Rather, we respond to injustice in nonviolent ways that will, we hope, bring about a positive outcome even on the part of the perpetrator. It is calling the perpetrator of injustice to think twice about the actions that person is taking. Through nonviolence, we offer the aggressor an opportunity for soul searching. It offers time for the perpetrator to listen to the heart as it cries for help!

For in reality, those who pursue violence are in need of help more than the victims of injustice. In that respect, nonviolence is a way of responding from a position of power on the part of the victim rather than that of weakness and fear. It is taking away the power of control from the perpetrator and owning it as a victim, regardless of what follows.

The Zimbabwean church—and the church around the world—has a responsibility in the harsh realities in which it finds itself to respond in ways that will honor God. The church must demonstrate what it means to be disciples of Christ through radical responses to unreasonable
demands. Christ himself set the pace and example. Up to his death, he responded to every form of injustice against him in powerful but nonviolent ways. The church must continue to give
the other cheek and to walk the second mile. This is the way to call for better and equal treatment. It is also the way of respect and dignity of humankind.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Recovering Christmas? Bringing Herod back into Christmas

Australian Christians are faced with the problem about how to celebrate the birth of Jesus appropriately in a context where consumerism happily drives the mongrelisation of the secular festival further and faster. Christmas has morphed into a celebration of family, accompanied by relief for those with a demanding job at the possibility of a holiday break.

What can be done to recover in the life of the church the radical character of Christmas?

A couple of suggestions that point to changing our practices as well as re-narrating the Christmas story.

Firstly we can begin to disengage from Christmas as commercial event. Substantially reduce the amount of money we spend on presents for one another and start giving sacrifically to assist community development amongst our brothers and sisters in the global south. (TEAR's Arguably the World's Most Useful Gift Catalogue is great place to start.

Secondly, we can bring Herod back into Christmas. Genocide and the politics of an Imperial puppet at the edge of the Roman empire that we meet in the Gospels have little to do with the sentimental blather that passes the Christmas story and its commercial images. The Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) confront us with the political aspirations of the people of Palestine hoping for liberation. The poetry of the Magnificat 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.

The intention of Matthew leaves us in no doubt that Herod should be afraid of Jesus. Jesus’ vision was of overturning everything Herod believed in – unaccountable power, privilege and violence in the cause of injustice.

Such a truthful, politically relevant account of Christmas if repeated often enough might even bring the advertising agencies mongrelising of Christmas to a halt - perhaps making it indigestible. It might make preaching on Christmas day a bit harder and more challenging. and uncomfortable for the clergy.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Australian government emission targets are inadequate but is that the real problem?

The Australian government emission targets announced today are plainly inadequate but that is not the real problem.

The real difficulty lies with the fact that large elements of the business sector are operating with a fatally flawed understanding of reality that was revealed in their response that a 5% reduction was way to much because of the economic adjustment problems that it would cause.

The failure here is the models of reality that are behind such commentary. The model used is one in which we have two realms, the realm of the economy and the realm of the environment with trade-offs between the two weighted in favour of the "real world" of business.

The reality is that the "small economy" of which they speak is a sub-set of the "great economy" (to borrow the image of Wendell Berry) upon which we all depend and without which the small economy - the world of economic "growth" could not exist.

Or to put it in terms of business - the world of business and national economies is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment not the other way around.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Advent and the Church

Who is it we are waiting for at Advent? Who is this Jesus who we talk about being born in our hearts and in the world? How shall we respond?

Simon Barrow has some suggestions ins sermon for Advent entitled "Which Jesus are we expecting?" (full sermon is up on the Ekklesia site.)

If the Jesus we are expecting this Advent is truly the Christ of the Gospels, the comforter of the disturbed and the disturber of the comfortable, then the most important task for us as a church right now is to be the church – by which I mean to be the kind of people who are found regularly in the company of Jesus, in the midst of whatever else it is they are given to do.

Many people get easily confused about what ‘church’ is. They think it’s a building, or a religious institution, or a club for people who “enjoy that kind of thing”. It may indeed need structure, organisation and devotees. But it isn’t about them. ‘Church’, rather, is the name of a public space for risky, experimental living – for doing crazy stuff like forgiving others, offering hospitality to oddballs, sharing what we have in common and with others, learning how to live justly, and re-telling key stories of redemption and change. I’m paraphrasing some key elements from the gospels here. The word ekklesia refers to this kind of ‘zone of action’.

‘Church’ is also a place where people are specifically equipped to undertake these difficult activities by being taken deep into the waters of death and then raised through them with Christ, so that they know in their hearts how God’s love can embrace everything that could ever be thrown at us and still not be exhausted. That is, we are equipped for what lies ahead by being baptised “in the Holy Spirit”, in the life God gives beyond our limited capacities. This is vital because keeping Jesus’ company often amounts to being asked to “share God’s sufferings in the world” (to use Bonhoeffer’s poignant expression), and this is not something we can do in our own strength.

Amish,Banking and the economic crisis

On Gods Politics Blog this morning an interesting reflection on one bank in the USA that is having its best year ever - the bank's customers are Amish and the only time they use credit is to buy a farm. According Ryan Roderick Beiler:

This morning, a report on NPR about how the Amish do banking and finance has me asking, “What if the Amish were in charge of the economy? Or the bailout? Or–irony intended–the auto industry? Now I’m fully aware that the Amish are certainly not perfect in all they do, but as many bloggers in our special focus on the economic crisis have pointed out, values of simplicity, frugality, plus a sense of personal and communal responsibility would have gone a long way toward avoiding the mess we’re in. That goes both for folks who borrowed and spent beyond their means and the corporations who predatorily encouraged them to do so while creating the shell-game-hall-of-mirrors-house-of-cards-fill-in-your-own-metaphor-for-unaccountable-lies-and-greed.

And in Australia low to middle income earners are being urged to spend the money just donated to them by the government - we don't care what you spend it on really - just spend... your job may depend upon it. Sadly that may be true but the problem is that such a course of action offers us no way to begin building the habits we need to acquire to get us out of the addictive consumerism that the economy runs on.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Towards disorganised religion

I have been doing too much reading to do anything very original by way of commenting on current events. Attending an Anglican ordination at the weekend led me back to some comments in Wendell Berry's wonderful novel Jayber Crow that I have just finished re-reading. Such an event brings out all my anarchist tendencies captured nicely in Jayber's reflections:

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion, but came instead to found a disorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think. (p.321)

Though from a very different tradition to Nicholas Lash quoted in previous postings, a strong case can be made that Berry is a theologian, in his novels and poetry as much as in his essays is a theologian in a sense that Lash has defined the task.

