in service of the
Culture is purpose framed through Identity.
Many words have been uttered about the toxic culture of Federal Parliament. So, what is the problem? Culture emerges out of a perceived or enforced sense of identity. The parliament breeds a sense of entitled identity. Many, but not all, including some women, have woven themselves around such identity and in turn have shaped the identity of their staffers. This became tragically clear in the lack of leadership exercised in response to this week’s march by thousands of women. It was not a privilege, as they were being encouraged to believe, for women to be offered a private meeting with the Prime Minister and Minister for women. It should have been an honour for the Prime Minister and Minster for Women to meet with the women on their turf, seek to hear them and address the issues they brought on behalf of half the population.
If the sense of identity worn by governmental leadership was more transparently one of service, not entitlement and privilege of office, it would have felt an honour. (How many Prime Ministers have had the opportunity to meet representatives of half the population in one meeting)? Political leaders are after all ‘ministers’, the root meaning of which is ‘servant’. The ambition of politicians should be to seek the betterment of society they serve. This is hardly rocket science. Sadly, the ambition of most morphs easily into remaining in power at the next election. Time spent between elections being spent courting interest groups with this ambition in mind.
How did we arrive in this unfortunate state? There are no doubt a multitude of factors, many of which the whole population must own, but one of the dominant driving factors is that an increasing number of politicians are recruited from the ranks of party staffers who inherit an identity with their party and its ideologies from their early 20’s. The world beyond this bubble remains outside their experience. In this bubble the party and its prospects are everything, scandals must be dealt with in terms of their consequences for the party.
It is said that some have nurtured an ambition to be Prime Minister since their school days. In what context was this ambition framed? Was it to finally address unfinished business in relation to our First Nations peoples? Was it to recreate Australia as a regionally based manufacturing country with a multitude of highly skilled job? Was it to safeguard our natural environment, to create an atmosphere in which species extinction is halted and ecosystems protected? Was it to imagine what a liveable city might look like in the 21st century? Was it to build a vibrant economy in a post carbon world? Was it to give effect to a broad based and liberal education for all, that all might have the opportunity to celebrate life in its fulness? Was it…?
Or was the ambition to be no more than becoming the most important person and the most powerful person in the land?
On either side of politics, but especially on the government benches, it is difficult to understand the reason they are there, other than to be important and protect the interests of those who share the same ideological aspirations. This perception is borne out by the flood of politicians who, when they leave office, carve out a lucrative future for themselves from the influence they were able to exercise while in parliament. Pyne and associates is the latest example who now have the arms company Elbit as a major client and this week lobbied on behalf of the company in parliament.
Politics should be about transformational leadership. Our Prime Minister has shown he is incapable of anything other than transactional leadership. Every decade or two it is necessary for the clock to be reset. In changed circumstance it becomes necessary to enable a fairer, more just, more sustainable, more liveable world. Reform is not easy. It almost always means convincing one’s own side that change is necessary let alone convincing the opposition. The last Prime Minister capable of this was Bob Hawke who managed the seemingly impossible task of convincing the Unions that reform required a different modus operandi from them.
There are currently many areas crying out for reform, for which the government is showing absolutely no appetite. Top of the list is the way Australia is (or is not) being led into a post carbon economy. Environmentalists remain important voices, but they are no longer the only, or even the main voices clamouring for reform. To the voice of scientists can now be added, the market, the insurance industry, the National Farmers, State Governments, the nation’s youth, yes, even those employed in the mining industry who know the life of coal is at an end and want transition to a productive post mining life.
There must also be reform of monetary policy which currently allows those with assets to flourish while those on salaries stagnate. Growing equity gap is alarming. If further proof of this situation were required a cursory examination of the fate of Australians during 2020, the year of covid, will amply illustrate. Many large companies, shareholders and property owners flourished, many above the level they would otherwise have expected. At best those dependent on salaries stagnated and at worst either lost their jobs or suffered severe reduction in hours and income.
Aged Care, Health and Education are at various levels of crisis, under performance, or lacking the capacity to deliver. A conversation about how Federation can most efficiently work in 2021 with an honest debate about the relative value of private and public delivery of services is long overdue.
So, let us return to the problem of a toxic culture. If federal politics is to remain at the basement level of party, even intraparty rivalry and jealousy and holding onto (or achieving) power as the only ambition, then frankly there is little chance that the toxic culture can change. Toxicity and vacuousness are soul mates. If on the other hand transformational leadership can emerge with a more noble aspiration, this will energise a transformed culture with a more nourishing and noble reason for existence.
Should the law be the last word in all circumstances?
The awful shadow that hangs over our parliament, and especially the cabinet, has not been lifted by the vigorous denial made by the Attorney General at Wednesday’s press conference. As we know, law in and of itself cannot be guaranteed to deliver justice. Technicalities and the capacity of privilege to engage senior barristers almost always disadvantages the vulnerable and less resourced.
Through it all, the prime minister is insisting the matter has been considered by appropriate law enforcement instrumentalities and the matter is closed.
