in service of the
Will escalating disengagement with Christianity by the average Australian punter be the unfortunate legacy of the marriage equality debate?
Bishop Michael Stead (assistant Anglican Bishop in the Diocese of Sydney) was asked a question like this on Radio National following the announcement that Australians had decisively voted ‘Yes’.
His answer was that Australia is becoming more and more secular and that Australians are increasingly disengaged from religion, not out of a reasoned rejection of its beliefs and propositions but out of ignorance, apathy and disinterest.
I agree that there is a very sad and growing illiteracy about religion in the general population, but I disagree that apathy adequately explains a fairly rapid decline in religious or Church affiliation. It seem to me that those of us who have a responsibility to engage with the general population in matters of faith have to accede that many have weighed values that the Church appears to represent and have found them wanting.
Those espousing the ‘no case’ have argued they are being faithful to ‘the Word of God’. But to which part of that Word are they being faithful?
The general population clearly understands that intimacy and companionship are essential within the human condition. The ‘Word of God’ agrees. Indeed, scripture states this is because all exist out of and within the embrace of God: we are born to intimacy as a bird is born to fly. “It is not good for man (human) to live alone”. Lack of intimacy, for whatever reason, can lead to behavioural aberrations harmful to the person and the wider community. It is clear that while the majority of the population are intimate with a member of the opposite sex, a significant minority can only find this deep level of intimacy within their own gender. For others there is profound ambiguity. It is thoroughly desirable that society recognises and ennobles relationships which are stable and hopefully lifelong. A secular and pluralist society, as ours is, expects its elected representatives to enact legislation that protects the rights and freedoms of all.
It could therefore be argued that because of its appreciation of the necessity of intimacy, the ‘Word of God’ gives communities of faith the special responsibility of nurturing safe and secure intimacy for all. That members of the LGBTI community wish their intimacy to be given public status, hopefully as a lifelong commitment “in good times and in bad’ has to be in the interests of society as a whole.
In my 50+ years in ordained ministry I have been aware of a number of gay clergy who entered heterosexual marriages because, at that time, they perceived this was the only way in which they could find acceptance, either by God, the Church or the wider community. In most cases these relationships ended in tears and in two cases brought the people concerned and the Church into serious disrepute.
As Psalm 19 wonderfully portrays ‘the Word of God’ is made known to us in the natural order and in written text. The natural order speaks to the text and the text speaks to the natural order. Neither science nor religion invent, both are on a constant road of discovery, discovery which is richest when held in dialogue, not in isolation.
This is not to say that religion is to conform to contemporary mores and culture - absolutely not. But it is to say that eternal truths must be constantly re-interpreted in the light of new understandings of the natural order. Within the space of my lifetime science has helped us understand the complexities of human sexuality and the dangers in which we put individuals and society as a whole if we deny or refuse to accept differences of identity. Cleary the majority understand this. Far from this being a weakening of a moral code, it is perhaps the reverse, it is an encouragement to abandon fleeting, opportunistic and often exploitative gratification for long term mutually life giving relationships. The ‘no case’ has characterised the Church as being incapable of understanding the higher moral priority.
For a moment let us look elsewhere.
Western culture is described by some as being gravely ill through affluenza – I agree. Affluenza is rarely critiqued by the conservative Christian community most well known for the battles it wages on gender and sexuality. And yet of the two issues, it is the latter, greed and material acquisition, about which the written word has far more to say. Far from applying ‘the Word of God’ to this overwhelming affliction of modern society, the Diocese of Sydney (which infamously invested 1Million in the recent no campaign) was so immersed in it that in 2008 it lost a staggering fortune, having borrowed money to invest in what it thought was a bull market. ‘Prosperity Gospel’ much beloved of mega churches, their pastors and adherents conforms Christianity within contemporary culture. It has nothing to do with teachings of the New Testament and is thoroughly disconnected from the revelation of God we see in Jesus.
Affluenza is in danger of bringing our current civilisation undone, because of gross inequity, because of our refusal to respond to the environmental crisis and because internationally the labour of the poor maintains the lifestyle of the wealthy. Where is the application of the ‘Word of God’ within this foreboding context?
‘Conservative’ religion, be it within Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other identity appears
to be consumed with mimicking the free market in a competitive scramble to recruit as many adherents as possible to a particular brand of heaven with almost total disregard for transformative and sacrificial service of the world we share with each other. No wonder then the ‘Word of God’ is not only irrelevant, but grossly self-serving of those who interpret it to reinforce position and advantage.
I recently led ‘chapel’ in a local school. I asked the school student leadership to nominate the subject they wanted me to address – science and religion. In the Q and A I was flabbergasted to realise that an overwhelming majority of the school community understood that religion and science were incompatible and one had to choose between them.
It seems we have arrived at a point of terminal decline for institutional Church in this country, not because the country has become ‘more secular’, but because we have so diminished the ‘Word of God’ that it appears to have nothing of value to say and no dialogue to have with the growth of human knowledge. The good news of course is that the voice of God can never be silenced; it is just that we can no longer expect to hear it where once it could be heard.
The 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation (31 October) has come and gone without much of a ripple. The latest tweet from POTUS commands far more attention. Does that matter?
Well yes it does, let me say why.
