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Saturday, 30 January 2010

US Churches and Economics in a time of recession

The Alban Institute's journal this quarter, reports on the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, recently conducted by the Alban Institute and the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Some key findings reported by James P Wond in his "The Leading Edge" column are:

Prompted by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, this new research reveals some important things. First, it has surprising news about the resilience of congregations. At a time when almost every American institution had to trim its budget, a majority of the congregations surveyed saw their fundraising receipts hold steady or increase. That is good and important news for those accustomed to the prevailing "mainline decline" narrative told in our culture. Second, it shows us that congregations responded to the economic crisis with food, clothing, and shelter for those in need. The traditional, charitable impulses of Christian congregations endure and still make an important difference. Third, the survey reveals that the same congregations that many write off as dying are in fact innovating, partnering with a host of not-for-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest and doing new things like offering credit counseling and emergency loans. To be sure, not every American congregation saw its income increase during this tough time, and more than a few had to cut back their programs. But this survey provides evidence, as do larger surveys like Giving USA 2009, that even in an era when many are dropping out of organized religion and turning to less demanding types of spirituality, giving to religious institutions, unlike other sectors, actually increases when times are tough.
 There is good news in this research but something is missing. Almost no mention is made of congregations starting new business ventures to widen and diversify the revenue streams that support their missions. Yet some are doing just that. A recent article in the Washington Post ("At Home in the Houses of the Lord: Church Missions, Portfolios Embrace Residential Real Estate," August 8, 2009) featured a local real estate boomlet led by congregations. In Landover, Maryland, Reston, Virginia, and the District itself, congregations have been teaming with local real estate developers to build residential communities that provide both affordable housing in high-priced markets and new streams of revenue to support community ministries. These entrepreneurial congregations are not only resilient and able to motivate donors in tough times; they are trying to dig beneath old stewardship ways of thinking about money (pass the plate, sign the pledge card) and find new ways to love and serve their neighbors.

Advice on the scientific process for those who are confident global warming isn't happening

Peter Doherty  the Nobel Prize winning scientist has provided some advice that those who are critical of the scientific enterprise over the issue of global warming in a recent issue of The Month.

Scepticism is central to science. Good scientists look critically at their own and others’ ideas as they seek understanding from available observations and measurements. Better to find the flaw yourself than have someone else point it out. This is as true for climate scientists as it is for research biologists (like me). As an occasional attendee of ‘climatology’ seminars, I don’t see any basic difference in philosophy between these scientific fields. ...

I am an experimentalist who manipulates acute systems, so I may be marginally more conscious of Murphy’s Law than scientists who observe long-term natural events. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is a principle realised all too often when you are deliberately intervening in complex systems, which is what I do for a living. When it comes to perturbation, there is no precedent for the greenhouse gas experiment presently being conducted by humanity. We are simultaneously releasing the combustion products of billions of tons of fossil fuels, devastating the forests that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and rapidly acidifying the great CO2 ‘sink’ (the surface layers of the oceans). This experiment, which involves 6.8 billion human beings, as well as every other complex life form on our small planet, can only be done once. Can we afford to explore the extent of its possibilities? I fail to comprehend how any competent scientist could argue that our current strategies are sustainable. Comparable intimations of disaster during, for instance, the testing of a new drug would lead to the immediate termination of the trial.

The identification of the fossil fuel–greenhouse gas problem is based on physics and chemistry and is further informed by research in meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, glaciology, palaeontology, marine microbiology and terrestrial ecology, among other ?elds. While the occurrence of significant climate change may seem conceptually straightforward, developing an accurate description of the intricacies of what is happening is deeply complex. The scope of this task places it beyond the capabilities of any individual or small group. Making sense of the myriad information is the responsibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a unique body fostered by the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorology Organization. Thousands of scientists are involved and the IPPC draws its evidence exclusively from peer-reviewed, published scientific literature; the contents of its Summary for Policymakers must meet the approval of government representatives from some 100 nations.

Active researchers will inevitably have some uncertainty – scepticism, even – about this or that emphasis in climate-change research. That’s how science works: scepticism develops the scientific debate. It plays itself out in competition, in discussion, in analysis, and by generating further results that test whether previous conclusions are justified, need further refinement or should be overturned. Everything is open to question, including the most basic assumptions. The debate is often intense and not always friendly. It does, however, inspire questions around which new studies can be designed – and these studies may produce new findings.

