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Recently released Fairfax poll figures indicating that Australia records the highest percentage of citizens of any comparable country believing the world would be better off without religion because of its assumed connection with violence is somewhat of a shock. That we are apparently more tolerant of religious difference than most is comforting, but does not ameliorate the first figure.
This finding is salutatory reading and it is not hard to understand why.
First, the Royal Commission’s findings on Child Sexual abuse within the Church are deeply shocking and not helped by more than ample evidence that much of this appalling activity has been ignored or worse, covered up. While institutional perpetrators are relatively few and statistically children are most at risk from family members, never the less the Church’s role is shocking and the consequent lack of trust and disdain will take a long time to ameliorate.
Second, past and current history records numerous shocking events, including ethnic cleansings, which appear to result from religious dispute. The examples are as obvious as they are numerous, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, The Middle East, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar etc.
Third, despite recent migration which has seen a dramatic increase in folk of other faiths especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Australia remains significantly a Christian country in terms of its heritage, customs and practices. And yet knowledge of Christianity in Australia, not simply from the almost one quarter who now identify as ‘no religion’, but also from many who still claim some Christian allegiance, is negligible. As Martin Luther King once memorably retorted in face of Christian based white supremacy violence in the US south, “what is required is not less Christianity, but more”.
That violence will not end with religious demise is easily illustrated by mentioning the following well known names, all of whom have lived and acted in modern history without any known religious affiliation or motivation: Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao. However, this is weak defence. We still need to know why religion and violence have any connection.
Nor is it adequate defence to state the obvious, that religion and particularly Christian religion in the West has contributed to and in many cases founded the social reforms in education, medicine and social welfare which we now take for granted, and which form the very essence of modern civil society. It does not help either to remind everyone that much of the very best in music, art, architecture, and literature is inspired by Christian faith. Take them away and we would all be diminished, believers or not. Neither does it help to say that Christians remain vastly over represented in all levels of volunteerism in Australia. None of this explains why people of religion, and of Christian religion in particular, become caught up in shocking violence.
So, how do we respond to this? When religion is involved with violence, is religious faith and adherence the reason for the violence, or has religion been recruited to a cause with origins outside and in fact alien to its foundations. I contend it is the latter and believe that this is the issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of a more peaceful and harmonious world.
It is recognised that the 1st WW unleashed pain and anguish on a hitherto unimagined scale. How and why did this happen? There will never be an end to the writing of books on this subject, but what is clear is that people were recruited to the pride, arrogance and desire for power of competing personalities, several of whom on all sides (British, Russian and German), were all descendants of Queen Victoria. Power, a desire for it, and the desperation involved in keeping it, is at the root of most conflicts. Wealth is the expected outcome of power.
In a world in which power is disproportionately distributed and wealth appears to be the entitlement of a few, violence is often the outcome. Recruiting religion is the easiest way of giving violence credibility and a flag for recruits to follow; even tho the violence is anathema to the religion. The problems in Northern Ireland were all about power and inequality. Britain (protestant) held power and advantage, seen by the Irish Catholic majority as an unacceptable expression of colonialism that was far past its time. Recruiting religion is to recruit passion, to recruit justification; it is an attempt to make unacceptable behaviour acceptable.
The Crusades, perhaps the biggest blight on Christianity’s flawed 2000 year history were more about the domestic audience at home than a commitment flowing from discipleship of Jesus. Popes, Kings and Emperors needed to prove their authority, shore up support and build wealth.
The Balkan conflicts of recent past involving Catholic Croatia, Orthodox Serbia and Muslim Bosnia did not flow from doctrinal differences, but from ethnic aspirations, hopes and fears. And so one can go on. The recruiting of religion for a cause which might be just in its origins but which becomes totally unjust through its actions; is likely to continue long into the future.
So what is to be done? Following the injunction of Dr Martin Luther King, it is more religion, not less that is required. By more I mean that the wider community will make up its mind about the tenets of religion (in our case the Christian religion) by default, if those who are its adherents fail to demonstrate by word and action what believing in that faith truly means – choosing service – perhaps even choosing weakness.
When given an opportunity to do this, we generally fail - dismally. Members of parliament with the highest Christian profile and apparent commitment – Cori Bernardi, George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, are generally perceived to be fighters for yesterday’s causes. The recruiting of religion for violence will always be easy when fundamentalism of any shade is not unequivocally condemned by religious leadership. Fundamentalism is not a sign of religious purity; it is a demonstration of ignorance and misplaced elitism.
It needs to be unequivocally said that the desire for power, the protection of privilege, the use of violence is utterly inimical to followers of Jesus. Even more important it needs to be said and demonstrated that embracing difference, promoting inclusiveness and desiring to serve, are from a Christian perspective responsibilities derivative of being a member of the human race.
Tony Abbott’s speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation beggars belief. Being invited to speak to this forum is not something the vast majority would want on their cv. As staggering as his cavalier dismissal of science has become, even more staggering is the apparent reality that the Australian population is now being held ransom to his brand of bizarre loopiness.
What has become of us, or will become of us, if political leadership, or lack of it, continues in its current accommodating vein to such brazen nonsense?
The points Mr Abbott made in his speech are so embarrassing that even many he would normally count on as colleagues are stunned into silence. His points are so bizarre they do not deserve countering.