Neither statement is strictly correct. The law enforcement instrumentality, (NSW Police), has not properly considered the matter, they have made it plain they cannot because evidence they require to do so is held in the silent embrace of the deceased complainant. Her decision not to proceed happened the day before she took her own life. The matter is not closed, not because the Attorney General has not, and cannot, be proven innocent or guilty, but because he is Australia’s law maker, he holds one of the most powerful posts in the land and the population needs to know he is a fit and appropriate person to hold this office.
It is simply nonsense for the prime minister to insist, with colourful and exaggerated hyperbole, that an inquiry will somehow undermine the very foundations of the rule of law. There are many precedents for an independent inquiry. Indeed, the Attorney General has himself commissioned enquiries. Were one to be held, and we assume the Attorney General’s claims are accurate, presumably evidence would accumulate supporting the Attorney General’s denial, enabling empathy to turn toward him, even if such an inquiry could not fully declare his innocence, or guilt.
Context is a powerful factor in the determination of the best way forward. An enquiry would not primarily focus on criminality, which we know cannot be proved or disproved, but on character.
The fact that neighbours of mine who have previously held significant administrative positions in Canberra guessed the unnamed cabinet minister to be the Attorney General goes to the question of character.
That the Attorney General along with Mr Tudge were subject to a Four Corners investigation on inappropriate behaviour in November 2020, goes to the question of character.
That in his press conference the Attorney General spent considerable time diverting attention by comparing his situation to that of a political opponent goes to the question of character.
That in the same press conference he claimed to be the real victim through trial by media, while not supporting an enquiry which would negate the need for the media to pursue its own enquiries, goes to the question of character.
That the Attorney General has relentlessly and cruelly pursued the lawyer Bernard Collaery over the Government’s scandalous Timor L ’Este debacle goes to the question of character.
The government has senior people who have proved themselves to possess impeccable character, Mr Tony Smith, the speaker of the House, comes immediately to mind. Australia’s chief law maker needs to hold the confidence of the people of Australia regardless of the political party to which he belongs. Unless this confidence exists, he becomes the catalyst for loss of confidence in the rule of law, not those who are calling for an enquiry.
Free Speech in Private and Public worlds
A veritable avalanche of words has recently been penned in defence of the supposed sacrosanct place free speech holds at the heart of democratic life. But should that place be so sacrosanct?
Many, perhaps most of us, live almost all our lives in a private world where our opinions and actions are largely, but not exclusively, a matter of our own choice.
The public world is the world of facts upon which every intelligent person can be expected to agree – or be capable of being persuaded. The private world is the world where we are free to follow our own preferences – a world in which there is no right or wrong in lifestyle.
The private world is a world in which good is largely understood as being that which serves our personal interest. The public world is a world in which good is understood as that which benefits the whole, good that is common.
Those familiar with the Christian gospel could reasonably assume the Church would be first and foremost concerned about good that is common. However, the response of the Christian Church post the enlightenment has been to retreat into the private world. It has secured for itself a continuing place at the cost of surrendering the crucial field. The angst president Biden is experiencing from leadership in his Church, the Catholic Church, relates to what is considered morally acceptable in this private world. The Church has apparently nothing to say about the president’s major leadership burden which he must exercise in the public world. This retreat occurred before the explosion of social media, but having thus retreated, the Church now appears powerless to counter the effect of this medium’s ubiquitous presence which in the last two decades has not simply blurred the edges of these worlds but has seemingly made the distinction void.
The ethical consequences are considerable. The loss of an overarching ethical magisterium post the reformation and following the Enlightenment has led western liberal democracies to replace commitment to common good with a view that the role of the State is to protect individual human rights. A transformation has occurred from a substantive morality for the good to a formal morality of rights. This constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium in terms of theory, practice, laws, and institutions.
If evidence of this move is required, just look at the official response from government in relation to Craig Kelly and his outrageous statements on social media. The Prime Minister has defended his ‘right’ to speak and express his own views, at least until those views were appearing to hurt the Liberal Party. While on Thursday night’s Q and A, Alexander Downer defended Craig Kelly, deriding those who dared question this right. He said Kelly had become a victim of ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture is a pejorative term used in defence of everyone’s right to express their views in the public arena, no matter how extreme, and infers those who beg to differ are socialistic moral crusaders.
It is ironic that we appear to need a disaster to restore proper balance. The Covid pandemic has forced political and civic policy making to return to ‘good that is common’, even if it has meant overriding what would otherwise be considered basic human rights. There have of course been objectors, most thoroughly predictable, but on the whole Australians have complied with that which has delivered the best possible community outcome. This has not been the case in the US where the culture of ‘rights’ appears so deeply engrained in their DNA that its protection has appeared more important than life itself.
Perhaps there is time to prevent Australia sliding inexorably down a similar slippery slope, but only if those who hold public office can regain an ethical understanding of the consequences that flow from holding public office. No one is forced to hold public office, but if we do, there must be obligations associated with that privilege which have precedence over private opinions.
To put it quite simply, a person who holds public or representative office is not free to put forward views that are demonstrably false. Craig Kelly is the main culprit, but not the only parliamentary purveyor of falsehood. George Christenson also dabbles in untruth, as does Matt Canavan in relation to climate change. For some time there has been no wriggle room which might permit scepticism about overwhelming, and sadly worsening, scientific advice.
Craig Kelly has been the purveyor of mistruth in relation to Covid 19, Climate change, and the results of the US election. As a public figure he is simply not free to do that.
