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The blog, Capitalism, anti-Semitism and the Judaeo/Christian Ethic (5 May) received more comments of indignant disapproval than any other that I have written. Interestingly none of the disapproving comments refer to its theological rationale.
What I said was that a religion that claims to be monotheistic cannot, because of its monotheism, conceive of outsiders, it must potentially treat all people as children of the same God, and must practice universal and redemptive care and justice. The Old Testament prophets who had come to a monotheistic position considered the imperative of justice and righteousness to be a higher priority than ‘religious practice’. If I were to rewrite that blog I would strengthen it, not water it down. The derisory comments I received in the ‘Spectator’ either illustrate how ignorant the extreme right wing of Australian politics has become of traditional Judaeo/Christian belief and practice and the central place given to righteousness and justice; or it illustrates how owned (or cowered) it has become as a media outlet by the Israeli lobby; or it illustrates the political right’s refusal to walk even a single day in the shoes of the oppressed. Whichever explanation you choose, criticising Israel for its oppression of Palestinians is not Anti-Semitic, but the reverse, it is a plea for Israel to return to the ethical base inherent to Judaism. To describe the current Palestine/Israel situation as apartheid is an invitation to those who find this offensive to provide another word to accurately describe what prevails in the Occupied Territories on a daily basis.
I want now to reflect on the unspeakably appalling terror events that have occurred recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Manchester, London, Melbourne and Tehran in the light of monotheistic religion.
Islam shares roots with Judaism and Christianity. Its monotheism is audibly announced through the first ‘Pillar’ Shahada (faith) and ethically required in the third, Zakᾱt (charity). For a Muslim, life is a journey of submission: submission to God and to a charitable response to fellow human beings. Both submission to God and charitable submission to fellow human beings is practiced in ‘jihad’, a life time struggle to live a better life. If jihad is seconded to defend, even encourage, violence towards others; I submit subversion of the term must be challenged and corrected by Islamic leaders. While military jihad is justified as a defensive strategy, perhaps in the same way that Christians might argue for a ‘just war’, in practice this perverted interpretation of jihad kills far more civilians than military opponents and entrenches violence’s, inevitable and vicious cycle. More often than not victims are fellow Muslims. This is no way to further the struggle to lead a better life.
Islam’s monotheism gives it the right to believe that all humans can potentially be Muslim, but this right travels with the obligation to treat all human beings equally with dignity and honour as children of God. The former right is annulled if the latter is not in place. This is also the case with Christianity, the right to be a universal faith carries the obligation everywhere and in every age of universal human care and justice.
Therefore in light of these unspeakable and ongoing acts of terror, in the name of Islam, what is to be done?
1. As hard as it might be, Islamic leaders must name the perpetrators for what they are, apostates, infidels; for engaging in these atrocities they abandon any right to be named amongst those who are submissive to the one true God. This message must be clear and unequivocal. I realise the difficulty. In the West we assume the hierarchies that we see in Christianity with Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops to be transferable to Islam. Sunni Islam (majority Islam) is organisationally flatter. Here in is strength, but also great weakness, even danger, for it seems almost anyone can put up their shingle as an Imam. A Christian minister or priest who stirs enmity, who preaches division should be (will be) stood down. So should any Imam who abuses the privilege of religious freedom in this country. Such freedom carries civic and social responsibility.
2. The West must be far more honest and discerning about the manner in which it condones injustice, perceived or otherwise, for injustice is a radicalising catalyst. It needs to be said that the West has a very long history of interference in the Arab world out of blatant self interest, not out of Arab well being. In recent history the Iraq war was ill-conceived and has done untold damage. Unless the actions of the West are transparently conducted in the interests of those whose lives are being disrupted, the problem of terror must be expected as a consequence. More than that, if those whose lives have been detrimentally disrupted are not aided on a path to recovery, on their terms, then these consequences remain. The oppression of Palestinians, even though a very small part of Middle Eastern injustice, is nevertheless a significant source of radicalisation within Palestine, throughout the Arab world and beyond.
3. The West’s hypocrisy in terms of its chosen friends and enemies must come to an end. The home base for 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers was Saudi Arabia – the US ally. Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam ideologically underpins ISIS. This ideology perpetrates violence against others ‘less pure’, and against their ancient sites. This ideology is linked to the house of Saud, although since 9/11 and to retain the US as an ally against Iran, the links are less overt. Nevertheless Saudi Arabia should be called to account. Terrorism (including ISIS) is perpetrated by people who claim to be adherents of Sunni Islam and Saudi Arabia its financial backer.
4. Iran, the sworn enemy of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US is neither Arab nor Sunni. The people are Persian and adherents of the minority branch of Islam, Shia. Shia Islam is focussed on what it believes to be its divinely sanctioned religious leadership. The Ayatollahs thus have considerable power in what might genuinely be referred to as a theocracy, but they are equally more open to demonization from the West than their secular counterparts might be in Saudi Arabia. Iran is no less a target of ISIS terrorism than the West as seen yesterday in their parliament. Why is the US so implacably against Iran? The answer is multilayered. What should however be clear is that Iran exercising its place as a responsible international partner makes for a much more peaceful world than such a large proud and powerful nation being ostracised to the edges.
Terrorism in its many forms must not become the new normal. Its source is not monotheism, for monotheism’s counterpoint is equality and justice for all humanity. Banishing terror to the periphery will require effort on the part of everyone.
It will require leadership from western leaders who should condemn terror but not demonise Islam. The undisciplined rightwing of Australian politics pours oil on the fire.
It will require leadership from Islamic leadership everywhere to denounce perpetrators as apostate.
It will require a new world order in which alliances are made out of global and regional best interest, not national (often hypocritical) best interest, for national best interest exercised by the strong will inevitably mean injustice for the weak and a perpetuation of the cycle.
It will require effort from ordinary citizens to reach out beyond difference so that inclusion and respect becomes the mark of each community.