But what does deserve comment is the content of predicted energy policy statements from the Turnbull government. Because of the government’s slim majority, is it, and by default the whole Australian population, going to be held hostage to this infantile but yet dangerous madness? The Finkel report is not simply about environmental stability, it is also about policy certainty, a necessity for adequate financial investment. It is Finkel’s view that a Clean Energy Target is one of the best mechanisms to achieve this dual goal – as demonstrated by an increasing array of policy worldwide. If this central pillar of the Finkel review is to be abandoned, the Australian people deserve a cogent argument as to why politics should trump science and reason.
It is true that costs associated with renewable energy are continuing to fall and even if the target is abandoned, we may now be in a position where the market does the job anyway – no thanks to politics.
It is clear that ‘clean coal’ is not simply an oxymoron, but that the costs associated with capturing emissions will place coal fired power stations increasingly beyond the reach of sensible private investment. Is this very conservative government then going to invent its own brand of socialism by investing tax payer’s money into projects which private investment cannot touch without government guarantee?
We are at a point where the government must finally and unequivocally say ‘no’ to ‘Mr No’. Mr Abbott has almost single handedly turned Australian political life from a bumbling ‘b grade’ into a toxic ‘d grade’. (If proof of this statement is needed, look at the proliferation of minor parties and causes). He has made an art form of opposition, of opposing absolutely anything and everything that he has not mouthed himself – even from within his own party. That he and literally a tiny handful of supports can hold the country to ransom is a shocking scandal that must end.
Mr Turnbull, end this nonsense and the Australian people might stay with you. Fail to end it and you and your government will be remembered as one of the most gutless we have ever encountered. This gutlessness is not simply political weakness; its consequences endanger the future of us all. We are increasingly seeing the true Abbott, the vista is clearly very unattractive. Let’s see the true Turnbull, unlike Abbott, someone who has a life and therefore, standing for principle, can risk being defeated, knowing that inner integrity remains intact. Doing deals with loopy people, making the Australian people pay the price, is a total lack of integrity.
When I was a young boy attending boarding school in the northern hemisphere, Michaelmas Term, the final term of the calendar year (but first of the academic year), was a favourite, partly because it heralded the beginning of the football season and partly because it heralded the approach of Christmas.
Michaelmas gains its name from Michael, or more specifically St Michael, the archangel, whose day is celebrated, with all other angels, on the 29th September. Now, don’t turn immediately off, as if I am employing the same vocabulary as fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dancing with angels is a metaphor for being at the point where heaven and earth meet – and who would not want to be there!
‘Angel’ essentially means a ‘messenger’. I am very open to, but agnostic about, the existence of beings in the spiritual or heavenly realm who might be known as angels, cherubim or seraphim. Teaching about them escalated in the Hebrew world after the exile (586 BC) when a sense of the remoteness of God hightened and the need for intermediaries between the human and the divine increased. The New Testament is not silent on the subject, (the Book of Revelation having most references), but the New Testament position could be well summarised in the letter to the Hebrews which states that the incarnation of Jesus has removed the need for any intermediary.
But the need for insight, inspiration, flashes of light, new understandings, a sense of direction, an awareness of the sacred, has far from diminished, indeed in the face of the banal distractions of the modern world such sources of inspiration or ‘messages’ are as important if not more important than ever. So too is the need for a guardian who will protect us from the perils of the world and our own foolishness. The question is: are we open? Do we know how to listen, or even where to look? The Christian narrative is an affirmation that God ‘speaks’.
There is ample evidence that we are open to narratives of death and destruction. Any analysis of daily news clips will confirm this predilection: but we may not be as open to narratives of life and light. There are of course reasons for this. In a macabre way it is comforting to hear of the misfortune or mistakes of others, we may be tempted to value ourselves positively by comparison. All heroes, even the most ‘saintly’, are fallible and in the end disappoint us: institutions such as the Church are easily corrupted. However there are reliable constants that we ignore at our absolute peril.
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”. “It is more blessed to give than receive”. “What you hold on to you lose, what you give away you keep”. “We are but dust and to dust we shall return”. These are examples of constant verities that come to us from sacred writ. The bible is hardly known these days and is demeaned in equal measure by literal fundamentalists as it is by Dawkins or Hitchins.
But I want to take us to the points where heaven and earth meet, the point which the bible exquisitely describes as the place where angels ascend and descend. Jewish and Christian traditions are born out of such places. Indeed all the great religious festivals in both traditions emerge originally out of the meeting of natural ‘religion’ and its interpretation in ‘revealed’ religion.
So where in our contemporary world are some of these places where the angels of God ascend and descend? Ironically one such place is in the terrible disasters, natural and human caused, where it becomes blatantly clear that our belonging to one another is of far greater importance than our ‘independence’. Recent shared suffering in the Caribbean will have some of these hallmarks. Triumph over tragedy (invictus games) is where angels ascend and descend. We are essentially a society, a communal people, independence is an illusion, our identity is found in our belonging and the nourishing of our belonging is where meaning lies. In disasters we find a sense of care and responsibility for one another that the normal competitiveness of life steals from us. Here we meet the angels.
