in service of the
What has become of Israel? Why has a noble Diaspora reconvened to become one of the world’s pariah nations?
These are really hard, indeed offensive words, but how else does one describe actions such as those contained in the following story.
Most young Israelis are conscripted, (three years for men, two years for women). During this period all of them will commit or witness atrocities like these. What sort of a nation would form its young this way? What will become of their sense of moral rectitude in the rest of their adult lives?
It is tough to ask, but why has a people who have suffered so reprehensibly at the hands of a hideously cruel ideology developed characteristics that remind one of that hellish history?
Israel you might grind Palestine and Palestinians into the dust, off the pages of history, (but you won’t), but in the process what is to become of you as a people?
He has told you O mortal what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Defending Christianity is one of the goals Scott Morrison has set for himself in 2018. But is the brand of Christianity he wishes to defend the very reason why Christian faith in Australia is on the retreat?
When Christianity came to Australia with the early settlers its brands were shaped by the homes from which the immigrant population came: England (C of E), Scotland (Presbyterian), Ireland (Catholic), Germany (Lutheran). Adherence to the brand was by default loyalty to ethnic and cultural roots. (In the same way today Greek Orthodox congregations, Polynesian congregations, Sudanese congregations, Coptic Christianity etc are strengthened through similar identity commitment). On the other hand the older denominational brands now have very little relevance within Australian society, with the possible exception of Roman Catholicism whose future influence remains very much in the balance.
To put it simply, Christianity in Australia today has two brands; adherents of both can be found in most major denominations. The first is marked by a commitment to an individualistic spirituality, demonstrating a practical dualism in which matters of faith are corralled out of the public arena leaving space only for personal belief and morality. Unsurprisingly advocacy of this brand of piety and morality is met with indifference at best and vehement opposition at worst within Australian civil society. High profile promoters of this brand include Cardinal George Pell, Lyle Shelton - Australian Christian Lobby CEO, Senator Cori Bernardi, Brian Houston - Chief Pastor Hillsong and the leadership of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The second insists that dualism and Christianity are irreconcilable: adherents take seriously the fact that Christianity is an incarnate faith; that God’s intention in salvation is nothing less than the whole world and adherents are to be immersed in the world for its good, called to be salt and light. High profile promoters of this brand of Christianity include Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tim Costello, Father Frank Brennan and Ted Noffs.
The first, the brand Mr Morrison seeks to defend is assumed by many or most secular Australians to be the only brand there is, partly because the media turns to this brand in its desire to paint Christianity as quaint and irrelevant in a complex, diverse and educated world. In light of this brand Christianity is perceived to have nothing of value to contribute, outside its platitudes, to the important debates that must be pursued in the public arena if major global issues are to be addressed. This brand is observed to be incurably moralistic, a characteristic which the majority of Australians found alienating in the recent debate on marriage equality in Australia. I am told by Christian friends (of the second brand) that because Christianity as a whole has been aligned in the public mind with a narrow and judgemental mindset, engaging secular friends in a conversation about faith has now been made so much harder.
Adherents of the first brand tend to a textual fundamentalism, be it of scripture itself or ecclesiastical tradition as expressed through authorities such as canon law. It is the case that those who adhere to this brand of Christianity accuse those of the second brand that they do not to take scripture seriously. This needs to be the topic of another blog, but I strongly contend the reverse. Those who insist on a literal interpretation of the creation narratives demean and belittle scripture and make Christianity a source of ridicule. Equally seriously (I will return to this) those who find in scripture an eschatology which justifies the cruel annexation of Palestinian land, homes and livelihood on the grounds that God’s ultimate plan is the sovereignty of Israel prior to the return of Christ, make a nonsense of the God revealed to us in Jesus.
Perhaps most crucially, adherents of this brand of Christianity voted Mr Trump into the White House and by all accounts continue to support him. They almost returned Roy Moore, the gun toting, and accused power abusing Senator of Alabama to Washington. Why? Apparently because he and they support a view that individual rights always trump social responsibility, a position that is the very antithesis of the Christian Gospel. This is a position which supports the minimisation of tax, unregulated financial markets, no universal health care and the ridiculing of environmental responsibility.
This is the brand of Christianity which it appears Mr Morrison wishes to defend, the same brand that wishes its freedoms defended in legislation following an enquiry headed by the current mayor of Hornsby, Philip Ruddock.
Well not in my name. I do not wish to be associated with this defence.
The second brand of Christianity, the one of which I am a convinced believer and advocate believes that not only is the nature of God revealed in Jesus but so also is the true nature of humanity. Eschewing power, not embracing it, let alone clutching to it no matter what the cost, is the way of the cross, is the way of peace, and is the way of salvation. So convinced am I of the truth of the Christian Gospel that I want to advocate it, as did the early Christians, as the Way, indeed without being imperialistic, the only way.
In this ‘way’ true leadership is the exercise of an authority (authenticity) that attracts trust and confidence, not an exercise of power. This kind of authority cannot be bought; it accrues in the lives of those who are sources of blessing and freedom to others. Onlookers asked of Jesus “How did this man get this authority”. Authority is hard won and easily lost. Very few leaders in the world today exercise true authority. The exercise of an office does not automatically endow the holder with authority (authenticity). Without authority the holder of the office has to resort to exercising power as most dictators do and sadly and tragically as Mr Trump appears to do. Without genuine authority political leadership in Australia is floundering.
The brand of Christianity with which I am familiar knows nothing of winners and losers in the conventional sense; winning is associated with lifting the lowly and losing is associated with exalting oneself.
It is a very great concern that the first brand of Christianity, known to many as the ‘Christian Right’ exercises enormous influence in the USA and appears to hold sway in the Australian Federal Coalition.
