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Sunday, 23 January 2011

An anarchist history of upland southest Asia - a way of rereading the history of Israel




I have just finished a great read - James C Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009).

Here Scott offers a history of the estimated 100 million people who live in a vast hill and mountain zone that runs across southwest China, northeast India, and parts of five Southeast Asian countries. Contrary to the usual account that sees these people as the original inhabitant who have been left behind by history, he provides an account that turns the usual assumptions upside down.

These populations fled into the hills over the course of two millennia, he argues, to avoid the imposition of slavery, indentured labor, and taxes by expanding states. they have developed their community, economic and religious life as an active effort at state evasion and state resistance

That is, they evolved languages, economies, and ways of life that were designed to keep the state at bay, or to be engaged with on their own terms. He draws attention to some examples of this process outside of Asia, as well. Scott often returns to the complex example of Myanmar (also called Burma) to explain how states mapped terrain, classified populations, and acquired resources as they expanded -- and to show how the Kachins, the Hmong, and others resisted. often successfully this process.

Beyond the relevance of this work for studies of the region, this work raises tantalising questions about the role of the state in history and enables us to deconstruct the assumed, taken for granted account that the state is all important and acts of resistance to the state are marginal. We have here a framework for questioning the taken for granted character of this narrative.

Beyond that it also occurred to me that this account of resistance to the state might be of interest to Old Testament scholars in thinking about the emergence of Israel and helping to reread that history through the pentateuch and especially during the time of the Judges. I'm not an Old Testament scholar but it seems to me that there might be a PhD thesis of two in exploring the relevance of Scott's model for our understanding of the dynamics of the formation of Israel.

For example:
  • the hills as a region of refuge or escape from the state making projects of the valleys (pp.22-3)
  • pp122-3 to leave state space is to become characterised as a "barbarian" or a "tribal"
  • "State expansion when it involves forms of force labour fosters (geographical conditions permitting) extrastate zones of flight and refuge. The inhabitants of such zones often constitute a composite of runaways and earlier-established peoples. (p.133) 
  • the hill population were those without kings, operating with non-hierarchical patterns of limited local authority,
  • the religious commitments of the hills were resistant to religious uniformity of the valley states - the hills are the source of prophetic movements.
 Scott's account of the development of tribal identity as not being driven by long lasting ethnicities but by the development of identity by all those fleeing to the hills to escape the valley states centralising authority.

The history of Israel has coded within it a resistance to centralising authority, in the escape from Egypt, the initial tribal form of non-hierarchical authority and the limited power of the judges. Even under the kings there was always ready to emerge the strain of prophetic critique and resistance to that authority.



Monday, 17 January 2011

Canning Stock Route exhibition

The Canning Stock Route exhibition at the national Museum here in Canberra is finishing up its run on Australia Day. If you can get out there do it. It is an engaging and powerful recovery of history and mapping of geography from the point of view of the Aboriginal people in the region stretching from Wiluna to Halls Creek..

What it demonstrates powerfully is that geography and mapping is not culture neutral. The "white fella" map of the stock route took no account of the lines of language and cultural responsibility that were critical to the Indigenous geography of the region. There is a wonderful painting of one region that takes the form of a "western' map and overlays it with a pointers account of the ecological niches across the region as understood by those whose home it was and who closely the plant and animal patterns of life.

The story of the encounter with the stock route was a major project in historical and cultural documentation using Aboriginal artists and film makers from the communities along the length of the stock route to paint and narrate their stories of encounter and the impact that it had had on them. Some of the paintings were made by artists who had been part of the last communities to engage with the European invasion as late as 1956.