We left the previous blog in the context of the Anthropocene and what it means to be human facing a Defiant Earth with the question: “is grace too optimistic”?
Pentecost (4 June), together with Easter and Christmas, is one of the three great Christian festivals. As we enter its season we are provided with a fruitful context to further puzzle over this question. Why? Because Pentecost celebrates the Spirit, whom scripture tells us is the architect of creation.
We know Pentecost gains its name from the Greek, Пεντηκοστή ήμέρά – the fiftieth day (after Easter). We also know it coincides with the festival of Shavout, the feast of Weeks, (this is why the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem), a harvest festival which celebrates the Torah. We know that Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, commonly understood as the birth of the Church.
Its account describes Pentecost as an extraordinary burst of transformative energy on dispirited disciples, who spoke of wind and fire to explain their experience. I want to go behind these well know verities to explore our, and the planet’s, relationship with Spirit. The creedal summary of the Spirit’s activity is ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’; if you like, Spirit is creation’s ‘life force’. Just as water always flows down hill and while we can build dams and even pump it uphill, we cannot abrogate this fundamental principle; so too the ‘giver of life’ will always be the giver of life regardless of the fickle nature of human choices and action. Herein lies abundant grace, beyond human capacity to deny, control, or deserve. Pentecost celebrates an extraordinary outpouring of energy, energy that empowers giftedness. However, it is one thing to say we cannot abrogate the life giving grace of the Spirit, but it is quite another to assume the wind of that Spirit will always, or automatically, or even occasionally, fill our sails. In the Anthropocene more than any other age we need it to.
We first encounter the Spirit in the second verse of the Bible: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. This is the scriptural explanation of how what we call existence came into being. Questions we might like to ask did not occur to the biblical writers. For example how the world was made, was it ex nihilo” cannot be deduced from scripture; the only thing that matters is that God is the initiator. The second time we meet the Spirit is in chapter 2:7 when breath from God makes the human a living being. Existence is one thing, life is another. The Spirit imbues life. But how does that happen, how do we experience its happening? I would like you to encounter three clues.
The late John Vincent Taylor, one time Bishop of Winchester, picks up my first clue in his brilliant book about the Spirit, the Go Between God. His argument infers that entities, be they human or nonhuman, are not primary realities. This is a gob smacking thing to say. The primary reality is the movement between them. Let’s take that in! The life of the human (you and me), is experienced (positive and negative) in a variety of relationships. Genesis 2 provides an extensive roll call of those relationships: plant life, animal life, other human beings, and the earth itself. Entities (you and I) have value in relation to something or someone else. A cool evening breeze has value for the one fortunate enough to be walking in it. The forest has value to those creatures who reside within it. Plants make love to insects through their flowers. All who have crossed my path have contributed to who I am. Our image of God has not kept pace. Our anthropomorphic mind pictures God as a glorified human entity, almost always male: while in truth we know God as spirit, the unifying, life giving force that lives and breathes in and between all things. Presumably this is what John means when he says “God is love”. (1 Jn. 4:8) Also what Paul means when, having told us of the gifts that emanate from Spirit’s energy he goes on to say “I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but have not love I am a noisy gong or a clanging bell...”. (1 Cor. 12:31-13:1)
Christians understand God as movement we call Trinity; that divine eternal dance of Father Son and Spirit, into which destiny calls us. To be at one with God is to be at one with all that belongs to God. There is a wonderful word for this: περιχορησις (perichoresis) literally meaning to dance around. As we celebrate Pentecost in the age of the Anthropocene and the rise of a ‘defiant earth’ our life will always be greater when we focus on the relationships that are primary to our existence, beginning with the earth itself. Our life will always be less if we focus upon ourselves with the right to carve out our own space regardless of the impact that carving has on everything around.
My second clue is to be found in what is called the Wisdom Literature. We are familiar with Proverbs, Psalms and Job, less familiar with material in the Apocrypha. This literature insists that Spirit and wisdom are synonymous. Indeed wisdom literature asserts that wisdom is the beginning of creation, pre-existing everything else. There is a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon I particularly love:
Wisdom is more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. She is breath and power of God a pure emanation of the glory of the almighty...although she is but one she can do all things and while remaining in herself she renews all things. In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. (Wis. 7:22-28)
In the age of the anthropocene we are deluged with data. Data is the lowest value coin in the currency of knowing. Yet data seeps out of every ubiquitous medium. Most of it passes by without contributing to useful information. Useful information, when digested and reflected upon can add to the quantum of shared knowledge. But more precious even than knowledge is wisdom, that virtue which enables a life to be well lived. No wonder spirit and wisdom are aligned, for they are mirror image agents of being truly alive. How blessed is the wise person, even more blessed it is to be in the company of wisdom. The antonym of wisdom is probably ‘folly’. Human traits that contribute to the anthropocene are folly. They are folly not simply because of their catastrophic consequences for the future; they are folly because they detract from what should be (could have been) a much more meaningful life in the present. A life in which the price of everything is calculated, but the value of nothing is known, is a life of profound folly.
My third clue is the connection between Jesus and the Spirit. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit that fell on the disciples is the same Spirit that was in Jesus. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so Jesus and the Spirit are one. Jesus proclaimed that his going would enable the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit, life, is first about relationship, second about wisdom and third about presence. The spirit enables the presence of God, the presence of Jesus. Presence is about company. Conservationists desire to keep in perpetuity what is known to have irreplaceable value. The Conservation Foundation is not a subversive Greenie conspiracy, but an old fashioned ideal that each generation should at the very least hand to the next an undiminished legacy, preferably one that is enhanced. To do that we must be aware of and value the company we keep.
Indeed I like to say, ‘we are the company we keep’ for the company we keep, the presence we honour, becomes the life we lead. Unfortunately we increasingly keep the company Kardashians - I am not even sure who they are, except I understand they represent the glitzy meaninglessness of fame and fortune.