Following the establishment of a much-needed federal ICAC, one of its duties should be the capacity to sanction a politician who consistently presents material in the public domain which is demonstrably false.
Craig Kelly and his fellow parliamentarians have chosen to live and work in the public world, a world in which they are called to work tirelessly for good that is common. This truth seems to have totally bi-passed many, including Barnaby Joyce. When recently asked his view about the desirability of 2050 emissions targets, he shrugged his shoulders saying that by then he will be so old that any target will be irrelevant.
In the western world free speech is a privilege to be cherished, a privilege about which residents of totalitarian states can only dream. However, nothing in life is cost free. Those in the public world who use this privilege to peddle that which is demonstrably untrue are potentially creating a cost in confusion and division which the wider community must bear.
Australia Day Plebiscite
What kind of people are we, who, knowing full well our choice of national day presents insurmountable and painful difficulties to our first nations people, yet we still stubbornly refuse to move to another day?
The Prime Minister is fond of saying it is not his role to lecture others on a matter of morality or ethics. He recently took this line following widespread demands he sanction Craig Kelly and George Christensen for their continuing fabrication of truth in relation to a range of issues including climate change, but more recently, the result of the US election.
However, he is more than happy to lecture others when the matter at hand is in direct conflict with his government’s chosen ideological position. He has had no difficulty in lecturing Cricket Australia for their decision to feature indigenous history and culture for the fixture on 26th January. He told them to play more cricket and be involved in less politics. The truth of course is that sport has always been involved in politics, be it through grand spectacles like the Olympic Games, or less spectacularly through football competitions, in particular, the boycotting of South African sporting teams which played a large part in the downfall of apartheid.
Apparently, he is quite happy that a committee, to be led by the notorious George Christensen, will lecture banks and insurance companies about their decision not to fund or insure various fossil fuel mining enterprises. Minister David Littleproud informed these financial institutions that it is not up to non-elected individuals or businesses to make political decisions based on moral principle. Apparently, that is the role of government, although extreme reluctance to support an independent federal ICAC casts a shadow over this as a political ideal. It seems not to occur to the minister that these decisions may have had little to do with morality or politics and everything to do with prudent business acumen. Investing in stranded assets would almost certainly risk litigation from shareholders.
The Prime Minister has recently changed ‘young’ to ‘one’ in the national anthem. Few would disagree with the decision. However, on its own it is mere tokenism. We are not ‘one’ simply by changing a word in the anthem, and we are certainly not ‘one’ if on our national day the first nations people feel alienated.
Changing the day, would not mean changing history. We would simply, but significantly, be changing the way we celebrate history. In a real sense 26th January is the least suitable day to choose as Australia’s national day. The landing did no more than strike a claim on these shores for the British monarch and Empire and begin an early settlement. The landing did not in itself establish a new nation. This was not to happen until 100 years later. The landing began the establishment of colonies, the purpose of which was largely penal. Leaving aside the brutality and violence which was to quickly engulf the Dharawal nation, there was no understanding then that the continent upon which the Europeans were setting foot was occupied by more than 300 separate nations with history, culture, and tradition stretching back thousands of years.
Consideration of another date is not, to coin a phrase beloved of Prime Minister Howard, to submit to a black arm band view of history. It is to recognise that as we have matured as a nation, it is no longer a date that best captures nationhood. Over the years many dates have been suggested, no doubt there are many that have merit.
I have always favoured Federation Day as the most logical. We became a nation because of federation on 1 January 1901. I fully realise that this presents a logistical problem for annual celebrations, because everybody is asleep or on the beach on New Year’s Day and it is very close to Christmas. There are ways around it. The Queen’s birthday celebration is transferred to a date with potentially warmer weather and more sunlight!
However, there are other days.
I strongly recommend a plebiscite be held with perhaps two or three suggestions being made of which the current date could be one. A plebiscite requires a significant investment in education which would be an extremely good thing for us all.
It is simply dumb, as well as insulting to our indigenous brother and sisters, to stay as we are. Until there is a change, I will seek the company of First Nations people on 26th January, not out of any disrespect to our nation, quite the contrary, but because we can obviously do better, and for the sake of our ‘oneness’ we have to do better.
Christianity’s Watershed Moment
Evangelist Franklin Graham compared 10 members of the GOP to Judas Iscariot on Thursday after they voted to approve President Donald Trump's second impeachment. Ted Cruz, a GOP president wanna-be who speaks for conservative Christian values has done all he can to discredit the legitimate election of Joe Biden. Our Prime Minister, deeply immersed in ‘conservative Christianity’, has been inexplicably incapable of admitting Trump’s culpability. Why is Christianity so grafted to corrupt politics?
There have been a few watershed moments in the history of Christianity from which there is no turning back. One of these moments was in the 4th century when, through various Ecumenical Councils, it became clear that to claim the name of Christian it was necessary to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that in him there is life.
A second moment in the 15th century, facilitated by the printing press, saw authority transferred from a clerical, centralised and often poorly educated elite, to the whole family of God, the laity, via scripture. The faithful had been manipulated by this elite to protect their institutional power and authority.
