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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Some great references to public liturgy and preaching on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Going to see if I can record the links here for my own benefit.

Peace procession Melbourne
Report on Melbourne event

Results for #HolyInnocents

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Heavenly Father, comfort all the children lost to . Bring them right up to your throne!
"Feast of the - a day that we remember an act of civil disobedience, a refugee family, & a massacre of baby boys"
It seems to me that the only time there is an outcry from America is when takes place in "inappropriate" places.
168 children have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan... but where is the outcry for THESE children?

I wonder if there were people who said, "I'm tired of people politicizing Herod's massacre of the "?

"But he is with a million displaced people On the long road of weariness and want." Malcolm Guite

RT : Remember the lives of your little ones Lord, and break the sword of the oppressor.
Preached from the fire in my gut at the Eucharist this morning
On Day we pray for victims of such violence today & those (like the Holy Family) whom it makes refugees:
Today of all days I recommend you follow as this great new organisation gets running. Please RT.
Is this how we wage 'war on terror'? Drone Strikes Are Causing Child Casualties -- 178 So Far | Alternet
A reminder of what results from the legislation of wicked rulers. "Can wicked rulers be allied…

Rendering to Caesar

The misunderstanding of the significance of Jesus' saying "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and the things that are God's is rampant.

Jesus could not have been suggesting that there is a realm of religion, separate from the realm of politics.  No distinction existed in his time between the "religious" and the "political". Caesar's claim to rule rested on his divinity. As a good Jew Jesus was expressing the understanding embedded in the law and the teaching of the prophets, that God's call on us to live lives of justice and compassion have priority over conflicting claims by any other authority, Caesar included.

Jesus was not a "spiritual" teacher distant from the politics of his time. He preached and practised a radical political option that was subversive of the economic injustice and oppression of his time. That was why he was crucified, a punishment handed out to those that Rome saw as challenging its claims to empire.

If you give priority to God's claims to seek justice and love mercy, thus rendering to God what is God's, then what is left for Caesar? Not too much I would reckon.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Doing evil to achieve good?Reflections on the moral calculus of the Australian Government’s policy on asylum seekers, or should the Government get into the business of taking hostages?

Christians seeking to find their moral compass in a time of fear created by both major political parties in their race to the bottom as to who can devise the “toughest”, translation “cruellest” policy, need to return to the teaching of Jesus to get oriented. Reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan will provide a bracing and challenging point of departure to guide us in our approach to current debates over the treatment of asylum seekers. If we wish to dismiss it on the grounds that it is not “practical” then we should reconsider our decision to describe ourselves as followers of Jesus. In the longer term it may be the most “practical” approach there is. But that’s an argument for another time.

The recent announcements by the Australian Government on the treatment of asylum seekers and has been accompanied by much hand wringing over the moral difficulty of needing to be “tough” to save lives and prevent people from risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys and to send a “signal” to people arranging the boat travel, a group otherwise referred to, as “people smugglers”.

The Government policy seems to be directed almost exclusively at the “people smugglers” if you listened to the exchanges on a recent episode of Q &A. If the “people smugglers” would only go away the suggestion is that the “problem” would be solved. And perhaps as viewed by the political parties it would. The continued arrival of refugees is a reminder that there is a world out there that we in Australia are part of. Indeed they remind us, should anyone care to think about it, that Australia is deeply implicated through its involvement in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan as an ally of the United States in the creation of the circumstances that is the source of much of the flow of refugees. 

Out of sight, out of mind seems to be our motto, and so we can continue the path of denial of responsibility as long as those pesky refugees don’t keep turning up to disturb our bubble of comfort. As Jack Waterford from the Canberra Times observed: What shames me most, I guess, is that a good many of these refugees have fled to places such as Australia only because of the miseries we Australians have heaped upon their countries in the name of liberating them from tyranny.

Leaving aside the reality that policy debate has focussed on a symptom, “people smuggling” rather than the central issue of the humane and effective handling of asylum seekers throughout South-East Asia, the moral assessments of the policy changes need more analysis than they have so far received.

Let me see if I can unpack the government’s logic of deterrence: 400 people seeking refugee status are held on Nauru in detention, that is by coercion, not because they have done anything wrong, but to try and influence the behaviour of people unknown, to try prevent them undertaking an activity that is grounded in international la, seeking asylum. Holding people under duress to try and influence the behaviour of other actors normally falls within the category of an activity that we would normally label hostage taking.

What the Government is saying in its policy of deterrence is that we are going to cause cruelty to people, to try and save the lives of others. So what are the harms that the Government will cause by this policy, and what are the evils that they wish to prevent?