Martin Luther and the Reformation bridge two enormously influential periods of history, benefiting from one (the Renaissance) and contributing to the emergence of the other (the Enlightenment). Both periods have influenced and will continue to influence succeeding generations.
The Renaissance (14th-16th centuries). The Renaissance was a time for the re-flowering of the classics – art, literature and thought. The Latin phrase Ad Fontes (back to the sources), describes the underlying energy and motivation of the Renaissance – a greater understanding and appreciation of origins. Luther leaned heavily on this motivation and drew attention to it in the first of his five solas, sola scriptura – scripture alone, scripture being the ‘canon’ or authority of Christianity. He had many beefs with the institutional Church, but his primary concern was that the Church manipulated and abused people with ideas and practices that had no justification in the source – scripture. To hold and extort its wealth and power, the Church traded on the notion that people needed it and its sacramental practice to get to heaven. Luther asserted the scriptural verity that grace is not channelled through an institutional pipeline, but is a free gift that all can access.
Lubricated by the printing press, this was an explosive truth, that neutralised institutional power. The source, the bible, was made easily available – and in the vernacular.
Accessing sources is always important if people are to be able to live free and informed lives. Abusive situations are possible when people are kept in the dark. Power is maintained by keeping people in the dark. A feature of the digital age should be more light and less obfuscation. That this is manifestly not the case may in part be paradoxically attributable to the second great period – the Enlightenment. Let me come to that in a moment.
Luther’s influence spread well beyond theological halls and into the corridors of civil administration. If Luther was only about indulgences, or whether he or Zwingli were more or less right about divine presence in the Eucharist, then the Reformation’s impact would be of only passing interest to those involved with the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide. But it was much more than this. Luther taught that institutions, be they headed by the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, do not have the right to control the consciences and destinies of individuals. While people have responsibilities to one another and to civil authorities, they are answerable solely to God.
Following Luther, the overreaching power and influence of Pope and Emperor declined. While he cannot be directly blamed or praised for the rise of Europe’s nation states, there is no doubt his influence contributed to an environment in which a desire for nationhood as an empowerment of regional or local identity became an unstoppable phenomenon: one that Europe through its later colonialism inflicted (European national identity not indigenous local identity that is) upon peoples in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The Enlightenment (1685 -1815). The Enlightenment is strewn with many instantly recognisable names – Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Kant, Smith.... How is the age to be understood: the ‘age of reason’, or perhaps the ‘age of the individual’? In 2017 is the age’s legacy bane or blessing?
There can be no doubt that the Reformation hastened the age of the individual, an age formalised and entrenched by the Enlightenment. Luther emphasised the capacity of the individual to access the grace of God in Christ. ‘Personal salvation’ and its premier position in Protestant thought can hardly be doubted as any in my age profile can testify through memories of Billy Graham crusades, or a younger generation familiar with the prosperity gospel served up in many or most mega churches today can also testify.
The great names of the Enlightenment have bequeathed an enormous legacy to humankind. But an unintended downside now needs correction. Bane and blessing almost always travel together. I contend the Enlightenment and the Reformation have bequeathed a priority to individualism that is now in desperate need of correction. Luther and many of Enlightenment thinkers would be aghast at the manner in which ‘individualism’ holds the world captive, stymieing desperately needed climate action, preventing legislation which would curb tax evasion, and negating policy which might reduce the escalating gap between rich and poor. An exaggerated individualism destroys the notion of common good.
The Enlightenment enabled the categorising and classification of knowledge. Disciplines developed that could be understood independently of one another. Little place was left for mystery or indeed for meta narrative. One individual’s account of fact or truth was to become of equal value to that of another. Fairness in the media now assumes that space afforded one view should be provided in equal measure to a counter view, even when there is no legitimate counter view. The illegitimate is therefore legitimised. As mentioned earlier despite the availability of information 24/7 obfuscation rather than enlightenment predominates. Links between smoking and mortality are still open to question, universal vaccinations can be argued as an infringement of individual freedoms and climate change presented as a hoax or conspiracy.
As bizarre as these realities are, they have their origins in the negative side of the Enlightenment. But yet there is more! Social responsibility seeps out of every page of scripture. Yet amongst conservative Christians (politically and probably theologically), social action is nothing, personal piety and private morality is everything.
The Anglican tradition, of which I am heir, holds to a number of verities. One of these is the concept of ‘Via Media’. This does not mean some wishy washy middle way as some would interpret, no, it is a much more noble vision. It is a commitment to valuing opposites, understanding that without the correction that an opposite brings a single proposition becomes a distortion.
Luther railed against an institutional monolith that valued individuals only as cogs in its vast self-serving enterprise. However, asserting the rights of individuals as children of God is not to disassociate them from their belonging to each other in the family of God. In Christ the particular and universal are one. The universal can only be properly understood through the particular (individual) and yet the value and identity of the individual is to be found in its relationship with the universal.
If Luther and the Reformation rescued the individual from the voracious appetite of medieval institutional power: today the Church must be in the forefront of rescuing common good from the voracious appetite of individuals and a philosophy of individualism that now dominates both political and religious life.
To politically link the Battle of Beersheba with the Balfour Declaration , in an attempt to join Australian lives to the future dispossession of Arab peoples in the creation of Israel, is an outrageous re-write of history and a discourtesy to young Australians who lost their lives for other reasons, including the freeing of Arabs from Ottoman control. Dispossession cannot, and should not, ever be normalised.