Are current events in America heralding another such moment? Christianity has been associated with a seditious assault on the congress, an assault from which Christianity cannot be distanced and appears not to want to be distanced. Trump is not, and has not pretended to be, a Christian. As far as one can tell he is biblically illiterate. There is no evidence that he is a regular Church attender. His moral failures are legion and the damage he has done by claiming truth to be fake and what is fake to be true is immeasurable. Chaos and confusion are currently being played out in the lives of those whom he has convinced the election was stolen.
So, why this link between the Christian right and Trump? Quite simply it has absolutely nothing to do with Christian discipleship and everything to do with politics and ideology. The right and Trump have needed one another. From Trump’s point of view the evangelical right provide him with a strong electoral base and from the point of view of the evangelical right Trump provides them with the closest thing they have found to a theocratic state. He delivers, or purports to deliver, their agenda: supremacy of individual rights over social reform, prohibition on abortion, denial of gay rights and unconditional support for Israel. The situation is truly shocking. Is this the moment when any possible link between Christianity and a theocracy is completely, and finally rejected.
It is their obsession with a theocratic ideal, and apparent desire to fight and die for it, that has led to conspiracy theories about its opposite - a satanic cabal. The Christian right’s very identity is immersed in belief that they are soldiers for right against force of evil. At a spiritual and moral level this is a helpful image as a long as we understand the possibility of good and evil are ever present in the lives of each one of us. The dangerous error occurs when the idea of evil is transferred to those with whom we disagree of worse, do not understand. According to the conspiracy theorists, the existence and power of the cabal is led by paedophiles and demonstrated through a massive fraud that stole the election from them and their patron Donald Trump.
In this context the conspiracy theory makes absolute sense. If you believe God and God’s will is delivered through a theocracy; if this has been thwarted, there must be a reason big enough to match the thwarted aspiration.
It is unlikely that this dangerous nonsense with its seditious implications is going to be abandoned any time soon unless or until the ambition that led to it is corrected. The correcting is not the responsibility of secular politics, but of Christian leadership. Where is that leadership? Where is the voice?
It is of course wrong and deceptive to make generalisations, to accuse by association. Evangelicalism is a ‘broad church’. All evangelicals are not Trump supporters or believers in a theocratic ideal. However, it remains the case that evangelicals predominate in the Trump movement, that the name of Jesus was carried by the riotous mob into the congress alongside the name of Trump.
The irony, of which these people seem totally unaware, is that Jesus eschewed power and the exercise of it. When asked to use it he refused, rebuking those who made the request. He made it clear that the only power with legitimacy is the power of salt and light. Without wishing to eulogise Joe Biden, his demeaner, words and influence in the face of relentless provocation has so far been of this kind.
The Christian right have no business condemning attempts to revive a Muslim caliphate, while they embrace language of violence in attempting to enforce their own. In the absence of strong contemporary Christian leadership in condemnation of Franklin Graham and thousands of other self-appointed and theologically illiterate evangelical illuminati, I commend the fifth chapter of one of the earliest extant Christian writings, the letter to Diognetus:
Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.
Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.
They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.
They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.
They share a common table, but not a common bed.
They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.
They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.
They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.
They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.
Those who think Franklin Graham and Ted Cruz and their admirers in Australia are somehow followers of the man from Galilee, please read the above letter and become acquainted with real witnesses, first and second century Christians.
The Danger of Oxygen Fuelled Falsehood
Human opinions and views will always diverge greatly. However, giving oxygen to spurious views in full knowledge they are divisive in nature and designed to misinform should be considered a crime and the perpetrators called to account.
The behaviour, language, and deception of Donald Trump over the four years of his presidency have been an international scandal, not simply a domestic scandal, given the role the US has played, and is expected to play, in international affairs. But equally scandalous, on the one hand, has been the failure of leading Republican figures to pull him into line, and on the other, the failure of social media outlets to prevent the dissemination of material that has been factually wrong, and worse, designed to cause division, even hate. It is almost beyond belief that for four years this president has been allowed to perpetrate falsehood, and in the process, convince a significant following that facts are fake and what is fake to be fact. Twitter is to be congratulated for permanently closing his account, but why did it have to come to this before action was taken?
To be fair to him, the environment in which this scandal became possible, is not exclusively of his making. Deep within the US psyche is ingrained belief that individual rights must prevail, no matter the circumstance. Any attempt to curtail these rights, be it gun control in the face of shocking massacres and brutality, or responsible behaviour to safeguard the community in the face of the covid pandemic, is perceived as an assault on these supposed fundamental rights. The result is that massacres still occur, brutality towards blacks is endemic, and thousands needlessly die of the pandemic. Trump has shamelessly played to this psyche, and in the process has brought democracy to its knees and irretrievably reduced America’s standing in the international community.
The great challenge facing the Unites States of America is finding a political way forward through which the protection of individual rights and the protection of common good can be championed as complimentary partners of one another, not as opposites. This way forward is as urgently required in international affairs as in domestic national affairs. True liberty is not the capacity to do whatever you want; regardless of others, it is the capacity to be fulfilled in the company of the much greater whole to which all humanity belongs. This is a challenge the Republicans must address. If they cannot extract themselves from Trumpism they will lack any real capacity to be a viable, unifying, alternative government.
