in service of the
Disasters and their opportunities
Covid, flood, war, are disasters which no counter narrative can disguise. They have brought, and are bringing, untold suffering and misery on so many people. And yet, is it not also true that they have within them the seed bed of possibility, something new, something fresh, something hopeful, something life giving.
The tragedy is that the opportunity may not be grasped by those who have the most leverage to deliver it.
The recent floods in eastern Australia have been ‘unprecedented’. They have been recognised, with those with eyes to see, as another graphic harbinger of a changing climate and the urgent need for changed human responsibility. As of this moment there is not the slightest indication that the Morrison government will do anything, invest anything, to meet this challenge. In response to the 2019 fires ‘he did not hold a hose’ and in the floods refuses to walk the open streets for fear of being told home truths by the people.
It is far too early to reflect on opportunity and change available when eventually the brutality inflicted on the courageous Ukrainian people comes to an end, but we can only pray that those with political power in the US, Europe, and Russia, will have vision and courage to enable a freer and more noble European order.
I want to reflect on the covid pandemic from personal experience and consider the opportunities it has presented to the Church. I hardly need to recall that the Church and the practice of Christianity in the Western world, especially Australia, has been, and is, in sharp decline. On first look it is reasonable to assume that Covid caused restrictions on gatherings has hastened this decline. Many, perhaps most congregations report reduced numbers.
Since the beginning of covid, Margaret and I have been spiritually nourished from two sources that would not have been there if it were not for covid.
The first has been the daily garden congregation emanating from Robert Willis, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Without missing a day, he has given an extraordinary daily gift to thousands around the world who have joined him. How he has maintained the daily gift in addition to all his other responsibilities, not to mention the need for personal refreshment and rest – I do not know.
Partly by accident, partly by intuition, largely through Godly inspiration he has hit on a recipe that works. That he is erudite, a fine musician, theologically and biblically scholarly, helps a great deal. Like all talented people he makes what he does seem simple when it most certainly is not. He settles himself somewhere in the Dean’s Garden, variously amongst pigs, turkeys, geese, cats and flowers, sunshine or rain, with a prayer book, bible and cup of tea. He starts with the opening of morning prayer from the prayer book, reads the set psalm, and a passage of scripture and then reflects. The reflection on the scripture is both scholarly and yet easy to follow, almost always there is an insight which may not have been apparent before.
He then goes on to reflect upon events or lives from the past that have an anniversary on this date, and in doing so brings relevance and insight to our contemporary lives. He also reflects on present day events most latterly of course the war in Ukraine. He concludes with prayer, silence and a blessing.
When he retires after Easter one can only hope that somehow this gift will have a continuing life.
The second resource has been the weekly or fortnightly gathering of people in our home. When covid began and gatherings were shut down, Margaret and I offered to keep contact with parishioners who live ‘north of the river’ in our Parish. The original list has changed, but now we have between 20 – 30 folk who join us – not all on the same day. !5 squeezed in once but mostly it is 12. Interestingly, a significant proportion of those who attend have not been, or would not otherwise be, regular Church goers.
Again, we seem to have hit on a recipe that works. We sit around an extended dining room table. Margaret decorates the table according to the season or the theme for the Sunday. Everyone lights their own candle opposite their seat. I do not wear robes, but my stole lies across the length of the table. We start with some music, a reflective prayer (often from a Celtic source), join in the prayer of preparation and I pray the collect for the week. Three pieces of scripture are read (responsibility for reading conveyed by email). I lead the reflection on the readings for 8 – 10 minutes. Everyone participates in the ongoing reflection for perhaps 15 minutes (on occasions it is much longer)!! We then pray, led sometimes by one of the others at the table. I celebrate the Eucharist, using various sources, often Celtic. Each communicates the person next to them. I then conclude with prayer and blessing.
With liturgy over, the table is stripped of it candles and decorations and brunch is served. Conversations follow from the earlier reflection and cross over to shared experiences of the week etc. By the time folk leave two hours have passed – on occasions three. Folk are constantly reminded that here they are participating in the life of the wider Parish, Diocese, and universal Church.
I share both these experiences to demonstrate that worship in a conventional Parish setting is not necessarily the only or even the best way of nourishing spiritual life in the contemporary world. The need for a spiritual dimension is widely felt, but the place to find it eludes most.
We all grow through participation. Participation is made possible through hospitality - in my first example in a garden and in the second, a dining room table. Christianity is not primarily or even secondarily submission to dogma – it is essentially about following a WAY, a way that has taken human flesh. Christians are nourished through Word that is spoken and bread that is broken.
The opportunity/challenge facing the Church is to find ways of offering a range of hospitable experiences through which people can grow spiritually – for It is a terrible mistake to think that the role of Christian leadership is to ‘do God for people’, people and God do their own business. Our task is to find, or create, hospitable and open spaces where this can be nurtured.
хай живе Україна (Long Live Ukraine)
There are no words to describe the utter depravity being inflicted on the people of Ukraine, nor indeed are there words to adequately describe the heroism of the people and their president. However, there were words, wonderful words, in the United Nations General Assembly last week from the Kenyan Ambassador to describe what is at stake here. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-60603232
The ambassador spoke of his own nation and its national boundary, carved, and bequeathed by its colonial master (Britain). What he said of Kenya equally describes most African countries as they emerged from the colonial era. “These are not boundaries we chose” he said. He went on to say: “people on either side of the boundary are the same people”. One could say the same for West Papua and PNG, or indeed for most countries of the Middle East. Having said that, he went on: “while they may not be the boundaries we chose, they are the boundaries which exist and define us in the present”. Trying to return to a romanticised past would only create endless turmoil and conflict. Instead, Kenya and most African countries are committed to cooperation across their boundaries through the Organisation of African Unity.