Being ecumenical is reaching for points of connection and orientation across significant differences. That is the sense in which I want to be ecumenical and why I find encouragement from such differing sources.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The mystery of goodness

Nicholas Lash again:

The darkness of the world is beyond all explanation. Which is why we speak 'about' the mystery of evil. We to often forget however, that goodness is a mystery as well: that kindness, generosity, the 'giftedness' of reality is also beyond all explanation. (p.165 Theology for Pilgrims DLT, 2008)

The question then is which mystery do we lean towards and so orient the way we live? Will we open our hands to receive the gift or keep our hands clenched in anger at the darkness?

Religion and Theology

Nicholas Lash keeps reminding us of the scope of theology. In an essay on Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness he observes: ... my hunch is that the failure to read the story theologically is due, at least in part, to the assumption that the subject-matter of theology is religion, rather than all things whatsoever in relation to the mystery of God, their origin and end. (p.100 Theology for Pilgrims DLT, 2008)

This is something that needs to be insisted on with respect to the church's understanding of the role of theology as a task that extends well beyond the activities of clerics and academic theology.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Violence in Mumbai

The media have been scrambling to try and explain the origins of the terror in Mumbai. One academic interviewed on ABC 666 Canberra refused to join in speculation about the claimed responsibility by the Deccan Mujahideen - never heard of them before he said. We do not have enough information to even speculate. Lack of information has not stopped the media. As Savi Hensman has commented in a brief on the Ekklesia site:

While a group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility, the most high-profile victim was anti-terrorist unit head Hemant Karkare, who just two days before had received a death threat for his investigation of violent Hindu supremacists. His death, along with two other senior police officers, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar, is a blow to efforts to make Bombay safe for residents and visitors from all creeds and communities.

The rise of the extreme right in Bombay, the surrounding state of Maharashtra and India as a whole has dismayed more moderate Hindus, and resulted in widespread violence against Muslims and, in some areas, Christians. Many in the police and armed forces are connected with, or afraid to confront, powerful hardliners.

But Karkare was willing to probe more deeply, and his investigation into a bomb blast in Malegaon led to the arrest last month of a number of Hindu extremists. This was an embarrassment to a movement which has sought to portray itself as respectable while pursuing electoral success. The death of Karkare and his colleagues will be a setback to those seeking to bring to justice the perpetrators of terrorism of all kinds.

Questions that need to be explored will move us beyond simple answers to pick up the interconnection strands of violence and the way different forms of extremism will feed off each other in mututal self justification.

What will also be missed in the media pursuit of simple answers is as Savi Hensman observes is that ... in multicultural Bombay and beyond, there are many people – high-profile figures like Karkare and ordinary residents of whom few have heard – who work hard to counter destructive ideas and prevent violent acts, whose efforts deserve to be recognised.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Towards a truly radical peaceable politics

Wendell Berry, farmer, novelist, poet from Kentucky has seen more clearly than most of us the logic and complex connections between economics, technology and violence. He has produced a clear account of what is entailed in moving toward a more peaceable world and can lay claim to having articulated a radical politics.

He has summarised his position most succinctly in an essaywritten after 11 September 2001, "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear".

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to “rogue nations”, dissident or fanatical groups and individuals - whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homelands and our lives.

X. We had accepted too the corollary belief that an economy (either as a money economy or as a life-support system) that is global in extent, technologically complex, and centralized is invulnerable to terrorism, sabotage, or war, and that it is protectable by “national defense”

XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual “war to end war?”

XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.

XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable.

XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil, water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that have been damaged.

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.

Against withdrawal

Nicholas Lash is always worth reading - a theologian who is intellectually demanding , engaged with the tradition and an active interlocutor in the intellectual currents that are shaping our lives.

In Theology for Pilgrims, his latest collection of essays he opens up with a vigorous critique of Richard Dawkins' recent cri de coeur The God Delusion. Christian fundamentalists might find it enlightening, or perhaps annoying as Lash explains why each is the mirror image of the other and both are wrong in their assumptions about what believing or disbelieving in God is all about and why both are missing the mark.

In a later essay "The impossibility of Atheism" he notes that there is ... a symptomatic glibness in mos forms of fundamentalism. ... it only seems easy to speak of God in the measure that we insulate our religious speech and theological imagination from the endlessly complex and disturbing world in which such speech finds reference.

... it is not insulation but having the courage, taking the risk, of what we might call total immersion in our culture. Not passively, or submissively but energetically, wholeheartedly, salt-of-earthishly, often counter-culturally. Moreover in the last analysis, it is not what we say that will keep the tradition alive and render it intelligible, but who and how we are as communities and as individuals. The Word became flesh and we are called to be that world's embodiment, a message to the world. (p.33)

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Parables that comfort? or Subvert?

The habit of preaching from the New Testament without regard to the social context, theological assumptions and the cultural meanings that shape Jesus teaching was on rampant display in the sermon I heard this morning on Matthew 25: 14-30 on the parable of the talents. The parable was treated without regard for context and became an exhortation not to be afraid - in contrast to the third servant in the story.

Ched Myers is I think much closer to a reading of the text that has the bite and challenge of Jesus' teaching generally.

