in service of the
Australia’s two personalities
In recent domestic policy and international engagement Australia is demonstrating two contrasting personalities. One is demonstrated through our response to COVID 19 and the other through our troubled inability to form responsible climate and energy policy. Why do we have two personalities?
Australia rightly deserves praise for its handling of the COVID 19 crisis. The creation of a national cabinet across political ideology, was a brilliant strategy. Ensuring that national response was driven by scientific advice was critical. Linking economic revival to success on the health front has been vital to stem populist right wing views that the economy must come first. (The result of this false dichotomy is all too tragically clear in the US where both the nation’s health and economy are pitiable). The role of PM, Health Ministers, Premiers, Medical officers has been praise-worthy. This combined leadership has saved Australia’s frontline health workers from what would otherwise have been a catastrophic situation. Sure, we were not as prepared as we should have been, Essential personal protection equipment was frighteningly scarce, but strong leadership has enabled good fortune.
Transporting this domestic good work into the international arena has seen Australia take a major lead in the establishment of an independent investigation into the origins and management of the pandemic. Marise Payne has come into strong criticism for acting pre-emptively, and causing grief to Australia’s China export market. But surely China’s response has justified the action. China is a bully. Its domestic human rights record is shameful. Are we to endure a world in which China treats the rest of the global population as suppliants, with hands outstretched in gratitude to receive meagre gifts? The language and threats emanating from the Chinese ambassador to Australia were outrageous, and indefensible. No, the behaviour of bullies should not be tolerated.
Clearly Australia played a major role in achieving a resolution, ultimately signed by China, which asks for this investigation to occur as soon as possible. It is not independent of the WHO, as Australia may have originally liked, but having 145 nations co-sponsor, has been a remarkable achievement. In light of failed leadership from the US and China, middle powers have stood up and achieved an outcome in the best interests of the globe. (Is this a hopeful sign of the future, given the chaos of the US and China’s belligerence)? There needs to be an investigation, not to apportion blame, or punish, but to learn and hopefully prevent such a pandemic repeating itself in the future. Not to have had an investigation would have been utterly irresponsible.
In the pandemic context Australia has stepped up and taken a leading role. In the context of the globe’s even more serious crisis, global warming, Australia has not only failed to lead, but has done its best to be a wrecker of global consensus. Australia is consistently ranked as one of the worst performers in terms of Climate Change policy, 56th out of 61 countries. Last year Australia was linked with Brazil and the US as one of the three nations who have probably caused the door to be closed on a hoped-for restriction on global warming to 1.5 degrees. Our actions will prove to have been a major contributor to this failure and the cost that will be borne by future generations. Given all the opportunities we have on this continent to move away from fossil fuels, with the concomitant chance to grow a more vibrant, regionally based, technologically diverse economy, our behaviour can only be described as grossly irresponsible.
Unlike our response to COVID 19, we have refused to follow scientific advice. A mockery has been made of modelling, the very technique that has enabled us to respond so well in face of the pandemic. Those who watched Four Corners on Monday night, 18 May, will have observed the pain and dismay of senior scientists and bureaucrats who lived through the wasted decades of Australia’s political infighting on this matter. Australia’s lack of energy policy must rank as the worst and most costly policy disaster of our lifetime. That any doubt may still linger that this malaise was driven by ideological absurdity, not by rationality, science, or even the hoped for good of the nation, we need simply to be reminded that Tony Abbot called talk of environmental responsibility – socialism.
And now we have been offered Angus Taylor’s “technological road map”. Yes, coal is missing and, at last, there appears to be an assumption that science is right. So what is the problem?
The problem lies with the objective. The objective with the COVID 19 response was to immediately ‘flatten the curve’. What should the objective be here? It should be similar, to flatten the curve of global warming and the emissions that underlie it, as quickly as possible. Is that objective clear? On the contrary. We have still refused to rule out the use of our so called ‘Kyoto credits’. We are still refusing to lift our 26 percent reduction target by 2030. Science makes it clear that zero by 2050 will be too late, there will already be too much carbon in the atmosphere. We are setting ourselves an impossible task of meeting our obligations. Taylor’s objective remains to further Australia’s business interests without setting those interests into the context of emission reduction urgency.
Angus Taylor is not surrounding himself with the best scientists, but with captains of industry, especially the mining industry.
Angus Taylor, nothing less will suffice than setting emission targets toward net zero by the 2040’s and encouraging the flourishing of Australia’s business interests in that context. If this is done, we will not be transitioning through uncertain decades of attempted carbon sequestration from gas. Hydrogen may well be the go-to energy of the future , but it must be extracted using renewable energy sources. Because there has been no cogent climate policy, we no longer have the luxury of transition periods. Had we adopted a policy guided by science when John Howard first came to power in 1996 it would be a different matter.
Business has consistently made it clear that they can live with targets. As long as they are consistent, investment can be made on their basis. It is therefore infuriating that government still refuses to regulate a platform upon which this can become a reality. Science has not failed us. Independent public servants with the good of the country at heart have not failed us. Politics and politicians have failed us.
Facing the COVID 19 pandemic politicians across party-lines have stood up and done what politicians are paid to do, lead, and regulate. Why is this so difficult in climate and energy policy?
Energy and climate policy require the same: politicians who will stand up, lead, and regulate. A pathway festooned with already known technologies into an indefinite and undefined future is not enough. We know what we need to do, and the timeframe in which we must do it. Earn your pay and lead with this objective in mind.
The Power of Narrative
Nakba, Annexation and Anti-Semitism
The thread running through these realities is not hard to follow.
