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Monday, 12 January 2009

Leunig and what happens when we walk away from cruelty

Michael Leunig has written a challenging meditation on the injury that we do ourselves when we walk away from cruelty and rationalise it in the scheme of things.

He starts with the little picture - what happened when Ron Barassi intervened recently to protect a woman who was being assaulted by a group of men and considers what happens to us morally if we fail to respond to cruelty as we meet it when we can do soemthing about it.

For the big picture he takes to the current war in Gaza. Beyond the specifics of the conflict he has some intutitons about the the morla impact of modern war that bear thinking about.

Modern military conflict should no longer be called "warfare". It is more like mass industrial killing than combat. It is coercive homicide posing as defence, and is radically uneven - or "asymmetrical" as the militarists like to say. In the Western calculation it means that we do the killing and they do the dying. The children, the mothers, the elderly and the poor do the dying in particular: those not-quite-white people, born in distant, unfortunate lands - they do all the wailing and the suffering.

It is the very practice of military violence that is now most significant, because of the psychological cancer it creates in the world - a condition that eventually affects us all. Nobody escapes. Even those who shrug and turn away will find this complex spread of depression and chaotic perversity arriving mysteriously in their homes and among their families sooner or later.

Sunday, 11 January 2009


Jonathan Bartley in his column in Ekklesia in commenting on the Atheist advertising on the buses in the United Kingdom raises questions about the Christian response by a Bible Society affiliate, Theos, to this campaign, questions that address the issue of the commodification of religion and the need to understand what this really means.

Christians in Australia might care to think about his comments and transpose them to the Australian context. He is I think on to something.

No sooner had the atheist campaign been announced, than Theos – the Bible Society’s thinktank - made a £50 donation. It was of course a public relations stunt which attempted to take the wind out of atheist sails in the ongoing war between some religionists and secularists. But it sought to make a point. They suggested that the adverts would backfire. The campaign would, they said, inevitably point more people in the direction of their own product (faith in God).

Beyond a charge of 'cynicism', nothing much wrong with their tactics many Christians might argue. Except that churches are amongst those who in recent years have been the most vocal critics of consumerism, and the advertising that drives it. Advertising is usually destructive. More often than not advertising is built around creating and fostering a sense of inadequacy or fear, in the hope that the product on offer will be seen as a cure, and bought in large quantities.

Theos chose not to make this point. Quite the reverse in fact. They have instead bought into the advertising strategy. Indeed, it is what they are banking on. They have supported the campaign in the hope that the atheist ads will sow enough doubt and discord to get people looking at their own alternative brand. In their zeal to upstage and subvert their secular opponents, the religionists have taken on the very consumerist values that Christianity ought to stand against.

The atheists it is claimed are poor advertisers for leaving room for diversity of viewpoint, or questioning. “Where did that ‘probably’ come from? It doesn't suggest the sales staff is overly confident about its product” ...

The Christian faith on offer, by implication, seems to be one which leaves little room for doubt. Gone are the notions of spiritual journey, exploration and discovery. But this is a dangerous route to take. Where does it stop? Do we also dispense with Christianity's message of weakness, vulnerability and sacrifice? Turning the other cheek and love of enemies would perhaps have to go too. Such things will only weaken the appeal of our faith in an increasingly competitive market, after all.

... The message must not change to suit the medium. Playing the consumerist game and supporting your opponent's ad campaign because you believe it will work in your favour, isn't the best way to go about it. Better surely to show that your faith can challenge and transform the values of society rather than pander to them.

Bartley suggests that Christians should be into subvertising.

Gaza - the view from those dealing with the fall out

From the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani on the situation at the Al Ahli Arab (Anglican) Hospital:

Every day since the beginning of military operations, the hospital has received 20-40 injured or wounded patients. A large proportion of them require hospitalisation and surgery. These patients are in addition to those with non-conflict-related illnesses. About one-fourth of the patients are children.

