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Sunday, 27 January 2008

Legacy of Ashes - questions about the value of intelligence

Tim Weiner's history of the CIA as an almost unrelieved saga of failure raised a number of questions for me, around issues of assessment.

On a purely pragmatic level Weiner's history suggests that a rational cost-benefit calculation of the impact of CIA activity on the national interest of the United States could end up heavily in the red. Put bluntly what has the United States gained from the investment of billions of dollars?

The calculation can't be done of course without making a range of normative assessments about how to assess and weigh up impact of CIA activity on those who have been subject to violence, torture, the support of the militarisation of societies and the corruption of the machinery of government in the cause of making the world safe for the United States.

How do we assess the claims of the victims against the claims of those who supposedly have benefited from CIA covert action?

It at least partly depends upon who the "we" in question is.

Christians may find themselves framing the "we" at several levels. At one level as members of a particular nation state - as resident aliens, seeking the good of the city in which we find ourselves and willing to join in the public debate over what forms of intelligence activity can be justified and on what grounds.

Christians have another "we" that should act as a frame of reference - our membership in the church, as followers of Jesus, the multi-ethnic body of Christ spread across the world.
This would change the moral calculus substantially. giving priority to the claims of the poor and the vulnerable.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Wendell Berry - novelist

Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself by Wendell Berry
Counterpoint, 2000.

Wendell Berry is a wonderful story teller, is a sharp observer of the changes in a community and a real theologian to boot.

This is the first novel of his that I have read. I will be looking to get hold of others. I was moved and engaged by the story of Jayber Crow, orphan, barber and bachelor - a man who discovered he did not have the call to preach.

Berry's doubts about organised religion find voice in the life and spiritual struggles of Jonah Crow. After years of readig the Gospels Jayber observes that he has come to believe that ...
Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one.

Berry is also good in his critique of the spiritualisation of Christianity, that finds voice in the reflections of Jayber Crow on the importance of the body and the goodness of creation.

In a fine review of this novel Michael Wilt observes:

Taken to a church-run orphanage, young Jonah believes he hears the call to be a preacher and, when the time comes, enrolls in college on a scholarship in “pre-ministerial” studies. But it is not long before he finds himself in trouble.

If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins –- hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust -- came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.

Jonah comes to recognize that he is not called to preach. “I was a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where,” he says, echoing Dante. After some trial and error, that somewhere becomes Port William, the community in which he had been born but from which he had been absent since the age of ten. His journey to Port William, through the rising waters of several days of winter rain, evokes the biblical Jonah’s water-journey, but is most memorable for the hospitality he receives at its end. Having picked up the barbering trade in the orphanage and practiced it for a time to support himself, Jonah buys Port William’s vacant shop and opens for business. He is eventually re-christened Jayber by the locals, and can finally say, “I felt at home.”

Australia Day

Australia Day has caught up on me this year - lost track that it was coming. I also have to confess a degree of distance from it as an event for celebration.

Tom Cranitch in a column in Eureka Street (21 January 2008)
captures some but not all of the reasons for my distance:

As a fourth generation Australian male approaching middle-age, I must confess I do not like Australia Day. Not even the public holiday gets me excited. I am certain at some point, perhaps when I was a late teenager around the time of the bicentenary celebrations, it may have meant something to me. No more!

Critical analysis skills garnered in undergraduate Australian history subjects started the rot. The dawning realisation that the date of white settlement was not an occasion to inspire national reconciliation was a further incentive. Credible research that suggested the first few days of settlement were a veritable orgy of rapes and murder did nothing but crystallise my private loathing for the date.

What has finally tilted me ardently against the day is its growing use by Australian nationalists for the purpose of reviving perceived certainties of a rather dubious monoculture. Instead of being used for a forward-thinking and inclusive dialogue on our country's future, it heralds an opportunity for populists to hark for a return to 'good old days' Australian values with their inherent, yet cleverly disguised, divisions and power imbalances.

Aside from the white arm-banding of history evident in trying to create a national day out of a moment of imperial violence, a further element of unease arises from the fact that I am allergic to flag waving per se.

As a Christian committed, however falteringly to the way of peace, I am critical of the church's historical alignment with power to enforce the faith. On the same grounds I am critical of the record of nationalism as a justification for the sacrifice of lives on a scale that is frequently ignored.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Trust and ethics in government - post election reflections

It was interesting to read this book, some of which was clearly written shortly after the 2004 election, in the light of developments over the subsequent three years and the defeat of the Howard government at the 2007 election.

The difficulty that some commentators have had in putting their finger on the reasons for the defeat of the Howard government might have been lessened by paying attention to the teasing out by John Uhr of the complexities of making judgments about trust, ethics, accountability and responsibility in the Australian political context.

In Terms of Trust John Uhr works through some fundamental questions about political and governments leadership:
  • How can we make political leadership compatible with ethical leadership?
  • How relevant is personal character to public life?
  • Why do we need to widen the scope of ‘leadership’ to include all public officials and not just those at the top?
This is a book informed by a familiarity with classical political theory, contemporary ethical analysis and a practical knowledge of the Australian political and parliamentary system.

John Uhr is a subtle writer and the subtlety of his style is, I am convinced, part of the substantive argument that he is making is this book. Judgments are not laid down in a prescriptive, take it or leave it manner. Rather directions for assessment of issues are teased out by a balancing of the insights of differing positions - the balancing requiring the exercise of practical virtue of prudence.