In the Anthropocene, as in every age, vulnerability and transience is life’s experience. It does not become more secure through walls, isolation, hoarding or putting ‘America first’. Life’s grace and gift is experienced in the opposite direction. It is experienced through the multitude of relationships that define us. It is experienced in the love and embracing of wisdom. It is experienced by living fully in the company we keep.
Come Holy Spirit
Let’s name the Trump decision to pull out of the Paris agreement on Climate Change for what it is, a war on the planet, including a war on the American people.
If there were no mitigating circumstances, and there are as we will see in a moment, this decision would have been as serious as a decision to initiate a nuclear confrontation with a foreign power. The difference between the two is the frog in the pot of boiling water. We can have opinions about almost everything, but an opinion and a fact are two entirely different matters. As the Chief Scientist said to Senator Malcolm Roberts this week, in response to his question, “shouldn’t scientists keep an open mind”, “yes but not to the extent that their brains leaks out”. Because of Trump’s obsession with ‘a deal’ which means a profit, sadly (often) carved out of disadvantage for someone else, he has a price for everything, but value for nothing. The gradual warming of the planet since the commencement of the Industrial Revolution and the escalation of the rate of warming since the late 20th century is a fact. That dire consequences flow from continuing escalation in warming is a fact. That future generations depend upon moral decisions made in the present, for the choices will not be available to them in future years is fact.
It is also fact that big business understands this reality and company executive after company executive has advised Trump not to do what he has done. Only Trump would have the Machiavellian imagination to say that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, a bizarre change from a conspiracy concocted by scientists to perpetuate a funding base.
In light of this most appalling and irresponsible announcement how can there be mitigating circumstances?
· Global business future lies with renewables because as renewable technology improves almost by the month, and its use becomes ubiquitous, renewable energy will increasingly replace fossil fuels as an investment choice.
· Large States like California are world leaders in renewable energy and the decision of POTUS will have no impact upon them.
· American companies will now be locked out of discussions with serious economic implications for them. They will presumably make their pain known to the president.
· Trump’s decision will not restore coal mining jobs. Even if coal mines that have closed were to be reopened they can only operate at a profit and profit means minimum labour and maximum automation.
· This announcement will make little tangible difference in the short term. It is highly likely that the more scandalous his presidency becomes the more likely it is that he will be a one term president and that as he has reversed his predecessor’s decision, so his can be reversed. This will be particularly the case if, as is likely, the decision will in fact harm America’s economy.
The situation is serious, but were we expecting anything different? Trump is making America less and less relevant to the goal of a fair and sustainable world. It would thus be foolish of Australia to place the same value on its alliances as it has in the past, a new world order is emerging, a world order that under Trump America is being reduced to a bit player rather than holding the lead role.
Clive Hamilton’s latest book, Defiant Earth, the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, is a real challenge. He goes beyond science’s shocking revelation that we humans have set in motion irreversible change to planet earth; to ask what does it mean to be human in this profoundly changed situation. He even ventures into biblical reflection in saying, “Future historians of the cosmos will identify the century after World WarII and particularly the decades from 1990s when we knew what we were doing as the time of the Fall”. (p 126)
The Anthropocene is the term popularised in the year 2000 by the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to describe the end of the Holocene, the last 100,000+ years of climate stability in which humans have flourished, and the commencement of a period of great volatility caused by the activity of one species – humans. Clive graphically describes the situation by saying “human history and geological history have collided”. There is a rupture. It is no longer appropriate to speak of ‘mother earth’ gently enfolding its human children, but rather to speak of earth systems fighting back. The more powerful humans become the more powerful the forces of nature become in response.
Clive is as critical of bland superficial responses as he is of those who deny the situation – the deniers. If policy and budgeting is any guide, the Australian government and of course the Queensland government must be in this category. While one can understand the raw politics of trying to shore up some seats in central Queensland, to do so by supporting the proposed Adani mine with so much at stake and even to consider ‘giving the coal away’ with a holiday from royalty revenue is as reprehensible as it is incomprehensible.
So what of a theological response? First, I agree with Clive in his preference for Irenaeus over Augustine in understanding “the Fall” as an ongoing, evolutionary understanding of the human predicament rather than a moment in pre-history when perfection turned sour. The first 11 chapters of the Bible do not describe moments of early time but illuminate our understanding of all time. Clive argues that while it might be fashionable to see humans as one amongst many species with a strikingly large percentage of shared DNA, the reality is that we humans are very different; we are the only species to wilfully and ubiquitously choose behaviour we know to be destructive.
To be human in this situation therefore demands informed lament, not about what is happening to us beyond our control, but about what we have done and wilfully continue to do, despite knowing the consequences of our actions. Lament is not wallowing in self pity but a first step in reorientation. Even if we have set earths systems on a new and unpredictable path that does not mean stoic resignation, it does mean rising to a different standard, a standard which takes us beyond our consumer driven identity to a more intelligent and knowing place in this vast universe. It takes us, as Clive says, into a new ethic.
I believe Clive is right to identify ‘freedom’ as an appropriate place to begin an ethical and theological exploration of the human condition in this post Holocene, post Enlightenment period we have now entered. The Enlightenment and outcomes flowing from the Industrial Revolution have cemented into western consciousness the idea that freedom resides with the individual and protecting individual rights is sacrosanct. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur railed against this proposition when he said: “if freedom means the right of the individual to do whatever they like, then I have to conclude that freedom is the root of all evil”.
Clive suggests that rather than residing with the individual, freedom resides in what we might call the natural order. He does not say what he means by this, but let me have a shot at it. Rather than being frustrated or even embarrassed by the primeval stories of creation in the light of modern science, I am continually drawn back to them. The first creation story is the narrative of space creation. Light and darkness are separated. Land and water are separated. The water that is above (blessing and order) is separated from the water that is below (chaos). The three living spaces then team with life: the greater the space, the greater the freedom, the greater the freedom the greater the fecundity. On the other hand accumulation of rubbish, inappropriate human expansion, species extinction, violence, covetousness, greed and the like are all denials of space; in turn they are denials of life. Life requires freedom; space is the real custodian of freedom. En masse we humans have developed the capacity to reverse creation’s order.