In addition, the conflict has brought new types of medical and surgical conditions. For example, patients with burns and acute, crippling psychological trauma, are being seen more frequently. Because it is not possible for aid workers to enter Gaza at this time, the hospital's staff is working around the clock, struggling with the effects of exhaustion and against limited resources in a conflicted area of ongoing military operations.

Many medical items are needed, especially bandages and supplies for burns and trauma. The hospital's windows have all been blown out or shattered from rocket and missile concussion and cold permeates the entire premises. Plastic sheeting to cover the windows could alleviate some of the cold but is unavailable now. Food supplies are scant throughout the Gaza strip and maintaining patients' nutritional needs at the hospital has been difficult, especially for the most vulnerable. Some medicines and supplies for the hospital have been generously donated by USAID, but it has not yet been possible to deliver the items. The Al Ahli Arab (Anglican) Hospital has been in operation for over 100 years and has a very dedicated medical staff of doctors, nurses, technicians and general services personnel. Suheil Dawani

According to a report on Ekklesia:

The three hour ceasefire was simply not enough to deliver vital humanitarian aid Christian Aid and its Gaza based partners have said today.

Christian Aid partners report that they have seen very little benefit on the ground, and that the ceasefire was too short to make any real difference to the many desperate people who need help.

Many stated that people were too terrified to go out into the streets and believed that Israel would attack if they did.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel also reported that there was not enough time for medical teams or medical personnel to get to everyone requiring assistance. Some medical teams were refused access to some areas, including those where families have been trapped for several days with the injured and dead.

Few Christian Aid partners say they are able to operate fully, and many were unable to restart operations within the limited time available.

There was also concern that, given the fact that vehicles travelling from the Egyptian border take at least 1.5 hours to reach Gaza City, there would not be enough time to transport supplies, let alone distribute them.

Movement of supplies between different areas is extremely difficult, as the Gaza Strip has now been divided into three isolated areas by the Israeli military, and some major roads have been destroyed.

Although the ceasefire was supposed to be in operation, Ahmed Sourani of Palestinian Agricultural Relief Services (PARC) could still hear shelling during the three hour period.

“Yesterday the three hour ceasefire gave us a chance to go to hospital, to get some supplies and visit each other. Thousands are injured and many killed. Three hours is not enough because not all the injured can be reached, particularly those in remote areas, they can’t be reached by ambulances and doctors, it is a terrifying issue; it is a humanitarian and critical issue. These are lives of people and children. Even the relatives of people injured and trapped cannot get to them” he said.

“All efforts are needed to create a new and permanent situation. There is no time for temporary solutions- these temporary solutions have been used in the past- they haven’t worked in the last 15 years. There should be serious pressure on key actors in the region. We need a real ceasefire agreement otherwise we will come back to square one. “

Essam from Christian Aid partner the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) which has been providing emergency medical care, said: “The situation is very miserable: our house is not a shelter; the school is not a shelter; the street is not a shelter; everywhere is dangerous, and nowhere is safe.

“Because Israel controls the entry and exit into the Gaza Strip, Palestinian civilians remain trapped with nowhere to flee to escape the onslaught of military attacks. Many areas in the Gaza Strip have been without electricity for 11 days, also impacting the ability to power the provision of water supplies and communications. All banks remain closed, limiting the ability to secure funds to purchase the dwindling supplies available in the market as a result of the ongoing siege. Hundreds of people queued for several hours today to purchase bread during the ceasefire, but were unable to get any."


According to Ecumenical News International in an item posted on Ekklesia

Civilians injured by bombings in Gaza are stuck in their homes without food and water, unable to seek medical attention, says the director of an Anglican hospital in Gaza City. Nurses working at the hospital are unable to reach their own injured children at home.

The Al Ahli Arab Hospital has treated more than 100 patients since the onset of the latest conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants. The director of the hospital, Dr Suhaila Tarazi, has been working 16-hour days trying to make the best use of increasingly scarce resources.

She had told Action by Churches Together International, a global alliance of churches and related agencies that supports the hospital, that the situation is worsening by the hour.