Much is being speculated as to the motivation of Vladimir Putin in prosecuting this cruel war. It appears he has a romanticised view of what he believes to have been the ancient people of Rus, from which Russia and Belarus derive their names. He apparently believes Ukraine and the Ukrainian people to be indissolubly part of this family – as perhaps he does of other nations previously part of the old Soviet Union. There may or may not be vestiges of historical truth in this romanticism. However, the people of Ukraine now live in a very different present, a present from which they have no wish to be forcibly separated.
The war in Ukraine is reinforcing awareness of the awful danger in which we place others when boundaries are not respected. We learned this bitter truth in Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan. At a personal level we know its truth when personal boundaries are transgressed through abuse. Far too many people live diminished lives because their personal boundaries have been transgressed by others. On a global scale humanity is now reaping the consequences of having refused to acknowledge the boundaries necessary for the maintenance of a stable and a self-regenerating natural order.
The other side of the truth told by the ambassador is equally important – ‘those on the other side of the boundary are the same’. It is beyond comprehension that Putin and his army could inflict so much unbearable suffering on the Ukrainian people. If he genuinely believes Ukrainian people and Russian people are part of the same ‘stock’; how is it possible that he and his army can so indiscriminately hit schools, hospitals and residential areas and confine citizens within their city with no power food or water? What sadistic madness is at play here?
Respect through recognition of commonality must be foundational to a hoped for harmonious and peaceful world. Covid has painfully reminded us of our common, and vulnerable, humanity. None are superior or inferior. Greatness and weakness have potential within all humanity’s diversity.
It was Francis of Assisi who reminded us that ‘sameness’ and relationship extend beyond human boundaries. He referred to the sun and moon, animals, and plants, as brothers and sisters. We human beings must seek commonality not simply with all human beings but also with the natural order. Since the commencement of the industrial revolution, we have seen ourselves as ‘apart from’ the natural order over which we have sought sovereignty and control. Through natural disaster, the last few years have demonstrated how foolish this ambition has been.
In similar manner, Putin is being shown how foolish his attempt for sovereignty over Ukraine has been. Even if he gains control over cities through destructive force, this will not be over. Hopefully those around him will be wise enough to say that respecting others is strength not weakness, and bullying others is weakness not strength.
In the meantime, as we lift our prayers and direct our thoughts to the brave people of Ukraine, we would all do well to remember that respect for boundaries, wherever they are, builds trust and respect. At the same time, we must also remember that on either side of the boundary people are the same. The Russian people, themselves, must take their rightful place as significant contributors to a peaceful world order.
Religious Discrimination – Time for more open Dialogue
That people should be protected from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender or religion there can be no argument. If there is a perceived legislative gap, it should be filled. However, none should be protected from observing the values, standards, mores, expected of all citizens, especially dignity and respect to all, from all.
The chaotic mess the government got itself into last week was not primarily because of a difference of opinion in their ranks about the rights of people of faith, but because the bill put on the table was not transparently about the protection of individuals from discrimination based on their religion. The bill had been drafted to suit the specific agenda of an influential group of lobbyists – the Australian Christian lobby. That this is the case was made clear when the prime minister announced he was withdrawing the bill from debate in the senate because the ACL declared it no longer fitted their purpose.
In the minds of many politicians, and Joe public, I am sure there is an assumption that by virtue of its name this lobby reasonably expresses the voice of Australian Christians. It most certainly does not. It speaks for a significant and very noisy minority with an obsession for judgement based on sexual orientation and gender. Living in this obsession they appear to find comfort and assurance about what is acceptable to God. It appears they think Christian identity and faithfulness can be demonstrated by their interpretation of a few biblical verses on human sexuality and gender.
There is even evidence that those involved with this lobby are involved in political branch stacking in certain coalition electorates in pursuit of their public and national agenda.
Let this fact be laid openly on the table.
While in 50+ years of ministry I can honestly say I am unaware of any discrimination because of my faith, clearly this is not the case for all. For some men, and some women, religious commitment is easily identified through dress code, which makes them vulnerable to discrimination. They must be protected. Some have suffered discrimination through association. This has particularly been the case for the Muslim community. Because extremism and violence has been perpetrated by some who claim membership of the Islamic faith all have suffered, as most tragically seen in the Christchurch shootings. Australia has become a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, but its history and tradition is firmly rooted in its Christian foundations. Care therefore needs to be taken to ensure that the needs, customs, and festivals of other faiths are both respected and given space for celebration.
In the relative privacy and security of faith communities, people of faith should be able to practice whatever tradition they like, as long as they do not break common law. For example, some faiths practice a hierarchy of male only leadership. However, people of faith have no right to expect that this, or like tradition, should be practiced outside their own community. If a community of faith accepts taxpayer money for the offering of health, education or welfare, that service should be subject to the expectations values and standards of the wider community.
What is even more problematic is the articulation of belief outside communities of faith which adversely affects the lives of others. A clear example has been experienced in this season of Covid. Conspiracy theory and antivax propaganda has many origins, but sadly such origin includes faith communities. Within such communities, people should be free to propagate and enact what they believe – again, as long they are not in breach of the law. Outside that community it is a different matter. Conspiracy theory and antivax propaganda undermines the health and security of the wider population. This is not an opinion, it is a statement based in scientific fact. The politician George Christiansen has the right to espouse these theories in his community of faith, but he has no right to do so as a politician using taxpayer funding. The promotion of theories or beliefs which put others at risk warrants no protection. Dylan Alcott tells the awful story of being informed his disability is punishment from God for past sins. The speaker has no right of protection, on the contrary the speaker should have been subject to appropriate, and if necessary, public sanction.
The broader Australian population has every reason to cherish and encourage communities of faith and their presence in all streams of public life if their motivation is to “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God”. (Micah 6: 8). For most such communities, I believe this to be the case and Australia is the richer for it. However, the legislation before the parliament last week did not come from such communities. It came from those which have agendas of their own to prosecute, agendas that clearly cause hurt, misunderstanding, and division.
