in service of the
Powerlessness and the Voice
Poverty is powerlessness. It is the incapacity to deal with one’s own issues. It is not addressed through charitable acts, but through empowerment. Responding to the presenting signs of poverty only through acts of charity is like dealing with a major physical ailment only with a pain killer. Indeed, addiction to the pain killer can become the biggest problem. Powerlessness can only be overcome with empowerment.
Signs of poverty are easily recognisable: hunger, homelessness, ghettoes, various forms of violence – including self-inflicted violence, illiteracy, unemployment, incarceration, mental health issues, etc. These are addressed daily in Australia through government welfare, and by charities and humanitarian organisations. Sadly, these presenting issues do not decrease because of these noble and generous activities. Within the Indigenous community of Australia in particular, many of these problems have escalated in recent decades, despite well intentioned initiatives designed to ʹclose the gapʹ. Something more insidious lies behind these presenting problems, a disadvantage which is seldom named and therefore generally remains unaddressed?
This disadvantage does have a name it is powerlessness. At its roots, poverty is powerlessness. It is the incapacity to deal with one’s own issues. It is not addressed through charitable acts, but through empowerment. Responding to the presenting signs of poverty only through acts of charity is like dealing with a major physical ailment only with a pain killer. Indeed, addiction to the pain killer can become the biggest problem. Powerlessness can only be overcome with empowerment.
Powerlessness has many causes, most often historical and intergenerational: loss of culture and language, discrimination, alienation, lack of education, unemployment, mental or physical ill-health, mis-guided governmental policy, colonisation by others, climate change.
Signs of poverty cross all segments of Australian society but predominate amongst our First Nations peoples. Over many decades government policy has attempted to address the signs, but never to address the underlying cause – powerlessness. People do not rise out of a quagmire of poverty because of what is done for them by others, but because of what they are able to do for themselves. It should be no surprise that the gap between quality of life experienced by First Nations people and the rest of the population stubbornly refuses to narrow.
This is why VOICE is such an urgent matter for Australians to understand and support. Embedding recognition of First Nations people in the constitution and enabling a voice to parliament is no more but no less than a mechanism of addressing underlying powerlessness experienced by them, a consequence of severe dislocation.
This is not, as some are mischievously arguing, granting an advantage to some that is denied to the rest. Nor is it simply a symbolic gesture with no capacity to address the various manifestations of poverty and disadvantage experienced by First Nations people. VOICE is a generous invitation from First Nations people to the rest of us to enter a partnership with them to address issues that we all want addressed. First Nations people are not asking for an advantage unavailable to other Australians, they are asking for a mechanism through which they might find the dignity of addressing their issues on their terms.
Let us look at one issue that is almost too shameful to mention and a source of enormous grief to First Nations people – the indigenous rate of incarceration. Currently almost one third of the nation’s prison population is indigenous.
In 1988 the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission (Australia) issued a report with the title: Prison, the last resort: a Christian response to Australian prisons. In the intervening 35 years the situation has deteriorated, not improved. Politicians find increased incarceration a vote winning response to crime and civil disturbance. Increased punitive action with no commensurate rehabilitative investment has become the norm.
The Voice would enable local leadership (let us say Alice Springs) to make recommendations which they believe will facilitate a life-giving outcome for both the perpetrators and the community they are hurting. As I understand it, if these recommendations have a wider appeal, they will then be presented to regional voice representatives and finally, where appropriate, to those elected to present recommendations to the national parliament. No government agency, local regional or national, would be bound to accept or legislate any recommendation, however, if the referendum is passed, local, regional, and federal law makers will and should feel obliged to consider such recommendations before legislating on behalf of First Nations peoples.
There is much at stake as the Voice referendum comes before the nation in a few months. The advantages for all are obvious. Its failure would be quite catastrophic, not for Albanese and the government, but for the nation. First, it would be a rejection of an invitation from First Nations Peoples to partner with them. The rejection of any invitation always carries its own message and with consequences that cannot be treated lightly.
A rejection would mean no further attempt would be made for a very long time. Secondly it would mean accentuated division between First Nations people and the rest of Australia will become more apparent. There can be no doubt that in a vacuum left through failure, unpleasant division will occur, led, not by those who support the referendum, but by those on either end of the spectrum who oppose it. On the one hand Lidia Thorpe and followers will seek sovereign identity not shared by all Australians while those on the right of politics will rise in high dudgeon spearheaded by the Pauline Hanson’s of this world. The result would be ugly and shameful for us all.
If Peter Dutton’s reluctance to support the voice results in failure of the referendum, this could deliver extremes of argument and presentation, further eroding Australia’s maturity. I would like to think he would find this an unacceptable outcome – but perhaps not.
The Voice referendum is an invitation which offers loss to none, healing and empowerment to some, and common purpose to all. Why would we not vote for it?
Australia: the Peacemaker or the Warmonger?
The roll call of countries where the civilian population endures armed conflict is seemingly endless. When the conflict is primarily about a struggle for power between internal rival political, ethnic or religious groupings the world at large pays scant attention as can be demonstrated in Myanmar, Tigray, Sudan, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, or the Congo.
However, when global alliances are at stake, or global economies are deemed to be at risk, then sides are taken. A very good example is Yemen. The conflict here has absolutely nothing to do with Australia, or Europe, or the United States. Its antecedents are the Arab Spring of 2012. Disquiet about the leadership of President Saleh was the trigger. Continuing disquiet under the presidency of Hadi, the alignment of Saleh with Houthi rebels, all led finally to international intervention and side taking. Because the Houthi rebels are perceived to be aligned with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s enemy, the US and its allies which include Australia has provided Saudi Arabia with armaments. Unleashed from the air these have caused almost unprecedented misery on a people and nation that at one time was a jewel in the Arab world. A Yemini civilian has nowhere to hide; prevention of humanitarian aid is a weapon of war.