On 31 October 1917, soldiers of the Australian Light Horse Brigade conducted a successful charge against Ottoman entrenchments at Beersheba, clearing the way for the capture of Jerusalem six weeks later. In its publication Australia and Israel: A Pictorial History the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade celebrates the battle by noting that
On the day Beersheba was captured, the British War Cabinet approved the text of a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations to be made by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which was published two days later.
In this statement the Department of Foreign Affairs, intentionally or otherwise, infers a link between the Battle of Beersheba with the future establishment of Israel. This is a re-write of history and a discourtesy to fallen Australian soldiers. That they happen a few days apart is true, however, this linkage in time has nothing to do with the unfolding of history some decades later, but everything to do with strategies devised to make it more likely that the Allies could eventually win the war.
First, the Battle of Beersheba 31 October 1917. The Battle has antecedents in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, 1916. McMahon was the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Hussein the Sharif of Mecca. In a series of ten letters the British Government promises autonomy to the Arabs between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas if they will rise up against the Ottomans. Students of the 1WW will be familiar with the significance of the “Arab Uprising” in the defeat of the Ottomans. Thus the battle of Beersheba is fought in the context of a promise to local Arabs that their cooperation will be rewarded with sovereignty. Arabs have every reason to feel betrayed, the betrayal demonstrated first in Britain and France’s decision to carve up a substantial part of Arab lands between them after the war, and secondly in the support of the international community for the establishment of Israel and dispossession of Palestinians. Australians who fought in the Battle of Beersheba were fighting first and foremost for King and Empire. Secondly they were fighting against the Ottomans in a campaign which freed Arabs of Ottoman control.
Second the Balfour Declaration 2 November 1917. The Balfour declaration is a statement made by British Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild a leader of the British Zionist movement indicating that Britain would be favorably disposed to the creation of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration stands in contradiction to the promise already made to the Arabs. This contradiction is implied in the text of the declaration. Having affirmed British sympathy for a Jewish homeland, the text goes on to say:
… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
How did Britain come to make two contradictory promises? The answer lies in the stalemate the war had fallen into. The Allies desperately need to defeat the Ottomans to safeguard Suez and in the process free up oil for the emerging energy needs of a transiting navy. The Arab uprising and the promise of autonomy was considered crucial in securing this outcome.
Britain was also desperate to achieve technological advantage over the Germans, and even more desperate to drag the reluctant president Woodrow Wilson into the war. Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, invented a fermentation process for the production of acetone a vital ingredient in the war effort. Weizmann later went on to be the first President of Israel. Britain needed to secure this invention, but even more importantly wanted to use the influence of world Jewry to bring America into the war. The Balfour declaration was drafted with these dual aims in mind.
Modern day Israel is founded upon the dispossession of the Arab people of Palestine- what they call the Nakbah, in contravention of the promise made by Britain to the Arabs. Not only was dispossession, the means of creating modern day Israel, condoned by the international community, but in the subsequent 70 years modern Israel has completely ignored the requirement of the Balfour Declaration that demands the civil and religious rights of pre-existing Arab communities be respected.
Any Beersheba commemoration that celebrates the Balfour Declaration and ignores the crucial Arab role in supporting the British advance in Palestine would be a distortion of history that glorifies the worst aspects of British imperialism and normalises the discrimination suffered by Palestinians today.
I fear the commemoration of Beersheba will be less about remembering and more about forgetting. If the sacrifices of the Arabs, their subsequent betrayal and the current suffering of the Palestinians are all airbrushed from history in favour of a triumphalist Zionist narrative, then the Israeli and Australian governments will be using the commemoration to whitewash a hundred years of colonialism, displacement and apartheid.
The world of news communication appears to be a world in which “one man’s stupidity is another man’s wisdom”. How we view an event or an idea seems to be becoming less and less indebted to veracity inherent in the facts, or the possibilities dormant in the idea, but increasingly shaped by the spin that lubricates the telling. The news outlet we turn on becomes the company we keep and it shapes the opinions we hold. Would we hold the views we do without the spin of our news provider? Why isn’t it possible for an event to be recorded objectively so that no matter which news channel is employed, the story sounds the same?
The reason for this state of affairs is that few news channels are genuinely independent, the vast majority are beholden to their owners, therefore the ‘news’ that comes from them may be 10% news and 90% advocacy. In the case of North Korea it is probably 100% advocacy meaning it is all propaganda.
Because Donald Trump has lived his entire life in a world of advocacy, advocacy of his own brand, he has irreversibly come to mistake advocacy for news and news for advocacy. Therefore, any item that does not promote his brand is false – fake news. What he means by ‘fake news’ has nothing to do with news, but everything to do with what he deems harmful to his brand of advocacy. It is really quite simple, facts are not important, image is all important; facts that tarnish the image are fake.