Another such place is the exquisite beauty and yet frailty of the natural order. In our world of technology and artificial intelligence we can manipulate, exploit and throw away what is; and do it after our own image and likeness, but we cannot add one jot or tittle to what is given. We can diminish it, but not increase it. The natural order with its balance and rhythms is a given. The natural order, experienced through dawn and sunset, the song of a bird, the lapping of waves, the desert blooming are all moments for taking off the shoes for we are on holy ground. We know this. We all know this. It makes utterly incomprehensible the persistence of our political elite with ventures like the Adani mine. Adani would cut down anything to do with angels ascending and descending. But that is another blog.
Hospitality to strangers is another place, for as scripture reminds us, through it we may well be sitting at table with angels, unawares.
May I venture one further place where the angels ascend and descend? It is the place of reconciliation. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together arranged his funeral. Surely this was a meeting place of the angels. At the end of Rwandan genocide Tutsi and Hutu found a way of living again in the same villages. At the conclusion of Gallipoli, Ataturk declared the fallen allied soldiers Turkish sons as well. The world desperately needs more reconciliation. The Middle East cries out for it. We all need it in one way or another.
The angels of God are not ascending and descending where the political elite gather, where finding difference with the other side is more important than commonality. The angels of God are not ascending and descending where xenophobic words attract public support. And above all the angels of God are not ascending and descending on a global population who would rather exploit an extra dollar this year than invest in the ongoing fecundity of the natural order for succeeding years. This natural order still has the capacity to support life, including human, as far into the future as we can look back into the past, but by our actions, despite all the knowledge at our disposal, we are still prepared to put everything at risk and steal the future from those yet to be born.
Happy Michaelmas! This is a time of insight, meaning and direction. May we seek to find ourselves at points where the angels of God are ascending and descending, as Philip once declared they were on the Son of Man.
You must all have watched last night's 4 Corners programme. Please flood the email's of the Prime Minister, the Premier of Queensland the Minister for Energy and the Environment and your local member with emails of outrage. That this project still has the support of the Federal and State governments is an absolute obscenity. More about this later.
We human beings should be aware that life ebbs and flows. Rhythms of life need to be acknowledged and attended to. We are conscious that we can be extended in one direction for a while but we need to adjust back and find balance. This is the journey of life. Being pushed to an extreme position mentally, physically, or emotionally for an extended period can sometimes make the way back very difficult. On occasions even a very short but acute experience can be so severe that the way back to balance is fraught. Such is the experience of those suffering PTSD.
I have just read Maj. Gen. John Cantwell’s Exit Wounds (Melb. Uni. Press 2012). What an extraordinary book, so well written, so devastatingly honest, so revealing both of the unseen suffering inflicted by war on the combatants, but also of the futility of the war itself. It is one of the most important books I have read this year. The courage, leadership and tenacity of John Cantwell, through two Gulf Wars and then Afghanistan leaves one speechless, but I will leave you to read his story and vicariously the story of other servicemen and women with PTSD, men and women to whom the nation owes a great deal, but largely ignores. I have been left with a huge admiration for members of the armed forces, their courage, their skill and their loyalty to comrades and country.
I want however to reflect on war itself and Australia’s extraordinary addiction to joining any scrap without a clear understanding of why. Ignorance of the complexities in which we have meddled for political reasons is obvious: therefore the consequences of our actions, especially in Iraq, can rightly be described as wilful.
The Middle East is in a terrible mess. Did it need to be so? Has the military involvement of the West helped or hindered this mess?
Let us go back a century. At the beginning of the 20th century the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire; various Arab tribes were its willing or unwilling subjects. Their lives could almost certainly be improved, but who had the right to decide how this improvement should be delivered?
To win WW1 the allies had to defeat the German/Ottoman alliance and in particular to keep open the supply lines through Suez. A ready supply of oil was also necessary to meet transport needs that were quickly embracing diesel fuel technology. With the promise of autonomy following the war, Britain was able to encourage an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. The allies, together with the Arabs, pushed the Ottomans out of the Middle East and ultimately the last Islamic caliphate collapsed. (The battle of Beersheba, whose centenary falls in October, was part of this strategy). Following the war Britain and France carved up the Middle East on its terms with little reference to Arab hopes or needs. Palestine, Jordan and Iraq were forged with national identities under British oversight, Syria and Lebanon under French. The Arab tribes now lived within ‘national’ boundaries, boundaries that had been drawn up by European powers. It was probably not the ‘autonomy’ the Arabs had in mind. Within these national boundaries power struggles emerged that pitted neighbours against each other. In particular, Shia, Sunni and Kurds needed to work at governmental and administrative arrangements that had never been necessary before.
Britain appointed an Iraqi monarch – King Faisal, his successor was overthrown by Saddam Hussein who with his Sunni dominated Bar’th party ruled with some brutality over both the Kurds and the Shia population. The gassing of the Kurdish civilian population was a terrible example of the brutality. The long and brutal war between Iran and Iraq was essentially a battle between Sunni and Shia, a battle in which the West took the side of Iraq. The battle was very expensive and when it concluded in a stalemate Hussein owed creditors a lot of money. His invasion of Kuwait was an attempt to address this issue.