A similar situation prevails in Palestine. Israel has waged a covert strategy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing of large sections of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, quite apart from the cruel blockade of Gaza, since the Oslo accord of 1993 - 95. What was covert is now overt. But because Israel is aligned with the West, even now the US and its ally Australia cannot bring itself to sanction Israel for its obvious abuses of international law and its clear intention to never allow a Palestinian State. Condemnation always follows the death of Israeli civilians, but never condemnation of the provocation that led to it, of which the Israeli army’s brutal incursion in Jenin is a recent example.
What of Ukraine? The depraved brutality of Russia’s invasion, even the apparent callous disregard it has shown for its own forces, their training and their expendability, is beyond shocking. Of course, the Ukrainian people need and deserve all the support they can receive from the international community. But is that all there is to be said? Is there another side to the conflict which should be honestly acknowledged and responded to? Ukrainians have as much right to autonomy, identity, and freedom as any other peoples in Europe. But the Russian Federation equally has the right to feel its borders are not under threat and that potentially hostile armaments are not mounted close to its heartland. Even the most hawkish cannot seriously believe this conflict will end militarily. It must end through diplomacy. Caricaturing the Russian Federation as the evil empire says more about the West than it does Russia. Treat others through your caricature of them and they will live up to the caricature. What role is Australia playing in the diplomacy that ultimately will end this conflict?
And Taiwan? What are we thinking that we could conceivably imagine being involved in a future military campaign over Taiwan?
Alliances have determined whose side we are on in conflict. Whether we should have been involved, taken sides, is quite another matter. Why were we in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan? What good did we achieve?
There are several dimensions to peace and peace making. The most common, but least meaningful, is the cessation of conflict. The Great War ended in 1918 but the settlement gave rise to WW2.
Much more meaningfully, peace is enjoyed when injustice is resolved. Peace can never exist while injustice remains. Israel’s idea of peace is of a subservient Palestinian population who are prepared to live a diminished life with intergenerational injustice. New Zealand’s Māori would not put up with injustice and achieved the Treaty of Waitangi. Australia is blessed with many First Nations peoples, but the downside of many nations is that treaty has been infinitely harder to realise and grievance emanating from injustice has continued to fester.
If Australia is to be involved in any future military conflict, we must be very clear about where injustice or potential injustice lies, and be certain our involvement not only contributes to resolving the injustice, but does not contribute to a consequential and perhaps greater, injustice. There can be little doubt that many military engagements have been unadmitted initiatives designed to perpetuate injustice, sold to the Australian populace as defending Australia’s self-interest. On too many occasions our self-interest further disadvantages the appropriate interest of others. We cannot live peaceably in a world where the lifestyle advantage of the wealthy is made at the lifestyle disadvantage of the poor. That does not mean that inequality can or should be removed. But it does mean that inequality arising from the impoverishment of the already poor and powerless will lead to prolonged conflict.
A yet deeper meaning of peace lies at the heart of the teaching of Jesus. Peace is essentially contentment that lies within. Being at peace with oneself means it is possible to be at peace in the home and if there is peace in the home there will be peace in the nation and throughout the world.
Statistics appear to show that in the West we are a people deeply ill at ease. Although Australians live in the wealthiest country on the planet, we are apparently consumed about our finances. Youth suicide is high. Elderly feel isolated and lonely. We spend more money on punishing people than rehabilitating them. We seek someone to blame and are given to conspiracy theories.
Is it just a coincidence that the nation that spends most money on armaments, the US, appears to be the nation most at war with itself. Is it therefore more likely that we will seek to fight an enemy without when we are most afraid to deal with an enemy within?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. This well-known adage is of course one of the beatitudes that form the preface to Jesusʹ Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus describes humanity’s higher nature – higher because it reflects the nature of God. Peace within is an antidote to fear from without. Fear is the catalyst of violence.
As Australia continues to formulate its international and security policies, we must be clear they are not framed by fear or worse by ignorant and false assumptions of othersʹ intentions. Nor must they be framed by perceptions of Australian self-interest to be secured at the expense of the legitimate interest of others.
The Faith vs the Institution
The death of Cardinal George Pell has dominated the news cycle over several days. Understandably the focus has been on the scandal of child abuse within the Church and the way the Cardinal is perceived to have responded from his position of considerable power and influence. What I believe has received far too little attention has been his resolute support for the Church as an institution rather than commitment to the Church as the body of Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount is prefaced with the Beatitudes which describe the Christ likeness upon which the Kingdom of God is founded. It is not hard to recognise pope Francis against the backdrop of gentleness, humility and meekness described here, hardly a catastrophe as the Cardinal is supposed to have described his pontificate.
It must surely be beyond dispute that Cardinal Pell was a divisive force because in all circumstances he backed the institution, despite all its failings, while less obviously championing the mission for which the institution evolved in the first place and for which any justification for its continuation must rest.
The reality is of course that no institution will survive unless it is seen to transparently serve the mission for which it evolved. Ironically it is George Pell’s position on the Church as an institution, not the pontificate of Pope Francis, that most threatens the continued life of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis is seen by Christians across all denominations, as well as the world community, as exemplifying the life of Christ, through compassion, inclusiveness, non-judgemental acceptance, love of the poor, and personal humility of life. It is hardly a catastrophe for a leader to manifest the attributes of godliness. Rather than the pontiff being a catastrophe, he has renewed hope that even now the institution might be redeemed to serve the mission of Christ in diverse contexts and cultures.
Put the institution first, be it a political party, a bank, or a Church, and its demise becomes inevitable. Reform the institution in light of changing circumstance and the need to serve the greater good beyond the institution, and it may find continued relevance.
Why did the Cardinal put the Church on such a high pedestal, requiring it to be beyond criticism and its edicts to be slavishly followed. A little anecdote may throw some light.
Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops of NSW met annually for fellowships and discussion, alternately hosted by one or another Sydney Archbishop during my time as bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. Archbishops Jensen and Pell found much common ground in their social, and religious conservatism. Of course, they shared no common ground on the most important issue, their views on the channel by which God’s grace and salvation is efficacious were mutually exclusive.
On one occasion I found myself becoming more and more irritated by the ex-cathedra like address being delivered by the Cardinal. I rather rudely interrupted him and said: Archbishop, it sounds as if you believe the Roman Catholic Church and the Kingdom of God are co-terminus. My fellow bishops of both persuasions did their best to behave as if they were not present! There was a long and rather embarrassing silence, which terminated by the Cardinal’s assent by default to that proposition.
Now, clearly if that is your position, many of the initiatives of Pope Francis are a catastrophe. In this circumstance it would be a catastrophe to meet with leaders and members of other Christian Churches as fellow channels of grace. It would be a catastrophe to meet with leaders of other faiths as co-workers. It would be a catastrophe to weaken the power of the sacerdotal priesthood by welcoming lay people to positions of authority, or contemplating a place at the table for women.
Believing the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of God are co-terminus is simply not credible and most certainly has no biblical warrant. The activity of God and the movement of the spirit is in no way confined to the Church – of any flavour or colour.
The watershed moment in Matthew’s Gospel narrative is almost certainly Peter’s acclamation of faith at Caesarea Philippi – You are the Christ the Son of the Living God – to which Christ replies: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. As is well known, Πέτρα is Greek for rock. The ʹrockʹ is Peter’s statement of faith. Over the centuries it has become obvious that statements or acts of faith are more likely to emerge from the weak, powerless, and humble than from the powerful. The Church and its leadership must be built on such as these. To be in the company of ʹtheseʹ is, more often than not, to be in the company of women, and as Jesus said, to be in the company of children.
The vista of a Church governed almost exclusively by elderly men sits very uncomfortably with Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, quite apart from being a very uncomfortable fit with our contemporary world.
There have been several watershed moments in the history of Christianity. Constantine’s declaration that Christianity was the official religion of Empire, the 16th century invention of the printing press and the protestant Reformation, the rise of scientists such as Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, the Enlightenment, Europe’s colonisation of the new world, have all been such moments. There can be little doubt the 21st century is another such moment. Christianity is not at risk, God in Jesus needs no defender, but what is as yet unknown is the structure and shape of Church which will best support the living faith of millions.
Christmas: the uncherished gift
In the irreverent Monty Python film: the Life of Brian, the crowd is listening to Jesus speaking, but because of the hubbub mishear what he says. Instead of "blessed are the peace makers" they hear "blessed are the cheese makers". The crowd wonders what this means; the phrase is symbolic says one, "it involves all in manufacturing"!
Unfortunately, this irreverent piece of satire has become contemporary reality, it is assumed that Christmas and the message of Jesus is all about manufacturing, or commercial activity.
For the first two centuries after the birth of Jesus there was reluctance amongst Christians to celebrate his birth, real birth was understood through martyrdom, the date of death was therefore the time to celebrate the person and their life.
There can be little doubt the date relates to the winter solstice – Yule in German. The day the solstice was celebrated in the Roman Empire was called dies solis invicti nati – day of the birth of the unconquered sun. In that Jesus is "the Light of the World", the connection is obvious.
But let us dwell for a while on the dominant message of Christmas - "peace on earth". The digital world has greatly diminished Christmas card sharing, but those that are shared predominate with this message. And yet…… How dreadful it is that war and the rumour of war is as dominant now as it has ever been – Ukraine – Yemen- Somalia – Ethiopia – South China Sea - Taiwan. Why is this so, why is peace such a disappointing and elusive hope?
There are many reasons, and we all contribute.
The very consumerism to which we are addicted is a significant contributor. We are told growth is essential for sustaining our way of life. And yet with 8 billion human mouths on the planet, all seeking a middle-class way of life there are simply not enough resources for all to share equitably. Inevitably those who have most seek to control most. Peace is, and will increasingly be, impossible to secure as global inequity continues to grow. Exponential growth is a nonsense in a world of finite resources.
Consumerism requires massive energy. Only the stupid now fail to realise that our accustomed source of energy and its biproduct in greenhouse gases is destroying reasonable hope we might have for a balanced and sustainable world. Those who live where life is intolerable will increasingly want to live where life is possible.
The arms industry is one of the largest contributors to the global economy. Global economies are as addicted to it as we are domestically addicted to the gambling industry. It is estimated that $3 trillion annually is now expended on arms while $206 billion is traded. It is estimated the US has a 79% share of armament trade. War is encouraged and enabled by the arms industry and war is eulogised in nationalistic myth making. In Australia we are participants through the realignment (at enormous expense) of the Australian War Memorial; in part funded and sponsored by the arms industry. The primary purpose of the Memorial will no longer be recognition of those who lost their lives in service of country but a national icon cementing our national myth in military exploits. The frontier wars are inconvenient to this narrative.
Most awfully, Russians are encouraged by their president to accept military conquest as integral to their national DNA and glorious empire.
How is the world to overcome its predilection to violence?
Christmas is the celebration of a different truth. The coming of Christ demonstrates that true human nature is found in the gentle, the meek, the righteous, the servant. The coming of Christ reveals that contentment and fulfilment are to be found in the contribution we make, not the riches we take. Bullies and the violent are not the strong, but the weak. Those who seek power and dominance despoil their human nature.
Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) is synonymous with Christmas because it is believed he transformed the lives of others through his generosity and anonymous gifting. Can we hope for a greater legacy than knowing we have been instrumental in gifting another human being with a fuller life?