On 6 January, ACT International reported that three mobile health clinics in Gaza had been destroyed in an Israeli air strike the previous night. The clinics were run by the Union of Healthcare Committees, started by Palestinian doctors and nurses, and supported by DanChurchAid, a member of ACT. Since the conflict between Hamas and Israel started, the vehicles had been upgraded to provide intensive care to the wounded.

Tarazi had said, "On Sunday we received 17 patients suffering from bombing and shrapnel injuries. Most of the injured were civilians who were sitting in their homes. However, there are even more injured people in areas where they are simply stuck in homes without food, water and electricity - and we are unable to reach them."

When people come to the hospital they are treated and as soon as they are stable they are sent home.

"We have treated more than 100 patients since the most recent attacks began. And we are currently housing 30 injured patients along with persons rejected from other hospitals. We are a church hospital and so we do not turn anyone away," said the doctor.

"The hospital is in urgent need of medicine and supplies. There is no electricity in all of Gaza. We are currently running off of generator power," warned Tarazi. "We have very little supplies left, enough to last for another week. If this crisis continues, we will be in a very dire situation."

The doctor noted, "The attacks are also hitting close to our area here in Gaza City. Yesterday, the main square beside the hospital was bombed - just 30 metres away. The attack left a big crater and injured seven innocent civilians who were just walking on the street."

The crisis is also affecting the families of her own staff, she said.

"Yesterday, one of our nurses, Hania Murad, received a call from her husband while she was working here at the hospital," said Tarazi. "Her husband was calling for the hospital to send an ambulance to pick up her kids, who had been injured in a bombing. However, their home is near the American international school, where we are not allowed to go, even with an ambulance. The Red Cross was also unable to send an ambulance into the area. For 18 hours her kids sat waiting and injured."

One of nurse Murad's children died. "This is the life of our staff. While their hands are working hard to save the lives of many, their hearts are at home with their own kids," said Tarazi.


War, even when it has international legitimacy ... is mainly about suffering and death.
Robert Fisk

The crucial ingredient and why getting to peace in Gaza wll be so difficult

Adrian Hamilton in The Independent put his finger on the critical issue getting in the way of movement towards a peaceful solution The Path to Middle East Peace;

The tragedy of Gaza is that war was not necessary. By all the accounts of those involved, it should have been possible to have negotiated a renewal of the ceasefire. Hamas may have made it more difficult by ending the previous agreement and resorting to rocket fire, but it hadn't ruled out a new one; indeed, it kept saying it wanted one.

But the tragedy is also that Palestine need not be part of the remorseless pattern of provocation, military response and greater hatred that has been the pattern of the Middle East. In the immediate urgency of ceasefire negotiations, talk will be concentrated on the difficulties of ensuring an end to rocket fire, forcing Hamas to accept Israel, restoring Fatah's authority to Gaza and all the intricacies of inter-Palestinian politics. Israel's sense of success, it seems, can only be bought at the expense of the humbling of Hamas and that in turn can only be achieved by humiliating the Palestinians, and with them the Arabs.

There will never be peace this way. Negotiations will always get bogged down on the almost insuperable obstacle of trust. The Palestinians believe Israel's real purpose is to keep them divided and unable to operate as an independent state, and they see in the Gaza war proof of the fact. Israel sees the Palestinians driven by a desire to see Israel driven into the sea, and see in the rocket launches proof of that fact. If the trust isn't there, no amount of outside fiddling with controls on Hamas and pushing for Fatah's return to Gaza will succeed in restoring it. Indeed, it will almost certainly achieve the opposite by further humiliating the Palestinians with outside interference.


Thursday, 8 January 2009

What does courage really look like in a time of violence?

The rhetoric in situations of conflict is always about taking the hard decisions, of being tough and courageous. But what would a display of courage look like in a time of violence?

What is courageous about the use of high technology weapons to kill with no real certainty that the victims will not be civilians? What is courageous about political leaders giving the orders that launch military operations in situations where they have little risk of having to deal up close with the impact of their decision in human terms - the trauma of children in the sort term, frequent bed-wetting, nightmares, and a heartbreaking loss of hope – with he long-term trauma that will devastate for years to come and the trauma of serviceman with increasing prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder and the impact on the lives of their families?