In a completely different category are the climate-change sceptics and deniers who cut themselves off from ongoing scientific discussion but happily share their views in the full glare of the media. The more extreme sceptics use the language of conspiracy theorists to characterise the IPCC as deeply flawed and to describe its key data-sets as fraudulent. They claim that the climate-science community largely comprises fools and knaves. The University of Adelaide geologist Ian Plimer argues along these lines in his book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – The Missing Science, which has sold more than 30,000 copies in Australia since it was first published in April. It has been greatly acclaimed by those media commentators hostile to science and rational enquiry, but universally panned by informed reviewers for its scientific inaccuracy and basic misrepresentations.

In a way, climate-change scepticism is unsurprising. A denialist fringe operates at the margins of almost any important field of science that gets discussed widely in the public domain. The most egregious example in my field is the faction that claims the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS. Despite numerous identified cases of AIDS having been contracted by HIV-infected needle transmission, the identification and study of similar diseases in non-human primates and the fact that specifically targeted ‘designer drugs’ have been shown to reduce the virus load and bring people back to something like clinical normality, HIV–AIDS deniers include Nobel laureate Kary Mullis and senior American National Academy of Sciences member Peter Duesberg. Unfortunately, early-career achievement in science confers no protection against later becoming a dangerous and dogmatic nutter.

As well as outright deniers, every field has the occasional ‘combative confrontationalist’ who automatically assumes a position in opposition to any major consensus. If they are active researchers – and their urge for confrontation doesn’t reach virulently destructive heights – confrontationalists can serve a useful role by forcing people to sharpen their arguments. Writing a mundane study becomes much easier if you can cite an article by one of these folk, which often also allows you to establish the brilliance of your intellectual synthesis in the process. Another category of nay-sayers are the ‘professional controversialists’. Science is hard and it takes a great deal of effort to establish a strong reputation in any area. If you speak out loudly against the consensus view, however, it is much easier to become part of a prominent public discourse. The pronouncements of the eminent, and elderly, physicist Freeman Dyson on climate science are a case in point. The crux of Dyson’s argument seems to be that we shouldn’t take action on climate change because it could delay development in countries such as China.

 Finally, there are the ‘con?icted nay-sayers’: people who have, say, worked closely with the mining industry and who feel a strong sense of personal loyalty towards it. It seems to me, though, that the compromised loyalty of this particular form of nay-sayer is wasted, as, while miners may currently be losing on the swings, they stand to gain on the roundabouts. Coal mining may be in trouble, but uranium sales are up, and those in the much cleaner natural gas industry must be doing well. Most renewable-energy strategies use a wide variety of metals, including structural steel and aluminium, nickel, cadmium, indium, gallium, and platinum for batteries and fuel cells. Some mining jobs will be lost but – as with any technological revolution – others are being created. Once an ETS is in place, I suspect the current phase of the energy industry protesting too much will have passed.

With the exception of Stewart Franks – a mid-career hydrologist, who is publishing well – Australia’s prominent climate-change sceptics are not active research leaders. Some have held impressive appointments in the past, but spending a decade or more as the public face of an institution doesn’t necessarily correlate to a high level of contemporary scientific awareness. I, for one, am acutely aware that – although I am still looking at data, talking to young scientists in the lab and helping to write research papers – there is no way I can be ‘across’ my own increasingly complex area of research without the constant input of colleagues with different expertise and insights.

The reality that multi-faceted science must necessarily be collaborative is the basis of my extreme scepticism regarding climate-change deniers in the media, who purport to command an enormously complex field from the Promethean perspective of the superior detached intellect. Like all other science, climatology is data-driven, and the data is constantly flooding in: measurements of change in bird-migration patterns; details of ocean temperatures and wind pro?les; measurements of the calcification of coral, the ripening of grapes, the retreat of glaciers, and so on. Those who try, like Plimer, to cover the field simply by reading the specialist literature will inevitably make major mistakes. It’s essential to talk to other scientists, especially as relevant findings inevitably occur in areas outside your expertise. Meteorologists, physicists, geologists and oceanographers each have contributions to make, but the issue of climate change doesn’t belong to any one of them individually. It certainly does not belong to those at, or near to, retirement who are at odds with currently active scientists.