We will only reduce, let alone eliminate violence through an appeal to humanity’s higher nature. Peace is far more than the absence of war. Peace is the celebration of justice and equity.
As we prepare to turn the page on another year, we are deeply conscious that the challenges facing the world community are immense. There are so many of us. Our presence is affecting the continued existence of every other species on the planet. Our materialistic consumerism, unchecked, has the capacity to make irreversible change to the Holocene era which has enabled human flourishing.
In a stable in Bethlehem a child is born whose destiny is to challenge the very concept of what we consider true human nature to be.
Secularists who do not even want to say the word Christmas and would prefer us to be having a merry holiday are not dismissing a weird piece of religious nonsense which we have grown out of. They are dismissing a revelation of human nature without which dealing with the violence and greed of our contemporary world is a forlorn hope.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807 – 1882
The recent Israeli election has thrown ʹReligious Zionismʹ into stark focus as Israeli politicians with this self-acclaimed identity, now in government, seek significant positions of power in areas of security and policing with dire implications for Palestinians and their fundamental human rights.
Do the words or deeds of this group and their leaders deserve either nomenclature – religious or Zionist?
When Zion first appears in Hebrew scripture (8th century BC) its reference is not control or ownership of land but belief in the transforming power of God’s (Yahweh’s) presence. Zion, the highest hill, is usually taken to mean Jerusalem. On this holy hill Yahweh was deemed to dwell and from this hill righteousness justice and peace were to flow to all nations on earth.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
3 And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2: 1 – 4)
It can hardly be made clearer. Zion(ism), in its earliest expression and understanding is not about supremacy. It is not about exclusive ownership of land. It most certainly is not about the forced removal of others. It is about the universal proclamation and acceptance of such truth that will enable all humanity to live justly and peacefully.
From its earliest days Christianity replaced the idea of place with a person – Jesus Christ. Christians believe. I believe, the way to peace and concord is the way of Jesus. The Isaiah reading is the set reading for this weekend, Advent Sunday.
If it is true that all religions share the same primary values, namely peace and righteousness for all, then this new grouping in the Israeli Knesset has no right to claim religion in their nomenclature. What they have so far said and done, not least in last weekend’s outrageous march through Hebron, is stir up enmity, cause violence, and make it clear they wish Palestinians to be eliminated from their ancient homelands. They simply do not recognise Palestinians have a right to exist. This is the very antithesis of Isaiah’s Zionist vision.
The Israel of Isaiah’s time ceased to exist in 721BC, while Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed in 586BC. Isaiah’s vision died, and while a Jewish remnant returned and a second temple was built, the Judaism that emerged around it was internally focussed on identity and survival, not outwardly focused to the world. Indeed, as recently reported in the Israeli paper Haaretz, torah keeping as an expression of Hebrew identity had probably only begun a little more than a century before the birth of Christ.
What of more contemporary Zionism?
It is a shameful reality that across many centuries European Jews suffered vicious antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust. It is therefore hardly surprising that European Jews sought security in a designated homeland. In the 18th century Jewish leadership had encouraged assimilation in European life through the Haskala movement. In the Nineteenth century this was clearly not working, and the search for a homeland - Zionism - was born through the leadership of Theodor Herzel. On his death in 1904 leadership of the Zionist movement was assumed by Chaim Weizmann who went on to become the first President of Israel. Choosing ʹZionistʹ as the identity of those who sought a secure homeland removed the name from its original religious meaning. Indeed, initially there was considerable opposition to the political Zionist enterprise by leading rabbis who argued it would hurt Jews and Judaism. Their argument was that taking territory as a homeland would inevitably lead to violence against those who currently occupied the land and ongoing violence in the necessity of defending it. Such violence was/is the antithesis of Judaism as they understood it. How prescient!
Two rabbinical schools exist in contemporary Israel, the Ashkenazi, and the Sephardim. Before 1947/48 Arab speaking Jews (Mustaarabi), associated with the Sephardim, lived peacefully with their Arab neighbours, both Christian and Muslim. Post 1948 migration to Israel has been significantly of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and the US, Jews committed to political Zionism or conquest of land. Those from Europe and especially from Russia brought victimhood in their DNA and refuse to accept their migration has made victims of others. Ashkenazi Jews from the US, many who now reside in the illegal settlements, brought millennialism in their DNA, belief that ownership of the land from the river to the sea, to the exclusion of all others, is their divine right. Entitlement is aggressively and violently pursued by Religious Zionists. To them, any form of violence and denial of other rights is justified on the spurious grounds of ʹsecurityʹ. Most Palestinian men have found themselves in gaol at some time, mostly without charge or explanation, on the grounds of ʹsecurityʹ. In this mindset, being a Palestinian is of itself a threat to the Israeli State.
Those who have taken up residence in the illegal settlements believe the indigenous people, the Palestinians, are the usurpers, not themselves. Their wish is to take the land, demolish Palestinian homes, humiliate, and degrade Palestinian lives, because "God has given them the land". God has done no such thing. God graces all of us to be channels of grace peace and righteousness. These people have egregiously turned the divine invitation down.
They are the very antithesis of biblical Zionism. For two years of enlistment the cream of Israeli youth are forced to engage in atrocities that must diminish them for the rest of their lives. They will either abhor what they have become or think nothing of it. Either way their humanity is diminished.
Religion is either life’s sweetest most beautiful watering hole, or it is its most horrible pit. In the crusades and more recently through abuse of power and discrimination, Christianity became that pit. In ISIS and various forms of terror, Islam has been that pit. In Religious Zionism the Jewish faith digs another pit.
All three Abrahamic religions are sources of much grace and life to millions/billions, when they are not, evil must be named for what it is.