Unfortunately, fake news, divisive madness, also exists on the periphery of Australian political life and because the purveyors are deemed necessary to the survival of ‘conservative’ politics, they have dangerously more influence than they should be expected to wield as individual politicians. Two of the worst offenders are Craig Kelly and George Christensen. Both are conveyors of untruth, most recently supporting the conspiracy theory that the assault on the US congress was stirred by the left-wing fringe movement - Antifa. If this were true, then not only did Trump egg on the extreme right, but he also managed to influence the left as well! It seems not to worry both gentlemen a jot that the report on which thy relied for the dissemination of their conspiracy theory has been totally discredited.
Readers will be aware that both these men have been climate sceptics and have done all in their power to circumvent an energy policy that will assist Australia’s necessary transition to a low emissions future and the development of new industries based on prolific supplies of renewable energy. Not only have these two men had far too much influence in delaying environmental responsibility, but they have also seriously let down a work force that should by now have been assisted into a future based upon new secure and growing employment opportunity. Instead, the work force has been left facing an inevitable cliff as fossil fuel extraction comes incrementally to an end.
Craig Kelly is an embarrassment; I understand increasingly so even in his own electorate. Why has the Prime Minister protected him? Surely the Liberal Party will not again support his endorsement?
In a recent Opinion Piece Tony Abbott railed against what he considered to be indefensible curtailment of individual rights as Australian state authorities imposed mask wearing and lockdown restrictions. He apparently believed the seriousness of the virus to have been grossly exaggerated and Australian economy growth to have been unnecessarily curtailed. Having spent some recent time in the UK one would have thought that observing 1000 covid deaths a day, an NHS stretched beyond its capacity and an economy in deep trouble, he would understand this pandemic is not a gentle stroll in the park. Abbott clearly holds the view that individual ‘rights’ must always prevail.
In the same opinion piece Abbott opined that decisions such as those involved with shutdowns should be made by elected members of government and not influenced, let alone be led by ‘unelected expert opinion’. One would have thought the reverse, that the role of elected members of parliament should be to be as informed as possible by expert opinion and both devise and implement policy based on this advice, regardless of its popularity or otherwise within the electorate.
Where expert advice or opinion has not been taken or followed, the pandemic is out of control and politically motivated partisan ideology has been allowed to prevail. Where expert advice has been ignored in relation to global warming, the planet becomes unnecessarily more fragile.
All human beings tend to read or listen to opinions which coincide with well-established views. Because of this tendency, it is vital that mainstream news outlets are disciplined in the promotion of facts and that ‘alternative facts’ are not given equal authority. When facts have been determined beyond reasonable doubt an alternative view is simply false.
What has befallen the US is unlikely to befall Australia. However, if voices of falsehood and discontent are given oxygen, it is possible that such madness could find root in Australian life.
A Star Worth Following
If William Shakespeare were alive today his pen would be burning a hole in his manuscript, such has been the volume of material available to him for multiple new plays. If drama, pathos, intrigue, conspiracy, false truth are the staple resources for a great script writer, 2020 has been the greatest of all years to be alive. On a planet in our galaxy the year has ended with the pathetic spectre, more tortured than any caricature could imagine, of a beaten and pathetic president fawning over sycophantic conspiracy theorists who help him keep his world of unreality alive. Pain in the loss of power and visibility is obviously impossible to bear.
On the other hand, on the planet we all call home, we have thousands upon thousands of women and men, scientists, health workers, doctors, carers, drivers, shop assistants, who without power, prestige, visibility, or adequate reward have striven to keep us together, healthy, and alive. The contrast could not be starker.
2000 years ago, the calm enjoyed by shepherds tending their sheep in a field on the edge of a little mid-eastern village was frighteningly disturbed by a strange light and presence. They had become involuntary witnesses to an unfolding drama which would reveal how wrong the world was then, and is now, about the true nature of power and citizenship. The unfolding story would challenge the meaning of governance, the meaning of leadership, indeed the meaning and destiny of life itself.
The recording of this story in the pages of scripture remind the reader that a thousand years earlier, a famous and charismatic leader (David) had sought to cement his legacy in the construction of a physical temple to house the presence of God. He was forbidden and told through his prophet Nathan that this was not to be his legacy, rather God would provide him with the legacy of a household whose membership would be embraced and transformed by the God he had wished to house.
Then came a carpenter and pregnant partner to Bethlehem in obedience to citizenship’s demand that they be counted in a census.
The shepherds witnessed the no vacancy sign, the baby, the stable, the inauspicious beginning. They witnessed in embryo what the early Christians were later to reflect upon as life-giving paradox. Vulnerability is strength. Service is power. Generosity is wealth. Hospitality is inclusion with the power to abolish rivalry and violence.
The shepherds were to hear the message from angel voices. But the message was destined to become incarnate in a person. In Jesus, the message and the messenger are the same. To embrace the message is to embrace the messenger and to experience the promised hope joy and peace. What takes life and form inside one’s very being becomes life giving and transformative, what can never be more than an external adornment remains ephemeral and falsely seductive.
And yet. And yet…………………. We humans are strangely resistant to inner life and would prefer to chase after that which can never fully satisfy, in the process continuing to cause damage not simply to ourselves but to others and the world.