Noted some comments below from Richard which look like rapidly straying well beyond the point of the original quote which was a call for a degree of humility about the ability of any single individual non-scientist to claim with confidence that they could achieve an Olympian view of a complex multi-disciplinary scientific debate.

Comments so far does not seem to clearly distinguish between the issues of scientific process itself, the practices of scientific research, theoretical accounts by philosophers about how that process ought to work and the issue of the public reception of scientific findings which inevitably have to be received by the community on the basis of the consensus of those who are part of the research community.

Comments on this topic closed. There are lots of blogs that specialise in debate around these issues.

Thanks for dropping by.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Social gospel and the Reformation

Little is known about the German Peasant's War in the christian community apart from Luther's fulminations about murdering, thieving peasants. It might come as a surprise to discover that the program of the peasant movements for reform were profoundly shaped by what we might now term a social gospel and an evangelically informed social and political critique.

James M Stayer provides a great introduction to the historiography of the German Peasant's War and the connections to the Anabaptist movement and its understanding of the community of goods.

This is an important historical moment that deserves to be better known by theologians. the historians have done us proud with their painstaking research in opening up fresh perspectives on this critical moment in European history.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

What is Australia Day all about?

Trying to get clear about Australia Day is getting more difficult each year, as I find myself pushing through an increasing fog of efforts by retailers to get on the back of Government and Opposition attempts to turn into a patriotism fest about Australianness.

You could hardly make it down the aisles at my local supermarket for cases of beer everywhere, they are normally confined to the liquor aisle and sausages packaged in quantities that suggested that everyone was going to be catering for their local neighbourhood bar-b-q or that the extended family was planning to drop by again.

Is this an attempt to create a new sub-cult of an Australian civil religion and how well will it succeed?
Anzac Day is well ahead and has the advantage of a cult of martyrs to support it.

A bit of history might be helpful. Australia Day is really a date which bookmarks the start of the European landgrab. When I was growing up I remember it as a fairly local event that Western Australians for example were not much interested in and South Australian celebrated Foundation Day on 26 December as the start of their colony. Most importantly it marked the end of the holiday season and the date on which life could begin again in earnest, people could schedule meetings and politicians could start issuing press releases and be interviewed on current affairs programs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders  have never been too excited about the date. It was too lead to a rolling war of conquest, theft, social disruption and disease for the next two centuries.Their feelings at best were captured in that famous cartoon of the Endeavour looming up on the horizon off Botany Bay, with one saying to the other "There goes the neighbourhood". Many remain unenthusiastic and alienated from the celebrations of nationhood on this particular date.

The movement to turn it into a date of patriotic celebration has gradually emerged over the past two decades but their is no central point of resonance and the meaning of the date remains highly disputed.

As a Christian for whom all loyalties are qualified by the commitment to following Jesus I start to get a bit queasy over pushes from the powers that be to join unreservedly in celebration of the nation.

The task is how to state the affirmation of seeking the welfare of the city as one who is something of an exile within it and not sound simply grouchy.

My mate Jarrod McKenna has helped me out with his own statement which has a little of the Australian larrikin in it.

My identity is found in no flag yet is lost on those who don't understand connection to the land. My anthem is not sung by those in uniform but is heard in the praise of birds who redecorate statues of men. My freedom was not won on the hills of Gallipoli but on the hill of Calvary. This is why I will never kill for country but will live for Love & seek the peace of the land. 

Monday, 25 January 2010

Why bother joining the ALP?

It is getting to the point where I seriously wonder why people both joining the ALP. One of the significant reasons for joining is that you get to vote in preselecting your parties candidate when a vacancy occurs. Why else give up all those Tuesday evenings?

Well increasingly it seems that you will not need to bother yourself with taking out membership if that was something you were interested in.  The ALP National Executive is willing take all that responsibility off local party members and do all the work of parceling out vacant seats based on complex deals to keep all the faction leaders happy.

Whatever happened to democracy within the party that claims a special place in the struggle for democracy in Australia?

What it looks like right now is continuing hollowing out of the ALP into nothing more than a self-perpetuating institution for carving out access to the right to manage the machinery of government whenever the ALP gets its turn.

The latest shenanigans in the ACT in which it looks unlikely at the moment that there will be a local preselection to replace the retiring members for the electorates of Fraser and Canberra is really the last straw. The rumours are that overriding factor is that the allocation of candidates for these electorates is the flow on results of deals done in the Sydney metropolitan area by factions within the party.