Historical details of the 1948/1949 Arab Israeli conflict are highly contested, as is the manner and implication of Britain’s withdrawal. But the indisputable facts are that 400 – 600 Palestinian villages were raised, Palestinian urban life was virtually wiped out and a majority of those who fled, or were driven out, have been denied any right to return, despite the fact that many still sleep on a pillow under which rest the keys to their still cherished home.
There can be no doubt that the holocaust stands amongst the most horrific crimes of the modern era and one of the worst ever to be perpetrated by humanity against fellow human beings. So horrendous was this evil that minimising it, or denying it, is aptly described as a crime. However, because this was so awful, there has been a tendency to down-play or minimise, by comparison, other crimes against humanity. This is particularly true of the Nakba which has been downplayed and minimised all too often by international media. It is an inconvenient truth. The State of Israel requires the minimising or downplaying of Palestinian suffering to promote its colonising strategy without accruing opprobrium. To admit a majority Palestinian population prior to WW2 with cultural rights, property rights, and historical connection to the land which European colonisers could never claim, is to undermine the Zionist settlement enterprise. International law, constantly re-enforced through UN resolutions, requires that these rights are honoured and protected. Israel, with the protective covering of the US and the shameful acquiescence of Australia, denies any breaking of international law, implying these rights do not exist.
It is rightly a crime to minimise or deny the holocaust, but equally it is becoming a crime in Israel to support the facts of history, that the Palestinian people have suffered the Nakba, and that the Nakba continues to be perpetrated. To lay bare these truths is to be inflicted with the antisemitic slur.
For some time, Netanyahu has been promoting the annexation of the Jordan Valley, even proposing a timeline for its implementation. The Jordan Valley is a significant proportion of the West Bank and is its most fertile - it is called the food bowl of Palestine. When the Oslo accord was struck in the 1990’s there was to be a five-year transition towards Palestinian sovereignty. To facilitate progress, the Palestinian Authority was established, and the West Bank areas A, B and C were created. Area C, the majority of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley remains, to this day, totally under Israeli control. In area C it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian to gain a building permit, on the contrary hundreds of houses, even whole communities, have been demolished. Clearly Israel seeks a cleansing of Palestinians from Area C. Cleansing enables the exponential expansion of settlement communities on Palestinian land, further thwarting the delivery of a two-State solution. On a daily basis, these settlers harass, demean, burn, destroy, the property and lives of the Palestinian community with the same motive in mind, to cleanse the area of the Palestinian population.
The proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley makes this motive abundantly clear. The Nakba is far from concluded. Annexation in the Wes Bank was a central plank in the recent negotiation for an Israeli unity party. Annexation is occurring in fact, even if not yet finally declared. It is clear the dominant political parties in Israel have no intention of supporting a two-State solution. If there are not to be two States, then there is one State.
The incremental continuation of the Nakba, the involuntary removal of Palestinian people and the denial of their human rights, must come to an end. But how is this going to happen? It has been suggested the Palestinian leadership might abandon the Palestinian Authority, hand back whatever limited responsibility they have retained (largely exercised on behalf of Israel) and tell Israel they can annex everything with a view to the establishment of a bi-cultural, prosperous, democratic state. This is of course exactly what Israel’s political interests do not want. They do not want to include Palestinians as equals in a democratic society. Israel’s political leadership want maximum Palestinian geography with minimal demography. They wish the Palestinian population to be corralled into tiny pockets with no contiguous connection and with absolutely no capacity to develop a viable, vibrant, autonomous state.
Israel must defend its actions against the claim that it is deploying ethnic cleansing and establishing an apartheid state. If these charges are inaccurate, a dreadful distortion of truth, explain why. What words would better describe the present Israeli strategy?
Let me conclude where I began, with the continuing struggle of Israeli politics for a dominant moral narrative against a background which contradicts it. Facts do not matter if you possess a winning narrative.
I warmly commend Sophie McNeil’s recent book, “We can’t say we didn’t know”. Her anecdotal accounts throw light upon Middle Eastern struggles (and foreign meddling) from Yemen to Syria. Her chapter on Palestine reveals what we already know, Israel will use every tool at its disposal to insist that its narrative must be accepted and believed and any who dare to publicise facts showing the narrative to be threadbare are to be reviled, condemned and if possible punished.
Yes of course there are many other scandalous atrocities in the world, but this is the only one that I am aware of where my government continues to intervene in defense of the oppressor.
The Way the Truth and the Life
Finding the path from our place to the beach, at Long Beach, is pretty easy and obvious. We take the path every morning because we like the destination, a walk along the beach. About 30 years ago I walked the Kokoda Trail with a friend. We self-navigated and carried all our own provisions. I carried the map and notionally was responsible for the route we took. It was nerve racking. On the first day I was not absolutely certain we were on the right path until we reached the spot, we had planned to stay the night. Stray a few metres from the path and the vegetation obscures the route. We took the track, not because of the destination – Port Moresby, but because of the journey. Most people will take a path in their lifetime which is not about the destiny, but about the journey. Apart from Kokoda, I have taken several such adventures, including six youth pilgrimages to places on the globe of poverty and deprivation, as well as physical journeys such as Compostela in Spain and the Inca trail in Peru. In each case the destination was internal growth and understanding, hopefully fostered through the journey.
What about life itself? Most of you have been travelling for 70 years or so. Would you say your life has been defined by the journey or the hoped-for destination? Perhaps, as shall discover in this text, they are the same, the journey is the destination.
Today’s extraordinary reading is about all of this. My reflections are unapologetically influenced by Archbishop William Temple’s 1939 timeless commentary on John’ gospel.
Today’s text is preceded in chapter 13 with the foot washing narrative, the prediction of Judas’ betrayal, and the humiliation of Peter who Jesus predicted would betray him not many hours hence. With all this back of mind reminder of human fickleness and frailty, John has Jesus launching into confirmation of God’s reliability, predictability, and service of us.