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Saturday, 1 January 2011

Church, state and refugees

Joshua Ralston in Refugees and the Role of Religious Groups draws attention to the central role that religious organizations play in the long resettlement journey for refugees that begins with forced exile, moves through a sojourn  in a refugee camp, and ends for some at least with resettlement in a new country.
Church World Service, Jewish Family Services, World Relief and many other denominational organizations are involved in every step, from the handling of interviews and applications to determine refugee status, to meeting new arrivals at the airport, and providing the first few months of housing. The relief or mission agencies of churches and synagogues are integral partners in the government's response to refugees.
This appears to be a perfect symbiotic relationship, with the state providing what only it can - a political polity and the possibility of citizenship - and religious groups offering what they are best equipped to provide - hospitality. The political limbo of statelessness, which consigns refugees to "bare life" outside the law (as Giorgio Agamben describes it), can apparently only be overcome through the joint efforts of religion and state.
Ralston questions whether the church can be totally comfortable with the terms of this partnership and moves to articulate an approach that treats the church's own distinctive character seriously.
While much of the religious involvement in resettlement is laudable, it still regularly falls short of the call of Jewish and Christian scriptures to love the alien as "one of your own citizens" (Leviticus 19:33). Central to the biblical narrative is a reminder to love and treat the stranger as a neighbour.
However, partnership with the state presses Christian mission increasingly away from this biblical mandate and towards what the German Jesuit theologian Johan Baptist Metz calls "a service providing religion." Under this model, refugees are not new neighbours or possible joint-members of the body of Christ, but clients to whom a political service is owed.
Bretherton is right to worry, then, that "involvement with the state often exacerbates social divisions and forces the church to mimic the state in its form and practices." At times, the church's response to refugees resembles something like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once the service is met - with a pick up at the airport, a quick welcome, and few months rent paid - the church's mission moves on to its next project.
What is lacking in this model is the kind of long and patient friendships that nurture community, alter the national character of the church, and challenge the state's assumptions about citizenship and human identity.
 One way that the church might enact this is to follow what Bretherton calls "doxological politics," which "hallow" or bless the lives of refugees through acts of listening, community organizing, offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and shared worship. All of these acts serve as ad hoc ways to move beyond the service-oriented logic of resettlement and toward genuine encounter and mutual enrichment.
Another model is found in the Jesuit Refugee Service's practice of physical accompaniment, which signals God's presence alongside those excluded from national polity.
The church can thereby hold a mirror up to liberal democracy's claims of inclusion and human rights by demanding the state live up to its own ideals. As political philosopher Selya Benhabib argues in The Rights of Others, "There is not only a tension, but often an outright contradiction, between human rights declarations and states' sovereign claim to control their borders as well as to monitor the quality and quantity of admittees."
Hallowing the life of refugees and accompanying them beyond the services of resettlement includes advocating for just national and international immigration policies that are grounded in something more than the economic needs of the welcoming nation.
This is not to say that the church, or other religious organizations, should abjure their roles in resettling refugees. However, if they are to partner with the state in this process, they must also stretch their imagination and political commitments beyond the borders of the nation-state and the national rhetoric that accompanies debates on immigration.
The church would then act as a public and political witness to the presence and dignity of refugees, both locally and worldwide. In so doing, the church might be surprised to find itself following the way of the God who, in Karl Barth's wonderful phrase, journeyed into the far country for our sake.

Refugees and intellectual freedom

Rowan Williams throws a different angle on the issue of immigration and the role of the refugee in his address Refugees make us strange to ourselves.


So the refugee intellectual brings into our insular discussion the knowledge that justice is vulnerable and has to be defended against the silencing of discussion and the silencing of particular classes or racial groupings. ...  And there are two interconnected issues that come into focus as a result of this recognition.
One is about the need to sustain a culture in which genuine and strong disagreements over the shape of the 'good' society are given space to unfold and interact - the need for a robust public intellectual life, supported by a university culture which is not simply harnessed to productivity and problem-solving.

The second, closely related, issue is about the need for access to these arguments on the part of all citizens. An intellectually lively society nourished by a vigorous and independent academy, appears actually to presuppose certain things about universal education and democratic accountability, the imperative to resist the restriction of argument to those already possessed of ideological and material power.

It might be objected, of course, that this formulation itself takes for granted a pluralist and democratic society and thus stifles any discussion of whether society could or should be otherwise - whether absolute monarchy, say, or religious uniformity enforced by law, might be the form of a good society.

But the point is that as soon as you are asking whether absolute monarchy is a possibility for a good society, you are granting that it needs to be - and could be - justified. You are allowing that an argument could be mounted for absolute monarchy; and this implies that absolute monarchy is not the only thinkable shape for society - which is already a decisive move away from the historic understanding of absolutism.

If you want a theological reference in the margin here, you might recall St Augustine's deep scepticism about any suggestion that this or that social order could be identified with the City of God. History, in his eyes, certainly has a momentum and an overall story, but it is not one that moves inexorably towards the perfect human society. The task of the citizen with Christian conviction is to work for the changes that reflect the justice of God - and always to recognise that such changes can be reversed, in a world of endemic rivalry and acquisition.

The need for 'argumentative democracy', as it has been called, is not to be confused with either a passive tolerance for diverse points of view that never engage with each other; nor is it a recipe for a Babel of populist prejudices. The former - as Michael Sandel put it in his excellent recent book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? - can mean "suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it." Whereas the ideal situation is neither suppressing nor avoiding but engaging.

Engaging, however, is possible only when there is an assumption that it is safe to say what you believe, and that there is a process in which you will be heard, so that any ultimate outcome will have at least registered your own conviction even if it does not endorse it completely. Passive tolerance suggests an underlying nervousness about conviction of any kind and a serious lack of confidence that there are processes and contexts that make disagreement bearable.
Beyond this account of the conditions for a pluralist society Rowan Williams goes on to draw attention to an important theological warrant for thinking about the Christian as a migrant.


... one of the mainsprings of Christian self-understanding in the formative years of the Church's life was the idea that the believer was essentially a 'migrant', someone who was in any and every situation poised between being at home and being a stranger. In the New Testament and a good deal of the literature that survives from the first couple of Christian centuries, one of the commonest self-descriptions of the Church is in the language that would have been used in the Mediterranean cities for a community of migrant workers, temporary residents.