If that happens it is my profound hope that there is an electoral revolt. It has happened before in Canberra.

If the process goes unchallenged within the ALP it simply means that another one of the limited channels for community participation in the governmental process will have been blocked up.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Wendell Berry on war

Wendell Berry has contributed a number of essays on war that are striking in the clarity of expression and the breadth of their moral perspective.

The Failure of War
Peaceableness Toward Enemies
Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

In his first book of essays The Long-Legged House there are two relevant pieces that are not available on line: "A Statement Against the War in Vietnam" and "Sme thoughts on Citizenship and conscience in Honor of Don Pratt"


Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings about Love, Compassion & Forgiveness. Washington, D. C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.

Berry is especially helpful in reminding us of the impact of war on creation and hence on ourselves as inextricably grounded in creation.

XIV. It was, as any war must be, in part a war against ourselves. Even in winning, we lost. Many of our young people were killed or hurt-though we look on this as a bargain price for the massive slaughter of our enemies. Our war industries are richer, but as a nation we are poorer. And though we have achieved "victory" by the damage that we did in the Middle East, we are poorer for that damage as well.
XV. It was not just Saddam Hussein's world that we damaged; it was our world. As every modern war has been and must be, this was a war against the world. In order to damage Saddam Hussein and his people, we damaged the earth. In order to protect himself and his people, Saddam Hussein damaged the earth. There was much talk in the press of Saddam Hussein's "crime" of releasing oil into the Persian Gulf. And yet we knew that he could and probably would do this; it was something we were willing to risk. It was the sort of thing that will inevitably happen in industrial warfare in industrial nations. Let us admit that the only solution to "world problems" that is in keeping with our military means is the destruction of the world. ("Peaceableness towards Enemies")

The ongoing tragedy of Gaza

The blockade of Gaza is proving a long drawn out tragedy that only occasionally comes to our attention in the mainstream media. The moral issues that it raises are rarely confronted plainly given Israel's tight control over access to the territory. There are few opportunities to listen to the voices of the ordinary citizens of Gaza.

A report this week headlined The blockade is killing Gaza say NGOs and UN spells out the dimensions of this long drawn out human tragedy. Leaving aside for a moment the broader economic and social impacts of the blockade the impacts on the health system are confronting.

The lack of building materials as a result of the blockade is affecting essential health facilities: the new surgical wing in Gaza's main Shifa hospital has remained unfinished since 2006. Hospitals and primary care facilities, damaged during operation 'Cast Lead', have not been rebuilt because construction materials are not allowed into Gaza.
Operation 'Cast Lead' damaged 15 of Gaza's 27 hospitals and 43 of its 110 primary health care facilities were either damaged or destroyed.
Supplies of drugs and disposables have generally been allowed into Gaza – though there are often shortages on the ground. However, certain types of medical equipment, such as x-ray equipment and electronic devices are very difficult to bring in. Clinical staff frequently lack the medical equipment they need. Medical devices are often broken, missing spare parts, or out of date.
Health professionals in Gaza have been cut off from the outside world. Since 2000, very few doctors, nurses or technicians have been able to leave the Strip for training necessary to update their clinical skills or to learn about new medical technology. This is severely undermining their ability to provide quality health care.
Many specialised treatments, for example, complex heart surgery and treatment for certain types of cancer, are not available and patients are therefore referred for treatment to hospitals outside Gaza. But many patients have had their applications for exit permits denied or delayed by the Israeli Authorities and have missed their appointments. Some have died while waiting for referral.
Tony Laurance, the Head of Office for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the West Bank and Gaza, declared: "An effective health care system cannot be sustained in isolation from the international community. Open borders are needed to ensure the health of the 1.4 million people in Gaza"

Thursday, 21 January 2010

What I've been reading this week - Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia by Tom Frame (UNSW Press, 2009)

This is several books in one - yet it hangs together. the first 'book' provides three chapters on the context of belief and unbelief in Australia covering the history and the soliological data with a sure footed balance.

The second 'book'  provides an accessible survey of unbelief in philosophical, scientific and theological context.

'Book' the third explores the consequences of unbelief more broadly and then with specific reference to Australian debates about God and about what a secular society is.