The post modern world denies us the option of a meta narrative. Everyone has the right to state their own truth, to carve their own destiny. But is the post-modern world a confidence trick? The Anthropocene draws us back to a period before the Enlightenment, back to a meta story for while what we do as individuals remains important it is what we have done and do on mass that has brought us to this place. The Anthropocene demands a meta narrative to undergird an ethic for this age. While we insist on the right of the individual or its logical progression, the rights of the individual nation, we will never be able to respond to our current predicament, for our predicament stretches beyond the individual and beyond the individual nation..
I want to suggest that the human vocation, the knowing, cognitive vocation, the ethical vocation, indeed the theological vocation, is to understand ourselves as keepers of the space in which freedom resides. This is a very different concept to the prevailing metaphor of steward. This vocation will require characteristics which are not commonly lauded. Primarily we must understand we live within limits, boundaries; for without this understanding we will continue to fill all available space until freedom which undergirds life will be completely lost. It is right that we should be aspirational beings, but if we are to live in a world where freedom abounds, less must often be more. The great irony is that submitting to boundaries is not slavery but its opposite, the embracing of freedom, for freedom, which boundaries protect, resides beyond ourselves. This century, more than any other, humans have to learn the appropriateness of place and not live beyond it. To illustrate the situation from another perspective, there are many definitions for beauty, but one that I like best is that beauty resides in the appropriate. We are in danger of living in an age of increasing ugliness.
The Noah narrative is a continuation of the creation narrative. It speaks of human activity becoming so influential that it effects a change to earths patterns, creation is put into reverse, the waters cease to be separated, indeed there is no distinction between land and water, space is gone, freedom is gone, life is locked in an ark (coffin). It is hard to conceive a story more appropriate for our age.
At the conclusion of the 40 days creation normalises and the spaces return. The passage concludes with the covenant between God and all living, signed with the bow in the sky. Into these spaces life tentatively steps out in freedom. In the anthropocene predicament, this covenant might sound too optimistic, for is God really going to intervene to prevent the consequences of our actions which are becoming so disturbingly apparent? If the passage were to have a literal interpretation the 40 days might be more like 400,000 years or much longer, when earth systems return to a life giving balance and earth continues without the human.
This is perhaps where the struggle to do theology in the age of the anthropocene hits the wall. Is grace too optimistic? Is a Christian commitment to life that overcomes death, of light that banishes darkness far too hopeful? Is the Christian doctrine of Salvation literally consigned to pie in the sky when we die? I would like to write much more about this and especially write a biblical eschatology that makes sense of the anthropocene. . My immediate answer is no, certainly not. The Giver of space, the bestower of freedom will always call humans, those creatures uniquely dignified with the ‘knowledge of good and evil’, to be keepers of it, and in the keeping of it discover it for themselves – ‘thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven’.
There are many aspects to marriage. The State quite rightly has an interest from a legal perspective. Legality includes determining eligibility, ensuring proper and free consent, making provision for property title, taxation, welfare benefits, and the rights and responsibilities that relate to children. The State provides legal security through licence, legally in force until death or divorce. The State records termination through death, divorce or nullity. Marriage celebrants (ministers of religion and civil celebrants) act on behalf of the state in formalising the legal marriage agreement between the parties. It is of course in the interest of the State that marriages are stable and contribute to a harmonious and peaceful civil society.
Unsurprisingly Australia followed the English pattern in authorising registered ministers of religion to act on its behalf: those so registered need to follow the authorised rite of their denomination or religious identity in the formalising of the marriage. More lately authorised civil celebrants have multiplied as the need for a marriage celebration outside a religious building has increased. Often these civil celebrants use a rite with quasi religious overtones “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” etc.
For many, perhaps most, marriage is of course more than a legal contract, it is a covenant of love between two people in which commitment is made to serve honour and respect one another, indeed to fulfil the life of the other. Religious conviction undergirds marriage with various levels of covenantal love and commitment. I am committed to a lifelong union. I believe the covenant is made with divine sanction and therefore is a union of grace. The arrival of children and grandchildren deepen the union and extend the layers of responsibility and accountability.
Marriage as I understand it is a commitment between a man and a woman.
But do the legal requirements of marriage by the state and the covenantal or sacramental expression of the couples love need to be formally linked? I do not think they can any longer; indeed the linking of them is causing unnecessary hurt and division in Australian society.
It has been my conviction for some time that the legal requirements of the state for the registering of a marriage should now be separated from the covenantal expression of love for each other, expressed either through a secular ceremony or a religious one. Marriage celebrants, be they ministers of religion or civil celebrants, should no longer do the work of the State. The work of the State should be done formally at a state sanctioned place of registry according to the requirements of law.
This would then free up couples to celebrate their covenantal love for one another as they choose. This would allow religious ceremonies to take on very specific meaning and would be prepared accordingly.
This week Senator Penny Wong has re-entered the marriage debate seemingly suggesting that people of religious conviction should not impact the lives of others through opposition to same-sex union. Being a Christian herself, this is an interesting position to hold. Everyone is entitled to contribute to the debate. It is my contention that Penny’s position can only be taken seriously if the separation I am suggesting takes place. The state has the right, indeed the obligation to enact laws which further the lives of the majority of its citizens. Given polls suggest the majority favour ‘marriage equality’ then this legal provision should be provided to all.