The evil they wish to prevent are the deaths of some unknown proportion of people who take a risky and dangerous voyage to Australia to seek asylum from persecution.

So on the one side of the ledger we have if the policy is successful, a reduced number of deaths in transit. But notice something interesting here; the choice taken by people who risk their lives is their choice, presumably taken with some knowledge of the risks. The Government without knowledge of their specific circumstances is seeking to substitute its judgement as to the balance between the risks of loss of their lives and the risks that they face if they do not take the boat journey. The government is essentially saying, we know better than you how much risk you should take. The government policy is based on a presumption that nothing bad will happen to them if they do not take the risk of the sea voyage. The judgement from an air-conditioned office in Canberra as to what that calculation looks like may be very different from the point of view of a refugee.

On the other side of the ledger we have some information based on experience in recent years as to the harms that will be done by the Government’s policy. We can expect a number of suicides, attempted suicides and mental health problems for those detained on Nauru and Manus Island, that will affect many individuals and their families for the rest of their lives. The inability to work for those on the Australian mainland while waiting for the granting of protection will have similar affects on self esteem and self confidence as well as creating an alienated economically deprived group within Australia over the longer term.

To knowingly cause mental health problems that may lead to suicide and self harm, and to actively prevent by force of law people from exercising their human vocation to work and to contribute to family livelihood and to the community welfare as well as to actively maintain people in abject poverty are all outcomes which are evil. The Government and opposition are both committed to these outcomes as a matter of policy. How do these weigh in the balance against the objective of saving people’s lives? What we are saying to asylum seekers who come is that you must pay the price in your bodies and family lives to try and prevent other people making a choice that might result in the loss of their life.

On its own terms, that is a somewhat doubtful moral position, in that we are putting in the balance certain harm to some people against an uncertain number of deaths that are prevented if the policy is successful in its goals. But what if the policy does not succeed in preventing people from taking the risk? In that case we will have succeeded in being cruel for no possible, even vaguely arguable moral gain. We will not have stopped the deaths of those in transit, and the admitted cruelty to those refugees will have been undertaken without any arguable moral benefit.

What is the evidence to suggest that the policy will be successful? The only study that I can find was undertaken back in 2009 suggested that push factors tended to override pull factors in driving people seeking asylum by boat. The Pacific solution did not stop the boats from coming. The author explains that … it diddled the stats by redefinition. Boats still made the attempt to enter Australia – which is a point worth noting as many of the proponents of Pull Factors cite reducing the risk of death from reducing the number of people attempting the voyage by boat, as one of their key rationales. Yet we know that SIEV(s) 5,7,11 and 12 in 2002 attempted to make the journey and were returned to Indonesia while SIEV(s) 4,6 and 10 actually sank. That was in very late 2001 through late 2002. In 2003 we know that boats were still attempting to make the voyage such as SIEV 14, but were again towed back from whence they came.
The UNHCR estimates that 1600 people were diverted throughout the time of the Pacific Solution, but hard numbers are difficult to come by.

In summary, the policy is an attempt to use a form of hostage taking and causing a range of cruelty and harms to people with the intention of trying to discourage people from making a choice that involves the risk of death in pursuit of asylum. If the policy works we have a situation in which the most vulnerable have borne the burden of the Government’s achievement of its policy goals. If the policy doesn’t work and the odds are against it, then the Government will have caused substantial harm to a vulnerable group of people for no outcome at all. Evil will have been done for no good at all. On any moral calculus you like that is a big risk to take.

In the meantime the implications for Christians of the Parable of the Good Samaritan are pretty clear. We need to get involved in those community groups that will do what they can to act as neigbours to the vulnerable strangers in our midst. We can also begin to conduct a guerrilla warfare of polite, respectful correspondence with our local members and political leaders on the moral and policy incoherence of the policy.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Wendell Berry on Homosexual Marriage

Wendell Berry's views on the issue of "homosexual marriage" displays an anarchist approach to the issue, that is a questioning of the role of the state. Homosexuals he argues, (perhaps paradoxically given the history of state involvement that has been significantly to the disadvantage of homosexuals):
... have invited the government to make a public judgement about people's sexual behaviour, which ought to be none of the government's business, so long as the behaviour of the people is not abusive of other people. Government approval of anyone's sexual behaviour is as inappropriate and as offensive to freedom as government disapproval. The government's interest in people's living arrangements should go no further than "domestic partnerships" which ought to give the same legal protections to widowed sisters or bachelor brothers or friends, or "partners" living together as married couples. Justice, and (with luck) compassion, should be the government's business. Let sacraments, such as marriage, be the business of religions and communities. ("Letter to Daniel Kemmis" in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays p.145)
Cultural meanings, Berry is suggesting should not be the business of government. This is an issue which has not yet been seriously debated. Neither those in favour of government legislation for homosexual marriage, nor the churches who wish to cling to their situation of relative legal privilege in their opposition to this initiative with respect to marriage and its meanings seem to have explicitly addressed this issue.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Exploring Child Abuse

