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Monday, 31 March 2008

The Anti-slavery movement and indigenous land rights

Celebration of the achievements of the anti-slavery movement in 2007 almost universally overlooked the fact that the movement's representatives in the highest circles of British government went on to engage in a struggle through the 1830's and 1840's that assumed the reality of native title in Australia.

While they were not successful they did have a signficant impact on the eventual recognition of native title in the Mabo case in 1992.

Henry Reynolds laid the historical foundation that enabled the High Court to overthrow the assumption of terra nullius. In doing so he drew attention to the long neglected role of the anti-slavery movement in attempting to shape policy in the colonies by their concerns for justice and their assumptions of the common humanity of the indigenous inhabitants.

Reynolds documents very clearly in The Law of the the Land, (now in its third edition) that the Evangelical politicians and movement leaders were unequivocal that their struggle against slavery and their struggle for justice for the indigenous occupants of the colonies were rooted in the same heological convictions.

Christians, particularly evangelicals who wish to claim the inheritance of the social concerns of Wilberforce and his allies should realise that they have also inherited a tradition that provided the basis for the Mabo and Wik cases.

Reading the meticulously documented historical account of their struggles by Reynolds has recast my understanding of Australian history and of the relevance and long term and unexpected consequences of faith based struggles for justice.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Kevin Rudd, Christian faith and the 2007 Federal election

Apparently, the Christian vote played a decisive role in Kevin Rudd's election victory last year. Pentecostal and evangelical Christians proved to be the all-important swinging voters in a string of key seats, many of them in Queensland.

At least that's the finding in research on the 2007 election, carried out by John Black, a former Labor Senator for Queensland, who runs a research and marketing company called Australian Development Strategies.

The religious factor wasn't so much a general swing across the whole of the electorate, it showed up in key electorates that Labor needed to win, and did win. In fact religious identity, specifically Pentecostals and Lutherans remained significant in the analysis of significant factors in swings to the Australian Labor Party in Queensland.

The attraction to Kevin Rudd and the vote for the Labor Party may not have been based simply on Rudd's personal appeal to the conservative religious voter, but about what's been going on theologically in those religious communities.

There are shifts and differentiation within those communities that simply arent picked in sweeping comments that align conservative Christianity with "Religious right" politics.

Religious commentator and ABC broadcaster John Cleary participating in the discussion on the Religion Report observed that the Religious Right had opened faith communities up to re-engagement with civil society over the past twenty years. However, now that those evangelical communities and Pentecostal communities are re-engaged with civil society, they are moving to a wider agenda becoming actively involved for example with Micah Challenge and the Make Poverty History Campaign. Theologically they have been recovering their evangelical heritage that goes back to the progressivism of the 19th century.

Kevin Rudd has made the link directly in appealing to a whole younger generation in these churches, being very influenced over the last 20 years by evangelists like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis on the Christian Left in the United States. In Rudd's essay, published in The Monthly in October 2006 on faith in politics, in the first three paragraphs of that essay, largely devoted to Dietrich Bonhoeffer he quotes Jim Wallis, the author of 'God's Politics', the bestseller in evangelical churches over the last two years appealing to a whole generation of young people in those evangelical churches.

I reckon this analysis over eggs the pudding a bit, but there is no doubt that both Black and Cleary are on to something that I have picked up in my own discussions with friends cnnected to the Pentecostal community.

For the full transcript of the discussion see The Religion Report - 19 March 2008 - The Christian vote in Australian federal politics

Operating below the media radar ...

This blog is a bit irregular. I have been involved in leading an intensive seminar on Christianity and Australian Society for the past few days and just have not had the time and energy to do any postings.

So the famine will be followed by something of a feast.

First cab off the rank is an extract from an email by a friend who has just spent some time in Burma. Beneath the media radar focusing on the spectacular and frequently the violent much else is happening to build community and to work for peace across the lines of difference. She observes (some details have been omitted) ...
I learned very much especially about the efforts at the grassroots for community development, capacity building, and awareness raising. Even though it is a tightly controlled country, committed people are finding ways to engage in social change. It is very challenging and I am now trying to absorb all that I learned and make sense out of it ... I met wonderful people who shared about their work and their lives.