It is ironic that if I have personally felt discrimination, it is because of being slotted in, by association, with such people in the mind of the public. “You are a Christian and you believe women should have no authority over men”. “You are a Christian and you do not believe in the priority of climate change”. “You are a Christian and you believe in creationism”. “You are a Christian and you believe all who do not believe what you believe are going to hell”. etc etc. It is my subjective feeling that parties on the left of the political spectrum have unintentionally discriminated against mainstream religion because they associate it with such ridiculous positions.
No, I absolutely do not believe such nonsense.
I believe that to know God is the human vocation. I believe that Jesus is the pathway to this knowledge. I believe we are called to follow his way and in doing so to cherish the lives of all for who they are, ‘straight’ or LGBTQI+, male or female, Malawi or Rohingya, Buddhist or Jew.
To be a person of faith is to say ‘yes’ to life. ‘Yes,’ to God. ‘Yes’, to all fellow human beings. ‘Yes’, to the earth that nourishes us. ‘Yes’, to this place, this time.
What was presented to the parliament expressed little ‘yes’ and an abundance of ‘no’.
Israel declared to be an apartheid state
This week’s Amnesty International’s report, declaring Israel to be committing apartheid will come as no surprise to those familiar with Israel’s systematic and institutionalised discrimination, based on ethnicity.
It further enforces the judgement already made by Human Rights Watch, the Israeli NGO, B’Tselem and Palestinian human rights and legal organisations. Nor will it be a surprise to hear that the Israeli propaganda machine was in full swing even before the report was released, claiming the authors to be guilty of partisanship and antisemitism. Nor will it be a surprise to hear that the Australian Prime Minister quickly dismissed the implications of the report saying no state is perfect and that the report makes no change to Australia’s unconditional support for Israel.
At least he is consistent: apparently reports of alleged abuse by friends and colleagues of the Prime Minster are to be treated the same, be they abuse and potentially corrupt activity by members of his cabinet, or serious alleged criminality by a friendly state – nothing to see here. We are appropriately quick to condemn ethic violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uighurs in China, but apparently championing the rights of Palestinians is off limits.
The Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, is correct to say no international court has, as yet, declared Israel to be guilty of apartheid, a very serious crime. However, the case has not been put to a court. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has agreed to hear the accusation that Israel and some Palestinian paramilitary groups are guilty of war crimes. It is urgent that the very serious accusation of apartheid criminality also be referred to the court.
If Israel is confident it would be found - ‘not guilty’, it should be eager to have the case heard.
Of course, it can have no such confidence - and knows that. Israel has enacted laws which entrench discrimination, including the 2018 Israeli New State Law. Increasing numbers of Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora, are courageously acknowledging that apartheid is the best and only way of describing the policies of the Israeli government.
The pendulum is swinging. The actions of the Israeli State will increasingly become subject to opprobrium, not simply from human rights advocates, but also from those who in the past have afforded the State unconditional support. Until recently support for Israel was a nonnegotiable badge of identity for American Evangelicals. The result of a recent poll shows that support for Israel amongst young US evangelicals has dropped from 69% to 34% in the period 2018 – 2021. Commentary suggests the most important reason for this extraordinary drop is that many of these young evangelicals have come to believe that Israel is an oppressor nation, a lawless state, squarely on the wrong side of human rights and social justice. Israel is now the villain, with Palestinians as the mistreated.
“The images of Israel that dominate the thinking of many young people are vivid and almost unrelentingly negative: hundreds of Palestinian homes bulldozed, and Palestinian buildings blown up. They see reports from various human rights groups of the excessive use of force by Israeli police and Israel Defence Forces (IDF) troops”, US based commentators say.
People are already making concrete responses to Israel’s behaviour. Protests such as the boycott of the recent Sydney Arts Festival, disrupting 40% of the performances, are going to increase, with a diverse section of society involved. When those involved are accused of antisemitism, frankly, it insults members of the Jewish community in the past, or present, who suffer, or have suffered, real and cruel antisemitic behaviour.
The long list of discriminatory practices that contribute to the apartheid label have been frequently catalogued.
So, what is to be done? Is there anything to be done? Yes, the following must be done, for the sake of Israel and its long-term integrity, as for the Palestinian people.
First, the accusation against Israel that it has institutionalised an apartheid regime, a crime in international law, should be taken up by the International Criminal Court.
Second, the paraphernalia of occupation must be dismantled under the supervision of the United Nations. Palestinians must be relieved of cruelty through administration under military law while the illegal settlers who daily harass them are administered under civil law - without punishment. This disparity in administration should have prevailed for a maximum of 12 months after the 1967 war, it has continued to exist for more than 50 years.
Thirdly, the Palestinian people must have a body that represents them. This is not the Palestinian Authority – it was only established as a 5-year interim administration to oversee the establishment of a Palestinian State. It has devolved to the point of merely being an instrument in the apparatus that is the Israel occupation. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) was acknowledged by the Oslo process as the representative of the Palestinian people, and this must be supported, reconstituted, and revitalised. Fresh elections of this body could ensure there is representation for all Palestinian people – those in Gaza, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, those languishing in refugee camps and throughout Palestinian Diaspora.
Only when the Occupation has ceased, and the Palestinians have a truly representative elected body, can there be a foundation for true peace talks. Only then will there be some semblance of power and genuine authority for Palestinians at the negotiating table – currently we are asking Palestinians to negotiate without legitimate representation and with Israel’s boot on their throats. Meaningful negotiations of course require a respected international mediator who can help nut out the future in which all have the potential to flourish.
The future cannot, must not, be a continuation of the present. In the words of the 8th century BC Hebrew prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an everlasting stream”. Then and only then peace, security and flourishing will prevail.