Clarity of moral vision seems to be lacking in the way all actors in the interlocking series of crimes against humanity that is the war in Gaza. No one can "see" a way out or even see clearly enough to truthfully name what is happening.

Gaza is not an "eye for an eye' - though that prescription in its time was intended to be a limitation on the spiral of violence and revenge. Taking only one eye left another so tht a person still had vision. As Simon Barrow points out:

... the modern popular usage of 'an eye for an eye' is entirely misconceived.

... its original intention was not to amplify revenge, but rather to limit it. It is the law of proportionality that it seeks to instantiate - not advocacy of hatred and pre-emptive killing.

In an ancient setting where the tendency was for people to respond to an act of violence by exacting retribution on a grand scale, 'an eye for an eye' was a powerful counter-proposal – a way of saying that you should not go beyond equivalence. It was intended to halt indiscriminate or disproportionate slaughter.

Equally ignored in Christians circles is Christ's broadening and radicalisation of this legal limitation of violence: "You have heard it said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'... but now I say to you: love your enemies ... do good to those that curse you... bless those that persecute you." Repay hatred with love, in other words.

Whereas the lex talionis is about limiting violence, the Gospel takes the next step and seeks its abolition. Not, of course, that the churches have found this convenient, especially in cosying up to principalities and powers - where something more 'realistic' was deemed necessary. Thus the development of 'just war' thinking.

As we survey the terrible woundings of the world around us, however, the more radical demands of the rebellious rabbi Jesus surely begin to look more like the deep-healing medicine we so badly need. Amelioration of the sickness of violent hatred is not enough. It must be challenged and replaced.

For as Martin Luther King Jr pointed out, an ethic of proportionate violent response can never be enough to sustain life. Or as he bluntly put it: in the end "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave us all eyeless and toothless." Gandhi said something similar. So have non-religious peacemakers.

Putting the life-affirming ethics of confronting enemies by refusing to use the tools of hatred and war is, of course, exceptionally difficult in a world where the ideology of violence has seeped deep into our institutional and personal life.

But at the very least, it surely ought to be the commitment of those who claim to follow Christ? This is why converting the church to active, interventionist non-violence and conflict transformation remains a vital priority for those who would take the Gospel seriously.
Eyeless in Gaza

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Thanks to Ian Wright

"... Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than is necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection."
from Wendell Berry "Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front"

In 36 degree temperatures on Wednesday 7 January, several hundred people gathered in Canberra to celebrate the life of Ian Wright, fisherman, pastor and gardener. Quiet, slightly built he had finally succumbed after a four year battle with cancer.

My thanks to Ian for:
  • introducing me to and encouraging me to read Wendell Berry's novels.
  • time invested in conversation and coffee with my son, in exploring his own path.
  • a life invested in friendship, a spirit open to explore issues with this Anabaptist, who was increasingly at odds with the the history of Christian conformity to the Establishment and the Christendom settlement.
  • practicing resurrection, celebrating the goodness of the world in the midst of pain.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Don't forget Zimbabwe

The long standing humanitarian disaster that is Zimbabwe should not be lost sight of just because the war in Gaza is occupying prime time television.

Anglican bishops and church leaders in South Africa have been letting the South African Government know what they think about its inaction. In news reports quoted on Ekklesia:

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Laureate, renewed his attack on South Africa for its lack of action against Mr Mugabe, and repeated his call to the international community to remove him forcibly if he refuses to step down voluntarily.

A "new doctrine of responsibility to protect" had to be invoked, Tutu told BBC Radio 4 in an interview last week. Mr Mugabe "needs to be warned, and his cronies must be warned that the world is not just going to sit by and do nothing," he declared.

Meanwhile the Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, the Rt Rev Dr Jo Seoka has called upon President Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa to act against Mugabe.