Pushing Hussein out of Kuwait (1st Gulf war) was brutally quick and could be argued as necessary to restore a status quo. The second Gulf War was a different matter all together. We know the excuse was ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but what was it that Australia thought it was achieving and for which its service men and women paid a terrible price?
Hussein and Sunni control of Iraq came to a bloody end. In its place the US enabled the appointment of a Shia government. Civil war erupted. Shia militia wreaked revenge on Sunni civilians, their neighbourhoods and suburbs. Sunni militia retaliated. Death and destruction occurred on a massive scale. The Iraqi government turned a blind eye to atrocities against the Sunni population, even protecting Shia war lords; while the Sunni population maintained a brutal attack on Shia populations, particularly in Baghdad. The balances, however imperfect, that had existed and enabled a reasonable level of co-existence were now gone.
Instead of PTSD being an infliction suffered in private by individual servicemen and women who have seen and experienced more than human beings can reasonably endure; a shared ethnic/religious/national ‘PTSD’ emerged with suffering and violence rolling into suffering and violence, without the capacity of any to stop it – least of all the US led forces. The normality of coexistence had been replaced with a new normality of reciprocal acts of death and destruction.
The latest and most horrific manifestations of this phenomenon has been ISIS an extreme ideological expression of Sunni religion, apparently with foundations in Wahibism; Islamic puritanism with roots in Saudi Arabia. Did the West create ISIS? - No. Did the West upturn a prevailing power balance creating a hiatus within which ISIS has emerged? – Yes, absolutely. Has the West’s repeated interference in the affairs of those who live in the Middle East brought about a loss of the balance which enabled Shia and Sunni, Christian and Alawites to live side by side for centuries – tragically, yes. With John Cantwell, we might well ask “what the f... are we doing here” and why have we caused so many lives to be lost – for what?
Rhythm and balance lie at the heart of the created order. Eco-systems, species, individuals and the globe as a whole depend upon this reality. A shock that disturbs the balance can take years or in the case of the meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs, millennia to correct. In the case of some forms of abuse, the individual simply never recovers.
Scientists are giving more than enough warnings that progressively, like a frog in a pot of boiling water, we are upsetting the ecological and environmental balances that have enabled the flourishing of (human) life over the period known as the Holocene.
What is it about us as a species that despite the capacity to understand these things, a desire for revenge, or advantage, or wealth or simple bloody mindedness drives us into actions which are so destructive? John Cantwell is of the view that what has been achieved in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost of human lives lost there. This is clearly the case in Iraq.
It is not in Australia’s interest to enter battles simply because the US does. To enter a battle is to lose, no matter the outcome. It is in Australia’s interest to understand the balances that enable life to flourish in many different and complex environments and to invest in supporting them. This requires a vastly different foreign policy to the one we have been used to with its often hypocritical alliances and it requires us to see foreign aid as a far more productive strategy for harmony peace and security than defence expenditure.
All of us should be students of history so that mistakes are not repeated: but we don’t. History warns that, long term, dire consequences flow from treating one race as inferior to another. Perhaps the most awful event, of modern history, an event remaining in the memory of the most elderly amongst us, is the holocaust. Millions of European civilians, mainly but not exclusively Jews, went to the gas chamber. It is an event so horrendous that it should never be forgotten.
An event as horrendous as this affects the individual and corporate psyche of those who remain. For those who survive and their descendants there is good reason not to trust others, least of all for security; but to work tirelessly for absolute control so that one’s own life and its safety does not depend upon the decisions of others. Getting a nuclear bomb as Israel has long since done and North Korea is currently attempting to achieve, is one tactic along this path.
All of this is understandable. It is background to the philosophy and ideology of modern day Israel. But the consequence of walling oneself into a cocoon in which the morality of one’s action is self-justifying and closed to the critique of others is dangerous, and worse, could be calamitous.
It is dangerous for those who are now treated as those in Germany and Poland were once treated, inferior and expendable, and ultimately it is very dangerous for the perpetrator - Israel. (I am not in any way inferring the holocaust is happening again, but I am saying that a culture of superiority and entitlement has developed which in turn imposes expendability on others). A victim does not remain a victim in perpetuity, a line is crossed when the victim, in choosing to remain a victim, becomes the abuser and the cycle of violence, like a sling-shot, makes other victims in another generation and place.
Such is the situation in which modern day Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu has now placed itself.
The situation is brilliantly and movingly portrayed in John Lyons, Balcony over Jerusalem, a diary of his posting as a journalist to the Middle East. This is a must read for any who would genuinely seek to understand the Israel/Palestine crisis and particularly for those who have the responsibility of forming Australian policy in relation to this crisis.
Reading the book one encounters the reality which is Israel/Palestine in 2017 through the eyes of one who lived and worked there as a professional journalist, one who sought to be balanced and not biased, but who was deeply shocked by what he saw. Even for those who visit the West Bank for a few days it is a shock to discover the appalling day by day treatment of the Palestinian people through increasingly discriminatory legislation enacted by the Israeli government; through humiliation and at times outright cruelty meted out by the Israeli occupying army; and by the brutality and hatred of the ideologically driven illegal settlers. For those of us from the West who have lived with a narrative that Israel is really a western country that shares western values it is indeed quite shocking.