Why is it such a concern? I do not believe democracy as we have come to understand it can survive unfettered individual rights at the expense of equity and fairness in society as a whole. But this is the track the world, inclusive of Australia, now appears to have taken.
International harmony and well being is dependent on upholding international law, the defence of human rights and a commitment to the sustainability of the planet. None of these appear to be the priorities of the first brand of Christianity even though they are 21st century applications of scripture and the mind of Christ.
To return for a moment to the Christian Right’s unconscionable support for Israel’s annexing of Palestinian territory and the consequent impoverishment and suffering of the Palestinian people. Jerusalem in the Hebrew tradition is the dwelling place of the most high – God. The only interest Christians can have in Jerusalem is in a unique city which should host the spiritual longing of all nations. In the Christian tradition Jesus is Jerusalem, God dwells in him. (You will not worship on this mountain [Gerizim] or Jerusalem Jn. 4: 21). American support for Israel’s unlawful and cruel policy towards Palestinians is made politically expedient as much if not more by the American Christian Right and its misuse of scripture as it is by the Zionist lobby. This is a very dangerous alliance not simply for any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine, but for much broader harmony and good will.
So what Christianity is Mr Morrison seeking to defend? Christianity as the ‘way’ needs no defence. It simply needs more folk to rise with authority (authenticity) in the living of it. Those who adhere to the first brand make this task so much more difficult.
What we see is in part determined by the glasses we have been conditioned to wear. Worldwide, 2017 has seen people looking for saviours in a context of insecurity, growing inequity, unfulfilled ambition, and fear of those who are different. In this context US voters mistook Donald Trump for a saviour. The self serving political establishment was a swamp needing to be “drained”. Trump would do this and all would be well again. Sadly what was not observed was a very flawed, probably psychologically unbalanced, human being; more self serving than ‘the swamp’ it was hoped he would replace. The desperate longing for a very different political reality blinded the eye (apparently still does) of GOP voters to the flaws. Australia is not immune to a similar phenomena, a phenomena now characterising democracies the world over.
2000 years ago the world was not very different. Sure, we have made huge technological gains and the volume of information at our disposal doubles every decade or so. But human nature has not changed much. Fear dominates the lives of many – some with very good reason, many out of their own paranoia. Those in power hold on to their positions with every fibre at their disposal. The wealthy seek to expand their wealth at the expense of the poor. The needy are expendable.
In this context a Saviour was, and is, longed for. What credentials would such a person possess to be convincing? Again, it depends who is doing the looking! Those in authority were not looking (are not looking) for a saviour, let alone a messiah, such a person would shake the status quo and be a threat. Jesus met opposition from religious and civilian leadership alike: High Priests and the ruling class amongst Pharisees and Sadducees; Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas the client tetrarch of Galilee and Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor of Judaea, all of them found the very thought of a champion of the people very threatening. The last thing any of them wanted was a further threat to their authority and income raising capacity amongst the people.
Those who longed for political and religious autonomy were looking with conviction to a saviour who bore the hallmarks of religious and military leadership, someone strong enough to stand up to the ‘powers and authorities’ of the day. Jesus had these ambitions and hopes laid on him. That he turned out not to be this person, was a source of angry grievance. The religious right the world over still falsely lay this burden on Jesus, voting in overwhelming numbers for Trump in the US, Netanyahu in Israel, and Cori Bernardi, Malcolm Roberts and the Liberal rump in Australia.
Those who came looking 2000 years ago sans agenda, except the pursuit of further wisdom and knowledge, were the wise men from the east as recorded by Matthew. The wise sought, and still seek, truth that enlightens every moment and every place, but which also transcends every place and all time. These ‘magi’ seem unfazed by the ‘ordinariness’ of what they found. A baby, a stable, a family about to become refugees: they encountered vulnerability. What specifically they made of Jesus we are not told. What are we to make of him? If this is ‘truly’ God, if this is the divine nature and a priori the appropriate nature of humanity - would it be better that we did not know? It appears we would prefer not, for while the secular world considers such insight to be ridiculous, much language emanating from Christian hymnody not to mention its pulpits contradicts this revelation. Adjectives such as almighty, lord, king etc tend to predominate without being wrapped in the swaddling cloth of vulnerability, humility and service.
Truth about God is of course irrelevant if God does not exist - as a growing number of Australians contend. That those who do believe often seem to wrap the Christ child in a preconceived idea of what God should be like is even more serious, for it gives the first group a reason, if one should be required, for their disbelief. But what if both are wrong, both those who project their preconceived idea of what God should be like, after their own image, and those who contend this is all rubbish? What if the wisdom or insight that the magi were seeking is equally truth about the world and life itself as it is about divinity? For surely any truth about God has to be equally truth about the world, or it is not truth at all?
If insight into a genuine ground for hope and a strategy for peace is to be found in this nativity scene, then Bethlehem certainly deserves another look.
It is clear that the world at large is both tired and deaf to theological dogmatics, or canon law, however elegantly argued. We know Catholics and Protestants have differences as do Shia and Sunni Muslims, but we rightly care little about those differences. What we are more interested in are the values and priorities that are shared, qualities or characteristics that might be good news to the world. The world longs for truth about itself and therefore insight into the identity of a saviour, should such be even remotely a possibility.
That is why we should return to the magi. If the truth they discovered about God and the world was vulnerability and this vulnerability is, ironically, the world’s chief source of hope, then we are definitely looking in the wrong place if we are looking for a saviour in Donald Trump, or Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin, or Benjamin Netanyahu, or company CEO’s on multi-million salaries or most rock stars. In the past we were looking in the right direction when we admired Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior or Rosa Parks. In more recent times we have been looking in the right direction when we have admired Rosie Batty, Jo Cox or Dean Smith. All of these people have brought about change and transformation through their vulnerability, humility and in Jo Cox’s case, sacrifice.