The Crisis that is - Aged Care
Aged Care, and in particular, residential aged care, has been in crisis for a lot longer than simply the last decade. Staff must receive a pay increase in the range of 100% - yes doubled. At $23 an hour a 25% increase would be an insult and 50% insufficient. The cost and quality of training should also be reviewed. At the current level of reimbursement, the cost of training should be free.
Now I know I am not an aged care specialist, but it was my solemn obligation for fifteen years to head a Diocese with a significant residential aged care portfolio. This portfolio has since been relinquished in recognition that, despite best intentions, the Diocese was simply not capable of delivering the quality of care that staff, clients, and families rightly expect – most of all from a Christian institution.
There are a range of reasons for this situation, but the overriding reason is that we live in a society which over rewards CEO’s and those who work in industries that ‘produce wealth’ like finance, mining, construction, and real estate, and grossly under rewards those who work in caring industries, of which aged care appears to be the bottom of the pile.
At least two decades ago, when aged care wages were between $13 and $18 dollars an hour I made representation to various senior federal members of parliament – to no avail. In exasperation I said to one senior member of the parliament whose mother was in residential aged care, “does it seem right to you that the person who comes to clear your blocked kitchen sink is paid $60 per hour while the aged care nurse who feeds, washes and generally cares for your mother is paid $15 per hour”. Now, I am not wishing to challenge plumbers, simply to make the point that our society has a very unbalanced way of rewarding value for service.
It is quite scandalous that this situation has been permitted to exist for so long. Trained Aged Care staff exist on an annual salary well below $50,000. The totally incompetent federal minister for aging is enjoying an annual salary in excess of $350.000 + expenses. Some CEO’s enjoy benefits 100 times higher than the lowest paid in their workforce.
The problem extends well beyond aged care service delivery, it goes to the heart of how real worth is valued and rewarded in a neo-liberal capitalist society. In this society, our society:
An insane expenditure is being outlaid to purchase submarines for delivery in two decades, the rationale being they are to protect our way of life. Leaving aside numerous unresolved questions such as: will they ever be delivered, what is likely to be the final cost, will they work when delivered, and by then will they serve any useful purpose; the real question is, what is the quality of life we are wishing to defend? Are we wishing to defend a way of life in which gross inequity is an accepted norm? Are we wishing to defend a way of life in which it is the role of the poor to serve the care needs of all? Are we wishing to defend a way of life in which care needs are largely met by those on short term visas from developing countries in Asia and the Pacific because no Australian is prepared to work for such little reward?
The Guardian reports: “The Coalition has been sitting on a major report into the state of the care workforce in Australia since September last year and is refusing to make the report public”. The National Skills Commissioner Adam Boyton was tasked by prime minister Scott Morrison in March 2021 to undertake an in-depth study on the factors affecting the supply and demand of care workers.
The report set out to examine the needs of the care and support workforce for aged, disability, veteran and mental health care, looking at “near term” and longer-term needs to 2050. Submissions closed in the middle of last year and the report was delivered to the employment minister, Stuart Robert, in September.
We simply cannot find it acceptable for those in caring industries to be treated so badly, and for those who have a vocation of service rather than an ambition for wealth to be taken advantage of, especially when monies are freely spent rewarding self interest in those well connected.
Australian nurse trapped in Ethiopian war zone warns the world: Children being drugged to fight on front line
1 Feb 2022
Australian nurse Valerie Browning AM, who has been living in the war-torn Afar desert in Ethiopia for more than 33 years, is warning the world of the atrocities being meted out to women and children where children are being drugged, handed a rifle and pushed onto the front line.
Valerie Browning is desperately trying to help civilians being injured, raped, and even tortured in the civil war tearing northern Ethiopia apart.
The former Australian nurse, who first moved to Africa in 1973 as a 21-year-old and stayed on permanently in 1989, is calling on the world to assist those who are helpless and urgently needing food.
“I am directly behind the front line in the Afar and watching as soldiers as young as 14 are being drugged with marijuana and pushed out stoned to fight other young fit men from government forces,” Ms Browning said.
“The soldiers from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the ruling Ethiopian government have been in conflict for years but it is heart wrenching to see these boys, who should be at school instead are being killed or captured and their dead bodies have hashish on them - sometimes tied to their neck and spare supplies around a leg.
“Long range fire power and Western-made tanks are destroying local villages. The fighting which recently restarted in 'Aba'ala now consumes 5 districts with well over 250,000 people now fleeing in many directions and finding it difficult to reach support.
Ms Browning runs the Afar Pastoral Development Association (APDA) which works to improve literacy for the Afar people, promote maternal and child health, eradicate harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and tackle the growing problem of HIV and AIDS. APDA has trained more than 1,000 local health and education workers, and village birth attendants.
“I can confirm that a TPLF female soldier wounded in Gaali Koma was brought to Dubte hospital and shockingly had an 8 month old baby with her. There have been several reports of mothers forced to fight on the frontline with babies strapped to their backs. All this is happening while the world remains silent.
“Rumours abound in this remote countryside that the TPLF are being backed by the USA. While I cannot confirm this we do note that much of the military equipment is marked and labelled in English. There is a tug-of-war in Ethiopia, just as there is in other nations around the world, between the USA, China and Russia all trying to exert influence.
“The best way to help is to broker a peace deal, provide food and water and stop the atrocities. Women with children strapped to their backs should not be armed with submachine guns. Children should not be drugged and pushed into the front line only to be slaughtered,” Ms Browning said.
“I have seen two children blown up by the long-range artillery firing on their house and they are now in Dubte hospital with bodies utterly burnt. Women have told me of being raped.
“In the last few days a woman ran out of the town of Erebti and she told me she made it with seconds to spare with her children and as she looked back she saw TPLF soldiers capturing women and children. Two journalists (French and German) came out a day ago from 'Aba'ala and told me of seeing the massacred bodies of 6 women and their children - they were people displaced from the town of 'Aba'ala and killed in the rural area.