‘Marriage’ would then have different layers of meaning as a great many words or concepts do in every language. Marriage would mean a legal contract entered into according to the legislated provisions of the parliament. It would also have another meaning all together expressed through the religious or secular ceremony of choice. The latter would normally be the ceremony into which considerable investment is made and to which family and friends gather. The former would be a formality according to law. The latter would be open to the institution (or person) responsible to agree or decline to agree to participate in the intended union. The sacramental celebration of the couple’s love could (probably should) be accompanied with a jointly signed certificate which celebrates the intention of the ceremony. It may also become normal for this union to be reinforced through celebrations every seven or ten years.
The marriage debate has met an unfortunate impasse. Overcoming this impasse will not heal the rift that already exists. Whatever decision is made, some will feel vindicated and others aggrieved.
Separating the legal requirement of the State from the covenantal expression of love seems to me to overcome this impasse.
On 12 May I accepted an invitation to be one of the speakers at a forum on “Social Justice: Israel/Palestine” held at the Wheeler Centre Melbourne. On reflection it is one invitation I should not have accepted.
Since the night I have been seeking to confirm its sponsor. I have been told it was Dialogue4Peace. So far I have unsuccessfully tried to find any information about the group, its members, or its purpose. Why didn’t I do due diligence before the evening? Good question, with a fine sounding name I assumed ‘dialogue’ and ‘peace’.
Why angst after the event? Because it was an event the like of which I cannot recall experiencing in now more than 50 years of public life. Neither ‘dialogue’ nor ‘peace’ was on the agenda that night. At least it gave me a momentary glimpse into the world Palestinians suffer 24/7.
There was no dialogue, just raw confrontation. Material left on the seats for the audience to pick up was spiteful, and presented a generic picture of Palestinians as terrorists, devoid of morality and the cause of the ongoing conflict. I and the Palestinian speaker Yousef Alreemawi, provided information about APAN and copies of the Kairos statement, a theological and social justice statement signed by leaders of the Middle East Council of Churches.
The opening speech at the forum was an unrelenting attack on me, presumably because I speak in defence of Palestinian rights as President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. The second speaker in support of Israel’s position was a Coptic Christian. I totally understand the depth of anguish she feels as a result of the atrocities meted out to Coptic Church membership in Egypt from extreme elements claiming to be Islamic. As a fellow Christian I identify with the anguish, but what has that to do with Palestinians? It is also important to remember that following these atrocities grassroots Egyptian Muslims came to the aid, defence and support of their Coptic fellow citizens.
The assertion at the heart of the presentation exonerating Israel and blaming the Palestinians was that this is essentially a religious conflict and more specifically a religious conflict being waged by extreme elements of Islam. It of course suits Israel for this assertion to be made because it allows Israel to justify (to itself and its friends) its military incursions and its oppression of Palestinians on the basis that it is joining the free world in a global fight against Islamic terrorism. It would have been good if the forum could have debated this out. But it was not to be. Fortunately this terrible misrepresentation of truth has not been swallowed by most in the international community although of course it is peddled as truth in America and Australia. Regular polls indicate that the majority of Australians have not swallowed it either, although it appears to suit many of our political elite to run this line.
Does injustice provide a seedbed for extremism – yes it does. Is a convenient flag of identity for extremism a religious flag – yes it is. Do the extremists live out the values of the religious flag they carry – no they don’t. Should a civilian population be corporately punished for the acts of violence of a few – no of course they should not. But shamefully this is what is happening to the Palestinian people through a denial of their basic human rights.
Should the injustices which provide the seedbed for extremism be addressed – yes of course they should, but rather than being addressed they are being exacerbated. To their absolute credit the Palestinian civilian population has disavowed violent resistance and are focussed on non-violent resistance. The current hunger strike is one form of this resistance, BDS is another.
The facts of the matter are that this is not a religious conflict. It is a conflict that has intensified as the power and domination of Israel has grown. This domination increasingly denies Palestinians the right to exist. (Ironic that Israel insists exclusively on the opposite). The international community is clear about Israel’s borders, (the 1967 borders) 78% of historic Palestine. But Netanyahu and his government clearly covet the remaining 22% which the Palestinians since the Oslo Accord have remarkably been prepared to accept as a Two-State solution. However every day more and more of this 22% disappears as more illegal settlements are constructed and Israeli roads and infrastructure alienate more and more land. For centuries Arabs and Jews lived side by side. 20th and 21st century migration has changed all of that. Palestinians are now corralled into smaller and smaller enclaves without proper access to basic resources while newly-arrived Israeli immigrants from anywhere in the world are afforded a first world standard of living on land which has been confiscated from Palestinians.
It is said that the majority of Israelis are not religious (although their leadership and supporters rely on religious history to undergird claims on land). The majority of Palestinians are Muslim and a minority Christian, but the identity that forms and nourishes them is that they are Palestinian.
The presentations on Thursday night in support of Israel discouraged moderation, they encouraged extreme and distorted views of reality out of fear, and I am sorry to say, out of hate. The question which concluded the forum was “what advice do you have for Trump and others who claim to be looking for a solution to this conflict”. My answer was that I would ask Netanyahu whether he wants common ground. If common ground is not wanted it will never exist.
It is my experience that Palestinians long for peace, for the opportunity to live their lives as others do. The majority of Palestinians would, in my view, be prepared to live with any solution as long as it was a genuine democracy with equal rights for everyone. Surely this is not too much to ask?
Netanyahu on the other hand rules out, either a One-State or a Two-State solution, presumably meaning he would like all Palestinians to leave or be corralled into disconnected Bantustans.
In the forum those defending Israel were aggrieved at the use of the term apartheid to describe the current situation. It was said that anyone who had lived in South Africa during the Apartheid era would not use this language of Israel. It was pointed out that before his death this was exactly how Mandela described the Palestinian plight and it is how Desmond Tutu continues to describe it.
This is not a religious conflict, it is a conflict of human rights, a conflict of social justice, the moral argument is with the Palestinians, it is little wonder that those who support Israel fall back on invective in the absence of any moral argument.