As a 'resident alien' in whatever society he or she inhabited, the believer would be involved in discovering what in that society could be endorsed and celebrated and what should be challenged. The Christian, you could say, was present precisely as someone who was under an obligation to extend or enrich the argument - sometimes indeed to initiate the argument about lasting social goods in settings where there was previously no possibility of thinking about what made a social order good or just or legitimate.

In the context of a religiously diverse modern society, something of this role is bound to be played by all communities of faith, to the extent that they operate with different ideas of accountability from those that mostly prevail around them; they believe they are accountable to transcendent truths or states of affairs. But it is worth noting how deeply and distinctively this language is embedded in early Christian literature. And this suggests that, if it is the case that the stranger is always necessary to make any society think about itself both critically and hopefully, the believer's role is always, in modern societies, going to show some intriguing parallels with that of the refugee intellectual.

Perhaps we may understand the social role of the religious believer more adequately if we think of it in terms of extending or enriching argument, offering resources for thinking about social pluralism rather than either deploring it or reducing it to the passive tolerance I mentioned earlier.


Borders and Refugees

The politics of refugees and policy responses in Australia raise questions about how we understand the role of borders and the moral responsibility and status of nations. This later issue is one that the Christian community or movement needs to do some serious thinking about given its fundamental theological commitments regarding ecclesiology, the character of the church, and its practice of mission.

The ABC religion and Ethics website has recently re-listed a number of articles relevant to this issue.
 Luke Bretherton in The Moral Status of Borders frames the moral issues at stake in the following way:


Mass migration is a central feature and consequence of globalisation and will continue to be a major factor of social, political and economic life for the foreseeable future. Mass migration is, of course, not a new phenomenon, but it is morally and politically problematic for two key reasons.

It is politically problematic because it involves crossing borders between different nation-states and therefore it involves the re-negotiation of the fundamental political and legal status of the individual concerned.

It is morally problematic because current immigration policies adopted by all nation-states favour the needs of the strong (the existing members of a polity) over the weak (asylum seekers and vulnerable economic migrants).

The underlying options shaping the political debate and policy response to mass migration seem unable to cope with either reality. We seem to be forced either to prioritize the needs of the strong, and so have closed borders with tight immigration controls and large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants in the hope that this will deter further migrants; or we prioritize the needs of the weak and have open borders.
Bretherton then sets out two major ethical stances that are prominent in the debate:
  • Liberal utilitarianism starts from the principle that democracies owe an equal duty of care to all humanity and that by implication borders should be open. What is critical here are the rights of the individual and that these should in general take priority over the existence of a particular political community.
  • A communitarian approach takes the stance that borders are not only practically necessary but morally required and needed to sustain the life of the community.
Christians, Bretherton argues, have difficulty with utilitarianism because of its abstract account of the individual. We are called to love, as the parable of the Good Samaritan exemplifies, particular people in particular places. On the other hand, the cultivation and maintenance of a distinctive national life as argued by the communitarians, cannot be an end in itself, but must be subordinated to the concern for a broader international order of justice and freedom. Though Bretherton does not develop this point, there is a case here for viewing concern with such an order from the perspective of the catholicity of the Christian movement, a commitment that is not confined within the limits of the world of nations.


The true end of humans lies neither in family, nor in a particular culture or nation, nor in some kind of worldwide polity, but in communion with God. The way we order the relationship between the needs of migrants and the needs of existing citizens needs to be set within this bigger picture.


... we need to see borders as a face that we, as a nation, present to the world. A face is what says that I am somebody who deserves respect, that I am not simply a piece of land to be bought and sold or a thing to be used for a time.

It says that I have a personality and a history and a way of doing things, but also that I am made for relationship and without coming into relationship with others who are different from me, then I do not grow.

Ultimately, it says that I am a face who seeks to look upon the face of God and who finds the face of God reflected, not in the faces of the strong and powerful, the skilled and the economically capable, but in the faces of the orphan, the widow and the refugee - and this is who God bids invites me to be hospitable.

To think of borders in terms of the metaphor of the face re-orientates us to see there is value to be placed upon the existing community, but the existing community is not an end in itself. It is only fulfilled as it moves beyond itself and comes into relationship with those around it.
On this basis Bretherton provides a quick sketch of the policy stance that would follow from the metaphor of borders as the face of a community.

Borders are a means of framing and structuring this relationship, and orientating places like Britain and Australia to the rest of the world in a way that presents an enquiring, confident, hospitable face rather than a closed, incestuous, hostile face that abjures its responsibility to the poor and vulnerable.

By understanding a nation's borders as a face, we can express pride in our national character and history. We can also require that those whom we welcome learn our language and commit to the economic, social and political life of this country.
But it also requires that we move beyond mere humanitarian concern or isolated charity, and toward authentic long-term relationships, and it is this that enables strangers to become citizens.
So much for the first of these articles. The question left hanging here relates to the role of the church in arguing for and articulating such an option.