For example, I attended a workshop on "Women for Peace" that was given by a Thai Buddhist professor who is involved with dialogue between the Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand. She spoke in English and then a Burmese Baptist medical doctor translated. There were about 25 women who attended and there were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, a Catholic sister, and Protestants mainly connected to a Baptist seminary .... This workshop was an attempt to bring women together who share different religious beliefs and come from different ethnic backgrounds to discuss dialogue, violence and peacebuilding.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Christendom is hard to get away from...

Moving between churching, being reminded of the main stages of the Easter story and the National Folk Festival was an experience that raised lots of interesting theological questions.

Maunday Thursday with its once a year inclusion of foot-washing in the Anglican liturgy left me ambivalent and aware of how complex meanings and symbols of power and service can get. The call by Jesus was to wash one another's feet. To have those in power in the church wash feet looks appropriate at first glance. From another angle the act can result in the subtle association of their position and role with sacred power by those in clerical positions. Without anyone intending it is almost impossible to completely dissociate themselves from the memory of the Gospel story in which Jesus washes the disciples feet.

The National Folk Festival offered some interesting images for discipleship and community. We had renderings of the prophets - critique of injustice and the call for the powerful to be brought low and lashings of the wisdom literature wit reflections on how to live in all sorts of situations and relationships. Much of the music and songs, as well as the craft of performance is passed on through forms of mentoring and discipleship and disciplined practice. Exemplary performers of the craft of musicianship are acknowledged because they are just that exemplary performers. It is not the same thing as professionalism.

The choice of hymns on Easter Sunday made me acutely aware of how much the imagery is shaped by themes of battle, crusade etc. Much of the language does not have strong warrant in the Gospel stories. The wonder of a new creation (Tom Wright is strong on this theme) doesn't get much of a run. Even where there is warrant in the NT for the victory metaphor it is often presented without reference to the fact that Jesus had rejected the way of violence on the path to his arrest. Again there is deep confusion here - the centuries of christendom have left their imprint on our language of worship and we just accept it without thinking - without stopping to ask the question as to how this language might strike someone with only minimal knowledge of the NT but some knowledge of the Church's implication in the crusades.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Bonhoeffer and the importance of fragments

Coments from Simon Barrow Faithin Society blog - one of my must read blogs

Sunday, March 16, 2008

As the world around him descended further into chaos in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin . . . and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments.

Teresa Berger comments: "In the end, Bonhoeffer’s own life became a fragment, abruptly broken off yet pointing to wholeness. As Bonhoeffer had understood in his prison cell, if brokenness and crisis were to become 'that edge where change is possible,' this crisis would have to be sustained by something stronger than the human. In a world whose systems of meaning do not bring life and flourishing, the crisis brought by the fire of the burning bush might just constitute good news. [The] gospel calls us... to the crisis that is God’s consuming and compelling presence. Life cannot flourish without this crisis."

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Churches, barbeques anarchy - getting out from under Christendom

Currently preparing to teach a course pm Christianity and Australian Society and looking at the demographically gloomy future of the mainstream churches - I came across the following proposal from Robert Capon an Anglican priest who displays subversive, nay anarchist tendencies that might finally get us out from under the long shadow of Christendom.

... since I find that when I spoke earlier about death and resurrection I said everything I had to say in principle about the marginal church (only a dead church can rise), let me simply add a word here about how such a church might achieve that happy outcome in practice.

My program would be this. Whoever was in command over the dying institution at the next highest level of the corporate church ... would take the bull by the horns and kill it: close the church, dissolve its board, sequester its endowments, and sell off its property, putting the proceeds in escrow just in case the corpse ever rises and finds a use for them. Then the managers would explain to the remaining members of those churches that they were free to do anything they could think of (or nothing at all, if they so chose). A suggestion would be made, however, that they might think about holding a kind of wake on the next Sunday, perhaps in one of their homes, or in a restaurant or bowling alley that didn't open until 1:00 p.m. And if they took that suggestion . . .