It is easy to be forlorn about the current state of the world and its paucity of leadership. It is equally depressing, even humiliating, to observe the Church in light of the recent report of the Royal Commission. But looking with the eyes of the magi there is no problem too great, no obstacle too immoveable, and no darkness that cannot be shattered by integrity, humility and a desire for the other’s good. The God revealed in the stable at Bethlehem gives the world a chance to see itself as it could be, reflected in a mirror. But let us not wait until another Mandela walks through the door of history, everyone of us can be that person, for all of us our weaknesses are potentially our strengths: from climate change to refugees we have it within our grasp to be agents of a more peaceful world, if we can but let go of the reins of power and allow the integrity of a vulnerable life to do its transformative thing.
A very blessed Christmas to all.
The findings of the Royal Commission have sent shock waves through the institutional Church and generated disgust in the wider community. Is there any good news, any reason to hope for something better?
The commission’s findings, to be delivered on the 15th December lift the lid on a darkness. The revelation that so many children have been abused was deeply shocking, (for me most shocking was case study 42 – the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle); but to learn that many in the Church’s leadership put the institution and its preservation before the safety and well being of the children was almost equally as shocking.
The commission’s work covered institutional abuse no matter its source, but rightly the focus has been on the Church.
The compensation claims that follow, that must follow, may send some institutions into bankruptcy, as happened to a Diocese in the Anglican Church in Canada following investigation of the historical treatment of its first peoples. At the very least the quantum payout will severely restrict the day to day operation of many Church jurisdictions, a restriction which may have a terminal effect on some.
There are some necessary and intended consequences as well as some unresolved issues left at the end of the Commissions work which I would like to reflect on before turning to what may be glimmers of hope
· Processes of compensation need to be proceeded with as quickly as possible and independently devised protocols (external to the institutional entity) must be uniformly applied and overseen.
· Speaking for the Anglican Church, long overdue protocols for the protection of children are now in place. Clergy and lay leaders are required to undergo regular child protection training to maintain their licence and are subject to police checks. Psychological assessment at the point of recruitment is also to be assumed. These protocols cannot guarantee there will never again be an instance of abuse, but they do mean that the community at large can have confidence that everything that can reasonably be done to keep children safe, is being done. Abuse in any form should be considered a criminal matter.
· Unfortunately child abuse will not suddenly stop because of the work of the Commission. As terrible as institutional abuse has proven to be, it remains the case that the vast majority of children suffer at the hands of a relative or friend, someone close to them, someone trusted. Many perpetrators were themselves victims in childhood. Intervention is necessary to break the cycle. Just as the Church has been shown to protect perpetrators, so families are reluctant to expose abusers in their midst. This mindset needs to change. Abuse or suspected abuse must be reported. The downside of the investigation into institutional abuse has been insufficient attention given to the pandemic of abuse emanating from homes across the social and economic spectrum of Australian society.
· While the Church as an institution is now genuinely engaged in dealing with the primary crime of child abuse, it remains deeply entrenched in the secondary crime of institutional protection at all costs. Whereas the victims of the first crime were innocent children, the victims of the secondary crime are now their own. In this fear driven desire to protect itself, the Church has not stopped at protocols for the protection of children or the alleviation of abuse. Provisions now in place make clergy vulnerable to complaint in any area of human failing, especially of a sexual nature. Their guilt appears to be assumed, requiring them to prove their innocence. The Christian Gospel focuses on grace, repentance, forgiveness and restitution; the new provisions appear to focus on retribution and punishment. This matter is covered in a recent book published by Muriel Porter called The Scapegoats. I am personally aware of several clergy who are victims of this new climate of fear. Several clergy and probably some lay leaders have fallen foul of a new Puritanism which is clearly not a standard expected in the public domain and should not be applied without grace in ecclesiastical circles. No one is without mistake, clerical or lay. To deny opportunity for amendment of life, forgiveness and restitution is to deny the fundamentals of Christianity itself. The Church still has a long way to go in waking up to the truth that protecting the institution takes many forms.
· For some time the Church has been increasingly distant from issues of public engagement, outside the sphere of personal piety and morality. The Commission and publicity rightly given to its work has accelerated this retreat. It is now extremely difficult to gain the focus of Christian leadership on matters of equity, social justice, the poor, refugees, indigenous affairs, affluenza etc. The Church has become an irrelevance, not simply because it has been found to have failed children in its care but because it has turned inward. This movement of irrelevance within Australian society has been further accelerated by the recent marriage debate. In the minds of many in the public, the whole Church was aligned with the no-case and being aligned with this case was incapable of understanding the simple truth that committed relationships honour not simply the couple concerned, but society as a whole.
So where, if at all, is the good news?
The Commission has hastened the end of the power and influence of the institutional Church. Yes there will still be bishops, dioceses and synods, but they will be of no interest to the wider life of Australian civil society. Is this good news?! Yes because Christianity as a truth, a way of life, a conviction worth living for, and a hope worth dying for is irrepressible. 500 years ago European Christianity experienced a revolution brought about largely because of the abuses of the institutional Church of the day. The revolution has shaped western civilisation ever since. The digital age, the way community is formed for millennials, the need for global answers to global issues, will reshape the human landscape and Christianity will be part of this reshaping. The need for a meta-narrative, a victim of the Enlightenment, will once more become pressingly apparent. Chrsitianity’s commitment to love, service and common good and its emphasis that life is to be celebrated in its relationships not in its acquisitions make it as indispensible to the understanding of the present age as it has been, despite the frailty of its leaders, to all previous generations.
What will this look like? I honestly do not know, any more than the jobs of the future can be known. People will meet together. The Bible will be read, hopefully cherished anew, freed from the fundamentalism that has diminished it. Hopefully many will come to say ‘Why didn’t you tell us that God is the energy that sustains life. Family and community units will be the places where thanks is offered, grace shared and life celebrated.