Human Purpose and Destiny
The Festival of Christ the King
Significant international conferences are currently being held against the backdrop of seemingly insurmountable global challenges. What questions are being asked and what are appropriate starting points for conversation? Is any attention being given to questions like: what role should government play in human affairs - what is humanity’s goal – wherein does contentment lie – why are we here - what role do we have in the future of the planet – what is the real nature of power and how is it to be exercised?
In previous ages, especially the Hellenistic period, from which Western civilisation is deemed to have emerged, such questions were asked. It is no coincidence this is also the period that witnessed the birth of Christianity. Christianity is, in part, a response to these questions. Why then in today’s western world should Christian thought be either totally ignored, mocked, or attacked with a secularist polemic? I know we Christians have given a very poor account of ourselves this century in behaviour and public thought, but I would venture that what now passes for Christian knowledge in the pub, marketplace, and some university halls, is a misrepresented Sunday School level caricature. It is no wonder that with this caricature, Christianity is easily dismissed.
This weekend, the Christian Church celebrates the conclusion of its current liturgical year in the celebration of the festival of Christ the King. A primary text for this festival is the hymn to Christ or the hymn to the universe in Colossians 1: 15 -20. This is no Sunday School text, it goes to the questions posed in the opening paragraph and responds in a manner that can and should engage contemporary thought and debate, the very thoughts which initially shaped our civilisation.
In a Judaeo Christian world view three mutually accountable roles need to be fulfilled if human life is to peacefully and meaningfully flourish – the roles of prophet, priest, and King. Prophets speaks for righteousness and justice, and conversely speaks against injustice in all its forms. Priests point to life’s vital vertical dimension in a context where life’s horizontal demands seemingly fill all available space. Kings exercise oversight as servants. Whether Australian society gives functional expression to any, or all three, is worth pondering. We have a recent history of thoroughly discouraging prophets (we take them to court), ignoring priests, and removing any vestiture of servant from those who govern.
While it is Christian belief Jesus personifies all three, the third role is the focus of this hymn.
How all three roles are fulfilled will necessarily reflect prevailing human understandings of the universe and the human place within it. We know 21st century understandings are hotly contested, too often narrowly framed economically, rather than explored expansively and relationally.
The Colossian hymn begins with a very bold statement: "Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation…. in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell". The second of the ten commandments forbade the making of images. In counter intuitive fashion, here we are called to celebrate creation and humanity with new eyes as images of divine nature, for through Christ: "in them God has been pleased to dwell".
Seeing with these eyes, attitudes towards the natural order and fellow human beings are transformed. Arrogant racism, featured in the fate of Uyghurs in Xi’s China, or the Rohingya in the military junta’s Myanmar, is also a feature of right-wing governments everywhere and residually part of Australia’s colonial heritage. Theocracy as observed in modern Israel is inherently racist. Racism extinguishes the divine image. Observing the divine image in others made Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu two of the worlds (few) most respected human beings. They had thoroughly absorbed the rhythm of this hymn.
The hymn describes the universe as a single body. That is to say: macrocosm and microcosm correspond to each other in their relationship. That which is true of the whole must be true of every individual part and that which is true of every individual part must find its expression in the whole. Plato conceived the cosmos as a living being with a soul. In Greek thought each part, or individual, is connected to the divine through fullness (pleroma) of the whole. Personification of the natural order has been revisited in recent times by James Lovelock and his Gaia theory in response to the environmental crisis.
This hymn declares Christ to be that ʹpleromaʹ or fullness. The depth of thought and understanding that resides here might as well be ignored, for it is a stumbling block to the strident individualism and nationalism which pervades human life and its 21st century economic theories.
The hymn concludes with a linkage between creation and redemption. It does not need much concentrated observation to recognise brokenness in the human condition and a void in rhythms necessary to sustain the natural order. Surely it was not meant to be this way? Creation or new life occurs when that which hurts, breaks, or destroys, is overcome by that which redeems and gives life. The hymn celebrates redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus, who, embodying all humanity and the whole natural order, is redemption’s first fruits.
This is the thing. Life as God intends is to be celebrated now, not simply anticipated when the world passes away. Sadly, human investment, individually and nationally, is seldom orientated to redemption. There are myriads of examples. We lock children up (mainly first nation children) rather than invest in their education and rehabilitation. We are reluctant to reform harmful gambling practice because the income is relied upon by government. We refuse to prioritise the planet’s future because of short-term economic self-interest. The adage ʹthere is no gain without painʹ could be reworded: there can be no creation without redemption.
Thinking of engaging with Christianity as a way of life? Enter some of the greatest art, music and architecture ever imagined. Share the company of extraordinarily grace filled lives. But above all find in its sacred writings engagement with questions which should be asked and travel its paths in response.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation…
All things have been created through him and for him…
In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…
Through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself.
Ethiopian Civil War and its manufactured humanitarian crisis
The brutal internal conflict between Ethiopian national forces under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has inflicted untold suffering on millions of innocent people. It is estimated between 300,000 and 600,000 have lost their lives, while millions have been displaced. Hardly anyone in the western world will lack knowledge of the Ukrainian war, many absorbing daily information. In raw figures this conflict’s brutality, has been infinitely more horrific, and yet few are cognisant of it, or the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded. This conflict has now been raging for approximately two years.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 amidst fresh expressions of hope for a new era of justice freedom and democracy in the horn of Africa. The early signs were good, including the promotion of women to significant positions of authority in politics and civil society. In 2019 Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a protracted border dispute with Eritrea. Eritrea gained autonomy from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long and bitter struggle. Differences remained. In 2002, the international arbitration commission ruled in favour of Eritrea in an outstanding dispute, but Ethiopia would not accept the ruling. In 2018 Abiy conceded and accepted the ruling.