He starts by drawing on a familiar picture of eastern life, the camel train. A camel train would travel a set and predictable distance before resting, and being refreshed. These resting places were called, in the Greek, monai. A person called a dragoman would go ahead and ensure that adequate provisions, including water, were there for camels and human travellers. In this passage Jesus is likened to the dragoman. John’s inference being that there is no part of the human journey that Jesus has not taken, and in preceding us, has not prepared for us.
In his commentary, Temple argues the passage is not first and foremost about the destination, despite the fact this is one of the most common passages read at a funeral, but about the whole human journey. Further, that if the journey is taken in company with Jesus then the journey and the destiny are the same, it is all the ‘Father’s house’.
A conventional human life has predictable resting places associated with birth, schooling, early adulthood, marriage, career, retirement, and old age. COVID 19 has unwittingly cut across all these familiar experiences and drawn the global community into a common monai, or resting place. It may not feel like a place of refreshment, but it is necessarily a place of reflection, of re-evaluation, of preparing for the path ahead. How we experience this place will vary considerably. For many the economic disruption is going to have life changing consequences far more serious than the virus itself. For others mental health implications are going to be exacerbated. More significant than the virus itself, is how we respond to the place in which we now find ourselves. We will live through it, but how?
John goes on to shed wonderful light on this quandary.
You will remember from the Old Testament account of Moses’ call, that he refused to go unless God revealed himself, he said he wanted to know who had sent him. The divine reply was “I am who I am”, or as sometimes translated, “I cause to be who I cause to be”.
In his Gospel, John declares he wrote to show that “Jesus is the Son of God and that in him we might have life”. Crafting a significant literary tool, he attributes the divine name, ‘I am’, to Jesus. He constructs seven “I am” sayings: I am the Light of the world, I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the gate, I am the vine, I am the Good Shepherd, and here: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life”.
In our reading of this ‘I am saying’, we realise from the context, his emphasis is “I am the way”. He is the way, because he is also the truth and the life.
Since my days as a theological student I have been deeply influenced by two books by a monk named, Harry A Williams. One volume is True Wilderness and the other True Resurrection. In True Wilderness Williams distinguishes between what he calls inside and outside truth. To Williams outside truth is the data and information which explodes exponentially around us minute by minute. Unless in some way it shapes us, it has transient significance. Inside truth is far more significant. It is ‘aha’. Margaret and I have two foster daughters. One we have always remained close to, the other we lost contact with for a long time, until recently. It has been such a joy to reconnect with her. Life for her has been fraught and traumatic. She says now she is happy, has found herself, and able once more to relate. – Inside truth. Inside truth is always relational – indeed it is personal. Truth has to do with knowing. In the bible when knowledge is spoken of it is always associated with inside truth, with personal knowing. The key to personal knowing is awareness that love empowers everything, frees everything, redeems everything. Love of God, love of others and equally important, love of self.
We believe that life is of God and that it is essentially about the practice of love. Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life because in him all that is of God has been pleased to dwell. Further, in taking human form, through dying and rising, he has taken the humanity of all human beings. The life that is in him is available to us all. In this passage there is discussion about his going away and that where he is going, they cannot come. But the paradox John wishes us to understand is that in his very going away it becomes possible for him to be present, not just at one time and in one place, but at all times and in every place. The spirit that is Jesus is the spirit of life.
One of the common themes running through commentaries of the COVID 19 shutdown experience, is the rediscovery by so many that life is about relationships, not as we had assumed about position or possessions.
In a very intense way Andrew Constance (our local State member in the headlines for various reasons this last week), has been tormented by the bushfire experience and through it has found that much of what he had known, accepted, and prosecuted in politics is thoroughly pointless, or worse, demeaning of life. He deserves our prayers and understanding as he continues to work it through.
As we read this passage, we have had confirmed for us the reality that journey and destination are the same. God in Jesus has gone before us in all life’s experiences, including death itself. It is all the ‘Father’s house’. The room is always prepared, and the table is always set. Responding with love, as best we are able, is to have already arrived.
Easter 3 and COVID 19
Since the pandemic took hold in Australia the Prime Minister has been rightly praised, because his actions appear free of the oppressive, toxic and damaging influence of his party’s right wing. This is despite rumblings from usual suspects from Sky News and shock jocks about individual rights, which in their view are trampled by actions of social responsibility. Instead of being influenced, even bound, by this combative and divisive rump, he has profitably engaged with his ‘national cabinet’ of Premiers and Chief Ministers. Will it last, and most particularly will it last into the recovery phase when we will need to be free of ideology in order to reset Australia’s policy dials for the future?
I would like to reflect on this question through the Easter narrative of the disciples meeting Jesus’ risen presence on the road to Emmaus and their inability to recognise him until he performed a deeply social and community building act.
Unfortunately, in our individualised culture we have lost the significance of bread breaking. Bread, in this culture, was never cut, it was torn or broken. It was never eaten alone. Bread represents the life of the community. You cannot symbolically put a knife into shared life. When bread is broken and shared, community bonds are reaffirmed and deepened. Mutuality in a shared life is implicit in the invitation to a stranger to share the bread. It is an unthinkable crime not to share bread with a stranger. My sister Val who lives amongst the Afar in Ethiopia lives this culture. At mealtime, there are no individual servings, each dips their injera bread into a common bowl. Over the years Margaret and I have shared a meal like this with many marginalised communities around the globe, starting with the Karen of Myanmar, but more consistently with the Palestinians. Their story, their joys and sorrows, have become ours. For this reason we feel bound to them to this day.