Perhaps the year of Covid will prove, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been the reality check we in the consumer orientated Western world have needed. It has always been a mistake to measure “progress” solely in materialistic, technological, economic, digital terms. What the year has shown is that community, friendship, intimacy, family, are always more important than the endeavours to which we usually commit most of our energy and priority. True progress is always an internal not an external matter. More sober judgement will tell that the behaviour of many world leaders and captains of industry and media, in 2020, has been no different to the scandalous emperors of Rome in Jesus time, or European leaders of the Middle Ages. It is just that sophistication camouflages the reality that we have not progressed a jot.
The headline in the opinion piece for Christmas Eve in the Australian was headed: Faithful haunted by quest for meaning. No, they are not! The reverse is almost certainly the truth. The world is (or should be) haunted by the reality that avoiding the truth revealed in the birth of Jesus is to condemn humanity to constantly repeating its history of mistakes, notwithstanding technological sophistication.
We are not born to triumph over others, but to serve them. As Desmond Tutu says, it is the strong who apologise, the weak do not. Believing we are members of the same family under God, we should seek alliances and cooperation, always breaking down barriers, never afraid to take the lowest place. Not much sign of this in Trump’s “America first”, Johnson’s “Brexit”, Xi’s dominance through “Belt and Road”, or Morrison’s “Australia will not be dictated to”.
In the birth of Jesus profound and eternal truth is made known. Embracing this truth has the capacity to transform the world in which we live. Ignoring this truth is to condemn us to perpetuating the same.
Unto us a child is born
Unto us a Son is given.
And the government shall be upon his shoulder
He will be called wonderful counsellor
Prince of Peace
Saying I no longer intend to cheat, does not merit applause
It is all very well for the Prime Minister to brush off his failure to gain a speaking role at the Glasgow global warming summit as inconsequential, but it is far from that and a serious slap in the face. The reality is that the Prime Minister and his government have scored a D minus in one of the most important challenges facing the global community this century. The result of this D minus is that the rest of the world concludes we are pariahs with nothing worth saying or hearing.
Mr Morrison you have failed even by your own benchmark. You have said you will not be dictated to by voices external to Australia but will be answerable to Australians alone. Well, good! The facts of the matter are that between 60% and 70% of Australians have made it clear they want a far more stringent response to climate change and carbon emission reductions than you are prepared to make. No Mr Morrison you have made it clear you are not accountable to Australians either. To whom are you accountable? Presumably, it is your friends in the mining industry whose financial interest are expected to be diminished in the transition to renewable energy.
Mr Morrison you have failed those currently employed in the mining industry, more specifically the coal mining industry. I spent eight happy and productive years in the Hunter Valley at the start of the mining boom. Prior to this the valley flourished on its dairies, equine industries, and vineyards. It is facing the next inevitable transition and desperately needs energy and investment in new industries based around a carbon neutral economy. In maintaining your position against all the economic evidence to the contrary, you are denying these women and men a smooth transition commencing now, leaving them with the prospect of falling off a cliff in the foreseeable future. This is both cruel and unnecessary. We know coal is in decline. We know there will never be another coal fired power station. We know Liddell is closing. We know Bayswater will not continue indefinitely. Why are you leaving these employees directionless when they could begin to be excited about a future as equally prosperous as the past, without the ugliness in which the valley is now being left.
Mr Morrison you have failed the scientists. The science of global warming has been clear for decades. Strategies to meet the challenge have also been clear. Because of governmental policy failure over decades there is now one major change. It is that the challenge is now infinitely more demanding than it need have been, the seriousness of the situation much more acute, and the cost of action now far more expensive.
Mr Morrison you have failed your two daughters, indeed all children who face a monumental task if their world is not to be a shadow of the world we have been accustomed to enjoy. It is no wonder that children are taking the lead in demanding action. I hope the action currently before the courts, taken by children who claim government inaction is stealing their future, is successful.
Mr Morrison you are failing the Australian economy. By now we should have been well down the track in the development of new industries and new exports such as liquid hydrogen. You may think you are doing the right thing by protecting current sources of budgetary income, but the reality is you are failing to build strong foundations for the economies of the future which Australia is more than capable of leading.
Mr Morrison you are failing our neighbours in the Pacific. How you can attend meetings with fellow Islander leaders without severe embarrassment I do not know. You know as well as I do that certain Islander nations are already in real peril.
Mr Morrison you are failing the conservative tradition. A true conservative is one who wishes to conserve, who wants to protect culture, values, traditions, resources that are meritorious. Are you a conservative only in the sense that you wish to protect what is held in private hands? Our most precious commodities are common and protecting them is the solemn duty of those who govern.
Mr Morrison you have said the most sacred duty of government is to keep its people safe. The greatest exponential threat facing Australians this century is climate change. We are already reaping some of its fury. We are sadly on the threshold of a new normal, and not a pleasant one. If you seriously believe you have a duty to keep us safe, then you are bound, by weight of office, to act.
Above all Mr Morrison you are failing the total environment upon which we all depend for our wellbeing. In Covid you and the Premiers wisely concluded that putting health first was the best way of shoring up the economy. Put the economy first and both health and economy would collapse.