If this confusion of advocacy and news were restricted to the US that would be serious enough, but unfortunately it is not. Two battles relating to news and the forming of public opinion are currently raging in the halls of Australian political power. The first is between public broadcasting and privately owned news outlets, especially the Murdoch Empire of Fox and News Limited. In order to secure One Nation’s votes in the parliament the government is allowing, perhaps even promoting, moves that would seek to diminish the influence of the ABC and SBS. It suits the government to describe the national broadcaster as left leaning, because it can then accuse the broadcaster of bias. But why is it left leaning to support science? Why is it left leaning to give voice to gender equality which is clearly supported by the vast majority of Australians? Why is it left leaning to expose issues of corruption such as NT children in detention or the corruption of Adani? Why is it left leaning to speak coherently about many of the major issues facing our contemporary world? Which groupings of self-interest is the national broadcaster advocating on behalf of in these exposés - none that I can detect, other than the common good. The public broadcaster goes beyond the 30 second grab to engage the listener/viewer at some depth about often complex issues. Apparently it is left leaning to do so. Why? Why wouldn’t such activity be party political neutral; adequately informing the public should be the aim of all broadcasters and all politicians.
The second battle relates to Get-up. Groups such as Get-up do not pretend to be anything other than advocacy groups. They exist, to promote the issues which were the rationale for their formation. Get-up is not a news channel, neither is it the channel of a political party. That issues it espouses are taken up more by one side of politics than another encourages or discourages electors according to their disposition. On the other hand Fox News is an advocacy medium that does not bother to hide its political leanings. It is every bit as much an advocacy channel as Get-up, and yet it masquerades as a news channel. Fox News advocates for big business and monopolies and it promotes all that is wrong with capitalism (see NZ political outcome) in exactly the same way that Get-up argues the case for social equity and environmental sustainability. The identity and freedom of Get-Up is currently being challenged. I would argue that whatever legitimacy this challenge may have, it applies even more to Fox.
The world has entered a very dangerous phase of its existence, because consequences flow from our actions as never before. This is a phase in which the vast majority would, I have no doubt, like to do the ‘right thing’; but because the ‘right thing’ is so often described as ‘fake’ by powerful corporate interests, confusion reigns as seen in the energy ‘wars’ of Australia.
The antidote to self-interest is to be exposed more broadly. November 1 is All Saints day, when the Christian community celebrates the extraordinary diversity of company that we keep and the ideal of shalom (peace, harmony, equity) under the sovereignty of God that holds us together. The ethical demands of monotheism are challenging, for we hold that all life is a continuum, the life of one matters to all. The bible describes as saints those who seek the common good, those who give voice to the voiceless and seek to empower the disempowered. It is such a strange thing that Christians who today describe themselves as politically conservative consider this behaviour to be ‘left wing’.
We believe in a living community which transcends generations, ethnicities, and difference of any kind and through which we are all enriched. It is the Christian perspective that the universal is to be understood through the particular, but that the particular finds its destiny and value in the universal. As global as we think we have become, the truth is that modern society is regressing more and more into tribes of self interest which diminish rather than enrich.
Recently released Fairfax poll figures indicating that Australia records the highest percentage of citizens of any comparable country believing the world would be better off without religion because of its assumed connection with violence is somewhat of a shock. That we are apparently more tolerant of religious difference than most is comforting, but does not ameliorate the first figure.
This finding is salutatory reading and it is not hard to understand why.
First, the Royal Commission’s findings on Child Sexual abuse within the Church are deeply shocking and not helped by more than ample evidence that much of this appalling activity has been ignored or worse, covered up. While institutional perpetrators are relatively few and statistically children are most at risk from family members, never the less the Church’s role is shocking and the consequent lack of trust and disdain will take a long time to ameliorate.
Second, past and current history records numerous shocking events, including ethnic cleansings, which appear to result from religious dispute. The examples are as obvious as they are numerous, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, The Middle East, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar etc.
Third, despite recent migration which has seen a dramatic increase in folk of other faiths especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Australia remains significantly a Christian country in terms of its heritage, customs and practices. And yet knowledge of Christianity in Australia, not simply from the almost one quarter who now identify as ‘no religion’, but also from many who still claim some Christian allegiance, is negligible. As Martin Luther King once memorably retorted in face of Christian based white supremacy violence in the US south, “what is required is not less Christianity, but more”.
That violence will not end with religious demise is easily illustrated by mentioning the following well known names, all of whom have lived and acted in modern history without any known religious affiliation or motivation: Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao. However, this is weak defence. We still need to know why religion and violence have any connection.
Nor is it adequate defence to state the obvious, that religion and particularly Christian religion in the West has contributed to and in many cases founded the social reforms in education, medicine and social welfare which we now take for granted, and which form the very essence of modern civil society. It does not help either to remind everyone that much of the very best in music, art, architecture, and literature is inspired by Christian faith. Take them away and we would all be diminished, believers or not. Neither does it help to say that Christians remain vastly over represented in all levels of volunteerism in Australia. None of this explains why people of religion, and of Christian religion in particular, become caught up in shocking violence.
So, how do we respond to this? When religion is involved with violence, is religious faith and adherence the reason for the violence, or has religion been recruited to a cause with origins outside and in fact alien to its foundations. I contend it is the latter and believe that this is the issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of a more peaceful and harmonious world.
It is recognised that the 1st WW unleashed pain and anguish on a hitherto unimagined scale. How and why did this happen? There will never be an end to the writing of books on this subject, but what is clear is that people were recruited to the pride, arrogance and desire for power of competing personalities, several of whom on all sides (British, Russian and German), were all descendants of Queen Victoria. Power, a desire for it, and the desperation involved in keeping it, is at the root of most conflicts. Wealth is the expected outcome of power.