We are used to hearing that Judaeo/Christian influence has shaped Western society, but what exactly does that mean? Like all ideas expressed in words it can mean whatever the listener wants it to mean, both positive and negative. However, it is usually understood to mean that this tradition has somehow shaped and undergirding national values. Well, what values? Both sides of Australian politics as well as the growing myriad of independents stake their claims on the basis that they, more than their opponents, exemplify ‘values’ that are truly Australian.
So what of Judaeo Christian values? The touchstone can be found in the Old Testament prophets and the tradition that surrounded them. It was the prophets who forged the idea of monotheism within what was a polytheistic world and with it the necessary concomitant that all human beings are equal, have equal rights, share the same destiny under the one God. As this became the prism through which human life was to be understood then justice and how it should be both administered judicially under God and more importantly accepted as a way of living by the people became the overriding concern of the prophetic tradition. Matters of religious expression, cultural identity and ownership or sovereignty of land were secondary to this first principle. “The context of the Old Testament concern is not the nation, although Zionism distorts it into that, but the God of justice who, divinely representing justice for everyone and every nation, is called the universal God”. (Paul Tillich)
Justice is honed in the New Testament through the application of the principle of grace. That is to say, justice is not simply a matter of right and wrong alone, it is a matter of equity and fairness, of raising up the weak, of releasing the captives and setting the down trodden free. Justice undergirds harmony, equity and peace without which the world is condemned to violent competition and suffering.
With this in mind it is difficult to understand those Australian policy makers who claim to be in the Judaeo/Christian tradition and yet enslave the poor through monetary and fiscal policy that favours the rich. It is also very difficult to understand those who claim to stand in that tradition but who continue policies that have seen refugees caught in a time warp, seemingly without end, on Manus and Nauru. As my ecclesiastical patron, Bishop John Stoward Moyes of Armidale argued, “it is impossible to claim Judaeo/Christian values if you are a communist who accepts the right of the state to make its people subservient. Equally it is impossible to claim these values, or indeed claim to be a Christian, if you are a capitalist who believes in a market that enables a few to benefit from the resources of the many while the many languish in layers of disadvantage”.
If a nation is to have the right to claim Judaeo/Christian values as its foundation, it must find a path which embraces both space for individual aspiration and a society transformed by social justice.
Let me also take this reflection into the heart of the modern State of Israel, presumably an inheritor of the ‘Israels’ that have preceded it. Universal justice appears to have become an unwelcome stranger in the land of Israel. Zionism’s compulsive identification with land, has replaced justice as its core value. The having, holding and conquering of land has seemingly become the arbiter of nationhood, the ideal which must not be questioned, to do so is to be a ‘self hating Jew’ or anti-Semite.
The modern State of Israel is secular. Those who believe in what might be understood as religious Judaism may well be the minority. However, the claim to land has a religious history and the manner in which this is articulated relies on that history for its validation. The West, by this I mean Australia and the US make certain claims about Israel that identify it with values which we are purported to share.
· Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Hang on, no it is not. First of all, on who’s definition of democracy? Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are afforded no rights while Arabs in Israel have differing and reduced rights to their Jewish counter parts.
· Israel is the only country in the Middle East that enables freedom of religion. Well, no. Israel claims to be a Jewish State. By definition the statement excludes those who are not Jews. The idea of Jerusalem as an historical centre for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike is being constantly eroded. “Jerusalem is being Judaised” as the Christian leaders in Jerusalem explained to me. On the other hand, Palestinian leadership has consistently pleaded with me to ensure that the Christian population of Palestine is not further reduced through lack of support from the West.
· Israel is the only country in the Middle East that lives by the rule of law. Well, no, it does not. Palestinian children as young as primary school are incarcerated in Israeli gaols because they resist the occupation. The occupying force protects the illegal settlers and not the Palestinian civil population. Essential services are provided to the illegal settlers and restricted or denied the Palestinians.
My strong critique of the State of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians is based upon what I understand to be Judaeo/Christian values. As such, rather than this critique being anti-Semitic, I believe it to be supportive of the essential value upon which the culture of Judaism is founded – the practice of universal justice. It is Zionism, the placing of land in the position of ultimate concern, above human well being, above fairness and justice, which is the truly anti-Semitic narrative.
The Judaeo/Christian ethic then is founded on the principle of universal justice: justice that exceeds simple right and wrong, a justice which seeks to restore the balances of personal national and global disadvantage, justice that has its goal in shalom, the harmony of a mutually shared life to which all aspire and in which all might flourish.
The aftermath of the Child Abuse Royal Commission into the Diocese of Newcastle is quite devastating for the Diocese as a whole and for some individuals in particular. That such abuse could have been perpetrated for so long, and by so many, does indeed beggar belief.
A significant focus of the Commission was the role of St John’s Theological College Morpeth. This focus is reflected in the Commission’s findings and in perceptions that now prevail in the Diocese and perhaps in the mind of the general public.
My interest is generated by my years as a student (1963-65), Vice Principal (1973-76), by my long term friendship with many staff members and the emails I receive from student contemporaries of both periods.
I see no evidence that justifies a perception that the College was somehow the womb in which a paedophile ring was nurtured. It is tragically the case that many clergy who have since been shown to be abusers of children were at one time students of the College. But where is the evidence that the College turned a blind eye, or much worse, nurtured this culture, presumably with the tacit knowledge of staff and or members of the College management? I do not believe there is any evidence.
In the 1960s the College was the seminary of choice not simply for students of NSW regional Dioceses, but for students from Melbourne, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Tasmania, Perth and Adelaide. I was myself a student for the Diocese of Armidale.