One of the unexpected blessings of the COVID 19 lockdown has been rediscovering community. We have contacted folk by phone with whom in ‘normal’ life we might have waited for Christmas, or a birthday, before communicating. In turn we have been rung by many who have given us so much joy. I am regularly rung by a teenage grandson, which is the nicest thing.
Engaging with others is what we are born to do. We are not born to live in isolation. It is when we are forced into isolation, as we are now, that we become acutely conscious of our need to engage. But there is more to it than simply engaging with family and friends.
The world from which we have become temporarily isolated has become increasingly tribal. Increasing numbers of world leaders are arch nationalists, who in cherishing the distinctiveness of their own nation stand in judgement over others. Under God we are all distinctive. We are distinctive as individuals and we are distinctive as groups. But our distinctiveness turns in on itself unless it engages with the contrasting distinctiveness of others.
Followers of Jesus have two contrasting responsibilities. First, we are to nurture and nourish our distinctiveness, a key component of which is our faith – it is the gift we have to offer. We dare not enter the space of another without offering a gift. But to be distinctive without engaging is to remain outside another’s space in judgement. In recent weeks we have heard horrible stories of people who found it ok to abuse or even spit on nurses, shop assistants and even police; presumably on the grounds that these folk have unwittingly stood in the way of their presumed entitlement. On the other hand we have seen wonderful videos of people combining to sing from their balconies, or post hilarious utubes of their exercise routine. Yesterday Margaret and I joined neighbours in our driveway at 6.00am, ensuring that the spirit of ANZAC was alive and well in our little cul-de-sac. All residents were present.
There are various reasons why countries have suffered more, or less, than others through the COVID 19 pandemic. These reasons will be analysed in great deal in the months and years ahead. I would like to make a contrasting observation between the experience of the US and the experience of Australia. In the US, the gap between rich and poor is far more culturally and racially entrenched than it is in Australia. The poor are always more vulnerable when crisis of any kind strikes, fewer choices are available to them. The US does not have a universal health scheme. But there is one other reason which flies in the face of the fundamental Easter truth I am conveying. Given the US is outwardly the most Christian country in the world, one might well ask, what Bible have they been reading. The issue is this. Dealing with the pandemic requires a high level of social responsibility and willingness to forego individual freedoms: a wonderful hallmark of Australia’s response. But in the US there is a significant, but not universal, culture of believing any social responsibility that requires relinquishment of individual rights to be in breach of the constitution. The President has encouraged this view.
It is this arrogant assumption to individual (or national) rights that has caused right wing ideologists and libertarians the world over to prevent the globe from policy development which might build sustainability, security and wellbeing into the future. If returning to ‘normal’ means this minority view can or will always veto good policy, then the lessons of GOVID 19 will not have been learned, and we are, of all generations, to be condemned and pitied.
While we have embraced many features of the American way of life, fortunately we have not embraced this, despite the right wing’s desire that we might. The right is not the centre, and must never become so. We are criticised from without, and from within, for not having a Bill of Rights. There is every reason why we could/should have a Bill of Rights. But a Bill of Rights must always be set within the context of a citizen’s covenant of responsibility.
The policy settings for the future must bridge the poverty wealth gap and encourage job creation that does not simply build wealth, but which builds occupations that enhance social wellbeing. The policy settings of the future must reflect appropriate social responsibility on a global scale.
Finally, for the Christian community, to believe in the resurrection is also to believe in the Communion of Saints, that unseen band of witnesses to whom we all belong. The fellowship of broken bread gifts us with membership of the body of Christ. We are marked on our foreheads as members of this fellowship, in which we have no rights, we do not need any, for it is all gift; but we do have responsibilities, to care for one another as Christ in God cares for us.
This year we have not had to concoct a feeling of desolation appropriate for Good Friday. Many have been experiencing it for years through a relentless drought. Here on the coast we have intensely experienced it though the bushfires, some of us have lost homes and livelihoods, and globally we now experience it through the COVID 19 pandemic. If we, 21st century human beings, think we are bullet proof, that we are the masters of our world, think again. And then there is Easter!
While we can all bask in the security of feeling we are not personally to blame for the almost biblically proportioned pestilences that have been visited upon us, the fact is that globally we are culpable. We know all too well that we embrace an economic system that takes no prisoners. Nothing is to get in the way of economic growth, certainly not sustainable environmental practice, and up till now, not too much empathy or sympathy for vulnerable humans who have fallen by the wayside either. Asserting that their poverty and vulnerability has arisen from their own ineptitude is the thinly veiled message of the dominant economic narrative. The droughts and the bushfires, we are told, are part of the Australian landscape – nothing to see here; except science affirms they are directly related a culture of human dominance at the expense of natural stewardship.
What about COVID 19? Like HIV Aids, SARS, and the Spanish flue, it has almost certainly arisen from inappropriate interference with, and exploitation of, animals. While we can look down our noses at the wet markets of China and similar markets of Africa, our Australian behaviour towards animals is no less catastrophic in its consequence. Innumerable species now face extinction because of our unrelenting ‘conquering of nature’.
So, in 2020 as we look to the cross and hear the cries of Jesus, we have every reason to be penitent, to realise we indeed have been responsible for the load he carried and the injustice that was perpetrated.
There is no route to Easter, other than by way of the cross. Letting go is not easy. Jesus said: “what you hold onto you lose, what you give away you keep”. While the ultimate ‘letting go’ of death has been forced upon thousands of COVID 19 victims world-wide, for us it still lies ahead. In the meantime there are many large or small ‘letting goes’ we have to embrace in order that we might celebrate life. Whether we will be up for this when COVID 19 is over, only time will tell.
Like me, many of you will have already experienced little Easters when what had been pain and disaster has given way to new life and light – life and light that would not have been there otherwise. It is one of the deep paradoxes of life that experiences we would do almost anything to avoid, often become the fertile soil from which transformation and real growth occurs.