The Australian Government announcement of an inquiry at the national level through the establishment of a royal commission into child abuse caught many of us by surprise. In case anyone has been hiding in the middle of the Simpson desert since then, here's an update with links to some of the more thoughtful commentary and a couple of early questions about the problems about the conduct of such an exercise.

It will probe a wide range of organisations from the Catholic Church and other religious organisations, through state authorities to the Scouts and sports groups. There is an ecumenical openness here that tries to ensure that the exercise is not and is not perceived to be a sectarian affair. The question has also been raised as to whether the terms of reference will include allegations relating to minors in the Australian Defence forces and refugees in care. 

The inquiry into institutional responses to abuse will not just deal with instances of abuse, but will also explore how institutions responded, or failed to respond to reports of abuse and will also look at how the police have responded to the problem. The Government is currently drawing up a detailed terms of reference for the inquiry and making decisions on its timeframe, resourcing and the identity of the Royal Commissioner, or Commissioners. Given the potential scope of the inquiry they may well have difficulty getting people to agree to participate. It will take a strong sense of vocation to commit yourself to an inquiry that may well run for at least five years.

Commentators have suggested that the likely scope of the inquiry will be similar to that of the inquiry in Ireland that ran for over nine years. While a Royal Commission is inquisitorial in character and has wide-ranging powers, it will report back to government with findings that set out what it has established about the extent and character of child abuse, as well as making recommendations to address the problems that it has explored.

Its truth seeking and policy recommending functions are central to the Commission’s character and activities. The commission has no judicial functions, however and any criminal activity that it identifies will need to be referred to the police for investigation and prosecution.

The announcement has attracted a good deal of comment from a variety of interested groups. See the links at the Age:

The previous experience of such inquiries in Australia has raised concern about whether the expectations of victims and their families might not be realistic. While there is a feeling of encouragement by victims that the truth will be established and the reality of their experience, long denied, will now be made public, there is also frequent referral to justice and healing being achieved. This may be more than the Commission can achieve. There are some previous inquiries of a similar character that suggest the need for a more tempered set of expectations.

The Stolen Generation inquiry, achieved some success in its truth revealing function, in creating a much wider community awareness of what had happened, in re-restablishing family connections and in going some way to address outstanding policy issues in the child protection services. It did little, however, to address the issue of justice and compensation for those affected. There have been very few successful court cases for compensation by victims of the policy of removal of indigenous children from their families, despite the Inquiry’s report.

The former Royal Commissioner for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, for example, has cautioned on the need for care in the terms of reference and for a realistic expectation about the extent to which the Commission can deal with individual cases. He is certainly in a position to comment on this issue.

The background to the establishment of this inquiry has been a long running series of court cases against priests and staff in Catholic institutions and a widespread perception that there has been a greater concern by institutions with their reputation than in addressing the complaints raised by the victims. In a helpful account Jack Waterford, editor at large for the Canberra Times, has pointed out that the issues faced by the Catholic Church in Australia with respect to child sexual abuse, are parallel in timing and character to those identified in research into the experience of the church in both Ireland and the United States. He has also expressed the view that the Commission might reveal that other significant institutions in Australia have failed in their responsibilities in dealing with instances of child abuse that has so far been hidden by the focus on the Catholic Church’s failures. The failures may have as much to do with the extent to which evil can be embedded in institutions as much as it can be found in the actions of individuals.

While Cardinal Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has so far displayed a somewhat pugnacious defensiveness in his acceptance of the establishment of the Commission, other clerical leaders have displayed a more thoughtful response driven by compassion and a willingness to deal openly with the Church’s failures. Stephen Crittenden suggests the issue for the Catholic Church relates to a failure of leadership.

This is going to be a long painful journey for many, not only for the victims, though they must be first in our considerations. There will be a need for confession by and healing of the perpetrators, as well as for those managers and leaders in institutions who put the reputation of the institution ahead of the cry for justice by the most vulnerable and who according to Jesus had the greatest claim for judgement to fall on us if we cause these "little ones to stumble".