It seems to me that two issues need to be addressed which have nothing to do with the College. The first relates to how students are selected. While no selection process can ever be expected to be foolproof, it is reasonable to assume many whose malevolent behaviour became manifest later should have been weeded out in the selection process. Where does responsibility for selection reside? The College was not responsible for selection; this was the responsibility of Dioceses. The only students for whom selection was the College’s responsibility were independent students. I am unaware of any in that category who later were shown to be paedophiles. As a student and later as a staff member I was not aware of aberrant sexual behaviour, but on several occasions, as a staff member, it was my experience that Diocesan Bishops did not want to hear negative reports of their students on other issues. On one occasion it was my difficult duty to recommend to a bishop that all four of his students have their ordinations deferred or cancelled. The recommendation was not accepted, causing the Diocese concerned considerable deferred grief. As parents often blame a school for their children’s behaviour rather than accept their responsibility, so Bishops would sometimes choose to blame the College rather than face deficiencies in their students. It seems convenient now to focus on the College rather than face wider issues
The second issue is how a clique of Anglo-Catholic clergy and lay people, not representative of the Diocese as a whole, could become so powerful. This bears upon the issue of how Bishops are appointed. It is clear that in the Diocese of Newcastle this powerful clique held sway across several episcopates and that what has become known as a paedophile ring was endemic within it, although not necessarily embracing all of it.
Historically, the Diocese of Newcastle considers itself a child of the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians, a movement later known as Anglo- Catholicism. In the early 20th century Anglo-Catholicism was greatly influenced by Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford. Gore, whose piety was deeply seeped in a sacramental life, considered any piety to be useless unless it poured itself out in love for the world and its transformation, through intellectual engagement and a commitment to social justice. This combination of holiness and engagement can be clearly seen in the life of Father Gerard Tucker who founded the Brotherhood of St Lawrence in Newcastle before moving back to Melbourne. It can also be seen in the life and ministries of Fathers Bill Childs, Bill Brown and Gordon Coad who so colourfully and effectively reflected the life of the Diocese of Newcastle in the 1960s, the period in which the Royal Commission investigation of the Diocese begins.
The Anglo-Catholic clique that developed since the episcopate of Bishop Ian Shevill (1973-1977), appears to have regressed into a club of priestly ecclesiastical ritual, energised by each other’s company and in opposition to Sydney’s evangelicalism; rather than being energised and empowered through an outward looking and inclusive engagement with the world. Such an engagement as demonstrated by Childs, Brown and Coad could be (perhaps should be) inherently evangelistic as well as socially transformative.
The authoritarian nature of this clique was clearly demonstrated in the speech given by Bishop Shevill to his first Newcastle synod in which, presumably feeling rebuffed by the afore mentioned priests together with his Dean, John Falkingham and the Acting Principal of St John’s Morpeth, George Browning, he told the synod they could either submit to his authority or he would retire to his study and write books.
This controlling streak was accentuated through implied superiority. This can be illustrated by a sermon delivered by Peter Rushton at the celebration of a new priest’s first mass when he made the extraordinary claim that ordination effected an ontological change that set the young man apart from his congregation. Such an unbalanced claim misses the fundamental point that ordination gifts the ordinand with a new set of relationships within the body of Christ which require not so much the honouring of the priest by the congregation, but the honouring of the congregation by the priest. When the latter occurs, the former is a side product and experienced as a wonderful gift, not the other way around.
From the outset the Church has been beset by cliques (1Cor. 3:4). They are anathema to the body of Christ which relies upon and is enriched by the engagement of difference. A clique is by definition a self referencing and self authenticating group. Cliques are more open to serious human malfunction because they are not referenced by the standards of others. There are plenty of other more significant political, economic and religious cliques threatening the contemporary world that can be the attention of future blogs.
In the meantime the Diocese of Newcastle has much to offer the wider Church and the world if it can find a new Bishop in the Anglo-Catholic tradition who will have the intellectual capacity, the moral courage, and the personal holiness to lead the Diocese into a future of transformative engagement. Finding such a person who of necessity will need to lead a life of humility and sacrifice deserves the prayers of all.
What exactly do we need always to remember?
We do need to remember the valour and sacrifice of men and women who have given their lives and service in the name of peace and freedom. Both my grandfathers fought in WW1 and my father in WW2. We need to remember that freedom is indeed hard won; but harder to honour in peace time, when much effort by many people goes into self interest, greed, domestic violence and the avoidance of civic responsibility.
What we also need to remember is that wars are grotesque, futile, mistake ridden, and the cause of enduring sorrow. Lives are not only lost in war, they are lost in its aftermath as damaged lives find it very hard to adjust to civilian life. Arguably the only war worthy of Australian engagement was WW2. Nazi Germany presented an impossible threat to the peoples of the world.
WW1 was a war in which national and personal hubris dragged countless thousands into a needless conflict of unimaginable suffering and death. The aftermath of the war led to WW2 and in addition it has had enduring consequences in the Middle East a century later. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories were created and carved up by Britain and France with their interests, not Arab interests, in mind. Half promises were made which could not be fulfilled, but which have set peoples with different hopes and expectations against each other. That Iraq and Syria in particular are caught in a seemingly unsolvable cycle of conflict can be attributed in large measure to outside interference that dislocated the fragile balance of centuries, at the commencement of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Vietnam War, The Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan have not contributed to a more stable secure and just world, in fact the contrary. The rise of ISIS or Daesh can be attributed in no small measure to the aftermath of the Iraq war when the Sunni population lost its voice and representation in most areas of the country’s power and administrative structures.
We need to remember too that war is a financial bonanza for one of the largest industries on the planet – the armament industry. The armament industry does not distinguish between friend and foe, a sale is a sale. Saudi Arabia remains a partner with the West in the arms trade, notwithstanding the reality that Saudi Arabia has funded some of 21st century’s worst terrorism.