The notorious parable of the talents (pounds) shows how Sabbath perspective as an interpretive key can rescue us from a long tradition of both bad theology and bad economics (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-28). This story has, in capitalist religion, been interpreted allegorically from the perspective of the cruel master (= God!), requiring spiritualizing gymnastics to rescue the story from its own depressing conclusion that haves will always triumph over the have-nots (Matthew 25:29). But it reads much more coherently when turned on its head and read as a cautionary tale of realism about the mercenary selfishness of the debt system. This reading understands the servant who refused to play the greedy master's money-market games as the hero who pays a high price for speaking truth to power (Matthew 25:24-30)—just as Jesus himself did. Jesus' "New Economy of Grace The biblical vision of Sabbath economics." by Ched Myers

Jesus did not get executed by the Roman empire because he went around telling stories encouraging us not to be afraid. There is a subversive edge to Myers' account that makes Jesus encounter with the powers that be and his own account of the parable plausible. Tellers of stories that are implicitly critical of exploitative economic practices and ironically endorse the whistleblower who refuses to go along with the game are likely to attract unfavourable attention to themselves.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Killing and the demands of warfare

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman exploring the psychology of the act of killing and the military establishment's attempt to understand and deal with the consequences of killing. According to Grossman and contrary to popular perception, the majority of soldiers in war do not ever fire their weapons and that this is due to an innate resistance to killing. Consequently the military has instituted training measures to break down this resistance and has successfully raised soldier's firing rates.

If accurate this is likely to have long term consequences when men who are so trained return to civilian life. When combined with the reality of traumatic stress syndrome now known to be common in men returning from war zone s such as Iraq the likelihood of violent responses to stressful situations by returned servicemen would seem to be almost inevitable. The need for substantial pyschological, spiritual and community support for Australian servicemen returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be over-emphasised. people are trained to override their basic human instinct - which is - not to kill. The minimum moral duty we owe them is to assist them to become reoriented to the basic human instinct and requirement - you shall not kill.

Giles Fraser in commenting on Grossmans' book and connecting it with the recently released James Bond movie:

What Lt Col Grossman suggests is that a huge percentage of soldiers become conscientious objectors at the point of firing their weapon. Many simply aim over the heads of their enemies. Most soldiers cannot kill. Human beings have an inbuilt psychological resistance to the taking of human life.

Next week, the new Bond film (the fantastically-named 'Quantum of Solace') comes out. Once again, 007 kills with ease. But this is make-believe. Sure, a handful of people — perhaps two per cent, psychologists say — have a diminished resistance to killing, and these are the psychopaths. But the vast majority, when faced with the reality, find it an incredibly difficult thing to do.

This is why training in the army involves repetition, doing the same thing again and again, so that you come not to think about it. The soldier fires just as Pavlov’s dogs drool. This form of conditioning can significantly increase firing rates — as can the enhancement of denial defence mechanisms: soldiers do not shoot people, they shoot targets.

Lt Col Grossman thus asserts that, ... “A new era of psychological warfare has dawned, not upon the enemy, but upon our own troops.”

All this might be vital for the creation of effective soldiers. But what does it do to these people when they are demobilised?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Borders and Bridges - responding to religious diversity

Much of the debate about engaging with religious diversity assumes that we are faced with only two options - exclusivism, retaining the integrity of a faith position, or a tolerant liberalism in which difference doesn't matter because we are all on different paths to the same religious end.

That account of things is wrong and there is lots of evidence that shows from the point of view of empirical lived reality to show that it is wrong.

Borders & Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World edited by Peter Dula and Alain Epp Weaver (Cascade Publishing, 2007) provides a series of case studies that prove the point. The stories are simpley and directly told largely by those who have been engaged in the situations they describe arising from long term placements under the direction of local organisations and building on personal relationships.

It is these long term patiently wrought connections that open up the possibility of engagment across the borders of religious difference. Interesting too is the fact of the seriousness of the faith commitment of a Charistian tradition committed to peacemaking and visibly distant from the violence of the US empire that has opened the doors to conversation. The story of the MCC engagment with Iranian Shi'ites is a stunning example.

This is a challenging and moving collection of stories with a reflective theological postscript.

Yoder, Obama and voting

On a similar them to the the comments from Simon Barrow noted above, Duane Shenk in a column in God's Politics: A blog by Jim Wallis and friends drew attention to some comments by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder in his book Christian Witness to the State (1964) that are worth thinking about in assessing the signifcance of democratic processes.

He argues that democracy, while certainly superior to more coercive forms of government, is nonetheless still a system in which “some men exercise power over others.” But he went on to say:

If we refuse the mythological explanation of democracy as a fundamentally new kind of social order, we can rejoice in the immensely increased possibilities which it provides of speaking to those who exercise power; the decentralization of authority, the election of legislators by a local constituency, and the constitutional and judicial controls on abuse of authority are all factors which oblige the men in power to listen to criticism with a greater degree of seriousness than in the age of absolutist monarchs.

The elective process, and in a general sense even the legislative process (especially in the national level, where the overwhelming power of bureaucracy is the most predominant) may thus be understood not as final and responsible participation in the making of government decisions about how the sword of the state is to be used, and still less as blameworthy involvement in executing those decisions; but rather as one relatively effective way the subject population has of making its likes and dislikes known.

For the idea that the voter himself is making the decision to have any real validity, it would be necessary for the options presented to the electorate to include all the possible choices. In a two-party system this is never the case. The voter chooses not a position of principle but the less objectionable of two competing oligarchies.

Understanding the franchise as a means of communicating to the bearers of political authority underlines how seriously the Christian witness is compromised by the fact that for most Christians the decision about how to vote is not the expression of any careful evaluation of what needs to be said to the authorities; the decision to abstain from voting is likewise seldom evaluated with a view to its communicating something.

Similarly, in an October 1976 article in Sojourners magazine, Yoder wrote that

A system in which the subjects are consulted, and in which the oligarchy can be changed non-violently, is better than other systems, so we shall participate gratefully, though with low expectations, in the plebiscite, to the extent that real options, such as real platform integrity or technical competence of major figures are at stake.

That being the case,

To go to the polls is then not, as the Hutterite and the hippie on one side and the superpatriot on the other contend, a ritual affirmation of moral solidarity with the system. It is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil (all other things being equal) than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Further thoughts on Obama

There is a space for rejoicing with those who rejoice - particularly those who have struggled hard and carry the memories and the actual scars of that struggle - Congressman John Lewis for one whose invocation of Martin Luther King Jr as he celebrated the election of Barack Obama was one that we should be glad to join with.

My friend Simon Barrow has found words that express the balance of engagement and naming of our resonsibility for action when we move beyond that shared moment of celebration to an assessment that should brace the ongoing Christian response in his column in Ekklesia.

The election of Barack Obama in the US is a significant change, but it is a much smaller change than many people want to believe.