In the 21st century praise needs to be attributed, as it has in the past, where praise is due:
To all life thou givest, to both great and small
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.
Anti-Semitism, one of the oldest forms of racism, is to be thoroughly abhorred, but also to be abhorred is the accusation of anti-Semitism when used in an attempt to silence those who would lift the veil on the cruel subjugation of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.
Once again I am accused of anti-Semitism in the annual report of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ). They make this accusation on an interpretation of a definition of Anti-Semitism formalised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
Let me reiterate a few facts:
· The notional 22% of historic Palestine that remains for Palestinians is fast disappearing. The continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements their connecting roads and infrastructure is denying any real possibility of a Palestinian State, the espoused bi-partisan hope of the Australian Parliament
· The dehumanizing reality of checkpoints makes daily living for Palestinians close to impossible.
· Access to water has been almost totally denied the Palestinian population while the Settlements are surrounded by irrigated lawns.
· Children as young as 12 are incarcerated in military courts, often without charge and without proper legal representation, forced to sign statements in a language they do not understand.
· The 2 million Palestinians on the Gaza strip live in the most dehumanizing conditions on the planet.
· One could go on.
· A poll of the general population indicates that support for Palestinian rights is increasing as is condemnation of the Israeli occupation.
· More Australian politicians are whisked off to Israel with all expenses paid than visit any other country in the world. Why? Presumably to absorb the Israeli narrative.
· The ‘Lobby’, call it the Jewish Lobby, the Zionist Lobby, the Israeli Lobby, it does not matter very much, has enormous influence on Australian media and Australian politics. It is very difficult to have published a story which reflects the facts on the ground in the occupied territories without, as John Lyons points out, the source of that story being made to pay a very high price.
· Why does the ‘Lobby’ have so much influence in Australian domestic affairs? I have put that question to a number of politicians. I have suggested it relates to financial donations, but this is denied. Financial donations are usually the reason why inexplicable attention is given to a particular cause. What other reason could there be? Clearly the reason cannot be support for a just cause.
Support for Israel is a just cause – but not on any terms. Israel must make clear what it wants. When demands are made of Palestinians, and then met, other demands are made. The demand that the State of Israel be recognised has been met. Now the demand is that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish State. If that is what it wants then it should immediately withdraw to the 1967 borders and evacuate all the illegal 700,000 settlers on the West Bank. This is clearly not what Netanyahu or his government intend. Even if this were achieved, which, given numerous statements emanating from members of the Knesset make it extremely unlikely, what then would be the status of the 20% Arab population who currently reside in Israel?
If Israel wants a ‘Greater Israel’, a state with borders from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, it cannot under any circumstance be a Jewish State. If Israel wants to be known as a democratic State, then it must grant equal rights to all citizens. In Israel itself the 20% Arab population endures discriminatory restrictions that do not apply to the Jewish population. Despite these restrictions, Israel itself cannot be fairly described as an apartheid state. But this is not the case with the regime it runs in the occupied territories. Palestinians live under an apartheid regime that appears more uncompromising by the day.
My challenge to Australian politicians on both sides of the political divide is do far more than pay lip service to a two-state solution. Lip service where nothing changes, indeed where the oppression becomes more entrenched year on year, makes Australia compliant to apartheid, a situation long eschewed by Australia in relation to South Africa.
The account of an interview by Robert Cohen, a respected but dissident Jewish writer in England’s premier Church of England weekly is apposite to the points I am making https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/1-december/features/features/the-truth-is-simple-but-unwelcome Cohen has been “writing from the edge”, as he puts it, since 2011, primarily about interfaith relations and Israel/Palestine, in a monthly blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift. The reference is to Micah 6.8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So far, so uncontroversial. Many of the people whom he criticises implicitly, Christian and Jewish, would endorse that prophetic call. The conclusions that Cohen comes to, however, are sometimes very different from theirs. In particular, he is calling for Churches to commit to “costly solidarity” with the Palestinian people. Among his prescriptions is “refusing to allow your local Jewish communal leadership to set the boundaries of permissible debate on Israel”.
So am I an anti-Semite?
· If demanding that Palestinians have equal rights with Israelis is anti-Semitic then yes I am an anti-Semite.
· If demanding that Israel end the occupation and allow a free and sustainable Palestinian civil society is anti-Semitic, yes I am an anti-Semite
· If calling out the Israeli government for its hypocritical values and standards, granting a liberal life style to its own and denying it to the Palestinians is anti-Semitic, then yes I am anti-Semitic.
· If saying that the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians stand in sharp contrast with the values of righteousness and justice espoused in the Hebrew scriptures, which I honour, is anti-Semitic, then yes I am anti-Semitic.
· Do I honour Jewish religion? Absolutely, and with respect probably know far more about it than the average secular Jew. Do I respect Jewish culture and ethnicity? Absolutely, indeed the Jewish roots within my own family are treasured.
· Are any Jews members of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network that I chair? Absolutely, indeed on its executive. There are a significant number of Australian Jews who make all the points that I make against the Israeli government and yet with greater passion and urgency because, as they claim, the Israeli government does not act in their name.
I understand the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to say that any sense of chosenness that might be understood and humbly accepted, is never for oneself, but it is to be acknowledged and implemented in the blessing that must flow to others.
Any attempt to silence me will be treated with the contempt it deserves. If any disagree with the veracity of the statements I have made then come with me to Palestine and see for yourselves.
Will escalating disengagement with Christianity by the average Australian punter be the unfortunate legacy of the marriage equality debate?
Bishop Michael Stead (assistant Anglican Bishop in the Diocese of Sydney) was asked a question like this on Radio National following the announcement that Australians had decisively voted ‘Yes’.