In a world in which power is disproportionately distributed and wealth appears to be the entitlement of a few, violence is often the outcome. Recruiting religion is the easiest way of giving violence credibility and a flag for recruits to follow; even tho the violence is anathema to the religion. The problems in Northern Ireland were all about power and inequality. Britain (protestant) held power and advantage, seen by the Irish Catholic majority as an unacceptable expression of colonialism that was far past its time. Recruiting religion is to recruit passion, to recruit justification; it is an attempt to make unacceptable behaviour acceptable.
The Crusades, perhaps the biggest blight on Christianity’s flawed 2000 year history were more about the domestic audience at home than a commitment flowing from discipleship of Jesus. Popes, Kings and Emperors needed to prove their authority, shore up support and build wealth.
The Balkan conflicts of recent past involving Catholic Croatia, Orthodox Serbia and Muslim Bosnia did not flow from doctrinal differences, but from ethnic aspirations, hopes and fears. And so one can go on. The recruiting of religion for a cause which might be just in its origins but which becomes totally unjust through its actions; is likely to continue long into the future.
So what is to be done? Following the injunction of Dr Martin Luther King, it is more religion, not less that is required. By more I mean that the wider community will make up its mind about the tenets of religion (in our case the Christian religion) by default, if those who are its adherents fail to demonstrate by word and action what believing in that faith truly means – choosing service – perhaps even choosing weakness.
When given an opportunity to do this, we generally fail - dismally. Members of parliament with the highest Christian profile and apparent commitment – Cori Bernardi, George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, are generally perceived to be fighters for yesterday’s causes. The recruiting of religion for violence will always be easy when fundamentalism of any shade is not unequivocally condemned by religious leadership. Fundamentalism is not a sign of religious purity; it is a demonstration of ignorance and misplaced elitism.
It needs to be unequivocally said that the desire for power, the protection of privilege, the use of violence is utterly inimical to followers of Jesus. Even more important it needs to be said and demonstrated that embracing difference, promoting inclusiveness and desiring to serve, are from a Christian perspective responsibilities derivative of being a member of the human race.
Tony Abbott’s speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation beggars belief. Being invited to speak to this forum is not something the vast majority would want on their cv. As staggering as his cavalier dismissal of science has become, even more staggering is the apparent reality that the Australian population is now being held ransom to his brand of bizarre loopiness.
What has become of us, or will become of us, if political leadership, or lack of it, continues in its current accommodating vein to such brazen nonsense?
The points Mr Abbott made in his speech are so embarrassing that even many he would normally count on as colleagues are stunned into silence. His points are so bizarre they do not deserve countering.
But what does deserve comment is the content of predicted energy policy statements from the Turnbull government. Because of the government’s slim majority, is it, and by default the whole Australian population, going to be held hostage to this infantile but yet dangerous madness? The Finkel report is not simply about environmental stability, it is also about policy certainty, a necessity for adequate financial investment. It is Finkel’s view that a Clean Energy Target is one of the best mechanisms to achieve this dual goal – as demonstrated by an increasing array of policy worldwide. If this central pillar of the Finkel review is to be abandoned, the Australian people deserve a cogent argument as to why politics should trump science and reason.
It is true that costs associated with renewable energy are continuing to fall and even if the target is abandoned, we may now be in a position where the market does the job anyway – no thanks to politics.
It is clear that ‘clean coal’ is not simply an oxymoron, but that the costs associated with capturing emissions will place coal fired power stations increasingly beyond the reach of sensible private investment. Is this very conservative government then going to invent its own brand of socialism by investing tax payer’s money into projects which private investment cannot touch without government guarantee?
We are at a point where the government must finally and unequivocally say ‘no’ to ‘Mr No’. Mr Abbott has almost single handedly turned Australian political life from a bumbling ‘b grade’ into a toxic ‘d grade’. (If proof of this statement is needed, look at the proliferation of minor parties and causes). He has made an art form of opposition, of opposing absolutely anything and everything that he has not mouthed himself – even from within his own party. That he and literally a tiny handful of supports can hold the country to ransom is a shocking scandal that must end.
Mr Turnbull, end this nonsense and the Australian people might stay with you. Fail to end it and you and your government will be remembered as one of the most gutless we have ever encountered. This gutlessness is not simply political weakness; its consequences endanger the future of us all. We are increasingly seeing the true Abbott, the vista is clearly very unattractive. Let’s see the true Turnbull, unlike Abbott, someone who has a life and therefore, standing for principle, can risk being defeated, knowing that inner integrity remains intact. Doing deals with loopy people, making the Australian people pay the price, is a total lack of integrity.
When I was a young boy attending boarding school in the northern hemisphere, Michaelmas Term, the final term of the calendar year (but first of the academic year), was a favourite, partly because it heralded the beginning of the football season and partly because it heralded the approach of Christmas.
Michaelmas gains its name from Michael, or more specifically St Michael, the archangel, whose day is celebrated, with all other angels, on the 29th September. Now, don’t turn immediately off, as if I am employing the same vocabulary as fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dancing with angels is a metaphor for being at the point where heaven and earth meet – and who would not want to be there!