So the real issue is how we, "ordinary people", can use the tiny but vital bit of space opened up for justice and peace. It's no good expecting Obama to be a singular hero. I think he has humane instincts, but he is (of course) deeply wrapped up in the system he would like to redirect. I don't expect him to save us, and I shall not hate him when he doesn't.

If there is salvation to be had (and I fully respect those who doubt it, though I think any lesser hope is likely to be inadequate to the real challenges we face) it is going to be, in the words of the Hebrew prophet, "not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Holy One": that is, a massive refiguration of everything that is at stake, politically, economically, spiritually, interpersonally - starting not with overarching theory or messianic politics/religion, but with specific interventions and the cultivation of alternative ways of being.

This is what church as ekklesia and as part of the civic arena should be about. Not pipe dreams, but lived possibilities and concrete actions. There is a larger hope, but it starts in small places; it engages rather than overwhelms; and it is birthed by absorbing, sharing and transforming pain, not inflicting it by force of arms. It is Christlike. And it is rooted in metanoia, turning around and heading in a new direction.

Christians in Australia will want to consider the possibilities for pushing the Australian government harder on climate change and financial commitment on the Millenium Development Goals now that we have a US President who has committed to joning global action on these pressing issues.

Obama - the limits and possibilities of change

Simon Barrow at Ekklesia captures something of a Christian realism about the limits and possibilities of change arising from Barack Obama's election. Some of the real changes in the USA are as likely to come from the grass roots empowering that he has set off as from his actual election.

Though I remain less convinced than many that a win for Obama will bring the sweeping change many hope for, it will certainly revamp the general 'mood music' of American and global politics, and open up positive vistas and pressure points which have not existed in recent years. At one level this can only be good, though the reaction of others can never be predicted. Nevertheless, we shouldn't kid ourselves. In a modern, money-driven, corporate-led, technocratic age, there is a sense in which the old anarchist slogan remains true: "It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in." The former premise is not validated by the latter, however. It matters. If it provides an inch for people to live in when they might otherwise perish, it matters. Only those who have the luxury of retreating to their armchair are privileged to think otherwise and adopt a feigned neutrality or a hip cynicism. Go, Barack. And go those who at the grassroots who will be there to hold him to at least some of his practical ideals.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Thinking about Wendell Berry

A week ago I went on an open day for a walk around Scottsdale, a property 70km south of Canberra backing on to the Murrumbidgee River and the Namadgi Natonal Park. the property has been purchased for conservation purposes by the Bush Heritage Trust.

Walking around the property with one of the Trust's ecologists learning about the complexity of restoring the productivity of the property in terms of the soil, the plants and the animals I was struck by the time horizon for ecological recovery. In some respects we might get improvement within a decade and be able o see the difference, in other respects it might take 50 years.

This is a time horizon that cuts across our cultural expectations in which everything has to happen immediately.

This sort of time horizon and respect for the land is a key element in the novels and poetry of Wendell Berry. To read his fictional account of the people and land in the community of Port William is to be reminded of the importance of time and connection to a place in terms of care and restoration of what we have ignorantly and impatiently despoiled.

Thinking about Martin Luther King

While the election of Barack Obama will not bring in the millenium, or anything remotely approaching it, it is difficult to contemplate the possibility of his election as President of the USA without reflecting on the life and ministry of Martin Luther King and acknowledging the significance of the civil rights movement in making this event possible.

The possibility of an African American Democrat being competitive in a presidential poll in Georgia and North Carolina is a possibility that King would have appreciated.

Obama has his roots in the black church - the limits of what has been achieved are evident in the political pragmatics of Obama having to severe his direct connections with his congregation and its pastor mid way through the campaign becuse of controversy over the preaching of his pastor Jeremiah Wright and his confronting the USA with th truth of its past - a truth that is still not palatable to the mainstream media.

This Martin Luther King would have understood.

Obama's election is likely to be for African Americans who remember Martin Luther King a bitter-sweet moment indeed.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Getting the Blues - theology in a minor key

Stephen J Nichols has produced fine piece of theology in a minor key, on what the blues teaches us about suffering and salvation. (Brazos Press, 2008)

This is a wonderful piece of work for someone like myself who has enjoyed musicians like B B King and has heard the tributes to musicians like Mississippi John Hurt by the younger generation of acoustic blues musicians like Eric Bibb but is only very vaguely aware of the roots of this musical tradition.

Nicholls proceeds with humility and respect. It is not his tradition and story."But" he says "I can listen and I can try to understand."

In that journey of trying to understand Nicholls gives us some geography, history and biography of key figures in the history of the blues. Out of this he gives us a theological reading - in a minor key.

A theology in a minor key- or the blues for that matter ... is no mere existential scream. In fact, a theology in a minor key sounds a rather hopeful melody. Good Friday yearns for Easter and eventually Easter comes. Blues singers, even when groaning about the worst of times, cry out for mercy; they know that, despite appearance, Sunday's coming. (p.15)

Nicholls provides a useful discography for the beginner like me. Hopefully he may have solved the issue of the birthday present list for years to come.

Australian Parliament and the Lord's Prayer

The semi-regular rerun of the argument over opening the meeting of the Australian Parliament with the recital of the Lord's Prayer has had it's run with the usual arguments trotted out.

The only thing relatively fresh was the suggestion by Senator Bob Brown of the Greens that a few minutes silence would be appropriate given the volume of words that flowed forth every day. That certainly is a point worth making.

The Christendom mentality was still well and truly represented in letters to the editor with references to Australia being a Christian country and the Christian influence on our laws and heritage.

Let me offer a few random thoughts and questions from a Christian tradition that has its roots in a profound critique of Christendom.

Let's start with a bit of theology. The so-called "Lord's Prayer" is more appropriately titled "the Disciples' Prayer". It was taught by Jesus to a motley group of followers who were on the social and political margins - it was a prayer that was subversive of the governing assumptions of the Empire - focusing around questioning of the Empire, God was more important than Caesar, a commitment to an economics of enough, rather than excess, and of forgiveness as a basic pattern for social life.

The disciple's prayer is a prayer for the church - a prayer to shape the character of its life and that of its members not a rote piece of religiosity rushed through with intonation or feeling. It's recital in Parliament in fact has the effect of subverting the subversive character of the prayer by giving a flavour of conservative religiosity to what is and should be a "secular" institution in the sense used by the current PM in an article he wrote back in 2006.