His answer was that Australia is becoming more and more secular and that Australians are increasingly disengaged from religion, not out of a reasoned rejection of its beliefs and propositions but out of ignorance, apathy and disinterest.
I agree that there is a very sad and growing illiteracy about religion in the general population, but I disagree that apathy adequately explains a fairly rapid decline in religious or Church affiliation. It seem to me that those of us who have a responsibility to engage with the general population in matters of faith have to accede that many have weighed values that the Church appears to represent and have found them wanting.
Those espousing the ‘no case’ have argued they are being faithful to ‘the Word of God’. But to which part of that Word are they being faithful?
The general population clearly understands that intimacy and companionship are essential within the human condition. The ‘Word of God’ agrees. Indeed, scripture states this is because all exist out of and within the embrace of God: we are born to intimacy as a bird is born to fly. “It is not good for man (human) to live alone”. Lack of intimacy, for whatever reason, can lead to behavioural aberrations harmful to the person and the wider community. It is clear that while the majority of the population are intimate with a member of the opposite sex, a significant minority can only find this deep level of intimacy within their own gender. For others there is profound ambiguity. It is thoroughly desirable that society recognises and ennobles relationships which are stable and hopefully lifelong. A secular and pluralist society, as ours is, expects its elected representatives to enact legislation that protects the rights and freedoms of all.
It could therefore be argued that because of its appreciation of the necessity of intimacy, the ‘Word of God’ gives communities of faith the special responsibility of nurturing safe and secure intimacy for all. That members of the LGBTI community wish their intimacy to be given public status, hopefully as a lifelong commitment “in good times and in bad’ has to be in the interests of society as a whole.
In my 50+ years in ordained ministry I have been aware of a number of gay clergy who entered heterosexual marriages because, at that time, they perceived this was the only way in which they could find acceptance, either by God, the Church or the wider community. In most cases these relationships ended in tears and in two cases brought the people concerned and the Church into serious disrepute.
As Psalm 19 wonderfully portrays ‘the Word of God’ is made known to us in the natural order and in written text. The natural order speaks to the text and the text speaks to the natural order. Neither science nor religion invent, both are on a constant road of discovery, discovery which is richest when held in dialogue, not in isolation.
This is not to say that religion is to conform to contemporary mores and culture - absolutely not. But it is to say that eternal truths must be constantly re-interpreted in the light of new understandings of the natural order. Within the space of my lifetime science has helped us understand the complexities of human sexuality and the dangers in which we put individuals and society as a whole if we deny or refuse to accept differences of identity. Cleary the majority understand this. Far from this being a weakening of a moral code, it is perhaps the reverse, it is an encouragement to abandon fleeting, opportunistic and often exploitative gratification for long term mutually life giving relationships. The ‘no case’ has characterised the Church as being incapable of understanding the higher moral priority.
For a moment let us look elsewhere.
Western culture is described by some as being gravely ill through affluenza – I agree. Affluenza is rarely critiqued by the conservative Christian community most well known for the battles it wages on gender and sexuality. And yet of the two issues, it is the latter, greed and material acquisition, about which the written word has far more to say. Far from applying ‘the Word of God’ to this overwhelming affliction of modern society, the Diocese of Sydney (which infamously invested 1Million in the recent no campaign) was so immersed in it that in 2008 it lost a staggering fortune, having borrowed money to invest in what it thought was a bull market. ‘Prosperity Gospel’ much beloved of mega churches, their pastors and adherents conforms Christianity within contemporary culture. It has nothing to do with teachings of the New Testament and is thoroughly disconnected from the revelation of God we see in Jesus.
Affluenza is in danger of bringing our current civilisation undone, because of gross inequity, because of our refusal to respond to the environmental crisis and because internationally the labour of the poor maintains the lifestyle of the wealthy. Where is the application of the ‘Word of God’ within this foreboding context?
‘Conservative’ religion, be it within Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other identity appears
to be consumed with mimicking the free market in a competitive scramble to recruit as many adherents as possible to a particular brand of heaven with almost total disregard for transformative and sacrificial service of the world we share with each other. No wonder then the ‘Word of God’ is not only irrelevant, but grossly self-serving of those who interpret it to reinforce position and advantage.
I recently led ‘chapel’ in a local school. I asked the school student leadership to nominate the subject they wanted me to address – science and religion. In the Q and A I was flabbergasted to realise that an overwhelming majority of the school community understood that religion and science were incompatible and one had to choose between them.
It seems we have arrived at a point of terminal decline for institutional Church in this country, not because the country has become ‘more secular’, but because we have so diminished the ‘Word of God’ that it appears to have nothing of value to say and no dialogue to have with the growth of human knowledge. The good news of course is that the voice of God can never be silenced; it is just that we can no longer expect to hear it where once it could be heard.
The 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation (31 October) has come and gone without much of a ripple. The latest tweet from POTUS commands far more attention. Does that matter?
Well yes it does, let me say why.
Martin Luther and the Reformation bridge two enormously influential periods of history, benefiting from one (the Renaissance) and contributing to the emergence of the other (the Enlightenment). Both periods have influenced and will continue to influence succeeding generations.
The Renaissance (14th-16th centuries). The Renaissance was a time for the re-flowering of the classics – art, literature and thought. The Latin phrase Ad Fontes (back to the sources), describes the underlying energy and motivation of the Renaissance – a greater understanding and appreciation of origins. Luther leaned heavily on this motivation and drew attention to it in the first of his five solas, sola scriptura – scripture alone, scripture being the ‘canon’ or authority of Christianity. He had many beefs with the institutional Church, but his primary concern was that the Church manipulated and abused people with ideas and practices that had no justification in the source – scripture. To hold and extort its wealth and power, the Church traded on the notion that people needed it and its sacramental practice to get to heaven. Luther asserted the scriptural verity that grace is not channelled through an institutional pipeline, but is a free gift that all can access.