However, equally shocking is to discover that to speak of this situation, particularly to speak outside Israel, is to court aggressive denial and abuse from supporters of Israel. Such is the aggression, Lyons asserts, that the majority of journalists from anywhere in the world self censor rather than convey the full naked truth. Such is the influence of Israeli supporters within western power structures, governmental and beyond, that the cost of telling the truth is too high.
At a personal level Lyons testifies to the various attempts made against him both through senior management at his employer, the Australian and through other influential Australian figures. The pro-Israel lobby is highly professional, well resourced and adept at targeting those who it believes will do its narrative harm by telling the truth. In Australia the pro-Israel lobby is proportionately amongst the most aggressive in the world, sometimes even exceeding the narrative of the Israeli government itself. To the Lobby, no action however wrong and distorting of truth it might be appears to be ruled out if it can present a picture of Israel as the only free, democratic and morally acceptable regime in the Middle East: would that this were true. Sadly it is so far from the truth.
Israel is a legitimate nation; it needs and deserves secure borders. It needs its legitimacy to be acknowledged and recognised by friend and foe alike. Unfortunately Israel undermines its legitimacy through its greed and refusal to live within its own borders. The ambitious policy of ‘greater Israel’ is now pretty well transparent. Under Netanyahu there is a clear ambition to annex the whole of the West Bank. The settlement programme (which Israel insists is not the main stumbling block to peace) has already made a contiguous Palestinian State virtually impossible – as was clearly always the aim. Where does this leave Palestinians? Every attempt is being made to make life so horrendous for them that they will disappear, migrate to Jordan or some other place. But they are not going anywhere – nor should they. The future looks like a collection of disconnected Bantustans and a permanent state of apartheid. This is what the Israeli government is forcing not simply on Palestinians but also on its own people. As history shows apartheid in which a minority control and subjugate a majority, is a very dangerous place, with violence as an almost inevitable outcome. This is the legacy Netanyahu is bequeathing his people.
It is little wonder that in increasing numbers moderate Jews are migrating out of Israel, leaving behind an increasingly hardline constituency, often recent migrants from Russia and the US. The migration policy into Israel is hardly keeping pace with the emigration out of Israel.
The current situation in Israel/Palestine appears close to a point of no return. If the two-state solution is now beyond delivering, a truth that seems very hard to argue against, then Israel has to choose between democracy and a Jewish State. (That the Arab population is and will exceed the Jewish population seems an incontestable fact). As Lyons says, this is an awful choice with consequences that are far reaching not simply for others, but for Israel itself. Many retired members of the Israeli armed forces and it security arm now warn Israel of the dangerous path it is treading. It appears deaf to this warning.
This leaves Palestinians with no choice, human subsistence is intolerable and diabolically dangerous for Israel; humans cannot and should not tolerate existence without freedom.
‘Cruel’ and ‘morally reprehensible’ are not accusations one should lightly throw around, especially if they are aimed at the actions of others (People who live in glass houses etc...) But I am using these words in relation to actions taken by those with delegated authority through the ballot box to act on my behalf. I am not using the words in relation to ‘another’, but describing actions which, at least notionally, reflect my character and moral view of the world as an Australian citizen. I have the right, no, the obligation, to call out actions which impute a standard that diminishes me and my fellow citizens.
I am of course referring to the actions and intended actions of the Australian government in relation to detainees on Manus, Nauru and those who have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
The news in the last couple of days that the meagre assistance provided to approximately 100 of the 370 detainees who had been transferred to Australia for medical reasons is to be withdrawn, is cruel and it is morally reprehensible. The actions currently underway on Manus to have the Detention Centre closed without any clear provision being made for those held there is also in this category: so too is the charade of pretending we have an agreement for a significant number to be settled in the US.
It is the obvious intention of the Australian government to force asylum seekers (including children), back to Nauru or Manus or preferably back to the country from which they came. These are not illegals as Mr Dutton would have us believe. Seeking asylum is not illegal, it is a basic human right, indeed most have been declared refugees by UNHCR
That the action is cruel is obvious. Hopes are dashed, mental distress is heaped upon mental illnesses and the real prospect of torture in the country from which they came looms as an almost inevitable reality.
The action is morally reprehensible because it is politically motivated and self serving and totally unnecessary. Naomi Klein in her recent book No is not Enough argues that governments the world over manipulate crises, or in the absence of crisis concoct one, in order to enforce outcomes that without the crisis would be totally unacceptable. One can hear this tactic daily in the tweets of Donald Trump. But nearer to home we hear it every time the Minister for Immigration opens his mouth. He would have us believe we are in dire trouble. Thousands of displaced people are waiting on shore lines to invade us. Giving a cup of cold water to someone on Manus or Nauru will restart the people smuggling. Caring for the sick is misplaced compassion by ‘do-gooders’.
What a lot of mischievous bunkum this is. The message is already loud and clear. Anyone leaving for Australia in a boat will simply not arrive, period. There is ample evidence to demonstrate the veracity of this statement. It is simply not necessary to heap cruelty upon cruelty on a group of asylum seekers, caught in a time warp, to fulfil a commitment to the Australian population that our borders are secure. These are people who set out on a boat during a previous administration, when arriving on Christmas Island was a very risky but nevertheless a real option. It is no longer an option.