Well, they might sit and stare blankly at each other to begin with. But with any luck, some free spirit (young or old) among them would break the ice with the questions they had never before been able to ask - namely: "Who are we?" "Why on earth are we here?" And, most important of all, "What do we think we'd actually like to do?" Having no model at all to meet the upkeep on and no known shape to whip themselves into, they would for the first time be open to looking for really new answers - honest answers - that could range anywhere from "We haven't the foggiest notion, but let's get together again next Sunday and see if anything's occurred to us in the meantime," to "We're here to be the church, I suppose - whatever that means," to "How about for openers we just try to stick with fellowship, breaking bread, and saying prayers? - maybe God will take care of the rest, if he wants any."

Those answers wouldn't sound like much of a start, of course; but then, a bunch of Galileans twiddling their thumbs in Jerusalem for nine days after the Ascension didn't seem like a grand opening, either. The operative fact is that a start can only occur after a stop. As Isaiah reminded Israel, the church's strength is to sit still: all the power, all the resources, and all the hope of the defunctly marginal lie hidden in the terrifying reality of their death. Only out of that can they live. But, having accepted that, they can model their life in any way that strikes their fancy: AA style, family style, support-group style, whatever. The only thing they need to guard against is the temptation to stop being dead, the longing to be alive and kicking again. Alive and kicking may be nice, but it's not astonishing. Dead and kicking, though . . . that's astonishing. That, in fact, is resurrection - and it's the only thing that can bring out the best in the church.
"The Church in the Marketplace of New Models" chapter 8, The Astonished Heart
Robert Farrar Capon (Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans, 1996) p.103

Street Theatre on the way to Jerusalem, or Palm Sunday revisited

The hymns on Palm Sunday are a bit of a mixed bag.

The closing hymn this morning - "Hold high the Cross" while paying lip service to "servants of the crucified" has a strongly imperial tone with images of the cross being waved as part of the crusades came irresistibly to mind. I had to remain silent and that is hard because I enjoy communal singing.

Palm Sunday does bring the political dimension of Jesus and his movement firmly into view. the difficulty is not that the hymn has a political ring to it, it's the character of the politics that it suggests that silenced me.

So what are the politics of Palm Sunday?

Let me give you my take on what is at stake by taking a look at Mark's account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. The nuances of using either Matthew's and Luke's accounts instead of Mark's would not change my argument very much. In the account of all three Gospels we are up to our neck in a very surprising account of a politics that is at the heart of Christian theology and practice.

Mark's gospel was probably written just before or perhaps even during the uprising of Jewish nationalists against the imperial power of Rome in 66 AD. In a conflict that lasted till AD 70, Jewish forces sought to regain political and religious control of their nation in a bitter guerilla war that raged across Galilee and Judea ending in defeat following the Roman siege of Jerusalem. It was a time of struggle for survival by peasant farmers with guerillas raiding the countryside making up for their lack of numbers and limited military resources by their tactics and their willingness to give their lives in God’s cause.

Mark recorded the story of Jesus for a church that was asking questions about what faithfulness to Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant during a time of war and conflict. Should they support their fellow countrymen? Should they join the military struggle against Rome?

The way Mark tells it, Jesus approaches Jerusalem not on a war-horse as a conquering military figure, but on a colt, not a form of transport normally associated with royalty. No Jewish king or roman emperor would choose to ride such an animal when entering in triumph into a conquered city.

Yet that is what Mark is hinting at. Here is the conqueror, the Messiah. But after all the build up of having got to Jerusalem Jesus does not make a triumphal entry. He simply looks around and then wanders off to supper with friends. It is a total anti climax – the scene is set by Mark you would think if not for a coup, at least for a confrontation with the authorities – but nothing happens, at least not yet.