Easter is both deeply personal and profoundly cosmic. The Church was born, not out of the empty tomb, but out of the disciples’ deeply personal experiences of meeting the risen Christ. These experiences were so profoundly real that they and the early converts gladly suffered their own martyrdom in witness to Jesus, the song who filled their hearts with singing, and the new life that was now on offer in his company. I thank God for moments in my own life in which the presence of God in Christ has been intense.
As wonderful as they are, if Easter is only about these personal experiences of God in Jesus, this would not be enough, certainly not enough to make it history’s pivot point. The New Testament links the resurrection to creation, indeed a new creation. The words of Jesus on the cross: “It is finished”, mimic the words of Genesis 2:2, recording that creation is complete. While decay and mortality are a necessary consequence of a finite creation, by inserting himself into the created order in human form, God lifts the whole created order out of an endless cycle of death and dying, gifting it with the promise of redemption, of new life. That’ right, the whole created order. Nothing that God touched can ever be lost. As Bishop Howell Witt used to say in his parish missions, we and the created order have marched to the drum beat of ‘birth life death, birth life death’: now we are called to march to the drum of ‘birth life death life, birth life, death life’. To do this though, we have to let go of our obsession with earthen jars and their contents.
Easter defines Christianity, as Paul says without the resurrection, we of all people are most to be pitied.
While we await our final moment of physical dying as a precursor to eternal life, we are called to live as resurrection people, believing that life is constantly on offer. Our identity can no longer be tied to what we own or possess, but to the company we keep, or at least desire to keep, and the desire to love and be loved.
As we dare to believe we may soon be moving out of pandemic restrictions, will we quickly slip back into our old ways, or will we cherish the new opportunities for life this threat has brought us. Are we now likely to set side adversarial politics for consensus and cooperation? Are we likely to remove countless concession to the wealthy in order that we might maintain generosity to the needy? Are we now more likely to spend money on building security through respirators, masks and the like; establish responsible emission targets and practice water conservation? Or will we continue to foster old rivalries and divisions, spend billions on submarines that will likely be out of date before they are delivered, and allow ideology to trump compassion trust and cooperation?
Easter has given birth to life, creativity, imagination and service at it best. Bach was the fifth evangelist! May we cherish this new life every day, being intolerant of that which diminishes, whist choosing that which nourishes life.
I set before you this day Life and Death, blessing and cursing – choose life.
COVID 19 and Messaging
We all know that successful communication is tied to messaging. Why is it then that the Australian community is receiving such appalling messaging in the ongoing COVID 19 crisis?
Bad new is seldom, if ever, a successful lever for improved human behaviour. Indeed it can often be the opposite, a signal that it is everyone for themselves. If everyone is not going to survive, I will do my best to ensure that I do, even if this means taking more than my share and pushing others out of the way. This in part explains the unseemly panic buying which the prime minister has called ‘un-Australian’.
For the last fortnight and more the news has been dreadful, indeed quite frightening. Because Margaret and I are in the vulnerable age quartile we have been successfully frightened into not going out except to shop once a week. If I were a 20-year-old, I would not be so easily frightened. The frightening news gives very little incentive to the young, fit, and healthy to keep all the social distancing guidelines that have been ubiquitously present in any messaging. Added to this of course has been extraordinary confusion in the messaging. What on earth possessed the Prime Minister to say he would give one last shot at the football before it was closed down. Or what on earth was in his head or the head of his advisor to say getting your hair cut was ok as long as you were not there longer than half an hour. Or what makes five at a wedding safe, but 10 at a funeral will be ok.
Last night, on 7.30 Report, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer either did not understand the questions put to him by Lee Sales, or refused to answer them. He sounded like a spin operative on cue from the government.
The problem that has to be turned on its head is that looking after number one is Australian within a culture overseen by an ideologically driven neo-liberal government. Look at the Minister for Social Services in operation, it appears his interests and that of his party come before anything else. “Everyone who has a go will be given a go”. Within a neo-liberal world view, private enterprise is rewarded and investment in the social economy reduced to the lowest level with which the government can get away. In this world we are taught not to rely on any form of back up – that is left-wing socialism. It is little wonder we have a prime minister who notoriously has great difficulty in expressing genuine empathy, for to show empathy is to fail to encourage self-reliance.
The messaging could and should be turned on its head. The message should be loud and clear that if all the social distancing measures were followed then we could be out of this reasonably quickly. This is the good news and it is not pie in the sky. The virus cannot survive unless it is passed on. Zero contact prevents the passing on. It is within the wit and capacity of Australian society to do this. We are not doing what we could and should do because the reward of doing so is not being made crystal clear. It should not be necessary for these appalling queues outside Centrelink. They are there because bad news breeds bad outcomes. Good news promotes good outcomes. People will be able to go back to work sooner rather than later as long as everyone of us makes the effort to isolate or self-distance denying the virus the capacity to be spread. China has apparently done it – so we are led to believe. Japan and South Korea are doing it. Do we lack the inner fortitude to do it? No I do not think so. We just lack the messaging which tells us that in this discipline lies our salvation. This torture can end without waiting 18 months for a vaccine.
It should be noted we have been struggling with the same flawed messaging in relation to global warming and climate change. For too long those of us who have wanted action, have fallen into the trap set by denialists to emphasise the serious situation in which we find ourselves. The reaction has been to ridicule what has been said to be apocalyptic nonsense.
At last, global warming messaging has changed, emphasising the good news that action on climate change is economic good sense as well as environmental good sense. Action on climate change creates jobs, long term reliable jobs and increases the employment rate while safeguarding vulnerable industries like tourism and agriculture. Action on climate change does not take us back to the dark age but forward to an age of far greater cooperation, flexibility, and community cohesion. The question is whether changing from a message of gloom and doom to a positive message of genuine advancement has come too late.