Ethiopia consists of several tribal regions, Oromia being amongst the largest. Tigray, a smaller region in the north, became powerful through its military arm, the TPLF. Formed in 1975, the TPLF was instrumental in the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991. Consequently, this province enjoyed considerable power in subsequent Ethiopian governments. Under Abiy Ahmed’s government that power evaporated. Tensions simmered. Hostilities began on 3 November 2020 when the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian Defence Force base in the Tigray region. Conflict quickly escalated and fortunes seesawed. Neighbouring Eritrea, so recently at peace with its Ethiopian cousin, became involved.
Unspeakable atrocities have been perpetrated by both sides. Rape and pillage have been weapons of war.
Despite not being a party to the conflict, the region to suffer grievously has been Afar. Bordering Tigray to the north and being a crucial trade route to the Red Sea for landlocked Ethiopia, the Afar region became a potential trophy for the TPLF. While there are significant townships in the Afar region, the people and their culture are semi-nomadic. The people received no protection or assistance from the Ethiopian government and have suffered grievously. Stock have been stolen or killed, women raped, young children conscripted, infrastructure destroyed, civilians murdered, livelihoods decimated. No stone has been left unturned in an attempt by the TPLF to destroy the capacity of Afar to survive. It has been left to the Afar themselves, with extremely limited resources, to defend their territory, their people, and their future. Malnutrition and famine have become the lived reality for many, perhaps most.
Lacking food, shelter and capacity to quickly rebuild livestock and livelihoods, many Afar are left in a parlous position. Basic infrastructure such as health clinics and schools have been destroyed.
On 2 November 2022, an African Union brokered truce between the Ethiopian government and TPLF representatives was signed in Pretoria. Significantly, the TPLF not a representative of the "Tigray government" was signatory to the truce. It is also significant the truce was brokered by the African Union, not by the United Nations. The TPLF is to be disarmed. Considerable concessions have been made on condition that aid will immediately flow to the Tigrayan people. Whether the truce will hold is yet to be determined. The guns were still being fired two days later. Eritrea was not a party to the truce, and it is yet to be seen how they will respond. It is also unclear how the terms of the truce will be transparently monitored and enforced. Most importantly, how is much needed aid to be distributed to Tigray’s starving, and from where is that aid to be sourced? And what of the Afar? Incidental victims of others struggle for power and resources, are they again to be out of sight out of mind? Will international aid be made available to assist these proud and resourceful people to rebuild, and will the Ethiopian government invest fairly in their future?
History shows false horizons of hope litter every tortuous road to lasting peace. If apparent victors deal harshly with the vanquished, resentment festers until hostility breaks out once more.
The international community carries considerable responsibility for futures yet to unfold.
European advancement and prosperity were built through colonisation and the harvesting of assets that belonged to the colonised. Africa continues to suffer the consequences of colonisation. National boundaries were established to suit the needs of competing European interests, not to reflect long developed allegiances and boundaries of the continent’s population.
There are multiple reasons why nations whose prosperity was built on the resources of others have not simply a moral obligation but a self-interested obligation to assist those in the world who are struggling.
Bishop Browning’s sister, Val Browning AM, has lived in the Horn of Africa since the 1970s. Through her charity, the Afar Pastoralist Development Association, which she leads with her husband Ismael, she has development an extended network of health clinics and schools. The charity also supports development projects of environmental protection and animal husbandry.
East and West Jerusalem
The Albanese government has reversed the recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israeli and Palestinian citizens reside in territories that are disputed. Since 1948 it has been an accepted international position that the two peoples should ultimately coexist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders. In the meantime, the only borders to receive tentative recognition are the borders of 1967 which recognise 22% of the historic land of ʹPalestineʹ, as Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.
The Albanese government has enabled Australia to re-join the majority international position which insists the status of Jerusalem can only be resolved in a final peace agreement between the two parties. Taking this step has been urgent, for in recent years the Israeli government has insisted the whole of Jerusalem to be its ʹeternal and undivided capitalʹ. Indeed, on Zionist websites any country that recognises West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is assumed to be recognising the whole of Jerusalem as its capital. These lists have included Australia, even in Morrison’s time a manifestly false position.
Criticism of the Albanese government by the Israeli government is both predictable and duplicitous. The reason why no final solution has been achieved is because Israel has no intention of allowing the formation of an autonomous Palestinian State. This has been confirmed in statements by all recent Prime Ministers, Netanyahu, Bennett, Gantz and Lapid. Daily more and more Palestinian land is forcibly resumed by the Israeli government. The denial of human rights to the Palestinian people is brazen and cruel. In turn, the Palestinian people are expected to turn the other cheek and live as if the loss of their land, their rights and freedoms is entirely ok with them. Of course, it is not ok, and never can be ok. No country that honours and observes international human rights should be giving Israel any comfort on its manifestly unjust, and frankly apartheid terms.
The public may be unaware that more Australian politicians visit Israel than any other country in the world. Why? Clearly not because of its strategic importance to Australia compared with Indonesia, multiple countries in Asia and Europe etc. It is because of a strident Zionist driven programme of exposing Australian political leadership to an Israeli political narrative. Perhaps Israel may be currently feeling their investment has not yielded what it should!
Criticism from the Dutton opposition is as predictable as it is pathetic. The Albanese government has not made a sudden pre-emptive political strike. This was made by Morrison. The move to recognise West Jerusalem was entirely political, both by the US and by Australia. Trump’s decision was motivated by his own domestic politics and his need to please his evangelical right-wing base. It had nothing to do with forwarding the cause of peace. When he opened his new embassy he invited Robert Jeffreys, an evangelical fundamentalist pastor to speak and bless it, a pastor who declared God had decided the Israeli capital 3000 years ago. Here, Morrison’s decision may well have been influenced by his own conservative evangelical beliefs, but it certainly was motivated by Dave Sharma’s need to win the seat of Wentworth.