Lubricated by the printing press, this was an explosive truth, that neutralised institutional power. The source, the bible, was made easily available – and in the vernacular.
Accessing sources is always important if people are to be able to live free and informed lives. Abusive situations are possible when people are kept in the dark. Power is maintained by keeping people in the dark. A feature of the digital age should be more light and less obfuscation. That this is manifestly not the case may in part be paradoxically attributable to the second great period – the Enlightenment. Let me come to that in a moment.
Luther’s influence spread well beyond theological halls and into the corridors of civil administration. If Luther was only about indulgences, or whether he or Zwingli were more or less right about divine presence in the Eucharist, then the Reformation’s impact would be of only passing interest to those involved with the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide. But it was much more than this. Luther taught that institutions, be they headed by the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, do not have the right to control the consciences and destinies of individuals. While people have responsibilities to one another and to civil authorities, they are answerable solely to God.
Following Luther, the overreaching power and influence of Pope and Emperor declined. While he cannot be directly blamed or praised for the rise of Europe’s nation states, there is no doubt his influence contributed to an environment in which a desire for nationhood as an empowerment of regional or local identity became an unstoppable phenomenon: one that Europe through its later colonialism inflicted (European national identity not indigenous local identity that is) upon peoples in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The Enlightenment (1685 -1815). The Enlightenment is strewn with many instantly recognisable names – Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Kant, Smith.... How is the age to be understood: the ‘age of reason’, or perhaps the ‘age of the individual’? In 2017 is the age’s legacy bane or blessing?
There can be no doubt that the Reformation hastened the age of the individual, an age formalised and entrenched by the Enlightenment. Luther emphasised the capacity of the individual to access the grace of God in Christ. ‘Personal salvation’ and its premier position in Protestant thought can hardly be doubted as any in my age profile can testify through memories of Billy Graham crusades, or a younger generation familiar with the prosperity gospel served up in many or most mega churches today can also testify.
The great names of the Enlightenment have bequeathed an enormous legacy to humankind. But an unintended downside now needs correction. Bane and blessing almost always travel together. I contend the Enlightenment and the Reformation have bequeathed a priority to individualism that is now in desperate need of correction. Luther and many of Enlightenment thinkers would be aghast at the manner in which ‘individualism’ holds the world captive, stymieing desperately needed climate action, preventing legislation which would curb tax evasion, and negating policy which might reduce the escalating gap between rich and poor. An exaggerated individualism destroys the notion of common good.
The Enlightenment enabled the categorising and classification of knowledge. Disciplines developed that could be understood independently of one another. Little place was left for mystery or indeed for meta narrative. One individual’s account of fact or truth was to become of equal value to that of another. Fairness in the media now assumes that space afforded one view should be provided in equal measure to a counter view, even when there is no legitimate counter view. The illegitimate is therefore legitimised. As mentioned earlier despite the availability of information 24/7 obfuscation rather than enlightenment predominates. Links between smoking and mortality are still open to question, universal vaccinations can be argued as an infringement of individual freedoms and climate change presented as a hoax or conspiracy.
As bizarre as these realities are, they have their origins in the negative side of the Enlightenment. But yet there is more! Social responsibility seeps out of every page of scripture. Yet amongst conservative Christians (politically and probably theologically), social action is nothing, personal piety and private morality is everything.
The Anglican tradition, of which I am heir, holds to a number of verities. One of these is the concept of ‘Via Media’. This does not mean some wishy washy middle way as some would interpret, no, it is a much more noble vision. It is a commitment to valuing opposites, understanding that without the correction that an opposite brings a single proposition becomes a distortion.
Luther railed against an institutional monolith that valued individuals only as cogs in its vast self-serving enterprise. However, asserting the rights of individuals as children of God is not to disassociate them from their belonging to each other in the family of God. In Christ the particular and universal are one. The universal can only be properly understood through the particular (individual) and yet the value and identity of the individual is to be found in its relationship with the universal.
If Luther and the Reformation rescued the individual from the voracious appetite of medieval institutional power: today the Church must be in the forefront of rescuing common good from the voracious appetite of individuals and a philosophy of individualism that now dominates both political and religious life.
To politically link the Battle of Beersheba with the Balfour Declaration , in an attempt to join Australian lives to the future dispossession of Arab peoples in the creation of Israel, is an outrageous re-write of history and a discourtesy to young Australians who lost their lives for other reasons, including the freeing of Arabs from Ottoman control. Dispossession cannot, and should not, ever be normalised.
On 31 October 1917, soldiers of the Australian Light Horse Brigade conducted a successful charge against Ottoman entrenchments at Beersheba, clearing the way for the capture of Jerusalem six weeks later. In its publication Australia and Israel: A Pictorial History the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade celebrates the battle by noting that
On the day Beersheba was captured, the British War Cabinet approved the text of a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations to be made by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which was published two days later.
In this statement the Department of Foreign Affairs, intentionally or otherwise, infers a link between the Battle of Beersheba with the future establishment of Israel. This is a re-write of history and a discourtesy to fallen Australian soldiers. That they happen a few days apart is true, however, this linkage in time has nothing to do with the unfolding of history some decades later, but everything to do with strategies devised to make it more likely that the Allies could eventually win the war.