Why you cannot see the same parallel with climate change is beyond me. Human economic activity is utterly and completely dependent upon the health and balance of the natural environment. We have no resources other than those that are drawn from the natural order. Prioritise the environment and long-term economic health will be protected. Ignore the health of the environment and the very foundations of civil society will ultimately crumble.
Mr Morrison, it is not at all surprising that you have been denied a voice at the table. You have nothing to say, nothing worthwhile to offer. It is reported that what you wanted to say was that Australia will not depend upon its Kyoto credits to meet its 2030 target. In school, students are not considered meritorious simply because they announce they are not intending to cheat. A much more significant ambition is being called for.
In one sense federal energy and climate policy is increasingly irrelevant. The States are taking the lead. Farmers are taking the lead. Ordinary householders are taking things into their own hands. The business council is setting ambitious targets. But on the other hand, the national government should not be irrelevant. We look to you to lead, set a standard, stretch our ambitions.
Why you continue to fail us I simply do not understand.
Is the Anglican Church about to spilt?
“The Conversation” recently published an article co-authored by Dorothy Ann Lee, Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College Melbourne, and Muriel Porter, Honorary Research Fellow, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, under the heading “Is the Anglican Church about to split? It is facing the gravest threat to its unity in more than 200 years”. Both writers are highly respected and credentialed, so what they have written deserves serious attention.
The context of their article is a decision by the Anglican Church’s Appellate Tribunal on November 11 to uphold the right of Dioceses to bless same sex marriages that have already been formalised in a civil ceremony. The Appellate Tribunal is the highest court of the Anglican Church with national weight, capable of deciding ecclesiastical matters. The decision was a 5-1 majority.
If our two scholarly authors are correct, the consequence would be far more serious than the inevitable feeding of lawyers with questions of identity, property ownership etc for years to come. Much more serious would be the utter irrelevance of the Church itself. The world has already moved on. Same sex unions have acceptance amongst most Australians as shown by the plebiscite. The seeming narrowness, indeed pettiness of debate in the Church is not simply a matter of yawning irrelevance to most Australians, worse, it is offensive. Who wants to be part of Church which priorities divisive judgement on sexuality and gender whilst remaining silent on far more serious matters such as growing global financial inequity, world poverty, racism, intolerance, violence, and climate change?
This tribunal judgement will not so much cause division but serve to illustrate a chasm that already exists, a chasm both within the Church and between the Church and civil society. This chasm is epitomised and characterised in the public mind, as a cause of exclusion, division, even violence. The chasm does not exist exclusively or even primarily in the Anglican Church. It exists in one form or another across all word religions and within all Christian denominations.
On one side of the chasm are those who, through their sacred texts and traditions, are wedded to favoured and piously held certainties, however illogical, unreasonable, and exclusive. The certainties of radicalised Islam are all too painfully and violently obvious, experienced by many through terrorism. The certainties of Zionism have led to the stealing of Palestinian land and the painful denial of their human rights. The certainties of Hinduism and Buddhism have led to conflict in Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar. The certainties of Roman Catholicism are all too apparent in the struggles of Pope Francis to rise above the historically expanded and elitist accretions of canon law and Vatican bureaucracy. The certainties of America’s evangelical right blind them to all the moral failings of the Trump era. Etc.
Certainty is the diet of populism. It is nourished by fear and the need for identity which makes the adherent different, if not superior to others. There will never be a shortage of those who long for certainty, particularly in times of adversity. Some of the most egregious forms of religious manipulation of the human longing for certainty are found in assertions that seek to describe eternal destiny in terms of those included, and those excluded. The utterances of Israel Folau, supported by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, are amongst the most recently notorious.
Certainty is also about power. Political parties trade in promises of certainty. Religious groups, through the carrot of certainty, attract membership, promising some the prospect of wealth in this world as well as an eternal destiny.
On the other side of the chasm are those adherents of faith whose lives and attitudes can best be seen through the prism of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and Martin Luther King. Bonhoeffer was deeply conscious of the paradoxes of life. He coined the phrase “Religion-less Christianity”, meaning that Christianity is not primarily about religious doctrine, liturgical formation and ministerial or priestly office, but commitment to the path that love demands. If the only certainty worthy of the name is that God is love, and that love is the only transformative power that matters, then most other certainties simply get in the way.
Those who flirt with certainty flirt also with dualism, which Christianity denies. At the heart of the Christian faith is belief that God in Jesus embraces the world in its entirety. Those whose company I yearn to keep on my side of the chasm know that this finite world is a messy place, but because it is loved by God it must be loved by us too. Engaging with it for its transformation and redemption is a messy business, but it is the road less travelled and the only worthy route. It was the prophet Micah who posed the rhetorical question “What does the Lord require of you?” and then answered it with “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”.
We live in a world in which it has become acceptable to equate opinion with fact, to disallow appropriate authority if it is in some way inconvenient. Those on the other side of the chasm to the path I walk accuse me of fudging, of not taking the bible seriously. I would argue the reverse. By giving single verses authority, scripture is diminished. In the matter of sexual identity and practice, overwhelming scriptural condemnation falls on those who abuse, who use sexuality as an instrument of power, who seek gratification at the expense of others, who separate sexual expression from relational commitment. This condemnation falls equally across sexual and gender identification.