Mark drops clues all the way through that point toward a warrior Messiah but he doesn’t follow through to provide a stunning political conclusion in the way that his hearers would have expected. Sure we have the reference to David - the warrior king par excellence in Jewish history. Mark does not deny the political dimensions of Jesus as messiah but instead challenges the accepted conventions as to what the politics of the Messiah will be. He presents a Jesus as a messiah who does not take up the role of warrior.

Jesus procession to Jerusalem is a form of street theatre which signals his claims as messiah, while at the same time pointing to a very different understanding of the character of the messiah from that which was commonly held. This odd messiah embodies a politics that challenges three groups:

➢ Those committed to getting rid of the Romans by military means.
➢ Those who withdrew into a response of ritual purity that avoided issues of economic injustice and Roman imperialism.
➢ Those who simply wanted to get along with business as usual, whoever was in charge.

Jesus in Mark's account rejects the politics of violence, the politics of withdrawal and the politics of accommodation lives out a politics of affirmation of life, of prophetic engagement and rejection of business as usual along with a practice of making time for meals with friends.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Crucifixion and Nuclear Weapons

As we approach the central week of retelling of the Christian story, I can sense the impending struggle to cope with much of what I will hear in sermons and homilies this week. It will be "religious", "pious" but disconnected from the social and political reality against which the last week of Jesus' life was lived out and against which his teaching needs to be read.

The disconnect between the spiritual and the political is endemic in Australian Christian communities and the radical disturbing challenge that Jesus presented to "business as usual" and the assumptions of empire remains out of the sight and the imagination of many of his contemporary followers.

I have been jolted into reflection on the coming week by an article that appeared in Sojourners, March 1980 by (the late) Dale Aukerman, peace activist, theologian and church of the Brethren pastor who, brings the ethical and the theological demands on those who claim to be followers of Jesus into single focus. Dale in his attempt to grasp the moral and human significance of a possible nuclear war takes us back to consider the crucifixion of Jesus.

That three hundred million persons or a billion or four billion might be killed in a nuclear world war is beyond the imagination of any mortal. My nearest approach to the magnitude of that horror comes when I realise that Jesus would be the central victim in the midst of the annihilation. Each victim he would know; each passion, each death he would feel. He in whom God has drawn near would be there with the least of all who are his in a thousand infernos.

The slain Brother would be there with every brother and sister, with every terrified child, as the slower ghastliness of radiation sickness spread across the continents. A darkness more enduring than that on a long-ago Passover would come across the world, a more ominous quaking of earth and disintegration of rocks. From inumerable parched lips would come some echo of the cry, 'My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?' For that elimination of intolerable neighbours would bring with it an apparent doing away with God. But the One who gave supreme utterance to that cry, the Neighbour-Brother-God, who was done away with, would be there in the midst.

This means that all the nuclear weapons delivery systems of this world are zeroed in on a target that comprehends all human targets: Jesus. Christians must understand that there is no aiming of nuclear weapons and no assent to them that does not zero in on him: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me."

Monday, 10 March 2008

Amish as counter cultural?

In the closing appendix on the Amish society, in Amish Grace: How Gorgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the authors draw the following conclusions about Amish society, conclusions that make clear how at odds they are with the wider society.

The conflict between cultures and forms of life between the Amish and the US vision of the good life brings to mind the level of mutual incomprehension that can arise between consumerist Australian society's taken for granted view of the good life and the indigenous account of connection and responsibility to country and kin.

For all their limitations:... the Amish have developed a remarkably stable society. With little government aid they provide care and dignity for the elderly and disabled members. Apart from occasional arrests for alcohol or drug abuse among their youth, Amish communities have avoided many of the blights of modern life. With only a few exceptions, they have no homeless of unemployed members and no one living on government subsidies. virtually no Amish people sit in prison ... (More remarkable in the US than in Australia where 1% of the population are in prison) ... and only occasionally do Amish couples divorce. All things considered, they have created a humane society, despite their lack of high school education, professional training and a full embrace of technology.