First, the Battle of Beersheba 31 October 1917. The Battle has antecedents in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, 1916. McMahon was the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Hussein the Sharif of Mecca. In a series of ten letters the British Government promises autonomy to the Arabs between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas if they will rise up against the Ottomans. Students of the 1WW will be familiar with the significance of the “Arab Uprising” in the defeat of the Ottomans. Thus the battle of Beersheba is fought in the context of a promise to local Arabs that their cooperation will be rewarded with sovereignty. Arabs have every reason to feel betrayed, the betrayal demonstrated first in Britain and France’s decision to carve up a substantial part of Arab lands between them after the war, and secondly in the support of the international community for the establishment of Israel and dispossession of Palestinians. Australians who fought in the Battle of Beersheba were fighting first and foremost for King and Empire. Secondly they were fighting against the Ottomans in a campaign which freed Arabs of Ottoman control.
Second the Balfour Declaration 2 November 1917. The Balfour declaration is a statement made by British Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild a leader of the British Zionist movement indicating that Britain would be favorably disposed to the creation of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration stands in contradiction to the promise already made to the Arabs. This contradiction is implied in the text of the declaration. Having affirmed British sympathy for a Jewish homeland, the text goes on to say:
… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
How did Britain come to make two contradictory promises? The answer lies in the stalemate the war had fallen into. The Allies desperately need to defeat the Ottomans to safeguard Suez and in the process free up oil for the emerging energy needs of a transiting navy. The Arab uprising and the promise of autonomy was considered crucial in securing this outcome.
Britain was also desperate to achieve technological advantage over the Germans, and even more desperate to drag the reluctant president Woodrow Wilson into the war. Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, invented a fermentation process for the production of acetone a vital ingredient in the war effort. Weizmann later went on to be the first President of Israel. Britain needed to secure this invention, but even more importantly wanted to use the influence of world Jewry to bring America into the war. The Balfour declaration was drafted with these dual aims in mind.
Modern day Israel is founded upon the dispossession of the Arab people of Palestine- what they call the Nakbah, in contravention of the promise made by Britain to the Arabs. Not only was dispossession, the means of creating modern day Israel, condoned by the international community, but in the subsequent 70 years modern Israel has completely ignored the requirement of the Balfour Declaration that demands the civil and religious rights of pre-existing Arab communities be respected.
Any Beersheba commemoration that celebrates the Balfour Declaration and ignores the crucial Arab role in supporting the British advance in Palestine would be a distortion of history that glorifies the worst aspects of British imperialism and normalises the discrimination suffered by Palestinians today.
I fear the commemoration of Beersheba will be less about remembering and more about forgetting. If the sacrifices of the Arabs, their subsequent betrayal and the current suffering of the Palestinians are all airbrushed from history in favour of a triumphalist Zionist narrative, then the Israeli and Australian governments will be using the commemoration to whitewash a hundred years of colonialism, displacement and apartheid.
The world of news communication appears to be a world in which “one man’s stupidity is another man’s wisdom”. How we view an event or an idea seems to be becoming less and less indebted to veracity inherent in the facts, or the possibilities dormant in the idea, but increasingly shaped by the spin that lubricates the telling. The news outlet we turn on becomes the company we keep and it shapes the opinions we hold. Would we hold the views we do without the spin of our news provider? Why isn’t it possible for an event to be recorded objectively so that no matter which news channel is employed, the story sounds the same?
The reason for this state of affairs is that few news channels are genuinely independent, the vast majority are beholden to their owners, therefore the ‘news’ that comes from them may be 10% news and 90% advocacy. In the case of North Korea it is probably 100% advocacy meaning it is all propaganda.
Because Donald Trump has lived his entire life in a world of advocacy, advocacy of his own brand, he has irreversibly come to mistake advocacy for news and news for advocacy. Therefore, any item that does not promote his brand is false – fake news. What he means by ‘fake news’ has nothing to do with news, but everything to do with what he deems harmful to his brand of advocacy. It is really quite simple, facts are not important, image is all important; facts that tarnish the image are fake.
If this confusion of advocacy and news were restricted to the US that would be serious enough, but unfortunately it is not. Two battles relating to news and the forming of public opinion are currently raging in the halls of Australian political power. The first is between public broadcasting and privately owned news outlets, especially the Murdoch Empire of Fox and News Limited. In order to secure One Nation’s votes in the parliament the government is allowing, perhaps even promoting, moves that would seek to diminish the influence of the ABC and SBS. It suits the government to describe the national broadcaster as left leaning, because it can then accuse the broadcaster of bias. But why is it left leaning to support science? Why is it left leaning to give voice to gender equality which is clearly supported by the vast majority of Australians? Why is it left leaning to expose issues of corruption such as NT children in detention or the corruption of Adani? Why is it left leaning to speak coherently about many of the major issues facing our contemporary world? Which groupings of self-interest is the national broadcaster advocating on behalf of in these exposés - none that I can detect, other than the common good. The public broadcaster goes beyond the 30 second grab to engage the listener/viewer at some depth about often complex issues. Apparently it is left leaning to do so. Why? Why wouldn’t such activity be party political neutral; adequately informing the public should be the aim of all broadcasters and all politicians.
The second battle relates to Get-up. Groups such as Get-up do not pretend to be anything other than advocacy groups. They exist, to promote the issues which were the rationale for their formation. Get-up is not a news channel, neither is it the channel of a political party. That issues it espouses are taken up more by one side of politics than another encourages or discourages electors according to their disposition. On the other hand Fox News is an advocacy medium that does not bother to hide its political leanings. It is every bit as much an advocacy channel as Get-up, and yet it masquerades as a news channel. Fox News advocates for big business and monopolies and it promotes all that is wrong with capitalism (see NZ political outcome) in exactly the same way that Get-up argues the case for social equity and environmental sustainability. The identity and freedom of Get-Up is currently being challenged. I would argue that whatever legitimacy this challenge may have, it applies even more to Fox.