Christians he argued should … always hold a state somewhat at arm's length, but in their engagement with the state, they should take a consistent ethical position, which is always based on a cause of social justice or the interests of the marginalized.

…I strongly defend our parliament and our polity as being both secular and pluralist, but within that secular pluralist polity, you can't deny Christians having their voice, just as you can't deny anyone else having their voice …,

Christians if they took the disciple's prayer seriously should be moving immediately to have it withdrawn from the formal proceedings of parliament. It is an unacceptable hangover of Christendom. Its current use in that context is a profaning of its character and a mockery of its original intent and meaning.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Deja Vu and Liquidity traps, or where is Keynes when we need him

I confess to have struggled with some of the finer points of macro economics in my student days.

I do remember, however, Keynes analysis of liquidity traps and the animal spirits of capitalists. It somehow seems vaguely relevant to the ongoing financial crisis. Where is the rational calculations that underpin market operations? What we have on the share seems to be anything but rational - decision making driven by fear, uncertainty, lack of trust ...

Marx I think it was said that history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy ... Or was it the other way around? Looking at current events it is a little hard to tell.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Queensland Indigenous Policy

Reading Rosalind Kidd's The Way We Civilise (UQP), on the history of indigenous policy in Queensland up till 1980, originally published in 1997, I am left with some lingering questions about current indigenous policy debates, particularly those initiated by Noel Pearson.

Much of his concern is focussed around issues to do with welfare and education, targetting policy initiatives over the past twenty years. Fair enough. a reasonable debate to have.

Yet I came away from Ros Kidd's book feeling that the debate between Pearson and his critics was being conducted in a historical vacuum, with scant reference to the history of a century of underfunding, neglect and lack of accountability of goverment administrators. It is an appalling story that has shaped indigenous communities across Queensland. The sheer survival of people and communities has been a triumph of resilience and of the human spirit in the face of betrayal, falure to provide basic amenities of health and housing, fraud and rip offs, not to mention virtual slavery.

Many of the policy debates always seem to assume that we are starting from scratch and that this time we, who is the we? - usually government and its administrators, are going to get things right. The truth of the past is rarely acknowledged and indigenous poeple become once again the subjects of policy, not the agents of change engaged in the process of shaping their future.

After examining a history of Queensland government policy, Kidd queries whether what we have is an "Aboriginal problem" - would not the history of the past hundred years suggest that what we have is a "government problem"?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Flinders Ranges

Euro - kangaroo with four wheel drive - Arkaroola

Leaving the bitumen ...

The degradation of language

In the 1940's in a discussion on Telling the Truth Bonhoeffer commented:
In place of genuine words we now have chatter. Words no longer have any weight. There is too much talk. When the boundaries of various words are erased, however, when words become rootless and homeless, then the word loses truth, and this almost necessarily gives rise to the lie. When the various conventions of life are no longer mutually observed, then words become untrue. (Collected Works Vol 16 pp.624-625)

What would he say to day in the world of talkback and spin?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Discipleship and Resurrection

Craig Hovey has produced a remarkable challenging reading of Mark's Gospel in To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church, Brazos Press, 2008

One quote from his discussion of the resurrection and discipleship in the Gospel will have to suffice.

Like the Emmaus disciples, the church is constantly tempted to make Jesus "stay with us", to possess him and control his movements. He vanishes because he had intended to go further: as for the women at the empty tomb in Mark. He was going ahead into Galilee, and "thee you will see him." He will not be seen by a sight that grasps, but only by a vision that crosses the space between the disciple and Jesus with the movement of following. The church faces this temptation when it attempts to prove to the world that the resurrection has happened, when it builds a case for it on apologetic grounds, when it construes a logical case for its belief. The problem is not only that such efforts may fail to convince anybody. Indeed, the attempt tow win the argument on logical or juridical grounds is meant to fail, a point exemplified by the fact that women are entrusted to ber witness. The reliabiity of their testimony is disabled by their gender in that patriarchical milieu. And yet it is the women who are promised to see Jesus in Galilee, who had not abandoned Jesus at the cross, and who, Mark explains, had followed and served Jesus in Galilee (15:40-41). These unlikely witnesses are undermined in their authority for the same reason that Peter will amaze the crowds at Pentecost: the proclamation of the gospel does not rely on the gender or education of the witnesses. After all, a gospel proclaimed by women and uneducated fishermen is a social sign of a cosmic reversal that the gospel heralds. (p.127)

Some pensioners may be doing it tough ...

No doubt that pensioners are not at the top of the income distribution charts. The question as to whether they are the most disadvantaged group in Australia is entirely another issue. The lack of willingness by the media to be tactless enough to ask that question is not a contribution to informed debate.

To get one view on the priority needs facing what really is overall a wealthy community it's worth taking a look at the Catholic Church's Social Justice Sunday Statement for 2008.
Who are our sisters and brothers in need?

In a prosperous Australia, we are called to recognise that ‘the needs of the poor are more important than the wants of the rich’. Some particular groups still endure great poverty and inequality. We are again called to hear the voice of the poor and to act with generous hearts.

The statement identifies:
  • Indigenous families and communities
  • Families in distress and the working poor
  • Refugees and Asylum seekers
  • People who are homeless

The pensioners that need priority attention will be those who do not have a home paid off and are dependent on the private rental market. They will need help not so much because they are pensioners but because they are subject to the pressures of the housing market.

If the pensioners are doing it tough those on disability pensions and income support longterm will be doing it even tougher - their rate of payment is significantly lower.

The danger of the focus on the claims of pensioners is that those with even greater needs but with quieter voices will get overlooked.

The subversiveness of the local

Holidays in the outback means time to do some reading of novels. This year in the Finders Ranges I had Wendell Berry for company - in this case his collection of stories of the town and surrounding countryside of Port William in Kentucky, That Distant Land.

Berry is a wonderful story teller - he loves the land and the people where he lives and brings them to life as characters against the wider social forces that have changed the practice of farming and community life over the past century.