Are we going to keep these men women and children forever in this time warp with no hope: existing without living? What kind of people are we that we can do this, and do it with a sense of righteousness? We are encouraged to feel righteous every time Mr Dutton uses the language of ‘illegals”. It is not illegal to seek asylum
We are all severely diminished by these actions. How can we possibly see ourselves as a morally progressive nation and yet do this?
It is never right to solve a problem by inflicting pain on someone else. That there are unethical people smugglers who prey on the lives of innocent and vulnerable people for profit, there is no doubt. That is a problem with which we have to contend. But to punish innocent people, people seeking sanctuary, who arrived looking for safety, is not acceptable to a nation that prides itself on values of fairness.
Mr Dutton, you do not act in my name, indeed your words and actions diminish me. Nor do I believe you act in the name of any fair minded Australian. I will not accept your artificial crisis construct to justify your policies. As a people we are better than that, the settlement of these folk in Australia is what should happen, it should have happened long ago. The consequence for people smuggling, such as it might be, is clearly within your capacity to deal with.
On Wednesday the Minister for Finance spoke at the Sydney Institute equating personal wealth with success, deploring tax as a ‘culture of envy’. Defending neoliberal economic policy, he belittled public ownership as ‘socialism’ and by inference declared everything to be for sale. Given every civilisation has a finite life I argue the Minister’s philosophy, universally applied, will bring forward the end date of ours. A poll of the ‘centennials’ indicates they expect themselves to be the first generation to ‘enjoy’ a poorer life style than their parents
The address by Matthias Corman to the Sydney Institute deserves debate and conversation for it touches on the very foundations of what it means to live in a sustainable, meaningful, and life giving world. Where are we in the life cycle of western civilisation and will equating wealth with success lengthen or shorten its life?
What does the minister mean by success? ‘Success’ is a value laden word. He appears to equate it with siloing as much material advantage as possible in private barns. In other words, to the Minister the most successful people in society are the people with the most money and who have the capacity through their toys to demonstrate the most glitter.
I strongly beg to differ. Success is meaningless if it is simply associated with wealth. Material wealth must serve well being; often it seems to diminish it. Because ‘success’ is value laden, its context must relate to virtue. The most successful people are those who have faced difficultly and triumphed. Successful people are those whose esteem and sense of worth has grown through the empowerment they have been able to build in others, their family, their community and nation. Successful people are those who have contributed to a harmonious world.
Now, many wealthy people are successful people, but sadly statistics show that the connection between wealth, community building, or virtue cannot be assumed or taken for granted.
Nor indeed can it even be assumed that wealth has contributed to the wellbeing and contentedness of those who have achieved it.
This is the rub Minister, no one in their right mind will envy people with wealth, unless that wealth contributes to common good; nor will those with sense envy wealth if it has not issued in contentedness. If one is to envy anyone, don’t waste the envy, envy those who have achieved a life of contentedness, such a state does not have direct bearing on wealth, indeed, except for those who live in extreme poverty it is statistically more likely that the contented are not particularly wealthy.
Minister, I do not hold a candle for any political party so my criticism of neoliberal economic policy is not motivated by left or right, but by the simple truth that neo-liberal economics, into which capitalism has morphed in recent decades, has failed and is failing society in the same way that communistic socialism failed societies in the past. Communism failed because it diminished individual well being and incentive. Neo-liberal economics fails because it does not value or undergird societal values upon which we all depend.
Any economic or social policy has to be judged on the outcomes it achieves in wellbeing both for individuals and for society as a whole. The chair of the reserve bank put it very neatly when, in describing the neo-liberalism you clearly support, he said of the banks “sales have replaced service’.
The problem with neo-liberal economics is the entirely fallacious assumption that everything is for sale, everything has a monetary value first, and a social value second. This error is compounded by the assumption that regulation in favour of societal good should be wound back, allowing individual greed to triumph. This ideology assumes everything should be privatised and that nothing or at least very little should be held in public trust for somehow this is ‘socialism’.
It is frequently the case that the very wealthy are not wealthy because they produce anything, or because they contribute anything, but they are wealthy because of the assets they control and the political influence they are able to wield. In many cases these assets have been stripped from public ownership.
I am not entirely sure the percentage of wealth that is garnered from the ‘finance industry’ but it is substantial. Wealth that is gained by short selling, by gambling on shares or currency going up or down contributes absolutely nothing to a sustainable civilisation and should be taxed to the hilt.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being wealthy, unless it is ill-gotten. However, what is done with wealth makes it worthy or unworthy, a cause for admiration or a source of pity.
Those who make the greater contribution to the wellbeing of society are often those who are least rewarded materially. The problem with the economic ideology that you espouse is that it appears they are ‘losers’, people who have not really understood the game. Well I think they have. They have understood that ultimately good is only good if it is common. Success that is measured in terms of wealth is extremely fleeting, but worse, siloed into private hands it can cripple the entire human enterprise. Any student of history knows that the accumulation and squandering of wealth is very high on the list of reasons why the human enterprise so often trips itself up and kingdoms fall.