There are many accounts of massacres and extreme brutality - my charity – Afar Pastoral Development Association - has now found the second of the 3 people we lost in Magaale. One is still missing and there is no real news. We continue to look but we are running to assist people now walking up to 6 and 7 days with no food.
In surrounding areas people are in a extremely weak condition and the numbers are growing rapidly - there are at least 5 areas APDA must reach partly by camel to rescue some of the so far 250,000 displaced people - trying to send food that needs no cooking.
“We are in a mighty struggle now to try and rescue these people - other communities gave camels to transport goods and so on. More than 2 million have fled the area and 5 million need food supplied. Why doesn’t the West care?
The huge difficulty is that TPLF are able to perpetuate complete violence with impunity on Afar since the world is totally silent...So much infrastructure too has been destroyed - water reservoirs, clinics, schools, people's houses and so on.
“I want to desperately shine a spotlight here in Ethiopia as this humanitarian crisis explodes,” Ms Browning said.
“Everywhere I turn I see starving women and children, injured civilians and soldiers needing critical care and they are just not getting the help they need. The world has shut its eyes as rebel soldiers storm onwards killing civilians.
“Recently a young mother of 4 children delivered her baby amongst the explosive sounds of artillery in Kalwaan. The stress led her to have a stroke, leaving this poor woman paralysed on her right side with little speech. She was put on a donkey cart to flee. They did not notice her paralysed foot was banging on the wheel and she sustained even further painful injuries.
“The world, including Australia, USA, China, Russia and the UK, needs to bring financial support and stability to the region. All our health institutions around the region have been rendered unusable. We need help! Ms Browning concluded.
Australia Day: a day for deep conversation
To dream of ways in which Australia and its people can see differently, and do better, is not to be self-despising ‘woke’ citizens, as education minister Alan Tudge would have us believe as he prosecutes the continuing cultural wars of the political right.
I am a proud Australian by adoption and so grateful to be living here. The multi-cultural, multi faith nature of modern Australia is very attractive. The ecology and openness of Australia’s topography is awe inspiring and within reach of all Australians. That Australia is one of a very few enduring democracies is to be much treasured and protected. Australia’s inherent suspicion of authority and yet its law-abiding nature demonstrated through the covid pandemic is to be admired. The 60k year cultural heritage bequeathed to recent arrivals by the country’s indigenous people is a gift beyond measure. The courage of pioneers in early days of white settlement and the courage of first nations people who cannot and will not allow their history, culture and tradition to disappear both deserve admiration.
These and many other aspects of Australian life are to be admired and celebrated.
Equally there are aspects of Australian life and history that need to be revisited.
It is a regrettable political fact that beating the drums of conflict, feigning aggression in the name of national security, is an election vote winner and a means of camouflaging more serious domestic ills. The brazen remodelling of the National War Memorial in Canberra, now underway, from a place of solemn commemoration to a military Disney land, epitomises the glorification of war and the economy of armaments. War is always failure, failure to negotiate, failure of the human ideal of peace. Australians should never have been involved in WW1, the war from which the ANZAC tradition springs. This war resulted from the ‘shirt fronting’ hubris of some European leaders and had nothing to do with addressing fundamental ills which had exhausted all other options. Had there not been WW1 there probably would not have been WW2, which emerged from the inability of allied victors to facilitate restoration for the German vanquished. Following WW1, the Allies carved up the Middle East to suit their economic and strategic needs and bequeathed to Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon divisions not of their own making, divisions and conflicts that are rawer today than ever.
Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, have been conflicts which caused great loss on all sides with no measurable gain. It is not only right, but a solemn responsibility to commemorate the fallen, but it is equally a solemn duty to unveil the circumstances under which they fell and the culpability of those who, from their relative security, sent them into harm’s way, or indeed retain the capacity to do so in the present.
Dutton, Tudge, et al, belittle and demean those who question current military strategic initiatives. But what do these gentlemen really believe AUKUS or some very expensive submarines are going to do to make the world and Australian life a better and safer place in 40 or 50 years’ time. We already know that any who would seek to harm us in the future will do so through trade and through already proven capacity to shut down the electronics upon which every aspect of daily life now depends.
That white settlement was established on a lie, the high Court has decreed in the Mabo case. This was not an empty land. That Australia’s indigenous were unrecognised as citizens well into the lifetime of many of us is a fact now hard to believe. That colonial papers in the 1800’s heralded the extermination of indigenous people in the same way one might herald the extermination of vermin is a truth about which we would prefer not to be reminded.
Until at least the prime ministership of Billy McMahon ‘assimilation’ was the official goal of government, a desire that indigenous people gradually become absorbed, without distinction, within European society.
What is now clear is that the cultural ‘gene’ of Australia’s indigenous is extremely resilient and perhaps stronger than the cultural ‘gene’ of people like me of British stock! (When all is said and done what are the enduring, let alone endearing, features of British identity apart from the fast we have given the globe its lingua franca! Our gene seems to predominate in competition rather than cooperation and judges success or failure through power or ownership.
As we know, Indigenous culture and identity is forged through unbreakable connection with country. Why would the rest of us not want to be imbued with such identity?
“Voice”, code for Indigenous recognition and influence, is not about reluctant but supposed magnanimous gifting of a right to indigenous that is not shared by all Australians. It is about enabling full indigenous expression in Australian life which will mean enhancement and enrichment for us all. In our ‘culture’ we see most things through the prism of owning or possessing, therefore if someone has something I do not have it means loss to me. Indigenous culture looks through a spiritual prism, not a prism of power and possession, we are all in desperate need of seeing through this prism.
For several decades Australian prosperity was derived from the sheep’s back. More latterly it has been derived from the conversion of the landscape into a quarry. In both there has been an assumption that wealth could be stripped without thought to the ongoing sustainability of the landscape.