He is a lover of place and the stories celebrate the willingness of people to challenge those wider forces in the name of friendship and out of respect for their relationship to the land on which they work. In the story Fidelity" a dying man is 'recovered' from hospital to enable him to die on his own land with a wonderful episode in which the policeman sent to investigate what has happened finds his assumptions challenged in a wonderful dialogue that subverts our assumptions about the authority of medical institutions and the demands for friendship.

Kentucky might seem a long way from the worn, spare landscapes of Arkaroola and Wilpena Pound but it struck me that Berry's attention to the local and his sense of responsbility for, and connection to the land would place him in sympathy with the Indigenous people who stewarded the limited resources in a demanding environment and recognised their connection to the land.

The achievement of the first people of this land is underlined by the abandoned stone houses across the Willochra Plain north of Quorn. In two waves in the later half of the 19th century the settlers tried to impose European agriculture on an environment that required a sober recognition of limits.

While the recognition of the culture and the founding stories of the first people is recognised across the region, nowhere could I find any acknowledgement of the history ofdispossession and conflict that must have taken place. The silence was deafening.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Battle for Australia - getting our bearings

The declaration of a day to celebrate the Battle for Australia caught me a bit unawares. I am confused about what is being celebrated and he significance of the date chosen.

There is I understand major stoush going on about the historical issues at stake with Peter Stanley from the Australian War Memorial, the institution most clearly associated most clearly with the civil religion flame associated with Anzac Day denying that Australia was in any danger of being invaded by the Japanese, squaring off against the received wisdom.

Beyond that the title for the event is unfortunate - the Indigenous community might have been under the illusion that in the spirit of the apology the battle which they undoubtedly fought was being finally acknowledged.

And the language of sacrifice continues to be used in a way that occludes the reality of war. Some people did sacrifice their lives to save that of their friends on some occasions. Mostly war was and is about people killing other people. Increasingly war is about a casualty ratio of civilians to military of around ten to one.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reading bonhoeffer - God is no stopgap

Reading Bonhoeffer I have to remind myself again and again that much of his writing was in the context of a totalitarian regime and that in his writing he is attempting a profound critique of the regime and the way the church was responding without spelling out that specific context, an that for perfectly obvious reasons when you stop and think about it.

Much of his reflections about responsibility, for example, were about the ethical underpinning to his approach to the plot against Hitler. If we forget that we will read his writings as a purely academic discourse separate from the context in which he found himself. To do that is to fundamentally misread him and to miss the full stretch and challenge that he was making to theological and intellectual heritage hat he was brought up in.

And in the end he keeps gong with his refrain of the inextricable worldliness of Christianity.

God is no stopgap. God must be known not at the boundaries of our possibilities but in the midst of life, in life and not just in dying, in health and strength and not just in suffering. God wants to be known in action and not just in sin. The reason for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is in the midst of life. Seen from the midst of life certain questions disappear and so do the answers to such questions. (p.253 I want to Spend These Days with You.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Remembering the Sermon on the Mount

A friend of mine Dave Andrews has started a project to remind Christians of the Sermon on the Mount - as a central source for Christian activism and discipleship. See his website

Getting back into memorising and reflecting on the Sermon brought back to mind Bruce Cockburn's version, that takes the form of one verse in "Shipwrecked at the Stable Door', from the Big Circumstance album.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, Blessed are the meek, For theirs shall be the kingdom that the powermongers 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.

Remembering Refugees

A viewing of the movie "We shall be remembered for this: A film about Australia" last week brought back to me the deep anger that I experienced during the years from 2001, the deceptive language and fearmongering of the previous Government's refugee "policy", and the deaths of the people on the SIEV X.

The simple road movie of a trip to Baxter refugee camp put together by a young Christian activist, now a lawyer, provided a helpful benchmark on where we had come from during a week in which there was an announcement of a substantial change in government policy.

A simple story that is worth going back to, to be reminded of how people were de-humanised and put through severe trauma from simply trying to exercise their right to seek asylum.

We need to remember our shared humanity - for Christians the fundamental claim that all share in the image of God, or as the Quakers put it, acknowledge that there is "that of God" in every human.

A week for remembering...

9 August 1945 - Nagasaki was devastated by an atom bomb.
The radius of total destruction was about 1.6 km (1 mile), followed by fires across the northern portion of the city to 3.2 km (2 miles) south of the bomb.

the shadow of nuclear weapons still hangs over us - the nuclear arsenals are not yet being reduced, the vision of the prophet Isaiah of a time when swords will be turned into ploughshares remains unfulfilled, and the Christian churches remain deaf to the call of Jesus, Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

We remain caught up in arguments conducted with little charity and verbal violence about our definitions of who should be ruled in and out of the church while the fundamental claims of Jesus' call to discipleship seem to be ignored.

A week too to remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn - A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich stands as a powerful account of the struggle to be human in a totalitarian society.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

A solitary witness?

On 9 August I want to remember the witness of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant who was executed for his refusal to perform military service for the German Reich. His story is an amazing account of the achievement of moral clarity in judgement about the essential character of the Htler regime and a steadfast opposition to the regime based on that assessment.

Jagerstatter's "solitary" witness was not so solitary, though it was not a journey shared by many of his fellow Catcholics. He was sustained by his church, almost despite itself, through its practice of pastoral care and his commitment to the disciplines of his faith, most notably through his reception of communion. The church who formed his “reference group” was the church of the prophets and the martyrs. The delight with which he heard the story of Franz Reinisch, a priest who had previously trodden the same path he was treading, is poignant testimony to his desire to be in communion with the wider church, to not be alone.

Michael Baxter provides us with a theological account of the relationship between the individual and the church in a way that highlights the communal dimension of Jägerstätter’s witness despite its apparent solitary character.

No one receives the gift of peace as an individual, any more that they receive the Body of Christ as an individual. Rather, we receive the gift of peace as members of a body (ICor 12: 12-30, Romans 12: 4-5). In this sense, Francis of Assisi was not “an individual”; he was a saint, a member within a communion, who took into his body the marks of Christ, and was thus shown to be a sharer in the body of Christ. …

Jägerstätter is often depicted as an individual, as a “solitary witness”…. But in fact, he himself was a member of the body of Christ, one who, daily ate the body of Christ and felt called to be a saint …

‘Just War and Pacifism: a “Pacifist” Perspective in Seven Points’ Houston Catholic Worker Vol.XXIV, No.3, May-June 2004 p.2

Remembering Hiroshima 6 August 1945

Remembering 6 August 1945, Hiroshima - lest we forget?

