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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.