In relation to agriculture, recent years have seen a veritable revolution in farming practice. Restorative farming is now widespread with evidence already in that not only can the land be rejuvenated - if it is given the space -, but that long term profitability follows.
The same cannot be said for mining. Even sceptics know that Australia is the most climatically vulnerable continent on the planet. Wealth from the extraction of fossil fuels brings current prosperity at irreparable cost to the future. Barnaby Joyce, you cannot be in favour of expanding fossil fuel extraction and sustainable agriculture. You have obviously chosen mining.
These and many other conversations need to be pursued amongst all Australians. I remain strongly unconvinced that 26th January is the day to hold these conversations. Whatever day we celebrate Australia, there is far more urgent business than beach, barbecues, and political platitudes.
The Sydney Festival, Human Rights, and BDS
Some topics have become so politically and emotionally charged that their very mention will cause the speaker to be subject to an avalanche of vitriol and assumed prejudice without any attention being given to the merits of the argument being prosecuted. The Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is one of those subjects.
The 2022 much loved and appropriately lauded Sydney Festival has received considerable publicity, not because of the quality of its events, but because of the disruption of more than 40% of the festival’s performances, with some 100 artists, companies and arts workers withdrawing in solidarity and in protest of the Israeli Embassy sponsorship for the Festival. Judith Lucy, Tom Ballard and Nazeem Hussain, amongst many others are boycotting the festival to protest polices enacted by the Israeli government which cause loss of human rights by the Palestinian people. By their action these performers have become active members of the BDS movement.
Some years ago, I was a speaker at a symposium sponsored by Manning Clark House and hosted by Phillip Adams, on the topic: ‘does humanity have a future’. Most speakers contributed from the perspective of science, but I was especially taken by one who spoke from the arts who observed: “civilisation is heading for disintegration when artists and artisans cease holding a mirror to the face of power and more particularly to the political elite”. Performers – artists, cartoonists poets, do not simply entertain, they command a stage as truth tellers, as veil removers. Blessed are those who take this responsibility seriously, and we should be grateful. Performers have every right to protest when their performance is compromised through association, in this case by the embassy whose government has initiated a system of apartheid. Through colonisation, confiscation, discrimination, and intimidation, Palestinians are forced to live under occupation in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a world vastly different to that enjoyed by the illegal settlers who have appropriated their land, property, and rights.
Through the recent passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, and human rights champion, we have been reminded that the term apartheid can and should be applied to any situation in which gross inequality has become institutionalised as a direct result of governmental policy. This is the case in Israel/Palestine, and as such confirmed in the past year by Human Rights Watch and by the highly respected and US state department endorsed Israeli NGO - B’Tselem. Both independently concluded that Israel is practising apartheid. To say otherwise is to deny the truth. Tutu is famous for many sayings, but one is pertinent here: “to remain silent in the face of oppression is take the side of the oppressor”.
The Zionist lobby and its supporters fiercely attack the BDS movement, variously describing it as ‘vile’, ‘antisemitic’, ‘opposed to Arab and Jewish coexistence’, ‘desiring the elimination of the State of Israel’. None of this pejorative nomenclature is remotely true. What is vile is Israeli security forces standing by while settlers beat a Palestinian. What is vile is an Israeli family living in the home confiscated from a Palestinian family. What is vile is 2+million Palestinians living in squalor in the Gaza strip. What is antisemitic is apportioning the blame of Israeli governmental actions to a person simply because they are Jewish. The BDS movement opposes true antisemitism for the same reason it opposes abuse of Palestinian rights, and it is why many Jewish people support the BDS movement against the Israeli government.
The BDS movement would not need to exist if Arab and Jewish coexistence prevailed. Unfortunately, it does not exist and will not exist because of the stated policies of the Bennett/Netanyahu governments, both leaders having stated that not one inch of land will ever be ‘ceded’. to create a Palestinian state. The passing of the Israeli Nation State Law on 23 July 2018 stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” This confirmed the impossibility of equal and reciprocal coexistence. Since the signing of the Oslo agreements of the 1990’s Palestinians have not only accepted the right of Israel to exist but have agreed to do so based on Israel’s occupation of 78% of the historical land. BDS exists because for the past 54 years Israel has continued to take as much of the remaining 22% as it can, rendering a two-state solution impossible.
Those who rail against BDS which includes a significant number of Australian politicians of all colours need to face this question: “When people are oppressed and their human rights denied, what are their options and which if any of these options is acceptable?” It seems to me there are four possibilities. The first option is armed and violent resistance. This option was strongly eschewed by Tutu and is eschewed by the BDS movement. The second is negotiation. We all remember the White House lawn handshake that concluded the Oslo agreements. A Palestinian state was supposed to be formed within 5 years of that handshake in 1993! That was 29 years ago. The third option is simply to lie down and accept that subjection is one’s lot in life. This is of course morally wrong and dignifies oppression, but it appears to be the option the Israeli government wills the Palestinian people to adopt. The final option is non-violent resistance. BDS is one form of non-violent resistance. To deny or condemn the BDS movement is to condemn non-violent resistance and force subject peoples into one of the other two undesirable positions..
It is no secret that the Zionist lobby puts pressure on politicians to make support of the BDS movement an offence. The reason for this pressure is clear. The movement is effective. While the economic effect is probably quite minimal at this stage, the potential for economic damage is considerable. More significantly, reputational damage is much more costly.
The answer for Israel and its supporters is not to muzzle the messenger, to silence the blast of the trumpet horn. The answer is to address the reasons why the Boycott movement has emerged.
Back to the Sydney Festival. Long may artists and performers, including sports people, be a moral voice within the community. What has happened at the Sydney Festival may well be a watershed moment. Let me finish with a shout out to the many Jewish voices who are saying to the Israeli government ‘you will not, you cannot conduct oppression in the name of Judaism. You most certainly will not do it in our name’.