Choose life?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Reading James Allison reading Scripture

At the end of a discussion of Romans 1 in which James Allison argues that it has nothing to do with what we call homosexuality, draws our attention to the context within which reading is done.

Because for us the prime source of authority is not the text itself but the crucified and living victim alive in our midst, who is the living interpretative presence teaching us how to undo our violent and evil ways of relating to each other, and how together to enter into the way of penitence and peace. For us the phrase 'The Word of God' refers in the first place to a living person, and only by analogy to the texts which bear witness to him. The living hermeneutical presence is more important than that which it is hermeneuting. This is what is meant by Jesus telling the Pharisees in Matthew's Gospel: 'Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice"
And: '... If you had known what this means 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice " you would not have condemned the guiltless" (pp.139-140 Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in)

Link on starting from the place where we are wrong

As promised previously link to the sermon by Jim Barr - MP3 format - The Place where we are wrong - starting engagment with others from a place of confession of where we as a faith community have failed.


Human rights and the Image of God

In a discussion of the "image of God" at the Zadok/Evangelical Alliance conference on Earthy Theology in Melbourne last weekend, Rikki Watts observed that in the ancient world it was understood that what was done to the image was done to the god. As humanity is understood in the Christian tradition to be "in the image of God" every abuse against another human being is an act of treason against God.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

On Earth as in Heaven

TEAR Australia National Conference and Festival at Stanwell Tops, just south of Sydney, this last weekend was a wonderful event. The conference organisers were almost overwhelmed by a conference attendance of 500 people - probably over half under 35 years of age.

Whatever is happening in the decline of the Christendom model of the church a socially engaged faith inspired by a range of influences from nineteenth century Evangelical reformers such as Wilberforce, through contemporary anabaptism to the new monasticism, is well and truly alive in Australia.

In the local TEAR groups, lobbying activities and community engagement many people are finding a faith community experience that is more coherent and in touch with everyday life than traditional forms of churching. This form of social/faith movement is characterised by leadership that is not constrained by denominational politics and is moved forward by the energy, gifts and skills of ordinary biblically and theologically literate people who are not waiting for clerical permission.

Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven - the conference theme was underpinned by enlivening biblical studies by activist Ched Myers who drew our attention to the social, economic and political reality against which the prophets of Israel proclaimed God's critique and the realities of the empire against which Jesus' ministry was set.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The problem with reason

The new atheists have been vocal about the need for "reason" and how the application of reason is all that is required for people to escape the illusion of "religion".

Romand Coles highlights the difficulty and the illusion of appealing to some pure idea of reason above and beyond the influences and sheer messiness of human life.

... our visions and arguments concerning the "reasonable" and "the public" (and for that matter "religion" I would add) are infused with and are significantly and discrepantly shaped by particular histories, doctrines, perceptions, and sensibilities with which we identify - in ways that seem powerfully to elude transparency. (p.246 Beyond Gated Politics)

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Deconstructing pretensions of power

John D Caputo has offered a deconstructionist reading of Jesus, a reading against the powers that be in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church (Baker Academic, 2007).

Some passages are powerful, imaginatively challenging and shook loose the comforting familiar ways of reading the New Testament. At a couple of points he stumbles, particularly where he fails to recognise that John Howard Yoder is an ally of his project. A shadow of Christendom remains lurking as an unacknowledged ghost at a couple of points. Never mind - at its best Caputo is disturbing and subversive, not least of the church when it moves to comfortable conformity with the powers that be and moves away from the impossibility of the gift.

Caputo acknowledges that there is no straight line from the theo-poetics of the kingdom into public policy. That does not mean he argues that there is no connection at all. The way is by a transformation of heart and imagination as much as by analysis it seems to me.

What would a political order look like were the poetics of the kingdom able to be transformed into political structure? What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and loving one's enemies abroad?


A politics of the kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity and hospitality. The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organised around the disasterous concept of power ... The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty. (p.87-88)

Monday, 14 July 2008

World Youth Day - how it might renew faith

Contrary to The Australian newspaper's headline suggesting that the Pope's coming to Australia would renew the flame of faith, the real change to life of the Christian community in Australia arising from World Youth Day is likely to be located elsewhere, much closer to the grass roots and away from the headlines.

It will come, if it does from the reality of Christians from across the globe meeting each other, face to face and in small groups, receiving ecumenical hospitality from Australian Christians of other traditions and discovering our connections across the barriers of nations, institutional self preservation and ancient theological quarrels.

Let me offer a small testimony from an informal service that my wife and I attended last night.
Hosted in an Anglican chapel, using an Iona service for justice, we had musical accompaniment from members of Chemin Neuf, a Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation and were lead in a meditation on how Jesus might respond to the experience of Palestinians on the West Bank by a young couple of anabaptist persuasion who had recently been on a delegation with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron.

It was a wonderful time of sharing, in making some of those connections that will work for life and gesture towards the freedom, challenge and love offered in the call of Jesus to follow.

Engagement with others part 2

To follow up yesterday's post on starting engagement from other from "The place where we are wrong' I promise to put up a link to the sermon when it goes up on the Canberra Baptist website.

In the meantime here is another attempt to sketch in an affirmative mode a form of Christian engagement, this time in the words of Roman Coles radical democrat activist and political theorist (re)interpreting the anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder.

Witness to Jesus as Lord must not be read as a solicitation to strive for a singular and direct knockout victory over outsiders. Instead, it calls for multiple particular vulnerable encounters in which the strengths of the church body are little by little brought to light and perhaps themselves radically reformed and renewed. (p.127 Beyond Gated Politics)

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Interfaith engagement

Interfaith engagement has tended to take one of three major patterns in Christian history. We're right and you are wrong, a black and white view of the world which fails to do justice to kalidescopic colours of life. A successionist view of religions, which sees one succeeding the other - problematic for Christians engaging with Islam or a relativism which says that we are all heading for the some goal and it doesn't matter which way we go. This is an approach that evades the question of truth and similarly overlooks the fact that different religious traditions have very different views about the goal of life and the character of what virtues we need to develop on our way to the goal.