The real crisis facing the Church is not potential division over gender and sexuality but over the reality that the scandal of child sexual abuse has so tarnished the name of the Church that whatever it may wish to say on almost any subject is devalued. Similarly, religious leadership has become so buffeted by the storm that its voice on issues that really matter have become inaudible. The real crisis facing the Church is not its internal squabbles, but that it is irrelevant, not engaged as Jesus was with the world in all its complexity, but has retreated to the comfort of its ecclesiastical internalities.
Covid 19 has been a challenge to the Church as it has been to the rest of society. But it has also been a blessing. It has become transparently obvious that some aspects of life we thought to have been indispensable are not, whereas values such as intimacy, connectedness, care of others, neighbourliness, nourishment of the inner spirit are basic. Only time will tell whether the Church, will possess the vision and grace to transform itself away from meaningless and divisive internal wrangling, based on dubious exegesis, to a more attractive life-giving network of Jesus followers.
A Warrior Culture
The Prime Minister warned us that we would be in for some shocking reading as the report into Australian war crimes in Afghanistan was released. That there were 39 alleged murders, and 19 Australian soldiers involved, is indeed shocking; but the report was heavily redacted, sparing us the details. We are told that one of these crimes is the most shocking to have occurred in the whole of Australian military history.
How is it possible that such awful atrocities occurred? One of the explanations, quite apart from shockingly inadequate supervision and leadership from the top down, is the development of a known ‘warrior culture’.
Let us assume for a moment that the development of this perversion of culture contributed to a conditioning of the soldiers involved, enabling the crossing of a line that would otherwise be considered inconceivable. Where does this perversion have its origins? Is it possible that fertile soil exists outside the closed ranks of the military within the myth making of greater Australian identity, especially the ANZAC myth? To a lesser degree, are we all complicit for condoning a particular version of nationhood to the exclusion of other influences which might otherwise temper the dominant narrative?
Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that the ANZAC myth tolerates such shocking behaviour, but I am suggesting that the exultation of the ANZAC myth above all other contributing factors of Australian identity leads to a corruption of the true nature of what it means to be an Australian.
We all know that when politicians are in difficulty, a proven method of distracting public attention from domestic difficulties is to become involved in overseas conflict. John Howard did this, as did Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnston, and many others. Equally perverse has been Australia’s recent ambition to be one of the leading exporters of armaments, despite the fact we have a very chequered history in the usefulness or effectiveness of big-ticket items we purchase.
Australia has been involved in almost every conflict involving our ‘allies’ during my lifetime. With the benefit of hindsight, the only morally defendable conflict was World War 2. And yet, around this history of conflict we have woven a myth of nation building that exaggerates the impact of conflict in the business of nation building and leaves room for the perversion of identity through lack of balance and a more considered perspective. If however we are to continue building such a view of ourselves then we should not be surprised that those who are deemed to be the elite of the elite as flag bearers of this identity should consider themselves heroic beyond what might more reasonably perceived to be authentic Australian identity.
Politicians of all persuasions load onto the military bandwagon when it suits them. An iconic example of the disproportionate attention being given to Australia’s military history is the obscene amount of money about to be spent on pulling down and rebuilding part of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The venture is quite outrageous when seen against the reduction of money available to other institutions that mark equally important aspects of Australian life and nation building.
I venture the elements that should be celebrated as foundational to Australian identity and nation building are:
While the honouring of First Nations people should be given the highest priority in elements that shape national identity and nation building, the next four are of equal importance. Our involvement in overseas conflict should not be given priority over other elements.
It is a matter of sober thought that those who engage in any form of violence are less likely to acknowledge the point at which boundaries are crossed. Considerable thoughtful work is emerging about the relationship between interhuman violence and violence done to the natural order. The conservative side of politics appears to define as heroic any form of exploitative work, however demeaning to the natural order, that produces short term monetary wealth.
As a nation we must give serious reconsideration to that which we consider heroic. If we consider heroism to be inextricably connected to some form of violence, then we should not be surprised when this comes home to haunt us.
As General Campbell has said, the heroes in this tragic saga are those who have blown the whistle. It is salutatory to be reminded that the Australian government, through the office of the Attorney General, is still pursuing whistle blowers in another context and for too long was doing so in this context.
ANZAC day should be honoured, but it should not become Australia’s national day as it has more recently become by default. Nor should there be a ‘Military Division’ alongside the General Division of the Australian Honours system, a change recommended by the panel commissioned to review Australian honours in 1995 but dropped stone dead by the incoming Howard government.
The soldiers who have been accused of Afghanistan atrocities should face the full impact of the law, nothing can excuse their alleged conduct.
However, Australia and Australian politicians should think again about our propensity to easily send men and women into harm’s way for the most dubious of reasons. Those who fought in Vietnam, The Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan must wonder what on earth it was about and what it has achieved.
But more broadly, Australia and Australians should consider more carefully what in our culture and nation building we consider to be most heroic. Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount for a definition of heroic activity, those who deserve this accolade are not those involved in violence, but the doctors and nurses at the front line of the pandemic, refugees who have risked everything to give their children a better life, the emerging generation of indigenous leadership and figures such as doctors Richard Harris and Craig Challan.