Minister, the applause you gained from your address at the Sydney Institute, from those who share the same mindset as yourself may have given you a warm inner glow, but I challenge you to a public debate, in a place like the Sydney town hall where matters of this gravitas can be flushed out in an open arena; and where ideas that contest your economic ideology cannot be so easily passed off as the undermining of the socialist left. The challenge to your economic ideology comes from the lesson of history that exalting wealth as the chief measure of success leads in equal measure to the collapse of the human enterprise as socialistic communism.
This week the Royal Commission made it clear that it would like a law passed through our federal parliament mandating priests who hear a confession relating to child abuse to pass the information on to appropriate authorities. While Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council has signalled sympathy even support for this request, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, says such a requirement would be an infringement of ‘freedom of religion’; and Fr Frank Brennan, in an Opinion Piece in the Fairfax papers, has said if this became law he would simply disobey or cease hearing confessions.
The general population and perhaps even a significant proportion of the catholic community will find this response very hard to understand or accept given the gravity of the situation in which the Church finds itself.
Neither the Archbishop nor Father Brennan have given a considered argument to defend their position, probably because of the reality that an argument based in theology or canon law would not be easy reading in the secular press!
Let me have a shot at it. I assume both Archbishop Hart and Father Brenan are coming from a traditional catholic position that the sacerdotal ministries of the Church are not incidental but necessary and effective conduits of grace to eternal salvation. That is to say, to deny the seal of the confessional to a person in mortal danger who wishes to confess the crime of child abuse is to potentially deny that person their opportunity of salvation. It has been the Roman Catholic position that the capacity to forgive sins, given by Christ to his Church, is facilitated through a sacerdotal priesthood that for more than a thousand years has been expected to be male and celibate.
Five hundred years ago this October Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, heralding the European Reformation. Luther considered many practices of the Roman Church to be abuses, most notably the practice of indulgencies as effective instruments of salvation. But significantly he upheld the importance of confession and it is believed went regularly to confession himself until his death. (Some might suggest his rather florid language should have made this a necessity)!
However, after a struggle in which he wanted to uphold the importance of confession, he considered confession to be a ‘pastoral’ sacrament (along with marriage, unction etc) and not of the same standing as the dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist or Mass). In large measure the Anglican Church, which has retained catholic practice, has adopted Luther’s position.
As a pastoral sacrament, confession, including its seal of confidentiality should be honoured and protected.
Traditionally the sacrament of confession and the absolution that flows from it comprises three parts.
· Contrition - genuine sorrow or penitence of heart
· Confession – the declaring of the fault
· Sanctification – the performance of certain acts, usually of a pious nature.
Luther was critical of the place of sanctification, not in the general sense, but in the specific sense of being a means through which absolution could be achieved. He of course argued that forgiveness is an unwarranted gift of grace, not placated or warranted through any act of ours other than the contrition itself.
It is not the priestly absolution that secures forgiveness and restitution, but grace that flows from genuine contrition, the desire for amendment of life and where it is appropriate or possible, action which heals or restores the hurt and damage caused. Absolution is the outward confirmation of the inner movement of the heart, through the grace of God.
Religious confession (like the oath taken on the bible in a court) assumes the one taking the oath or the one confessing ‘fears’ the judgement that flows from their action, and recognises accountability to God.
No human being alive is immune from the need for ‘amendment of life’. Being able to confess a mistake or misstep to another is one sure path of preventing such an error becoming a pattern, a habit, or a way of life. For those with faith in God, to confess to one appropriately authorised (priest) is a gift of grace.
There are times in most lives when regret or remorse becomes a burden. Often the reason for remorse was not an intended action but an unintended consequence. The relief of this burden is an absolute necessity for a healthy life to be able to embrace the present. For those with religious faith, again the sacrament of confession is a channel of grace.
The capacity to talk in the strictest confidence to another is essential if a person is to be enabled to negotiate troubled pathways and to reveal what needs to be revealed for health wholeness and forgiveness. The seal of the confessional is essential.
All of these and many others are pastoral needs met through confession.
However, a person confessing a crime, especially a crime of the gravity of child abuse, cannot expect the assurance of absolution unless the consequences of that action are faced. The facing inevitably means facing consequences in law. Christian practice has always recognised the legitimacy and obligation of civil law. If hurt has been done to another, especially hurt caused through violation of laws of the state, then the consequences of that violation have to be met. It is one matter for a person to seek and receive forgiveness, it is quite another for the consequences of the act or behaviour to be properly addressed. The one does not mitigate the other. Even today it appears there are many, some in Church leadership, who have not properly understood the lifelong damage done through abuse of children.
Biblical teaching as well as state law recognises that violation or hurt of a child is most grievous.
For Archbishop Hart of Melbourne to argue that if child abuse revealed in the sacrament of confession has to be mandatorily reported it would be a violation of ‘freedom of religion’ is absolute nonsense. For the one making the confession to genuinely be restored, for their sake as well as for the sake of the one who has been damaged, meeting the consequences of their action according to law is a necessity. It would of course be wrong for a person to be ‘entrapped’. It needs to be made clear that evidence of this crime has to be reported. It would also be wrong for the person who has had the courage to come to confession is abandoned. The priest or another acceptable person should accompany the penitent on the long and tortuous journey ahead, giving outward and tangible evidence of divine grace and redemption which never ceases to be on offer.