I would like to think most Australians support this correction. I doubt however that in the grand scheme of things it reaps a huge political advantage for the Albanese government. This is what makes it even more commendable. The Albanese government has done the right thing because it is the right thing and because it has long been its publicly stated position. It is also significant the Albanese government is again making clear it is prepared to plough its own furrow in international affairs, independently of the stance taken by the US.
If Penny Wong and the government have made an error, it is in their timing. The change was made public on the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, the last day of Sukkot the festival of Booths or Tabernacles. It is a joyous day of celebration, especially for children and marks the end of one annual cycle of readings from the Torah and the commencement of another.
Serendipitously this invites another insight. The late UK Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, pointed out the torah, the first five books of Hebrew scriptures contain two covenants: one specific, the Abrahamic covenant; and one universal, the covenant with all living following the creation narrative of the flood. He pointed out that any specific covenant we may feel God has made with us, be we Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or any other religion, must always be understood in consideration of the universal covenant.
The Balfour declaration of 1917, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as odious and presumptive as it certainly was, at least contained the following: "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
The strategy of the Israeli government, which is not the same as a strategy of Jewish people, assumes a religious history, but ignores the insight of Rabbi Lord Sacks. This strategy assumes specialness for itself regardless of the affect it has on others and ignores the reality that whatever specialness any of us might assume personally, or nationally, is always conditional and restricted by the rights and specialness of others.
Anointed not Appointed: Reign not Rule
It is somewhat disappointing that in the wall-to-wall coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth ll, there has been so little analysis of her faith which became the cornerstone for qualities that have been universally admired.
Of course, there is much to caricature, even belittle in the very nature of British royalty: how they became descendants of Queen Anne, elitism, wealth and privilege, personal scandal, the utterly bizarre way Henry Vlll was invested with the title of ʹDefender of the faithʹ by Pope Leo X, suppression and colonisation during their reigns, etc. We all know that.
But the reality is that most British people and perhaps the majority of Australian people saw in her qualities that united and uplifted in stark contrast to the tawdriness of political life with which we have all been recently ruled and afflicted. If you doubt her desire to serve and be one with her people, look again at the picture of her, black, masked, and alone in St George’s chapel Windsor at the funeral of her husband at the height of the pandemic while her Prime Minister was cavorting at his Downing Street parties.
How Australia became a modern nation, much loved by its inhabitants and a desired destination for many others, is quite scandalous. Later comers became prosperous at the expense of Australia’s first nation inhabitants. We cannot turn the clock back, but by commitment to higher ideals we can redress the past and forge a fairer and more just future. We need to immerse ourselves in first principles.
The coronation service is a profoundly religious or spiritual ceremony, not simply a civic service with overblown pageantry. More important than the placing of the crown is the moment that precedes it – the anointing. With holy oil the Archbishop of Canterbury will anoint the head, heart and hands of the monarch with the sign of the cross.
When George ll was crowned in 1727, George Frederick Handel composed an anthem for the occasion called "Zadok the Priest". It has been sung at every coronation since. Sometimes the most inciteful theologians are not clergy, but artists, poets, architects, and musicians. The lyrics for this beautiful piece are quite simple: "Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king" followed by much rejoicing and God save the king!
This is a masterful composition with a lyric chock full of unchanging aspiration for shared life on this planet.
Let me explain:
In the ancient Hebrew tradition three figures existed in co-dependence in service of the people – prophet, priest, and king.
It was the role of the priest to draw people beyond the often trivial, too often conflictual, usually selfish realities of human life, to a reality beyond themselves – let us call this reality the divine, in whose company all are accountable. Sadly, the role of priest often then, and now, shrinks into cultic service of a particular brand, the brand seeming to have more importance than the divine itself. I have just experienced the exhibition Connections at the national museum in Canberra. Quite stunning. Clearly Australia’s first nations people enjoyed their equivalent of priest at the highest possible level, connecting them to everything – and beyond. Western civilisation is in danger of losing the priestly class it desperately needs, those claiming to be in this class too often exhibiting a narrow and self-serving institutional dogma and ideology. Queen Elizabeth ll was shaped in the Anglican Church and unwavering in her Christian commitment, but had the capacity, as we saw in her Christmas addresses, to rise beyond cultural narrowness to the honouring of spiritual awareness that could and should be the aspiration of all.
Nathan the prophet is most famous for calling David to account for stealing the wife of one of his soldiers and then having that soldier killed. The role of prophet is absolutely essential, but quite burdensome. It is to point to injustice, where it exists, and advocate for a better, fairer, more harmonious, more just way of life, based on ideals and principles which, in a Christian context, are clear in the Gospels. Where are today’s prophets? Officers of institutionalised religion? Sometimes perhaps, but sadly not often enough. They have often been scientists proclaiming inconvenient truths. They have been voices of minority groups who have challenged majority comfort. Frequently they have been the voices of the maligned, the wrongfully imprisoned and the dispossessed.
It is not easy for a monarch to speak with prophetic voice, for such engagement is likely to be interpreted as political interference. However, it is important. The new monarch will need to acknowledge and address the way in which Britain has benefited from past dispossession of others. He will need to continue his advocacy for an environmentally sustainable world. He will need to celebrate, as he has, a rich diversity of people without fear or favour. He will need to balance the cost of pageantry and history much beloved and expected by the British people, with a transparent accounting for, and distribution of wealth.
The monarch is anointed with these two identities – priest - lifting us beyond ourselves, and - prophet - calling us to a fairer more just and harmonious world. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the office of monarch exists because of these identities. The monarch does not rule. The monarch exists to embody the identity to which the people aspire, not in position or wealth, but in the virtues that undergird true human being.
In the minds of most Britains, Queen Elizbeth ll fulfilled this role on their behalf.
It is Christian belief, and certainly my belief, that in Jesus, prophet, priest, and king are fully present.
I personally believe Australia should produce its own head of state, but in doing so, finding a model through which these identities can be expected to be present will be far from easy. In presidential form, there are few heads of states anywhere in the world who commend themselves.