The world has entered a very dangerous phase of its existence, because consequences flow from our actions as never before. This is a phase in which the vast majority would, I have no doubt, like to do the ‘right thing’; but because the ‘right thing’ is so often described as ‘fake’ by powerful corporate interests, confusion reigns as seen in the energy ‘wars’ of Australia.
The antidote to self-interest is to be exposed more broadly. November 1 is All Saints day, when the Christian community celebrates the extraordinary diversity of company that we keep and the ideal of shalom (peace, harmony, equity) under the sovereignty of God that holds us together. The ethical demands of monotheism are challenging, for we hold that all life is a continuum, the life of one matters to all. The bible describes as saints those who seek the common good, those who give voice to the voiceless and seek to empower the disempowered. It is such a strange thing that Christians who today describe themselves as politically conservative consider this behaviour to be ‘left wing’.
We believe in a living community which transcends generations, ethnicities, and difference of any kind and through which we are all enriched. It is the Christian perspective that the universal is to be understood through the particular, but that the particular finds its destiny and value in the universal. As global as we think we have become, the truth is that modern society is regressing more and more into tribes of self interest which diminish rather than enrich.
Recently released Fairfax poll figures indicating that Australia records the highest percentage of citizens of any comparable country believing the world would be better off without religion because of its assumed connection with violence is somewhat of a shock. That we are apparently more tolerant of religious difference than most is comforting, but does not ameliorate the first figure.
This finding is salutatory reading and it is not hard to understand why.
First, the Royal Commission’s findings on Child Sexual abuse within the Church are deeply shocking and not helped by more than ample evidence that much of this appalling activity has been ignored or worse, covered up. While institutional perpetrators are relatively few and statistically children are most at risk from family members, never the less the Church’s role is shocking and the consequent lack of trust and disdain will take a long time to ameliorate.
Second, past and current history records numerous shocking events, including ethnic cleansings, which appear to result from religious dispute. The examples are as obvious as they are numerous, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, The Middle East, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar etc.
Third, despite recent migration which has seen a dramatic increase in folk of other faiths especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Australia remains significantly a Christian country in terms of its heritage, customs and practices. And yet knowledge of Christianity in Australia, not simply from the almost one quarter who now identify as ‘no religion’, but also from many who still claim some Christian allegiance, is negligible. As Martin Luther King once memorably retorted in face of Christian based white supremacy violence in the US south, “what is required is not less Christianity, but more”.
That violence will not end with religious demise is easily illustrated by mentioning the following well known names, all of whom have lived and acted in modern history without any known religious affiliation or motivation: Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao. However, this is weak defence. We still need to know why religion and violence have any connection.
Nor is it adequate defence to state the obvious, that religion and particularly Christian religion in the West has contributed to and in many cases founded the social reforms in education, medicine and social welfare which we now take for granted, and which form the very essence of modern civil society. It does not help either to remind everyone that much of the very best in music, art, architecture, and literature is inspired by Christian faith. Take them away and we would all be diminished, believers or not. Neither does it help to say that Christians remain vastly over represented in all levels of volunteerism in Australia. None of this explains why people of religion, and of Christian religion in particular, become caught up in shocking violence.
So, how do we respond to this? When religion is involved with violence, is religious faith and adherence the reason for the violence, or has religion been recruited to a cause with origins outside and in fact alien to its foundations. I contend it is the latter and believe that this is the issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of a more peaceful and harmonious world.
It is recognised that the 1st WW unleashed pain and anguish on a hitherto unimagined scale. How and why did this happen? There will never be an end to the writing of books on this subject, but what is clear is that people were recruited to the pride, arrogance and desire for power of competing personalities, several of whom on all sides (British, Russian and German), were all descendants of Queen Victoria. Power, a desire for it, and the desperation involved in keeping it, is at the root of most conflicts. Wealth is the expected outcome of power.
In a world in which power is disproportionately distributed and wealth appears to be the entitlement of a few, violence is often the outcome. Recruiting religion is the easiest way of giving violence credibility and a flag for recruits to follow; even tho the violence is anathema to the religion. The problems in Northern Ireland were all about power and inequality. Britain (protestant) held power and advantage, seen by the Irish Catholic majority as an unacceptable expression of colonialism that was far past its time. Recruiting religion is to recruit passion, to recruit justification; it is an attempt to make unacceptable behaviour acceptable.
The Crusades, perhaps the biggest blight on Christianity’s flawed 2000 year history were more about the domestic audience at home than a commitment flowing from discipleship of Jesus. Popes, Kings and Emperors needed to prove their authority, shore up support and build wealth.
The Balkan conflicts of recent past involving Catholic Croatia, Orthodox Serbia and Muslim Bosnia did not flow from doctrinal differences, but from ethnic aspirations, hopes and fears. And so one can go on. The recruiting of religion for a cause which might be just in its origins but which becomes totally unjust through its actions; is likely to continue long into the future.
So what is to be done? Following the injunction of Dr Martin Luther King, it is more religion, not less that is required. By more I mean that the wider community will make up its mind about the tenets of religion (in our case the Christian religion) by default, if those who are its adherents fail to demonstrate by word and action what believing in that faith truly means – choosing service – perhaps even choosing weakness.
When given an opportunity to do this, we generally fail - dismally. Members of parliament with the highest Christian profile and apparent commitment – Cori Bernardi, George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, are generally perceived to be fighters for yesterday’s causes. The recruiting of religion for violence will always be easy when fundamentalism of any shade is not unequivocally condemned by religious leadership. Fundamentalism is not a sign of religious purity; it is a demonstration of ignorance and misplaced elitism.
It needs to be unequivocally said that the desire for power, the protection of privilege, the use of violence is utterly inimical to followers of Jesus. Even more important it needs to be said and demonstrated that embracing difference, promoting inclusiveness and desiring to serve, are from a Christian perspective responsibilities derivative of being a member of the human race.