And so with COVID 19, negative depressing and confusing messaging is reaping what it is sowing. Is it too late? No it is not. Listen to Melbourne based Professor Peter Doherty, the Nobel Prize winning epidemiologist. Now is the time for every Australian to hear that everyone will reap the benefit of social isolation, that the benefit can be observed in a few short weeks and that it is possible that 2020 need not hold the foreboding that it currently holds either in terms of health or the economy.
COVID 19 and climate change, two ‘wicked’ problems, are similar in terms of response required. Put the economy before the environment and both will ultimately collapse. Put health before the economy and both will flourish. Keep making ‘proportional responses’ and both will be on life support for months.
Being Church in a pandemic context
From the perspective of Church, would the present situation be best described as a crisis or an opportunity?
A satisfactory definition of ‘crisis’ is that it is a turning point. For at least the last three decades the Church has been in a turning point. Old ways do not suit the modern demographic. Church on Sunday morning has been in gradual decline.
The present context could make this decline terminal, or it could set new patterns, ways of behaviour, new cultures of being Church that are more appealing, and appropriate, especially to families and young people. What is obvious is that if Parishes and Dioceses have no strategy to lead the Church through at least the next 6 months, the result might see the demise of many. With appropriate strategies this may prove to be a God given opportunity for new life and direction.
Some immediate Strategies
Longstanding research shows that if contact is lost for six weeks or more it can be very difficult to restore, especially with those on the periphery of the Church.
The Parish roll should be carefully examined to determine the best way of maintaining pastoral care of each parishioner. For many, this contact may be satisfactorily maintained electronically, but care should be taken to ensure that none are taken for granted. Some/many will require more personal care, by phone or perhaps even in person. There will be far too many for the Rector to shoulder on her/his own. These names should be allocated to others who are known to have the skills for pastoral contact.
If any members of the Parish should contract the virus, it will be necessary to have a developed plan of care.
Those who have self-isolated, particularly the elderly, information should be sought as to how such persons are receiving essential supplies.
The Parish doors should be known to be open to parishioners and the wider community for people to pop in say from 9.00.am – 3.00.pm. each day. The Church should feel open and welcoming. Perhaps background music might be playing. There might be a place where folk can go and light a candle. It may well be necessary for two shifts of three hours each to provide a listening ear. (Time will tell if this is necessary).
Sanitiser must be available at the door of the Church and the pews wiped down regularly.
Regular caring programmes should be maintained, or adjusted, wherever possible
Demands on communication and administration will increase and not decrease. Once a pattern emerges more volunteers may be required to carry the load. It will not necessarily be the case that volunteers need to go to an office, much of this work could be done from a home computer.
It will be necessary for Parishes to have a clear strategy about financial sustainability. Parishioners should be encouraged to invest in the long-term life of the Parish. If finances drop substantially it may well prove impossible to start again when the pandemic is over. A well drafted letter should go to all parishioners. Those who are not giving electronically should be encouraged to do so. For those whose giving is in cash, the parish could provide money boxes to be taken home and the weekly giving deposited therein.
The above are thoughts for the immediate future, as time goes by longer term strategy should be developed.
Panic vs The Commons Covid 19
Supermarkets and stock-markets in the last ten days have demonstrated the human capacity for panic, with an outcome exceeding the damage sought to be avoided. Supermarket shelves are empty, not because of corona virus, but because of panic buying with no immediate cause and effect from the virus; while the stock market has plummeted as individual investment choices have increasingly been driven by the behaviour of others.
“Don’t panic, don’t panic” cried corporal Jones of Dad’s Army as he ran around in an uncontrolled and irrationally manic state.
All human beings experience a rush of adrenalin when faced with an emergency, but whether this adrenalin morphs into uncontrolled panic, or a heightened capacity to respond with reason, is a test of individual and shared character. The shared response matters as much, if not more, than individual response, because. as the present crisis demonstrates, we are as dependent, if not more dependent, on what we share, than on what we control individually.
For centuries human society was blessed with “commons”, the ideal what was shared equitably was beneficial to all. Ordinary people pastured their flock on ground that was common to the community. However, as resources became stretched the temptation to exploit before others did the same, became too great; with the desolate outcome that the provision was lost for all. Medieval toilet-roll shelves became bare! This situation is alive and well in the 21st century. As natural resources dwindle, especially in industries such as fishing, the temptation to exploit becomes too great, with the loss of the industry.
That human beings are no less dependent upon ‘commons’ in the 21st century receives far too little attention, because we have been culturally conditioned, by increasingly right-wing governments, to accept privatisation as the solve-all of every situation. Transport, health, education, natural assets, care of the aged, childcare, the prison system etc, all are perceived to be delivered more cost effectively if privatised. Whether that is true is one matter, but whether they are delivered equitably, fairly, and with best social practice outcomes, is quite another. Society is conditioned to assume private or personal self-interest serves everyone best. This proves to be a falsehood when calamity strikes. In the face of the bushfire crisis people trusted their neighbours, the local fire brigade and the community to pull together. In the face of the corona virus the world needs to pull together, but national self-interest often gets in the way. At community level the same can occur when action to slow the spread of the virus potentially hurts some business interests more than others. Mercifully we have experienced great generosity and self-sacrifice as many businesses have put the interest of the community above their own. What is deemed best to slow the virus is obviously detrimental to a wide range of interests.