It is a myth that Australian nationhood was forged at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, many other factors have been at least, if not more decisive. That war and its aftermath was a cause of considerable tension in the Australian community. Australian nationhood has been forged through its vibrant and enviable democracy; the federation of its fiercely independent states; migration; the principle of equality that emerged out of the struggles of the early settlers and the emancipation of the convicts; the courage, endurance and enterprise of the rural communities; and the regular triumph over natural tragedy of fire, drought and flood. All have contributed to the nation that Australia is today.
So why is ANZAC day, by default, Australia’s national day, far more significant than Australia Day, Easter, Christmas, or any other day? Perhaps, despite the continual reference to ‘Australian values’ by the Prime Minister and other leading politicians, the reason is we really do not know what Australian values are and fallback on ANZAC Day as a default position. ‘Mateship’ is thrown around as the great Australian value. But is Australian ‘mateship’ any different from the commitment Indonesians, Turks, Kurds, Greeks or Italians feel for one another. I doubt it. What about a ‘fair go’. I have learnt that in Islamic culture care for the needy and stranger is taken for granted. If there is food in the house, it is there for all. I am not sure that a ‘fair go’ is any more Australian than it is a character of other peoples.
My memory of growing up as a child in the UK is that scattered throughout the year there were many days that celebrated different aspects of our history, culture and values. No one day dominated above others. Remembrance Day was important, but not more so than other days of religious and civic significance.
21st Century Australia needs a variety of days to celebrate values, hopes and aspirations. We should have a coordinated day across all states which celebrate our multicultural and migrant past and present. Our multiculturalism is arguably our great strength; celebrating it with vigour should bury the prejudice, fear and intolerance of popular right wing politics and celebrate what makes Australia qualitatively and successfully different from virtually every other nation on earth.
We need a national day which celebrates the rich culture and history of our indigenous peoples. What has happened in the past is shameful, but we need to move on. There is so much to share and gaps that need to be bridged. Most Australians are shamefully ignorant of the challenges and disadvantages suffered by Australia’s indigenous and equally ignorant of the rich heritage we can discover through and with them.
We should have a day which celebrates the richness, diversity, beauty and fragility of our landscape. The continent is our greatest treasure; it is also our most vulnerable. A sustainability day could see trees planted, parks dedicated, green space celebrated, resources audited and national policies aligned to a sustainable future; the greatest legacy we can bequeath to our children and grandchildren.
Of course we should continue to celebrate ANZAC day, but it alone cannot focus our values hopes and aspirations, indeed it may contribute to a values vacuum based on a myth that Australian youngsters look for at Gallipoli as a rite of passage, while the real issues that will determine their future remain unattended.
The media feeds us on a diet of rather depressing news, indeed it appears not to be news unless it is depressing! Weather events, climate change, terrorism, the shenanigans of the White House, Mosul and Aleppo, drug taking, paedophilia in the church, the exploits of politicians and the housing crisis – is there any good news? Is good news too good to be true – is it fake news?
It can be argued that the Church and Christianity is in part responsible for fake news in the Western world. Apparently 40+% of Americans believe God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. If 40% of Americans can challenge evidence driven science on something so basic; then space is created for ‘alternative facts’ in any dimension of life. Many of the assertions of POTUS (President of the US) are clearly false, and yet remain seemingly acceptable to a vast number of citizens because he is allowed to claim what most would consider reliable facts, to be fake. If a culture is developed in which opinions, or assertions have the same value as facts, then anybody’s opinion is worthy of trust and subsequently of great disappointment.
So what of Easter; is it a myth concocted by a small band of disaffected men and women at the commencement of the modern era?
Space does not permit an examination of the many explorations of the evidence, of which there is plenty: most compelling of which being the extraordinary power to transform, this belief demonstrated in the lives of the early disciples. However, I would like to take a dive into ‘so what’?
One indisputable fact of life is its ending – death. An increasing number are fortunate enough to escape its arrival for four score years and more, but arrive it will. Because death is inevitable we human beings live in a transitory world coloured by death’s expectation. We accumulate resources as if ‘our life depended upon it’. We value that which is useful to us, often to the exclusion of others, then throw it away. We viciously compete for the domination of our ideas, our race, our religion even to the extent that we will go to war in the hope of gaining an advantage for the miserably short span of time we are here. We are victims of the ‘tragedy of the commons’: we will use and if necessary trample on that which is common to us all, for fear that if we do not then someone will get there in front of us.
These are traits with which we and all who have preceded us on the planet are tragically familiar.
But what if death is not the final word, what if it has been replaced with resurrection? This is not a thought redolent only with hope for the future (pie in the sky when we die), but a reality to transform the present. Resurrection teaches us that material and spiritual are intertwined with a shared destiny. Resurrection says that nothing of value is ever lost. Within the providence of God everything matters, every human life matters, but so does every plant, the earth itself, the air and the sea, indeed anything that we can conceive matters.
Easter is the ultimate celebration of life. Easter should make the thought of violent action impossible to conceive, for violence denies another human or another part of creation the flourishing that is their destiny.
Easter makes aggressive competition unseemly, for resurrection is life’s intended destiny for rich and poor alike; indeed claiming space for oneself that is denied to others, diminishes the prospect of this destiny. We cannot strive for a greater prize than what is already on offer – resurrection. It is the same prize for all.
Jesus is resurrection’s first fruit: resurrection is shared life: to be united with all living through him is to be truly alive, to be separated, like a pruned branch, is to die. Resurrection denies all duality.
The good news of Easter is not simply about an event 2000 years ago, it is the re-writing of history’s narrative in which death is not the final word: life and its celebration is. The Deuteronomic writer anticipated this Easter message when he declared “choose life”. This choosing must occur in matters large and small many times every day. To be generous, forgiving and hospitable is to choose life. To consider how one might add to the life of another is multiply life
To go to war is to deny life
To take advantage of another is to despoil life
To avoid responsibilities for the common good is to be dazzled with fool’s gold whilst surrounded with abundance.
To choose life is to love God with heart mind and spirit and to love ones neighbour as oneself.
A very Happy and Blessed Easter.