‘Angel’ essentially means a ‘messenger’. I am very open to, but agnostic about, the existence of beings in the spiritual or heavenly realm who might be known as angels, cherubim or seraphim. Teaching about them escalated in the Hebrew world after the exile (586 BC) when a sense of the remoteness of God hightened and the need for intermediaries between the human and the divine increased. The New Testament is not silent on the subject, (the Book of Revelation having most references), but the New Testament position could be well summarised in the letter to the Hebrews which states that the incarnation of Jesus has removed the need for any intermediary.
But the need for insight, inspiration, flashes of light, new understandings, a sense of direction, an awareness of the sacred, has far from diminished, indeed in the face of the banal distractions of the modern world such sources of inspiration or ‘messages’ are as important if not more important than ever. So too is the need for a guardian who will protect us from the perils of the world and our own foolishness. The question is: are we open? Do we know how to listen, or even where to look? The Christian narrative is an affirmation that God ‘speaks’.
There is ample evidence that we are open to narratives of death and destruction. Any analysis of daily news clips will confirm this predilection: but we may not be as open to narratives of life and light. There are of course reasons for this. In a macabre way it is comforting to hear of the misfortune or mistakes of others, we may be tempted to value ourselves positively by comparison. All heroes, even the most ‘saintly’, are fallible and in the end disappoint us: institutions such as the Church are easily corrupted. However there are reliable constants that we ignore at our absolute peril.
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”. “It is more blessed to give than receive”. “What you hold on to you lose, what you give away you keep”. “We are but dust and to dust we shall return”. These are examples of constant verities that come to us from sacred writ. The bible is hardly known these days and is demeaned in equal measure by literal fundamentalists as it is by Dawkins or Hitchins.
But I want to take us to the points where heaven and earth meet, the point which the bible exquisitely describes as the place where angels ascend and descend. Jewish and Christian traditions are born out of such places. Indeed all the great religious festivals in both traditions emerge originally out of the meeting of natural ‘religion’ and its interpretation in ‘revealed’ religion.
So where in our contemporary world are some of these places where the angels of God ascend and descend? Ironically one such place is in the terrible disasters, natural and human caused, where it becomes blatantly clear that our belonging to one another is of far greater importance than our ‘independence’. Recent shared suffering in the Caribbean will have some of these hallmarks. Triumph over tragedy (invictus games) is where angels ascend and descend. We are essentially a society, a communal people, independence is an illusion, our identity is found in our belonging and the nourishing of our belonging is where meaning lies. In disasters we find a sense of care and responsibility for one another that the normal competitiveness of life steals from us. Here we meet the angels.
Another such place is the exquisite beauty and yet frailty of the natural order. In our world of technology and artificial intelligence we can manipulate, exploit and throw away what is; and do it after our own image and likeness, but we cannot add one jot or tittle to what is given. We can diminish it, but not increase it. The natural order with its balance and rhythms is a given. The natural order, experienced through dawn and sunset, the song of a bird, the lapping of waves, the desert blooming are all moments for taking off the shoes for we are on holy ground. We know this. We all know this. It makes utterly incomprehensible the persistence of our political elite with ventures like the Adani mine. Adani would cut down anything to do with angels ascending and descending. But that is another blog.
Hospitality to strangers is another place, for as scripture reminds us, through it we may well be sitting at table with angels, unawares.
May I venture one further place where the angels ascend and descend? It is the place of reconciliation. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together arranged his funeral. Surely this was a meeting place of the angels. At the end of Rwandan genocide Tutsi and Hutu found a way of living again in the same villages. At the conclusion of Gallipoli, Ataturk declared the fallen allied soldiers Turkish sons as well. The world desperately needs more reconciliation. The Middle East cries out for it. We all need it in one way or another.
The angels of God are not ascending and descending where the political elite gather, where finding difference with the other side is more important than commonality. The angels of God are not ascending and descending where xenophobic words attract public support. And above all the angels of God are not ascending and descending on a global population who would rather exploit an extra dollar this year than invest in the ongoing fecundity of the natural order for succeeding years. This natural order still has the capacity to support life, including human, as far into the future as we can look back into the past, but by our actions, despite all the knowledge at our disposal, we are still prepared to put everything at risk and steal the future from those yet to be born.
Happy Michaelmas! This is a time of insight, meaning and direction. May we seek to find ourselves at points where the angels of God are ascending and descending, as Philip once declared they were on the Son of Man.
You must all have watched last night's 4 Corners programme. Please flood the email's of the Prime Minister, the Premier of Queensland the Minister for Energy and the Environment and your local member with emails of outrage. That this project still has the support of the Federal and State governments is an absolute obscenity. More about this later.
We human beings should be aware that life ebbs and flows. Rhythms of life need to be acknowledged and attended to. We are conscious that we can be extended in one direction for a while but we need to adjust back and find balance. This is the journey of life. Being pushed to an extreme position mentally, physically, or emotionally for an extended period can sometimes make the way back very difficult. On occasions even a very short but acute experience can be so severe that the way back to balance is fraught. Such is the experience of those suffering PTSD.