It is a trifle surprising that someone of an Aristotelian temperament that Alisdair McIntyre does not get a guernsey. Perhaps there is a hat tip offered subtly in that direction in the closing paragraph of the book when the author speaks of rebuilding ...the 'terms of trust' around more substantial moral virtues than are found in many conventional accounts of ethics ins government. (p.211)

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Change and Leadership

Harvard leadership professor Ronald Heifetz has identified two major approaches to change: technical fixes and adaptive change. In her fine book, Leadership Can Be Taught, Sharon Daloz Parks describes Heifetz' distinction between the two.

Leaders who change through technical fixes believe that problems can be solved "with knowledge and procedures already in hand." Technical leaders emphasize expertise, education, and experience as key to resolving difficult issues. They also think that solutions to problems already exist. Leaders must employ solid techniques or processes to make things right. In this model, a technical-fix politician would try to convince voters of his or her competence, management skill, and problem-solving track record.

In contrast, adaptive change-type leaders believe that complex problems "require new learning, innovation, and new patterns." In this mode, "leadership is the activity of mobilizing people to address adaptive challenges." According to this leadership theory adaptive problems are "swamp issues," complex problems involving multiple levels of difficulty that elude regular routines and established platforms. According to Parks, adaptive leaders "call for changes of heart and mind—the transformation of long-standing habits and deeply held assumptions and values."Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Times They Are A-Changin (by Diana Butler Bass) (God's Politics - Jim Wallis Blog)

So how does Kevin Rudd fit in this typology?
A technical fixer with perhaps something of the adaptive mode trying to sneal out into the public domain?

The Importance of Ignorance

In the Preface to his recent collection of essays The Way of Ignorance and other essays (Counterpoint, 2005) The farmer, theologian, poet Wendell Berry makes the following observations:

But the essays and speeches in this book have been written with the understanding, hardly novelty, that our ignorance is irremediable, that some problems are unsolvable, and some questions unanswerable - that, do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality,, fallibility and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood.Creatures who have armed themselves with the power of limitless destruction should not be following any way laid out by their limited knowledge and their unseemly pride in it.

The way of ignorance, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale. (pp.ix-x)

Who says a virtue ethic is necessarily politically conservative? Berry is issuing a radical social and economic critique of contemporary society expressed in clear probing prose and rooted in close involvement with a particular place, land that he has farmed and a region that he has observed closely for most of his life. He is calling for a profound conversion in our way of life, and of our politics and economics.

Monday, 7 January 2008

A probing and peaceful voice

I have just discovered the peaceful yet probing poetry of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, essayist, novelist and social critic.

His collection, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 is written in a distinctive voice that is both peaceful and probing. He is an eco-theologian informed deeply by the Psalms and close observance of his own farm and the woods and fileds of his native Kuntucky. Consider the following:
What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty.
To end travail and bring to birth,
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
and every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood whole, in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall - field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath hymn.

Winning the argument is not the point - it is how we argue

According to James Allison the argument in the Catholic church about homosexuality is wrongly framed and seeks to develop his case as a gay by going back to the church's theological roots against those who claim to be traditionalists.

Leaving aside (for a moment) the merits of the particular issue that he is involved in, (that requires an extended consideration in another post, it seems to me that the point he then goes on to make is relevant to the way controversy and conflict are conducted with the church. The point he is making is about how we conduct conflict within the church. In most of the cases that spring to mind conservatives, liberals and those of us who struggle to articulate the peacemaking orientation of the gospels and the story of Jesus all need to revisit this issue.

My own hunch, he says, is that God is revealing to us that gay people, just as we are, are part of humanity and that it is as such that we re invited to share in the [God's] party. But I may be entirely wrong. Nevertheless of this I am sure, that being right or wrong is not so very important. Being so grateful that I am invited at all that I am quite determined to as warm, charitable and friendly as I can learn how to be towards those who completely disagree with me is terribly, terribly important; for its is by this that I will be judged.

If what I am saying is true then it is a fundamental point in this discussion that it is not how I defend ny own, but how I imagine, portray and engage with my adversary which is the only realy important issue at hand. ... Afterall our example is One who was happy to be counted among the transgressors so as to get across the power of God to those who couldn't understand it.

If this is the case, then the really hard work in Christian theological discourse lies in the theological sphere: creating Church with those we don't like. Or to put it another way; as a Catholic, the only way I could conceivably be right in what is recognisably a new theological and moral position, is if I show that how being right is nothing to do with me and how it includes an account of how we have all been wrong together, in which I too am on the side of those with whom I disagree as someone undergoing a change of heart along with them. (pp.169-170 in Undergoing God: Dispatches from the scene of a break-in DLT, 2006)

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Christmas - a very political festival

Simon Barrow has drawn attention to the highly political character of Christmas and its subversion due to the alliance of Christianity with the powers that be. Following is an extract from his excellent blog FaithinSociety,- see the link attached to this site. the various commentaries he is pointing to start to spell out the implications of a recovery of the subversive character of Christmas.


I expect to return to this theme in the context of Easter where the mystification of the politics of Jesus has gone much deeper into the liturgy and theology of the Christian community.

But the truth is that the alliance of Christianity with governing authority and dominant culture has inflicted the most damage on the subversiveness of Christ's birth. This is something Jonathan Bartley and I have been arguing in different ways over the past couple of weeks. See Jon's Church Times piece here, which roots the problem in our ongoing diagnosis of the ails of the Christendom mentality. Mine focuses on the biblical dynamic itself. We have also published provocations from Giles Fraser, from Methodist president Martyn Atkins (who I am delighted to see will be their general secretary shortly, and has a blog here) and from Rabbi Michael Lerner (mentioned below). Rowan Williams' BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day is worth reading, too.