‘Freedom of Religion’ will be seen as having no place within Australian society if it appears, even by default, to protect an abuser from the consequences of their criminal behaviour. Nor will it be seen as a right worth protecting if it gives clergy an immunity not enjoyed by teachers or people of other professions who have a mandatory obligation to refer information relating to abuse, even if that information is uncertain.
Freedom of religion should not and cannot protect any from the application of civil law unless that law is clearly immoral.
It is my hope and prayer that the request of the Commission becomes law and that Father Brenan will hear confessions for a very long time to come, without doubt his ministry is and will be a blessing to the many who are fortunate enough to benefit from his profound wisdom and counsel.
Centre for Values Ethics and Compassion
What do Holly Ransom (Chair of G20 Youth coalition), Mark Tedeschi (crown prosecutor and promoter of civil rights), Michael Sheldrick (eliminate polio campaigner, WA youth of the year and Global Citizen), Richard Stirzaker (CSIRO scientist and soil chameleon inventor), Toby Gunn (save the children advocate and Nauru detention centre whistleblower), Yasmin Abdel – Magied (civil engineer, Sudanese born Muslim), Sarah Bachelard (philosopher and theologian) and Sam Bailey (Pilot, farmer, author and quadriplegic) have in common? They were all speakers at this year’s Radford College (Canberra) Dirrum Festival run by its students and Chaplain.
How did they pull off a line up like that? I have no idea!!
Would the speakers be speaking into values which could boldly be described as ‘Australian values’? The public recognition already afforded them screams yes - unequivocally. Each in their own way has been acknowledged, applauded, recognised, through awards in the media and at a regional, state, national or international level. Why have they been so recognised: because they stand out from the pack in terms of compassion, integrity, imagination and sheer tenacity for good?
What are those values? The simplest way of describing them is to say that they all live a version of the principle that for good to be good it has to be common.
While many of the speakers would not be described comfortably as ‘Christian’ – and one is obviously Muslim – are their values Christian? Absolutely yes! Why? Because belief in a God who is revealed in the human face of Jesus requires the believer to stand for justice, equity, and equal opportunity, indeed to stand for the common good.
And could their values be described as Australian or rather, do Australian values work for the common good? Is the good of ‘Australian’ values limited to the Australian border?
Our soldiers have been engaged in conflicts abroad, fighting against Nazism and keeping peace BECAUSE our values take us there, fighting alongside others on the premise that freedom, dignity and justice are common and worth sacrificing for, beyond even our borders. Asking as Yassmin did (albeit naively on ANZAC day) if those values are being upheld on Nauru and Manus, would thus be a traditionally ‘Australian’ thing to do.
In my hearing I gained some clear messages from the stories and initiatives of these (mostly) young men and women about the nature of the good, of Australian values. They – and also their young student hosts – challenged how common and broad our values should be applied. From them I heard a very clear affirmation that if there is such a thing as Australian values, then they must work for what is common, global, human, and when they don’t, they have become un-Australian. With this logic, I clearly heard:
· It is un-Australian for this country to manipulate our common border with Timor-Leste that Australia might gain the lion’s share of gas and oil – which is what we have done.
· It is un-Australian to hold Asylum seekers, confirmed as refugees by the UNHCR, in cruel and indefinite detention – which is what we have done.
· It is un-Australian to inflict permanent psychological damage on refugee children known only by their boat arrival number – which is what we have done. Toby Gunn, the speaker, risks two years in gaol every time he says so.
· It is un-Australian for inventive ingenuity to be focused solely on profit. It is very Australian to invent a piece of technology which enables life giving productivity to African subsistence farmers. CSIRO has been changed from an institute committed to pure science which betters the lives of all, to an organisation which focuses on commercialisation. This is what has recently happened – it is un-Australian.
· It is un-Australian not to recognise that our nation has been built on many injustices against its indigenous people including an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Mark Tedeschi’s account of the Myall Creek massacre, its aftermath, and the role played by John Hubert Plunkett the NSW Attorney General should be compulsory reading for all Australians.
· It is un-Australian for Yasmin Abdel Magied to have been pilloried because of her comments about ANZAC and its place in the Australian psyche. What was it about her that made her comments unacceptable? Is it that she is Sudanese born, that she is a Muslim, that she is female, or perhaps that she has had the audacity to put her head way above the parapet?
Now let me come to the rub. I have a feeling that values expressed at the festival would have been interpreted by some as representing an ideological position, perhaps a politically ideological position, out of keeping with the aspirations of those who presume it is their right to define Australian values. Why wouldn’t aspirations for justice, compassion and equity be apolitical? Why wouldn’t every parent expect these values to be at the absolute core of what is taught at their children’s school? Why wouldn’t all Australian politicians assume that these are the values of Australians?
Why wouldn’t these values, expressed by the causes picked up by the students, be at the very heart of the policy initiatives of the Church? Why is the Church seemingly more comfortable talking about personal piety, than the implications of that piety when it is lived out publicly in a courageous life of faith?
Students living the Dirrum values, Australian values, Christian values, you give me confidence in the future; confidence that leaders of your generation have caught a vision that good has to be common, that if it is not common it is probably not good, that independence is a mirage, but that dependence is disempowering and diminishes us. I am confident that you understand that it is mutual interdependence which gives us wings.