Charles has said he wishes to be known as ʹdefender of faithsʹ, not ʹdefender of the faithʹ. Rather than a diminishment of his role as head of the Church of England, I perceive this to be exactly the step that an Anglican Christian, worthy of the name, should take in a modern multi-faith world. To be Anglican is to embrace all Christians as brothers and sisters and to be Christian is to heighten and respect the spiritual awareness and distinctiveness of others.
Pearls and Swine: Wood and Trees
Christian faith, both its belief and its practice, is in serious decline in the western world, this hardly needs stating. However, what is relatively new is that agnostic passivity has more recently given way to active and at times aggressive opposition, cynical characterisation, and ridicule. Why is this so?
There can be no easy answer, indeed, there are no doubt a multiplicity of answers, including scandal and major societal changes; but a significant reason is a religious literalism which makes nonsense of 21st century life’s experience and knowledge and feeds a belittling characterisation.
The Anglican Church claims to be strongest in Africa, amongst our Pacific neighbours, and in pockets of Asia. Why? Not because of a set of dogmas or doctrine, but because in these diverse cultures the Church lies at the heart of community life and its celebration. The attraction of Christianity amongst the poor and oppressed in the developing world is not hard to explain. This was the identity Jesus chose, the company he sought, and in whose voice he spoke. But beyond ghettos and the company of the struggling, cultures whose identity is confirmed through communal celebration, are the natural home for people of faith across all religions. This does not make such people and cultures less intelligent, more open to superstition, less liberated by science. It highlights an essential dimension of being human we in the West have significantly lost, much to our detriment and grief. We have become so infatuated with individual identity and dogmatic assertion that our very humanity, always more corporate than individual, is severely diminished.
The emergence of the Diocese of the Southern Cross (GAFCON) and its arrogant claim to ʹorthodoxyʹ (by implication saying that those who do not adhere to its interpretation of truth are unorthodox – even heretical) does nothing to address the urgent claims of Christ, either in the West or in the developing world. In the West the claims of groups like GAFCON have made the proclamation of the faith infinitely harder, and the ears of the general population hardened against listening. Let me explain:
The West (GAFCONʹS north)
Knowledge of Christianity in the West is now quite abysmal, but it is worse than that, large sections of the population have a caricature of Christianity in their heads which they then conveniently and vehemently reject. This caricature is fed, in large part, by those who take a literal or fundamentalist approach to every verse of scripture without reference to the whole of scripture. (Last Sunday the lectionary led us to a verse in Luke’s Gospel which reads: "Unless you hate your father and mother …you cannot be my follower." Versions of this text exist in other NT writings and in pseudo-canonical writings). Is that verse to be taken literally? Of course not.
Scripture demands we hold in tension apparently irreconcilable opposites knowing that truth is found in the paradox or tension between them. Christianity has given credal affirmation to truth in paradox in requiring submission to the reality that God is both one and three and that Jesus is both man and God.
Scripture focusses human identity in a name – Adam. This identity connects us to the earth – the Adamah. We are earth creatures made truly alive through wind or breath. Adam is both singular and plural. Adam is the name of the human race, but equally Adam is known as every individual. In the West we over emphasise the individual ʹadamʹ and undervalue the whole ʹadamʹ of whom we are all part. The scriptural paradox is that while every individual is unique, we become whom we should be through relationship with others and not least the earth itself, from which our name is drawn. Paul said that in the realm of God there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, bond or free. He may equally have said there is neither heterosexual nor homosexual. In other words, there can be no differentiation in value or respect between people who live who they are. The counter side to this story is of course there should be unequivocal condemnation of heterosexuals or homosexuals who use their orientation for exploitation.
The Developing world (GAFCONʹS Global South)
This serendipitously draws us into the developing world. Some years ago, I spent a week in the HIV AIDS hospital in Soweto, South Africa. Most of the patients were heterosexual. In the male group meetings, skiting about sexual prowess and conquests dominated conversations. In the circumstance, this was almost impossible to comprehend. There was one homosexual in the group and the last to speak. Disgusted with what he was hearing, he said to his heterosexual peers: "Your manhood is not tied to your sexuality it is expressed through the discipline you set, the example you offer, the respect you demonstrate to others". Which of this group was most deserving of blessing, or indeed who sounded most Christ like?
President Thabo Mbeki was slow and reluctant to respond to the HIVAIDS crisis because he was reluctant to tread on what was perceived to be part and parcel of African male identity – sexual profligacy. In scriptural terms, this was and is a far bigger issue than dealing with same gender attraction. Indeed, the latter is a very convenient distraction. A visit to the refugee camp at Deepsloot outside Pretoria magnified many times over for me the issue of perceived male rights and privileges and female subservience.
In my last blog I pointed to how the extraordinary and wilfully distracting focus on same gender attraction in Rwanda potentially diverted attention from the Church’s involvement in the genocide, which should have absorbed every ounce of retrospection available.
That truth is revealed in paradox and seldom if ever in singular assertions is one of the Christian pearls so often "trodden by swine" in the binary addicted West. No time to develop it here, but communism and capitalism, the chief foci of global struggle in all our lifetimes are equally capable of half-truth, distortion, and chaos. Each needs to be moulded through the prism of the other.
The Diocese of the Southern Cross is far from an orthodox oasis planted in a barren landscape of heretical syncretism. It is the opposite. Christian orthodoxy does not hold to one truth while at the same time denying another. Sexuality of any form that is exploitative should be condemned. However, it is the antithesis of Christian faith to condemn or exclude any human being simply for being who they are. It is ironic that many outside the boundaries of formal Christian faith understand this. That is why GAFCON verities have made the telling of the Christin faith so much harder and deafened the ears of those who might otherwise have listened.