I have just read Maj. Gen. John Cantwell’s Exit Wounds (Melb. Uni. Press 2012). What an extraordinary book, so well written, so devastatingly honest, so revealing both of the unseen suffering inflicted by war on the combatants, but also of the futility of the war itself. It is one of the most important books I have read this year. The courage, leadership and tenacity of John Cantwell, through two Gulf Wars and then Afghanistan leaves one speechless, but I will leave you to read his story and vicariously the story of other servicemen and women with PTSD, men and women to whom the nation owes a great deal, but largely ignores. I have been left with a huge admiration for members of the armed forces, their courage, their skill and their loyalty to comrades and country.
I want however to reflect on war itself and Australia’s extraordinary addiction to joining any scrap without a clear understanding of why. Ignorance of the complexities in which we have meddled for political reasons is obvious: therefore the consequences of our actions, especially in Iraq, can rightly be described as wilful.
The Middle East is in a terrible mess. Did it need to be so? Has the military involvement of the West helped or hindered this mess?
Let us go back a century. At the beginning of the 20th century the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire; various Arab tribes were its willing or unwilling subjects. Their lives could almost certainly be improved, but who had the right to decide how this improvement should be delivered?
To win WW1 the allies had to defeat the German/Ottoman alliance and in particular to keep open the supply lines through Suez. A ready supply of oil was also necessary to meet transport needs that were quickly embracing diesel fuel technology. With the promise of autonomy following the war, Britain was able to encourage an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. The allies, together with the Arabs, pushed the Ottomans out of the Middle East and ultimately the last Islamic caliphate collapsed. (The battle of Beersheba, whose centenary falls in October, was part of this strategy). Following the war Britain and France carved up the Middle East on its terms with little reference to Arab hopes or needs. Palestine, Jordan and Iraq were forged with national identities under British oversight, Syria and Lebanon under French. The Arab tribes now lived within ‘national’ boundaries, boundaries that had been drawn up by European powers. It was probably not the ‘autonomy’ the Arabs had in mind. Within these national boundaries power struggles emerged that pitted neighbours against each other. In particular, Shia, Sunni and Kurds needed to work at governmental and administrative arrangements that had never been necessary before.
Britain appointed an Iraqi monarch – King Faisal, his successor was overthrown by Saddam Hussein who with his Sunni dominated Bar’th party ruled with some brutality over both the Kurds and the Shia population. The gassing of the Kurdish civilian population was a terrible example of the brutality. The long and brutal war between Iran and Iraq was essentially a battle between Sunni and Shia, a battle in which the West took the side of Iraq. The battle was very expensive and when it concluded in a stalemate Hussein owed creditors a lot of money. His invasion of Kuwait was an attempt to address this issue.
Pushing Hussein out of Kuwait (1st Gulf war) was brutally quick and could be argued as necessary to restore a status quo. The second Gulf War was a different matter all together. We know the excuse was ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but what was it that Australia thought it was achieving and for which its service men and women paid a terrible price?
Hussein and Sunni control of Iraq came to a bloody end. In its place the US enabled the appointment of a Shia government. Civil war erupted. Shia militia wreaked revenge on Sunni civilians, their neighbourhoods and suburbs. Sunni militia retaliated. Death and destruction occurred on a massive scale. The Iraqi government turned a blind eye to atrocities against the Sunni population, even protecting Shia war lords; while the Sunni population maintained a brutal attack on Shia populations, particularly in Baghdad. The balances, however imperfect, that had existed and enabled a reasonable level of co-existence were now gone.
Instead of PTSD being an infliction suffered in private by individual servicemen and women who have seen and experienced more than human beings can reasonably endure; a shared ethnic/religious/national ‘PTSD’ emerged with suffering and violence rolling into suffering and violence, without the capacity of any to stop it – least of all the US led forces. The normality of coexistence had been replaced with a new normality of reciprocal acts of death and destruction.
The latest and most horrific manifestations of this phenomenon has been ISIS an extreme ideological expression of Sunni religion, apparently with foundations in Wahibism; Islamic puritanism with roots in Saudi Arabia. Did the West create ISIS? - No. Did the West upturn a prevailing power balance creating a hiatus within which ISIS has emerged? – Yes, absolutely. Has the West’s repeated interference in the affairs of those who live in the Middle East brought about a loss of the balance which enabled Shia and Sunni, Christian and Alawites to live side by side for centuries – tragically, yes. With John Cantwell, we might well ask “what the f... are we doing here” and why have we caused so many lives to be lost – for what?
Rhythm and balance lie at the heart of the created order. Eco-systems, species, individuals and the globe as a whole depend upon this reality. A shock that disturbs the balance can take years or in the case of the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs, millennia to correct. In the case of some forms of abuse, the individual simply never recovers.
Scientists are giving more than enough warnings that progressively, like a frog in a pot of boiling water, we are upsetting the ecological and environmental balances that have enabled the flourishing of (human) life over the period known as the Holocene.
What is it about us as a species that despite the capacity to understand these things, a desire for revenge, or advantage, or wealth or simple bloody mindedness drives us into actions which are so destructive? John Cantwell is of the view that what has been achieved in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost of human lives lost there. This is clearly the case in Iraq.
It is not in Australia’s interest to enter battles simply because the US does. To enter a battle is to lose, no matter the outcome. It is in Australia’s interest to understand the balances that enable life to flourish in many different and complex environments and to invest in supporting them. This requires a vastly different foreign policy to the one we have been used to with its often hypocritical alliances and it requires us to see foreign aid as a far more productive strategy for harmony peace and security than defence expenditure.