This is a book that does not require detailed technical knowledge but is written with an openness about the author's own engagement in the journey of faith and why he remains a Christian. It is also written with an effort to report fairly the arguments and the critiques of religion of both the atheists and the anti-theists. I intend to pick up some of the issues that Tom raises on the way through in the near future.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Martin Luther King day

Martin Luther King Day has produced some interesting reflections and a great discovery:

A Reflection on Obana's speech suggests that if Obama is right Martin Luther King was wrong. that is the trouble with those pesky prophets.

Bethel College has discovered a recording of a speech by Martin Luther King from 1960 that had been thought to be lost.It's the only recording of the speech that exists, and until recently, school officials thought it was lost for good.King gave the speech, about the future of integration, at Bethel College in south-central Kansas in January 1960.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Haiti and appalling theology

Pat Robertson the American fundamentalist preacher is not the person claiming to speak on behalf of the christian faith who has been uttering utterances that can only be characterised as displaying an appalling theology.

In his blog on the Ekklesia website Symon Hill reports on his encounter with Jonathan Campbell a Northern Irish minister on a program on BBC Radio Ulster.

We discussed this issue after hearing moving testimony about the unimaginable horror with which the country is faced, the numbers killed and starving and the groups of Haitians who have gathered to sing hymns in the midst of this devastation. Campbell expressed his sympathy with the Haitian people and encouraged financial donations to evangelical relief agencies, but insisted it was the practise of Voodoo – a “destructive religion” – that has caused the tragedy.


This alarming interpretation ignores the far more tangible and visible consequences of human sin. While an earthquake on this scale would have caused devastation anywhere, the extreme poverty in Haiti means that poor building conditions and the lack of infrastructure made the tragedy far, far worse. In a world in which the means to end poverty are available, the economic structures that prevent this happening are surely sinful. While Jonathan Campbell quoted the Book of Revelation at me (somewhat selectively), he overlooked the reality that the oppression of the poor and vulnerable is the sin that the Bible condemns more than any other.

A small number of churches in the UK may hear references to Voodoo in sermons or prayers about Haiti this morning. However, I’m also worried about comments that may be heard, far more numerously, in more mainstream churches. Faced with tragedy on this scale, some preachers and priests feel a desire to explain it. Such a desire is understandable, but misguided. It easily leads to simplistic responses, such as those that suggest that the earthquake is part of God’s plan. It is not. To say such a thing is to ask us to worship a God who not only hurts people, but targets the poorest and most vulnerable in the infliction of suffering.

We need to get away from the notion of God “up there”, meting out punishment and reward on a whim. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us “down here”. From this perspective, the problem of suffering is not an academic question about God’s nature, but a practical one about how we allow the love of God to transform us so that we live differently and tackle injustice.

A God who inflicts suffering – for any reason – is an ogre. The God who in Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross as a political criminal is a God who suffers with us and allows us to glimpse the possibility of a better world.

Haiti- like a war zone

Report on Ekklesia web site from the ACT Alliance of Global Churches states that:

Haiti's capital looks like a war zone and one million people are without shelter following the devastating earthquake that shook the Caribbean nation, the ACT Alliance global network of churches and related agencies has warned.The 7.0 magnitude quake that struck on 12 January 2010, brought down or made uninhabitable between 60 and 80 per cent of the houses in the capital of Port-au-Prince, the Geneva-based alliance said in a statement on its website.

"In a city that ACT Alliance members say looks like a war zone, hundreds of thousands are roaming the streets looking desperately for relatives and other loved ones," the grouping reported.
"Thousands of people in Port-au-Prince - injured, hungry and desperate - have spent days outdoor[s] in the demolished capital of Haiti without food or shelter," the alliance said in a separate 15 January report. "Desperate Haitians have blocked streets with corpses in anger. Food is stocking up at the airport, but has not yet been distributed."

The network had earlier said some of its members around the world were continuing to wait for news of colleagues missing following the quake, which has been described as the worst to hit the Caribbean nation in 200 years. Tens of thousands of Haitians are feared dead. ACT Alliance described rescue and humanitarian operations as being complicated because the United Nations is "paralysed" following the collapse of its main building, which left more than 100 UN staff missing.

Christians as atheists - resisting empire

 In some of the early conflicts between the Christians and the Roman Empire, the Christians were described as atheists because they reused to acknowledge, offer incense to the emperor. This was not a matter of religion as a category of intellectual belief in one god, the Christian one as a matter of individual or personal choice, rather than another god, the roman one.