The Amish have learned to live within limits. Indeed they would argue that setting and respecting limits on almost every thing is one of the foundations of wisdom. Limits for the Amish are a necessary requirement for human happiness. Without limits, the Amish believe, individuals become arrogant, conceited and self-destructive. To be sure, restraints diminish individual freedom, personal choices and various forms of self-expression.At the ame time some would say they grant greater dignity and security in the individual than the endless choices offered by modern life. (pp.202-3)

The Politics of Forgiveness

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, 2007

This is moving account of the violence at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, that goes on to explore the practices that underlay the extension of forgiveness by the amish community.

This exploration by sympathetic academics from their ecclesial cousins, the Mennonites raises deep questions about the politics assumptions that underlies the liberal consumerist society.

The Amish, while on some accounts have practised a sectarian withdrawal from contemporary society, have lived out another political option that makes reasoned choices about what technologies they will use and practices of life that make forgiveness possible.

In a culture that places such a premium on buying and selling, as opposed to giving and receiving, forgiveness runs against the grain.

Running against that grain, finding alternative ways to imagine our world, ways that in turn will facilitate forgiveness, takes more than individual will power. ... We need to consturct cultures that values and nurture forgiveness. In their own way the Amish have constructed such an environment. p.182

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Policymaking with the indigenous community

While working my way through Charles Taylor's wonderful volume A Secular Age, I came across the following observations that rang bells as to what lies in the background of so much difficulty that policy makers have had in engaging with the indigenous community.

In providing an account of the development of at the cultural power and prestige of disengaged thinking that is developed powerfully by Descartes, Taylor observes:

The argument has to be made again and again, that "experience-far" methods based on the natural sciences risk distorting and missing the point when applied to the phenomena of psychology, politics, language, historical interpretation and so on.

Not that it isn't evident in ordinary life that disengagement may be quite the wrong way to go about increasing understanding. When we want to understand what someone is trying to tell us in a conversation; or to grasp what motivates some person or group, how they see the world, and what kinds of thngs are important to them, disengagement will almost certainly be a self-stultifying strategy. We have to be open to the person or event, allowing our responses to meaning full reign, which generally means our fellings, which reflect these responses. Of course, our feelings, or understanding of human meanings, may also be wht is blocking us in these cases. We fail to grasp how different they are from us.

...the remedy for this is not to jump out of the range of human meanings altogether, and try to take things in through a bleached neutralized language of "social science'.That just bolts the door against new insight. It is by allowing ourselves to be challenged by the ways they fail to fit into our recognized range of meanings, that we can begin to discern how this range has to be broken open and transformed if we are to understand them
. (pp.285-6)

Monday, 3 March 2008

Christianity and Radical Democracy

This is a most amazing and rewarding book.

Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian By Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles Cascade Books, 2008

The title talks about conversations and the book really delivers - in a series of lectures, papers and letters in which Stanley Hauerwas, written off as sectarian by many mainstream theologians, engages in a probing exploration with Roman Coles, a political theorist, non-believer and community activist of the possible connections between a radical Christian faith and radical democracy.

This is a challenging exchange that demonstrates an open listening and honest exploration of points of connection and question between the traditions.

I learnt much from Coles sympathetic and open reading of texts from Rowan Williams and Jean Vanier and his sharp eye for the intrusion of Christendom assumptions and languages into our best efforts to get beyond a Christendom mentality. What do they have to do with organising for radical democracy? Go read.

This probing exchange reveals an emerging friendship that does not arrive at any easy synthesis or collapse the tension between the faith commitments of Hauerwas and the political commitments of Coles.

What is important is that they are both talking about a reimagining of politics and the practices that would sustain the practice of a radical politics and both questioning the contemporary shape of political imagination that is shaped by both the denial and the production of death.

Coming into view here are the practices of the early civil rights movement exemplified in the work of Bob Moses and Ella Baker, the local community organising of the Industrial Areas Foundation and the life and worship of the L'Arche communities. In the background is the work of John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian and his articulation of what Coles terms a "wild patience".