Jim Barr in his sermon on Romans 11 at Canberra Baptist Church this morning argues that the way to interfaith engagement begins with "the place where we are wrong". For Christians this means an engagement that begins with confession of our implication as a community of faith with the state use of violence through the Christendom era and into the period of colonialism.

Following from Jim's suggestion it would seem that we do not so much need a theory about other "schools of faith" whether liberal or fundamentalist, but rather a communal practice of confession and opening our hands to receive the grace of God's mercy and forgiveness - even from hands of those who have suffered at the hands of our fellow members of Christ's body.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

In a time of church conflict...

In a time of Anglican church conflict, the following comments by a political theorist Romand Coles and activist in grass roots radical democratic movements offers a helpful reading of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder - a reading in favour of radical democracy. The careful attention Coles pays to Yoder in his reading demonstrates demonstrates a respect for someone from a differing faith trajectory, a respect and care that serves as a helpful model that could well be usefully practiced by some of the controversialists in the wolrd wide Anglican community.

What unity asks Coles does the church seek? According to Coles...

Yoder emphatically rejects notions of church unity based upon extant agreements that would proide a lowest -common denominator foundation for identity, direction and tolerable pluralism. Such understandings tend to construe every serious dispute as a call for division.

Far better Yoder argues to understand church unity as a commitment to dialogical processes of reconciliation figured by the early churchees' gathering discernment around Jesus's wisdom of the cross. This "racialises the particular relevance of Jesus, enabling dialogue through the content of his message: the love of the enemy, the dignity of the lowly, repentance, servanthood, the renunciation of coercion." (p.117 Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy)

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Anglicans, property and why Sydney Diocese won't be part of a schism

Whatever their passion for getting the Anglican church on what they see as the right theological track we can I think be fairly certain that the leadership of Sydney Diocese will move cautiously in how this is all framed in terms of institutional arrangements with respect to their relationship to the Anglican church in Australia.

That at least is the view of this non-Anglican, bush lawyer and committed ecclesial anarchist.

If you are wondering why I sound so confident, I have one word for you - property.

Sydney Diocese is sitting on someone unknown amount of property, some estimates place it at about $4 billion, arising historically from the early land grants during the initial settlement in Sydney - grants that were made before it became clear that the Anglican Church was not going to become the Established Church on that fatal shore.

Anglican dioceses are rife with lawyers. Any hint that Sydney diocese was in any way moving to formally disconnect itself from the Anglican communion would see legal opinions flying right left and centre about the possibility of civil suits around the lawful ownership of that property.

An example of what such legal action might look like, on a somewhat smaller scale, can be found in the cases that followed the split up of the assets of the Presbyterian Church between those who joined the Uniting Church and those who remained to form the continuing Presbyterian church.

We can't say that we weren't warned by Jesus about the power of Mammon. In this case it looks like it will effectively constrain some church leaders who have strong theological commitments from following thos commitments to their logical institutional conclusion.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

What is important about being a Christian community?

In reflecting on the events over the schism, or coup in the international Anglican community in the past week (can Anglicans have schisms? I must seek guidance from my Anglican friends as to whether this is ecclesiologically possible), I found the following observations at the close of a sermon by my friend Simon Barrow of Ekklesia bracing in providing a helpful perspective:

Jesus, remember, was clear that the Spirit of the Lord was calling him to proclaim good news to the poor, not the self-satisfied; the sick and the subjugated, not the well and the worthy. In following this Jesus, we will take risks and make mistakes. But that is not the worst thing. The worst thing is to think that it is our rules, structures and institutions, rather than God’s capacity to remake lives, forgive sins and free us from bondage, that really counts. (Whose Mission is it Anyway? a Sermon on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul)

Speed and more speed

Advocates who are passionate for something to be done - cross jurisdiction sharing of information about children who may be at risk for example - can be blind to the realities of the world of institutions and the fact that very few things that matter can be done immediately.

The world of instant action, instant moral gratification and a crusading gnosticism that does not acknowledge that reality and recalcitrance of matter and people - that resources of people, time and money are required to make protection and care of children effective.

It takes time in the real world to set up systems appropriate money make software to talk, ensure legal protections and appropriate training of staff to ensure that the system actually works and continues to work and that appropriate care is taken to ensure that people's lives are not damaged by mistake and that bureaucrats exercising power over the lives of families, are accountable for the way they exercise that power.

But no none of this matters - damage is being done to children while all this goes on according to the advocates and there should be no tarrying. Nothing is more important, nothing else should receive the Prime Minister's attention.


Jesus announced "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy". Those filled with compassion for children, as the least the most vulnerable in our community might think about extending some compassion to public servants and politicians who cannot take immediate action on all fronts to prevent all the evils and tragedies currently in prospect.

Public servants too have families and children who need to be cared for or are they to be sacrificed on the altar of the need for speed in trying to prevent some anticipated evil?

Monday, 30 June 2008

Grief, Tragedy and getting out of life alive

Grief at the devastating violence against children reported in the past couple of weeks in the australian media, from children left to starve by their parents in Brisbane to a double murder of his children and suicide by a father in rugged country west of Eden and an apparent axe murder of children by their father is warranted. Grieve with those who grieve ...

However the public response for the government to do something and the assumption that violence can be prevented by more laws deserves some further consideration.

The assumption is that evil can be prevented and tragedy avoided by sufficient use of legislation and government mandated intervention and surveillance.

What needs further reflection is the unacknowledged violence in the human heart and the assumption that with enough intelligence and education and the employment of enough socal workers and police we could all get out of life alive ...

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Subsizing World Youth Day

The costs to the NSW State government of staging the Catholic church's World Youth Day this year is going to come in a bit under $100 million but probably not by much.

I have to say I find this troubling - for a couple of reasons. One is that security legislation similar to that inforce during the legendary APEC schemozzle last year is in force. (the challenge to the Chaser Team must be almost irresistible). The second is that the church has tied itself up with government by accepting a substantial financial subsidy for an event which relates to the heart of the church's activity in encouraging pilgrimage and proclamation of its core identity as a movement committed to following Jesus.

Something is not quite right here - the dissonance between the life and witness of Jesus and the acceptance of subsidisation by government and assent to use of legislation which concentrates increased power in the hands of the state is too sharp for me to feel comfortable.