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Friday, 26 February 2010

Destruction of village life in northern Iraq

Christian Peacemaker Teams have released a report on the destruction of village life in northern Iraq up out of the line of sight of mainstream media according to Ekklesia.

Christian Peacemaker Teams, which intervenes nonviolently in situations of conflict and confrontation across the world, yesterday released a 54-page report detailing the destruction of northern Iraqi village life by Turkish and Iranian attacks over the past two years. CPT is calling for an end to this damage to civilian life.

This report documents the impact of an intermittent war waged on an isolated civilian population, the historical context in which the current warfare is occurring, and the international legal implications of decisions taken by various militaries engaged in acts of violence against a vulnerable civilian population in an already vulnerable and war-torn country.

For a full copy of the report go to

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Israel, diplomacy and possible paths to a resolution

Donald Mcintyre in an article in the Independent presents discussion of developments with regard to Israel and the context for diplomacy around the conflict with Palestine that is of a quality and breath that we rarely get in the Australian media.

Verbal violence & climate change

Browsing blogs where climate change issues are raised has revealed to me a level of verbal violence, abuse and sweeping categorisation of those with differing views that i had not expected. If I thought that was bad worse apparently is happening outside the blogosphere.

Clive Hamilton in a recent column on the ABC website documents this rhetorical style as applied to communications to climate change scientists. Reading the examples he quoted is a disturbing experience yet the response in comments on the web site demonstrated that people who rejected global warming seemed oblivious to the question of the violence of the language used.

Disagreement over the issue is sufficient to justify the language used.

What is happening? Is it a function of the technology in which the 'other" is not a flesh and blood person who you confront face to face?

A rereading of Genesis stars to seem appropriate at this point with its challenge to think about who our brother is, restraint when responding to murder and the role of language and technology in building and dispersing human community.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Andrew Hamilton  provides a useful theologically informed comment in response to Tony Abbott's much commented on observation on homelessness this week.

The context of the controversy is that last week at a meeting of Catholic Social Services Tony Abbott was asked whether he would commit himself to Kevin Rudd's pledge to halve homelessness in Australia by 2020 and he declined. While he expressed a desire to improve the present situation, many people he said chose to be homeless. He contrasted large gestures of commitment by politicians to heal social problems with the remark of Jesus, 'The poor you have with you always'. We should try to do what is possible, but not expect to make the world perfect.

Hamilton takes up the issue of interpretation of the phrase "the poor you have with you always" and places it in the context of the gospel story and its original location in Deuteronomy that together combine to suggest a meaning very different from its commonplace usage.

The phrase, 'The poor you have with you always' occurs in a story told in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John. The story occurs late in the Gospels when the hostility towards Jesus is moving to his arrest and death. A woman comes up to Jesus, breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed oil and pours it over his head. This leads to criticism of the extravagance of the gesture — the jar should have been sold and the money given to the poor. The criticism is variously attributed to bystanders, to Jesus' disciples and to Judas who, it is noted, was a thief. The critics, plainly, are not the heroes of the story.
In response to the critics, Jesus contrasts their general concern for the poor, who are always with us, with the woman's specific compassion for him. She has anointed him in view of his imminent death. The story also implies that right thinking about charity — concern for policy — must arise out of an immediate compassion for the people whom we meet. The saying does not relativise our commitment to the poor. It makes absolute our commitment to the poor person in front of us.

This becomes clear if we look more closely at the remark about the poor being always with us. It is actually a paraphrase of a verse from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. God is represented as saying, 'For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you: You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.' Here the perennial existence of the poor does not entitle us to turn to other issues. It demands that we address it constantly in practical terms.
When taken together, the story from the Gospels and the instructions in Deuteronomy encapsulate the Christian attitude to the poor. It is based in effective solidarity with those in need, and this solidarity in turn is grounded in compassion. In Matthew's Gospel, the twin themes of compassion and solidarity come together in the picture of judgment, where Jesus says that what we do to our neighbour in need, we do to Christ. Solidarity with the neighbour is solidarity with Christ. The woman in the Gospel story was a model of commitment to the poor.

It follows that Jesus' words are not directed against sweeping commitments to the poor, the context in which  Abbott cites them, but against generalised statements of concern for the poor which do not express themselves in care for poor people. It is directed against a political rhetoric that is not grounded in effective compassion.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

What if the Church were Christian?

What if the Church were Christian? A question asked most pointedly by the leader writer for The Independent newspaper in Britain contemplating the debates at the General Synod of the Church of England.

The leader writer closed the editorial with the observation that:
The Church ought to stand as a sign of contradiction in a consumerist culture whose focus constantly and unquestioningly narrows on ever-greater individualism and self-interest. But where it ignores the lessons which secular society has to teach it about its own gospel message, and does so with such shrill intolerance, it has only itself to blame if the rest of us dismiss it as a foolish pageant.
(c) Independent 2010

Simon Barrow framed his observations with reference to the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

"Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear ... Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Future of Faith

Harvey Cox has just bowed out from academia with a popular survey of the future of Christianity which focuses a good deal on its past.

