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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.