But the situation it is even more problematic. In the bushfires, strength and consolation was achieved through contact with one another, drawing strength from each other. Strong advice in the face of the current threat is the reverse, isolation, everyone by themselves, if not for themselves. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to believe the best thing we can do for one another, as well as for ourselves, is to stay apart. For this to work there must be the highest possible level communication and the highest-level of trust in that communication. While it is said Australia is in front of the pack economically to deal with the crisis, in this vital area of trusted communication, at least at a political level, we are way back in the pack.
The communications highway must be one of the most important commons we all share. It must be equally available to all without fear or favour. Its capacity to fulfil its task is as much dependent upon the trust that can be placed in it, as much as the content it delivers. In our present crisis the highway’s capacity to fulfil its role and mitigate the tendency to panic, has been severely compromised by indulgent and inadequate leadership. The problem is most serious in the US, which is led by a president whose word is simply not believable. When trust in leadership is at the lowest ebb, information is not only confusing, it is counter-productive, as Trump’s address to the US nation demonstrated. Apparently, his intention was to calm nerves, especially on the stock-market, only to find that as soon as he had finished the market plummeted.
What about Australia? Who is to be believed when they speak? According to recent polls only about one third of Australians have confidence in the Prime Minister. His problems are accentuated by a cabinet in which many seem completely incapable of telling the truth, while others seem only capable of uttering incomprehensible nonsense.
Social isolation is clearly an absolute necessity, however for it to work in the longer term it is going to require a lot more thought than simply advocating its necessity. Those who have contracted the virus are being asked to isolate for 14 days until they become clear, and hopefully immune to further contagion. The rest of the community, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, face the prospect of several months’ isolation, if they are to successfully ward off the possibility/probability of infection.
As the government has wisely appointed a former chief federal police officer, Andrew Colvin, to head the aftermath of the bushfires, I would advocate for a similar person to become the regular spokesperson to guide the community through what will probably be a long autumn and winter of self isolation for many people. No one in government should be tasked with this responsibility. It needs to be someone in the medical field who is trusted. Dr Fiona Stanley comes immediately to mind, as does the current Australian of the year, Dr James Muecke. While this is not their field of expertise, they could be briefed relatively easily, daily if necessary. Their chief asset being trust in the wider community, an asset the nation badly needs right now.
Is institutional loss of trust terminal?
Analysis shows that institutional trust is stronger in developing countries than in the Western world. Given trust is the oil that enables human interaction and wellbeing, from family life through social fabric and commerce, to nation building: is western civilisation now in terminal decline? What can individuals do about it?
The season of epiphany came to an end last week with a focus on the transfiguration, one of the few events in the life of Jesus important enough to be recorded in each of the three synoptic gospels. The season of epiphany celebrates the nature of God as revealed in Jesus. In turn, as life in its fulness reflects the nature of God, epiphany is also a celebration of what human life can be like when we reflect our true nature. On the mount of transfiguration the three disciples are challenged to delve into this truth when they hear a voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased: listen to him!” True listening is at the heart of trust.
To assist their understanding, two iconic figures stand beside Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the law giver and the prophet. The disciples are to understand these roles are not just emblematic of the life and ministry of Jesus, but they are windows into the nature of God and therefore the nature of life itself.
The law giver: Law requires submission, but to what are we to submit? Jesus’ summary of law is love; therefore we are to submit to love, not mindless rigidity. The law of love acts as the boundary keeper for a bountiful life. Freedom is all too frequently misunderstood as autonomy, the capacity to do as one pleases. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom is experienced when all is well in a world of multitudinal and criss-crossing relationships and responsibilities. Law exists to guide individuals and communities along this complex path. Law becomes the antithesis of its intended purpose when it occupies a pedestal requiring obeisance rather than being the towel carrier, wiping the feet of all. Trust can multiply and grow when law is a towel not a weapon.
It is tragic that in the western world, law and religion have become associated with oppression and control rather than liberation and freedom. Conservative or fundamentalist, Christians, Muslims and Jews equally turn what should be a gift into a burden. There are elements of sharia law that safeguard, but equally there are many that oppress and excuse violence. There are elements of Christian canon law with foundations in grace, but equally there are others that unapologetically put the institution first and are prejudicial towards those whose identity and gender do not match expected norms. There are elements of the sabbatical tradition that celebrate life and wellbeing, but equally there are others that are exclusivist, even racist. In these circumstances law is seen as the weapon which protects the powerful and entrenched.
Trust becomes possible when law (life principles) are honoured, and undermined when used as a weapon to protect the powerful and privileged. Biblical law prioritises the good of community,
only honouring individual rights in this higher context. The western world has moved far from this biblical principle. In our world individual rights are permitted to take precedence over common good. When law protects the powerful and privileged there can be no trust.
That law apparently permits governmental action while keeping secret the basis for that action is an abuse of power and undermines trust.
That law confirms that journalists can be raided when doing their job, if the truth is inconvenient to those in power , undermine democracy.
The Prophet: It is tragic that Christians as well as many in the wider community understand prophecy as predicting the future. This may well be an acceptable definition, but it is not the biblical understanding. Scripture understands the prophet to be the truth teller, often the one who holds a mirror to the face of a nation, its people, and its leadership. Truth telling can be very painful, for it is human nature to silence or disparage the truth teller rather than honestly respond to the truth being told.
The New Testament highlights prophecy above other ministries, and yet the modern Church appears reluctant to engage in this most significant task, often excusing itself on the basis that it should remain above politics. The utterances of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and above all Jesus were highly political. Any intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, the downcast, under-privileged, is by its nature political
We now live in a world where inconvenient truth is often dismissed as fake. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US and its president. It is alive and well in Australia: unfortunately Australian politics is now riven by this spectacle. Because it is alive and well in the political world, it becomes acceptable in other spheres of civil society.