And because it is written in a popular style it is going to get up the noses of some scholars with its broad sweeping summaries and Cox's willingness to give an account of what he sees going on that is informed by serious scholarship and personal vulnerability in reflection on some significant moments in his own journey of faith.

This is a book that should be read by journalists and media commentators venturing into commentary on the Christian faith because he makes clear why pentecostals and evangelicals should not be automatically characterised as fundamentalists.

Anabaptists are going to be encouraged to go back and reflect on their heritage of discipleship in the light of Cox's emphasis on Christianity  as people of the Way. Such theologians might or might want to rethink the arguments of some of their theologians for greater focus on the creeds and systematising their theology. Cox provides some sweeping grounds for an internal Anabaptist argument around the possibility that the two are in profound conflict and that the DNA of anabaptism points us towards a focus on faith as active following, rather than the construction of intellectual systems of belief.

Cox it might be said is in many ways an Anabaptist fellow traveller in his dislike of the choices the church made in engaging with the Roman empire during the fourth century. His critique of Constantinianism is so sweeping it leaves John Howard Yoder's account of that process looking relatively nuanced.

Cox has always liked big picture theology - but despite its sweeping character it has always been informed by some serious scholarship that has taken it beyond the genre of fad. This is certainly true of The Future of Faith.

It is the sort of book that you could hand to a vaguely interested but critical inquirer into the Christian faith as providing a historically informed, self critical account of the history of the faith that does not demand a conformity without remainder to modernity, a la Bishop Spong.

Cox displays a willingness to engage in conversation with fundamentalists rather than angrily dismissing them from any consideration and acknowledges his own engagement with this form of Christianity without rancour while being clear about his deep  differences with, and fundamental criticisms of, this tradition.

Fundamental to Cox's assessment of future trajectories of religion is:
  • the movement from an age of belief to an age of faith
  • the gradual dying of fundamentalism
  • the changing form of religion to the rediscovery of the sacred within the secular.

Monday, 15 February 2010

On science, religion and atheism

Are Science and Atheism incompatible? Interesting comment by Andrew Brown in the Guardian "Comment is Free'. He notes that the human sciences challenge a lot of beliefs held by atheists and his quick survey on the sociology and psychology of religion is an interesting though contestable take on the factors bearing on the survival of religion.

His closing paragraphs throw an interesting light on the current problems faced by scientists in communicating an account of their conclusions and reasoning in the face of populist dismissal on the issues surrounding climate change a n issue that they share with religion - the problem of demonstrating a trustworthy authority.

Nor has the decline of religious belief, in those countries where it has declined, resulted in a growth of scientific knowledge. If anything, the two have declined together. This is distressing for the atheists who believe that science and religion are natural enemies, contending for our hearts and understandings, but it makes perfect sense. Some religious doctrines are untrue, but when you abolish them, you need not thereby add to the world's stock of truth. You could just add to the variety of its lies. 

Science and organised traditional religion have to some extent the same enemies. Both rely for their influence on society on trust in authority and that is rapidly eroding. This is obvious in the case of religion, but we can see from the progress of climate change denialism how helpless scientists are against the same kind of jeering and suspicious anti-intellectualism that some of them direct at religion.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Looking at Presidential elections


I recently  read Race of  Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Heilemann & Halperin)and got curious about it stacked up against what I regard as one of the finest accounts of a presidential campaign - An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 by Chester, Hodgson & Page.

I have to report that the 1968 account stands up very well on a number of fronts and highlights the limits of the reporting of the 2008 campaign. Race of a Lifetime read on its own terms reads like now. It is focussed on the personalities and the inside gossip about who said what to whom. An American Melodrama has that but has a lot more to offer. It gives background on the issues and the working of the American political process and issues in society that were underpinning the dynamics of the campaign. All this is written fluently and yet with a light touch and a wry sense of humour.

The Race of  Lifetime tells us little of any of these things - it is personality centred and deals little with the wider processes and hopes and fear in American society. Politically and socially something significant was at work in the 2008 campaign but we are given few clues and little analysis to help us understand.

There are moments of observation and reflection in An American Melodrama in which some of the characteristics of presidential campaigning that are unreflectively on display in the report of the 2008 campaign are tellingly anticipated. The limitations and narrowness of the way the story of the 2008 campaign is told is reflective of the narrowness and lack of depth in the media coverage of the campaign.

The comparison of the reporting between 1968 and 2008 is revealing and disturbing. I doubt that I will ever go back and read Race of a Lifetime. Going back to reread An American Melodrama this past week was intellectually rewarding and engaging in its narrative drive and literary style.