"Looking at the situation in Zimbabwe, one cannot help but challenge the government of South Africa to consider seriously the humanitarian crisis faced by the Zimbabwean people in Musina and act decisively on it," the bishop said.

He added that he had previously called upon both the government and the Southern African Development Community to take tougher action against Mugabe. "However, no action has been taken by the political leaders of our country to protect the Zimbabwean nationals within our borders. Yet people continue to be detained without trial, and to die of diseases of impoverishment such as cholera."

The conditions under which the Zimbabweans found themselves could no longer be tolerated, Seoka said.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Who cares for the kids of Gaza?

Who pays the price of war?

Certainly the children.

See here for a report on a study by World Vision released a couple of weeks ago before the current round of fighting on the extent of trauma in Gaza's children.

More than 16 per cent of children aged 5-15 in North Gaza suffer from nightmares, the majority of which (76.7 per cent) are caused by fear.

Almost 13 per cent of children in the same age range wet the bed, again mostly (70) through fear. Psychological problems, health issues and trauma were also contributing causes, the assessment revealed.

“The reality is that this current violence is already compounding high levels of trauma in children, and one can only guess at the long-term effects of this,” said World Vision UK’s head of emergency affairs, Ian Gray.

“There’s the initial impact on children, which we’re already seeing – frequent bed-wetting, nightmares, and a heartbreaking loss of hope – but there’s also the long-term trauma that will devastate for years to come.

“Children comprise more than half of the population of Gaza. The ongoing attacks will only worsen their situation.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Ekklesia on Christmas

Delayed reference to a couple of columns on Christmas from Ekklesia. Links to the full columns. Always worth a read.

Simon Barrow on "Rescuing God from our attempts at Belief"
The God who is portrayed in the Gospel stories about the birth of Jesus is indeed a stranger to dominant ideas about divinity ...

When human beings go about making gods to worship, they are able to do so only as projections of their own image. This is particularly true of the infantilising cosmic tyrant who haunts the imagination of those who would use faith as a self-asserting weapon, and those (like Richard Dawkins) who see this kind of false deity as the be-all and end-all of God-talk.

The god of human imagining is, as someone once put it in my hearing, “a person like us, only much bigger and able to do anything at all.” In contrast to such fantasy, the God whose nature and purpose is disclosed in the flesh of Jesus is neither a metaphysical proposition, nor a cosmic being nor an unassailable entity. God is, rather, unconditioned and unconditional love – a reality beyond definition, description and specification, but revealed in the truth of self-giving.

As recent tragic events in Britain have confirmed, a small child is dependent and defenceless. The story of Jesus is of a birth into obscurity at the edge of Empire in debatable circumstances and of dubious parentage.

Moreover, this child grows up to become someone who defies the attempts of religious and political authorities to capture God for their own purposes. For them, unbounded grace and healing for the ‘impure’ is too much to bear. He is subjected to a criminal’s death and his vindication is not by might but by the gift of life beyond captivity.

There is no way that this picture of God can ever ‘fit’ in with our conventional expectations, religious or otherwise. The god of human construction operates through inviolable fiats, inerrant texts, incomprehensible commands and unquestionable ....

We are faced with a ...God beyond all our concepts of ‘god-ness’, being found not as an alien intruder, a competitor or a member of a class of things called ‘gods’, but as unfathomable life encountered in and through our vulnerability – not over and against it.

When we get to the heart of the Christmas story we find ourselves challenged to become more, not less human. We are asked to stop treating each other, and God, as ‘objects’ to be contemplated, traded, argued about and disposed… but instead as “mysteries to be loved”...

Jonathan Bartley "Christmas means compassion not crusading"

... attempts to put Christ back into Christmas through conquest sit uneasily with the political message that lies at the heart of the Christmas story, which challenges those who would seek to dominate and control. According to St Luke's account of the nativity, it's a sentiment that Jesus' mother recognised particularly well.

There is a tendency to think of Mary as a victim – a slightly passive but worthy virgin, chosen to bear the god-child because she has wouldn't hurt a first-century fly. But Mary's response is not one of benign resignation. She celebrates. She bursts into song. And the song she sings is about an end to tyranny and oppression. She anticipates that the powerful will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away with nothing. The world will be turned upside down by the baby growing inside her.