It is quite shameful that whistle-blowers receive little protection, indeed all too frequently they are made to bare the cost of their truth telling, rather than becoming catalysts for change and correction in the matter they have highlighted.
January 2020 has been the hottest ever recorded on the planet: Finland has experienced unprecedented above zero temperatures in its north, Antarctica has had several days that have reached 20 Celsius, Penrith was for a short time the hottest place on the planet, etc. We need no more evidence to confirm the plight we face, and have known we face for decades. Some of the feared predictions of science have now proven to be conservative. Yet a small minority of the Australian government has the power to prevent genuine action on climate policy. It is criminally outrageous.
Foundations for trust are slowly and methodically built. These foundations will withstand occasional mistakes and disruptions. But when greed, self-interest and love of power rather than service become culturally entrenched, then trust becomes a fatality and the essential pillars of a civil and progressive society are very hard to restore.
We are now at that point in Australia. Politics and politicians will not pull us out of this morass. But a strong and robust community can and will. Ironically the bushfires have shown the calibre of regional community life. Trust that is alive and well in local communities can reinfect similar values in national life. It is up to individual Australians to be what leadership in many institutions have failed to be, and show that self interest as ubiquitously demonstrated at the top, will not be tolerated.
Australia turns its back on the rule of law.
Australia’s efforts to block an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in
Palestine are inexplicable, given the court’s brief to investigate abuses from all sources, be they
Hamas, Palestinian paramilitary, or Israel.
This intervention takes Australia’s growing, one-sided, support of Israel to a new high. By denying
Palestinians the right to justice, and protecting Israel from justice, Australia undermines the rule of
law as the standard by which international behaviour is to be judged, and if necessary, sanctioned.
Through this intervention we risk further undermining what moral authority we have and provide
comfort nearer at home for the ‘might is right’ approach to international relations.
Australia is a signatory to the Rome Statute that set up the ICC and ratified that statute in 2002.
Since that time Australia has supported many of the investigations and prosecutions undertaken by
the ICC. Australia has used or called on others to use other International legal systems to reach
agreements on contentious issues such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
(UNCLOS) under which agreement on a sea boundary between Timor Leste and Australia was
reached. Australia has made calls on China to follow a similar process in solving the territorial
disputes in the South China Sea.
In December last year the ICC announced that a five-year preliminary examination had found
sufficient evidence of war crimes committed in Palestine to proceed with a full investigation.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda said, “In brief, I am satisfied that war crimes have
been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip”.
The alleged war crimes that were the focus of the preliminary investigation include the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) intentionally launching disproportionate attacks in Gaza and the transfer of
Israeli civilians into the West Bank. It also indicated it may expand the scope of the investigation to
investigate IDF lethal and non-lethal means against demonstrators since March 2018 – in actions
to oppose the Palestinians Great March of Return.
The alleged war crimes that Palestinian armed groups are being investigated for include
intentionally directing attacks against civilians, using protected persons as shields; wilfully
depriving protected persons of the rights of fair and regular trial and torture and outrages upon
Not surprisingly Israel (along with the US) is not an ICC member and has disputed whether the
court had jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories, on the basis that Palestine is not a state. The
ICC prosecutor indicated that she believes that the ICC has jurisdiction, but given the complexty,
has requested that the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber confirm this opinion.
Australia filed an amicus brief on Friday 14th of February, indicating Australia does not recognise
Palestine and requesting permission to make full argument. Statements by the Prime Minister
indicates that this Government asserts that the ICC lacks jurisdiction to conduct an investigation
because Palestine is not a state. Following Palestine’s admission to the UN as a non-member
State, Palestine was admitted as as a state member of the ICC in 2015. Although Palestinian
groups are also being investigated, the Palestinian Authority is clear it wants the investigation to
proceed and for justice to be done. Australia is in a minority of countries that does not recognise
the state of Palestine. Only a handful of other countries (Austria, Germany, Brazil, Hungary and the
Czech Republic) have intervened to file similar briefs contesting the court’s jurisdiction.
As a signatory to the ICC and as a past supporter of its investigations, why has Australia
suddenly decided to intervene to oppose the ICC’s jurisdiction over alleged abuses and war
crimes in Palestine?
Questions need to be asked of the Australian government.
• Why cannot Palestinians look for legal recourse to the abuses, theft and violence they have
• Why should Israel not be held to account for any war crimes it may have committed? Why is Israel
exempt from standards that apply to other countries?
• Why, given that both Israel and Palestinian groups are being investigated, is Australia opposed to
the investigation proceeding?
Palestinians recourse to the ICC for abuses and possible war crimes to be properly investigated
should not be opposed. Australia should let the ICC do its job – investigate, and if necessary,
prosecute perpetrators of grave crimes, no matter their source.
No Australian interest is served by taking such a partisan position on the issue of Palestinian
human rights. This intervention by the Australia government is promoting a culture of Israeli
impunity. Further, through this action the Australian government encourages and promotes the
most extreme elements of the Knesset and Israeli civil society whose racism, prejudice and
exclusivity make any proposition for peace based on fairness and equality the most forlorn hope.
As a responsible middle power and known close friend of Israel, Australia should be using its
influence to encourage voices on both sides of this long struggle who wish to reach out in respect
and reconciliation across the divide and build bridged of mutuality and concord.
The Australian government and the Australian people face major international grievances much
closer to our shores. We need to be known as a country that unwaveringly stands for international
law and justice, otherwise we put our own more immediate interests at great risk. Where trust
exists, even the improbable is possible. Without trust nothing is possible. International law and its
observance lays a foundation for trust.
Finally, Netanyahu and his fellow ministers in the Knesset, constantly insist the Israeli army is the
most moral in the world. They should then submit to the investigation and prove it.