Vale Desmond Tutu
Desmond, we salute you! You have brought so much joy and hope into our lives, and we have been so proud to have sung, danced and walked a small part of the journey with you. You have helped us all to walk a little taller, to believe the impossible is possible, and to have confidence in the goodness of God, even when circumstances suggest otherwise.
At five feet four inches Desmond Tutu’s height symbolized his life and character. He eschewed power and domination and yet this little bundle of pure human energy and raw goodness carried more moral authority than almost any other person in our lifetimes.
How was this so? Well of course his time and place in history played a major part. But there is much, much, more.
He was born into relative poverty and struggle – and some violence. It is interesting to reflect that people born of wealth and privilege are seldom able to reach this quality of human living. Only those who sit lightly to privilege exercise such authority. He was fortunate in the company he kept. He was later to say: “I am the sum total of all the lives that have intersected with my own” – from Trevor Huddleston to Hector Pietersen. He says it was Trevor Huddleston (priest and bishop), the courageous opponent of apartheid, who eschewed violence and galvanised the young through faith, music, and moral vision who influenced his vocation to the priesthood. Tutu was arguably Huddleston’s greatest legacy.
I would like to reflect a little on the giftedness of this extraordinary man through personal encounter with him.
In 1990 President De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years in goal, 18 of them on Robbin Island. In 1994 he was elected president of the Republic of South Africa.
Desmond Tutu came to Canberra in 1993 and relished his visit to the South African embassy in Yarralumla ACT, claiming it was the first time he had, with permission of the State, entered an inner sanctuary of his homeland! I had recently chaired a meeting of “Australians against Apartheid” at which the speakers were Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. (Each competed with the other to show how they had been the strongest supporter of the boycott movement that eventually forced the hand of the South African government).
We met the archbishop at Canberra airport. The first of numerous glimpses into the character of the man occurred as we walked along the concourse. A woman with a disability recognized the famous face and went for her camera. Her disability made the movement slow, and the opportunity was about to pass. I saw the archbishop nudge his chaplain who went to the woman and said: “Madame, the archbishop would love to have his photo taken with you, may we use your camera for this purpose”! Somewhere in Australia a very proud photograph sits on the mantle shelf. The archbishop treated both pauper and sovereign with equal dignity and honour.
Margaret and I were quickly to observe he was a man of extraordinary discipline. He woke early for prayer and reflection. He then went for a long walk. Saying morning prayer with him was one of life’s great gifts. One evening, a State dinner was given for him. At 9.00.pm some formalities still lay ahead (fortunately he had already made his speech), he politely stood, thanked everyone for their company and we left. He explained that he needed to reflect on the day, be in bed before 10.00.pm and be ready with freshness to greet the next day.
Everywhere he went Desmond was always keen to identify with and learn from local indigenous people and their struggle for dignity and autonomy. A meeting was held at our home followed by a dinner at which the guest list included Professor Mick Dodson and the Revd. Tom Slockee. He was always conscious that colonizing forces, often led by religious zeal, contributed to the loss of indigenous identity, property, and culture. One of his most famous statements is: “When the missionaries came to South Africa, they had the bible, and we had the land. They said: ‘Let us Pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the bible, and they had the land”!
For a long time he had a particular passion for the plight of one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East, the Palestinians. Their fate has not been dissimilar to that of Australia’s indigenous who had long suffered under the doctrine of Terra Nullius, until it was overturned by the High Court in the Mabo case of 1992. Israel was created under the equally erroneous slogan of “a people without a land for a land without a people”. Following events of 1948 and 1967 Palestinians have become a dispossessed people.
Desmond became increasingly alarmed at growing apartheid instigated by policies of the Israeli government and compared it unfavourably with his own experience of South Africa. He was a strong supporter of the BDS movement, calling it an important weapon in the arsenal of non-violent resistance. What follows is an extract from an article he wrote for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2014:
It is becoming more and more clear that politicians and diplomats are failing to come up with answers, and that responsibility for brokering a sustainable solution to the crisis in the Holy Land rests with civil society and the people of Israel and Palestine themselves…………
People united in pursuit of a righteous cause are unstoppable. God does not interfere in the affairs of people, hoping we will grow and learn through resolving our difficulties and differences ourselves. But God is not asleep. The Jewish scriptures tell us that God is biased on the side of the weak, the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan, the alien who set slaves free on an exodus to a Promised Land. It was the prophet Amos who said we should let righteousness flow like a river………
Goodness prevails in the end. The pursuit of freedom for the people of Palestine from humiliation and persecution by the policies of Israel is a righteous cause. It is a cause that the people of Israel should support……….
Nelson Mandela famously said that South Africans would not feel free until Palestinians were free.
He might have added that the liberation of Palestine will liberate Israel, too.
Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Desmond saw it as a matter of spiritual obligation to engage with seats of power which meant engagement with politics. At the time of his 1993 visit Gareth Evans was foreign minister. The visit to Gareth’s office was utterly memorable, as a giant of faith met with a fine politician but clearly and publicly a religious sceptic. After the formalities and the TV cameras had left, Desmond turned to Gareth and appeared to innocently ask: “Are we talking about anything significant today”? “Of course, your Grace”, Gareth responded. “In that case we will pray” retorted Desmond – and did!
If a single doctrine were to most reveal both Desmond’s profound Christian faith and his passion for social justice, it is “Ubuntu”. It is sometimes translated: "I am because we are" (also "I am because you are"), or "humanity towards others". It is a term that in one form or another is familiar to Zulu, and Xhosa alike.