There was no distinction between religion and politics. The early Christians saw themselves committed to membership in a polis, in which Jesus was Lord, a lordship manifested as the suffering servant, not the Emperor, whose lordship was maintained through the use of coercion and violence.  This stance relativised the absolute claims of the Roman Empire. Hence the term atheist that was applied to those who refused to conform to the claims that violence and power were the ultimate source of authority.

Such an atheism with respect to the claims of the empire committed Christians to the way of peace - the Beatitudes formed a key part of the catechism for those wishing to become disciples in the first couple of centuries. There is I think room for such atheism to become the norm once again in the church. To resist again the claims of the state to ultimate control over our bodies as participants in war is a form of atheism which is strongly supported by the Gospels.

The State has taken on the aura of religious authority, it is upheld by a form of civil religion of which the clearest public outcroppoing can be seen on Anzac Day. The state claims final authority over our bodies and our resources to sustain its war making apparatus. We need more atheists, like the early Christians who will resist these religio/political claims that sustain the cycle of violence.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Atheism, Christianity and Marxism and what are the issues at stake?

Stumbled today across some reviews of the book by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton Reason, Faith and Revolution in some locations that do not normally give theology much of a run. For example in Salon Andrew O'Hehrir begins his review thusly:

Here is how British literary critic Terry Eagleton begins his brisk, funny and challenging new book: "Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology." That's quite a start, especially when you consider that the point of Eagleton's "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate" -- adapted from a series of lectures he delivered at Yale in April 2008 -- is to defend the theory and practice of religion against its most ardent contemporary critics. ...

It's only a slight simplification to say that in this compact little tome, which runs less than 200 pages and is largely conversational in tone, Eagleton hopes to save Christianity from the Christians and Marxism from the Marxists. Yet the book's easy-breezy, wisecracking character is deceptive; I had to read it through twice before concluding that it's one of the most fascinating, most original and prickliest works of philosophy to emerge from the post-9/11 era.

Stanley Fish weighs in a similar vein in a blog in the New York Times:

Reviews in the Independent
The Guardian The Times a little less free swinging in their coverage but capture the sense of a full blown intellectual barney in which an exploration of serous issues has apparently not prevented Eagleton from engaging in some entertaining and in places coruscating prose.

Eagleton has had Dawkins in his sights for a while his review of the God Delusion
gives some idea of what has apparently now surfaced in his attack on the composite figure of Ditchkins (Dawkins and Hitchens).

Looks like there are some serious theological and political issues laid on the table by Eagleton in a way that suggests that atheism of a certain character and politically engaged Christian orthodoxy that takes the call of Jesus seriously might not be that far apart. After all Christians in the Roman empire were regarded as atheists.

Andrew O'Hehir points us in that direction when he observes alate in his review:
You can almost hear the steel chairs creaking as the last secular liberals rise to depart when Eagleton declares where his true disagreement with Richard Dawkins lies, which does not directly concern the existence of God or the role of science. "The difference between Ditchkins and radicals like myself," he writes, "hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for living."

Some more reviews:


The human face of Israel's Occupation

Christian Peacemakers Team bulletin - just one human face, one story of the reality of Israeli occupation.

For information on Christian Peacemaker Teams see:

The Palestinian shepherd arrested last week after soldiers attacked his family and CPTers (see was tortured before being released by police.

The same eight soldiers who arrested Raba’i and attacked his family took him to a military base at the nearby Suseya settlement. For four hours, soldiers struck him in the back, in the face, and slammed him into walls. The soldiers questioned him about his brothers. Raba’i refused to give any information and refused to speak Hebrew with the soldiers, which infuriated them. The soldiers told him that they would come to his house in the following days and beat or kill him and his brothers. They tried to force him to say that they were the best soldiers in the IDF and beat him when he would not. Raba’i told CPTers the soldiers tied his hands and feet, blindfolded him, and sat him on a chair. Raba’i put his head in his lap, in an attempt to protect his head and his genitals, and refused to lift it. He said that at one point, a soldier cocked his rifle and told him to lift his head or he would shoot him. Raba’i refused. When another soldier tried to bring him food and water, as the military is legally obligated to do in such situations, the soldiers who were torturing him swore at the soldier and told him to leave. The soldiers also refused to allow Raba’i to pray.