All of us should be students of history so that mistakes are not repeated: but we don’t. History warns that, long term, dire consequences flow from treating one race as inferior to another. Perhaps the most awful event, of modern history, an event remaining in the memory of the most elderly amongst us, is the holocaust. Millions of European civilians, mainly but not exclusively Jews, went to the gas chamber. It is an event so horrendous that it should never be forgotten.
An event as horrendous as this affects the individual and corporate psyche of those who remain. For those who survive and their descendants there is good reason not to trust others, least of all for security; but to work tirelessly for absolute control so that one’s own life and its safety does not depend upon the decisions of others. Getting a nuclear bomb as Israel has long since done and North Korea is currently attempting to achieve, is one tactic along this path.
All of this is understandable. It is background to the philosophy and ideology of modern day Israel. But the consequence of walling oneself into a cocoon in which the morality of one’s action is self-justifying and closed to the critique of others is dangerous, and worse, could be calamitous.
It is dangerous for those who are now treated as those in Germany and Poland were once treated, inferior and expendable, and ultimately it is very dangerous for the perpetrator - Israel. (I am not in any way inferring the holocaust is happening again, but I am saying that a culture of superiority and entitlement has developed which in turn imposes expendability on others). A victim does not remain a victim in perpetuity, a line is crossed when the victim, in choosing to remain a victim, becomes the abuser and the cycle of violence, like a sling-shot, makes other victims in another generation and place.
Such is the situation in which modern day Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu has now placed itself.
The situation is brilliantly and movingly portrayed in John Lyons, Balcony over Jerusalem, a diary of his posting as a journalist to the Middle East. This is a must read for any who would genuinely seek to understand the Israel/Palestine crisis and particularly for those who have the responsibility of forming Australian policy in relation to this crisis.
Reading the book one encounters the reality which is Israel/Palestine in 2017 through the eyes of one who lived and worked there as a professional journalist, one who sought to be balanced and not biased, but who was deeply shocked by what he saw. Even for those who visit the West Bank for a few days it is a shock to discover the appalling day by day treatment of the Palestinian people through increasingly discriminatory legislation enacted by the Israeli government; through humiliation and at times outright cruelty meted out by the Israeli occupying army; and by the brutality and hatred of the ideologically driven illegal settlers. For those of us from the West who have lived with a narrative that Israel is really a western country that shares western values it is indeed quite shocking.
However, equally shocking is to discover that to speak of this situation, particularly to speak outside Israel, is to court aggressive denial and abuse from supporters of Israel. Such is the aggression, Lyons asserts, that the majority of journalists from anywhere in the world self censor rather than convey the full naked truth. Such is the influence of Israeli supporters within western power structures, governmental and beyond, that the cost of telling the truth is too high.
At a personal level Lyons testifies to the various attempts made against him both through senior management at his employer, the Australian and through other influential Australian figures. The pro-Israel lobby is highly professional, well resourced and adept at targeting those who it believes will do its narrative harm by telling the truth. In Australia the pro-Israel lobby is proportionately amongst the most aggressive in the world, sometimes even exceeding the narrative of the Israeli government itself. To the Lobby, no action however wrong and distorting of truth it might be appears to be ruled out if it can present a picture of Israel as the only free, democratic and morally acceptable regime in the Middle East: would that this were true. Sadly it is so far from the truth.
Israel is a legitimate nation; it needs and deserves secure borders. It needs its legitimacy to be acknowledged and recognised by friend and foe alike. Unfortunately Israel undermines its legitimacy through its greed and refusal to live within its own borders. The ambitious policy of ‘greater Israel’ is now pretty well transparent. Under Netanyahu there is a clear ambition to annex the whole of the West Bank. The settlement programme (which Israel insists is not the main stumbling block to peace) has already made a contiguous Palestinian State virtually impossible – as was clearly always the aim. Where does this leave Palestinians? Every attempt is being made to make life so horrendous for them that they will disappear, migrate to Jordan or some other place. But they are not going anywhere – nor should they. The future looks like a collection of disconnected Bantustans and a permanent state of apartheid. This is what the Israeli government is forcing not simply on Palestinians but also on its own people. As history shows apartheid in which a minority control and subjugate a majority, is a very dangerous place, with violence as an almost inevitable outcome. This is the legacy Netanyahu is bequeathing his people.
It is little wonder that in increasing numbers moderate Jews are migrating out of Israel, leaving behind an increasingly hardline constituency, often recent migrants from Russia and the US. The migration policy into Israel is hardly keeping pace with the emigration out of Israel.
The current situation in Israel/Palestine appears close to a point of no return. If the two-state solution is now beyond delivering, a truth that seems very hard to argue against, then Israel has to choose between democracy and a Jewish State. (That the Arab population is and will exceed the Jewish population seems an incontestable fact). As Lyons says, this is an awful choice with consequences that are far reaching not simply for others, but for Israel itself. Many retired members of the Israeli armed forces and it security arm now warn Israel of the dangerous path it is treading. It appears deaf to this warning.
This leaves Palestinians with no choice, human subsistence is intolerable and diabolically dangerous for Israel; humans cannot and should not tolerate existence without freedom.