We, western society inheritors of the enlightenment, find the concept baffling, so immersed have we become in the concept of the individual. It is strange that the political right is more comfortable aligning itself with Christianity than the political left, and even more strangely the Christian right champions the exaggerated antipathy towards socially driven policies of common good and the consequent injustices perpetrated by the political right. Strange because the concept of the individual is a very novel idea to both Old and New Testament. Christianity is inextricably bound to belief that we are who we are through others and most especially through God, who in Jesus has become incarnate amongst us.
Desmond, we deeply mourn your passing. Will there ever be again such a cheeky breath of fresh air, such a fearless champion of truth and justice, such an attractively iconic human being.
In a world painfully devoid of real leadership we can only hope and pray so. In the meantime, peace is always on offer and Ubuntu its path. Justice is near if we refuse to walk past the evils we see. Hope sings from the eyes of a child. We all have the capacity to be channels of grace. May it be so. And the company said: ‘Amen’.
The True Meaning of Christmas
Light has come into the world and the dark has not put it out
When a little child accuses his grandfather of swearing because he had mentioned Jesus in conversation, we can have some idea of how far Western culture has fallen from any real understanding of the Christian narrative! Indeed, it is more likely in Western culture, that Christianity will be belittled and made more fun of than other world religions. Care is generally taken not to offend Islam or Judaism, while Eastern religions are regarded as safe ‘go to’ destinations for those who seek meditation, mysticism or simply a meaningful ‘religious’ experience. It may well be the case that the fault lies with the perceived behaviour of those who claim to be Christian, but more likely that recent generations of adults have not grown past the literalism they heard in their infant and primary nurture - if they have heard the Christian message at all. In any case, the familiarity ‘that breeds contempt’ is in fact a false familiarity – it is in truth a lack of any real understanding or knowledge.
So, what of Christmas?
Christmas is adorned with two image groupings. The first group are largely biblical and include a manger, camels, gold, frankincense, myrrh, sages from the East, angels and shepherds. The second group are accretions over the ages and from different, but largely European countries: Santa Claus, fir trees, carols, presents, cards, decorations, family meals, and pictures of snow. Navigating through, let alone evaluating the merits of these images, is no simple task!
May I suggest a very good starting point is to be found in the date chosen for the celebration of Christ’s birthday, probably in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine. There is no way of knowing which day Christ was born, so why this date?
In the northern hemisphere, around the winter solstice, there was a pagan celebration of light vanquishing darkness as the shortest day passed and the prospect of growing light lay in front. Many, if not most Jewish and Christian festivals have their roots in lived contexts, often pagan festivals which were appropriately absorbed and given new meaning. (Celebrating the local accent and culture should always be part of Christian living. It is shameful that in the last 200 years Christianity has more often been a significant weapon of colonisation).
As the Torres Strait Islanders were to celebrate centuries later, the coming of Christ and the coming of Light can be understood as coterminous. How so?
The Gospel writers, but especially John, constantly use the image of light to convey growth, new understanding, insight, wholeness, indeed life itself. So, what is it about the coming of Jesus that conveys such new understanding that history itself has been attuned to his birth, years preceding and years following.
First it is the astonishing revelation that whatever we think God is like, we must rethink, because God cannot be other than the nature we see in Jesus. So: God is near. The divine energy we call God is in the business of restoration, redemption, forgiveness, inclusiveness, community, honouring all, even the most unlovely. This revelation was as shocking to the 1st century as it is today where images of God are often partisan, tribal, about power, prestige, and exclusivity. As JB Phillips famously said, ‘your God is too small’.
Equally astonishing is the light shone on the true nature of humanity – for as Christian credal affirmation confirms, Jesus is both ‘true God’ and ‘true man’. The popular image of humanity to be desired or admired in the 21st century, as in the 1st century, has not changed much. Power and prestige are sought and honoured. Success is measured through wealth. Winning is everything, losing is shameful. The revelation or light of Jesus turns this understanding on its head. Servanthood, regardless of vocation or status, is demonstrated as the mark of true humanity. Above all real leaders are servants. True humanity is to be cherished not though accumulation or achievement but through quality of living. We are who we are not because of individual identity, but because of who we are in relation to everyone and everything else. The Australian political scene, especially that part of it which identifies as Christian would do well to read, mark and learn this reality.
The primary message of Christmas, first heard by the shepherds is peace and goodwill. Sadly, this message will always remain an elusive dream while we remain so disinclined to rise to the human nature shown to us in Jesus. Wealth, power, prestige, competition, and pride seem always more attractive.
Jesus is then the intersecting person, or the intersecting point. In him humanity and divinity intersect. In him time and eternity intersect. In him the transitional and eternal intersect. It should be the business of all humans to nourish the unity of soul and body, to seek reality beyond material acquisition and to celebrate this moment in the context of what endures.
When the Australian indigenous community confronted Christianity 200+ years ago the experience for them was less than edifying. Not much light here. If on the other hand, there had been genuine reverence and respect for culture, the outcome could have been very different. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that Christianity and indigenous culture could have met at the intersection of “Song Lines”?
And so, what of Christmas this year. Meet and celebrate as a family? – absolutely. Share gifts with one another? – certainly. Better still, contribute to the wellbeing of the marginalised in any way possible.
The overriding emotion of Christmas should be awe and wonder. No wonder adults love to be in the presence of children during this holy season for children are much better at awe and wonder than adults. It would be wonderful if the Church could find a way of setting the scene for such awe. It is unsurprising that Cathedrals with wonderful music, lights, and ceremony come into their own at this time.
However, for many, perhaps most Australians, connection with formalised Christian faith is a bridge too far. But it should not be impossible through music, the natural environment, imagination, storytelling, perhaps some quiet reflection before the prawns are shelled, to put life into perspective. Each one of us are both insignificant, and precious. This moment is nothing within the sweep of history, but it is a moment that will never come again.
Today is the moment to love and be loved. The celebration of Christmas is the celebration of humanity in the embrace of divinity.
Celebrate well. Blessed Christmas to all.