After four hours of this interrogation and torture, they took Raba’i to Israeli police station in Kiryat Arba settlement. The Israeli police told him that they usually offer detainees food and water, but were giving him nothing because they wanted to punish him. They said that if they ever saw his face again, they would kill him. After thirty minutes, the police tied his hands and feet, blindfolded him, drove him to a location unknown to him and threw him out of the jeep. Fearing that soldiers, police or settlers might see him, he hid in a bush until he saw his family's car.

Raba'i was able to call his family, who, accompanied by CPTers, found him and brought him home.

For photos of Raba'i’s injuries see here: Injuries-caused-by-soldiers.

Please share this story with your community and consider other ways of supporting CPT's work in Palestine:

Monday, 4 January 2010

Climate change and apocalyptic political imagination

Mark Bahnisch has an important article over at Larvateus Prodeo "The politics of climate change, the impossibility of conservatism, and the role of the imaginary".

Mark has an interesting discussion on apocalyptic politics drawing on the recent book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Žižek. For details on the book see First as Tragedy then as Farce

Mark starts his piece by observing that:
One of the accusations frequently made by climate change deniers or ’skeptics’ against those who would like to see concerted action taken to ameliorate the impacts of anthropogenic global warming is that of being somehow apocalyptic. A related charge is that climate change activism is somehow a screen or cover for an unstated political agenda.

Futile as the attempt to deny and disavow the fact that a process of climate change is  koccurring, and that human actors are causal agents, it’s nevertheless the case that this discourse is not without its effects in the world. So it’s worth analysing this phenomenon.

There is no doubt that apocalyptic politics are in style.
He then provides an interesting introduction the discussion of apocalyptism in  Žižek's book and the task of developing a new vision of for human society.

The irony is that climate change deniers are using the rhetorical move of asserting that climate change is simply and only a cover for a hidden political agenda when the challenge is that the task of imagining a new sustainable political world order, a politics beyond business as normal, that is called for by the reality of climate change has barely begun.

The theology and practice of the tradition of radical Christianity has something to bring to the work that has to begin.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Bringing Epiphany down to earth

The sermon this morning on the feast of the Epiphany started out with some promise. We were offered an account of the wise men in their social and historical context. The sermon then moved to an account of the world at the time of the incarnation as looking for God and the wise men as a model for that seeking.

No account of the reality that this was a time of Empire and any search for God had political implications - there was no distinction between "religion" and 'politics" as we know it today. Wise men from the east looking for a king in one of the more troublesome provinces on the edge of the Roman empire could only spell trouble, a suggestion of political manouvering and a hint of possible alliances to challenge Roman hegemony. Whatever the wise men thought they were doing Herod was not going to let anyone pull a fast one that might place his relationship with the Empire and its economic benefits in jeopardy.

There was no hint in the sermon that discipleship might be challenging, dangerous or place us in tension with the ruling powers. Kyle Childress in his commentary on the Ekklesia Project blog site for Luke 2:1-20 gets to one of the issues that bugged me about this morning's sermon:

One of the great dangers and persistent temptations of the Christian life is abstraction and reduction, universalization and generalization. We like platitudes and principles, spiritual laws and high-sounding words like “love” and “grace” or “justice.”

But not with Luke. Not with the New Testament. At Christmas we run up against the Incarnation. Instead of timeless truth we get God in particular: a teenaged mother and young father with their baby in a cattle trough, trying to stay warm in a cow shed on the backside of a dusty overlooked town on the far side of the Roman Empire. We get the specific, the particular, the concrete. None of this “once upon a time,” timeless and eternal we get in fairy stories. This story can be dated – when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We can take a road map and follow Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Nazareth to Bethlehem. ... We get an angel calling Mary. God speaking to Joseph. God coming in the particularity of a baby.

The particularity of the Gospel in the Incarnation then and in our attempts at discipleship now continually gets lost in a fog of spirituality that does not address the reality of the world in which I find myself living. An account of the wise men which ignores the politically motivated genocide that follows their visit and the account of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees leaves us comfortably where we are in a consumer oriented society which is not worried about "religion" as a consumer choice that has no connection with the public realm.

Update: for a reading of Epiphany that sets it in the context of Empire, while reminding us of the current slaughtering of the innocents see Gene Stolzfus Massacring the Innocents.