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), as it came to be known, is a profoundly political song of subversion. But it is also entirely in keeping with the tone of the Christmas story. Oppressive Romans are seeking to extend their control and tax the Jewish population through a census. A despotic ruler sees Jesus as a potential threat, and commits a terrible atrocity in his desire to eliminate the risk. Jesus' family become asylum seekers and flee to Egypt. The baby has clearly come to cause trouble – and he subsequently does so for both the religious and political authorities of his day.

It's all a long way from the "Little Lord Jesus", so gentle, meek and mild, he doesn't cry in his manger bed. But Christmas was rebranded long before the existence of "politically correct" councils. In fact there isn't any record of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ celebrating Christmas at all. Following the fourth century conversion of Constantine, Jesus was embarrassing for a church now in bed with the same empire that had put him to death. It has suited both church and state, in assorted alignments for the next 1700 years, to have a romanticised and sentimentalised story, not a subversive one. Even the Magi (wise men) were made into "kings", rewriting history to create a close association with power, rather than a challenge to it.

Mary's song has far more in common with The Red Flag than We Three Kings. But if it makes uncomfortable reading for the Church keen to attract people with a warm, fuzzy message at the one time of year when church attendance seems to actually increase, it is equally challenging for governments.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Eucharist, food , economy

Michael Northcott in A Moral Climate: the ethics of global warming, suggests ways of reconnecting the way the Eucharist is celebrated and our engagement with the economy of food.

One approach would be to return to the early Christian norm of worship around the Lord's table and reversing the trend from a real to a token meal. There is in this tendency to abstract from the holiness of our eating an incipient gnosticism in the disconnection of discipleship from the created ordered and the grittiness of the incarnation.


In Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing (Resources for Reconciliation) By Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice (IVP, 2008) the authors chart a a comprehensive vision for reconciliation that is biblical in origin, transformative and holistic in practice and global in relevance.

This is the first in a series of books from the Duke Centre for Reconciliation.

The authors who are the co-directors of the centre, come with histories of engagement in contexts, Uganda and Mississippi where the issue of reconciliation has been pressing.

They draw on the resources of the Christian story, including their own individual experiences in Uganda and Mississippi, to bring solid, theological reflection to bear on the work of reconciling individuals, groups and societies. They articulate in an accessible language some distinctively Christian practices that will help the church be both a sign and an agent of God's reconciling love in the fragmented world of the twenty-first century and offer Ten theses towards Recovering Reconciliation as the Mission of God.

This book is a good example of how theology should be done - cooperatively, in specific real life contexts where the issues of brokenness are pressing at an individual and community level and in service of the church as a community, exploring what God's project for the renewal of human life looks like in these contexts.

The politics of Gentleness

The association of politics with weakness seems strange, n a world where politics is associated with the power of the state, and the activities of political parties. This brief, thought provoking book challenges that association.

Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness By Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier IVP 2008

The exchange between theologian Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier founder of the worldwide L'Arche communitiesexplores how Christians are to live in a violent and wounded world by witnessing prophetically from a position of weakness. The church they argue has much to learn from an often overlooked community--those with disabilities.

Hauerwas has reflected frequently on the lives of people with disability, the political significance of community, and how the experience of disability addresses the weaknesses and failures of liberal society. L'Arche provides a unique model of inclusive community that is underpinned by a deep spirituality and theology and provides an example of an alternative politics. Hauerwas and Romand Coles have already engaged with Vanier as a political thinker in their book Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary.

Together, in one of the first books in the series Resources for Reonciliation, Vanier and Hauerwas carefully explore the contours of a countercultural community that embodies a different way of being and witnesses to a new order--one marked by radical forms of gentleness, peacemaking and faithfulness.

This is a profoundly challenging book that is addressed first to the church in recalling it to its roots through helping it re-imagine the understanding and practice of power within the church as a political community.