in service of the
Aspiration appears to be the new buzz word in Australian politics. It is being used to convey the idea that the foremost aspiration of most Australians is greater financial security. If it is not it should be. It is almost certainly the case that many do aspire to the presumed security of substantial wealth, but the strength and security of Australian civil society is dependent upon very different aspirations from most of its citizens.
We heard it said by the Prime Minister in parliament that a sixty something aged care worker in Devonport should be aspiring for a better paid position. Wrong, he or she should be able to expect that the position currently held is fairly and appropriately remunerated. Unless a significant number of citizens aspire to be exceptional aged care workers, the future will ultimately be very bleak for all members of the population when they reach frail old age.
Society expresses relative value through the remuneration it offers its diverse workforce. It is hard to imagine a more important profession than teaching. We need our most able young men and women to aspire to be teachers, not hedge fund managers or defamation lawyers. Australia is slipping behind on one of the most important benchmarks of a healthy civil society – education. Based on remuneration alone, it is unlikely that the most talented will aspire to be teachers in the future. Relative remuneration indicates the teaching profession is not highly valued, at least not in comparison with those who work, often with the most meagre of qualifications, in the finance industry.
It used to be the case that some professions were called ‘vocations’ to indicate that motivation for the chosen path was service, not financial reward. Nurses, ambulance officers, many medical professionals, carers of various descriptions, youth and children’s workers, were all thought to be vocations.
It is a sad commentary on Australian political life that aspiration is associated by our political leaders with the size of the house, the depth of the bank balance or the breadth of the investment portfolio.
Society first needs men and women to aspire to be the very best fathers or mothers, grandfathers or grandmothers, husbands or wives, spouses, neighbours, friends, that they can possibly be. It is a truism to say: “in adversity your job will not save you, your family will”.
Secondly society needs men and women to aspire to professions that benefit the common good. It is not hard to make some jobs quite lucrative while at the same time contributing little if anything to the common good of others. Clearly many financial advisors have made a lot of money at the expense of others.
There is little if any evidence that wealth adds anything to personal wellbeing or happiness. So why would anyone simply aspire to be wealthier? Obviously, those who are poor, those for whom the necessities of life are a struggle, aspire to be lifted out of their poverty and society has an obligation to assist them on this path. But there is likely to be no measurable difference to the happiness or contentment of someone on a middle income to someone on a high income, in fact there is evidence the trend is in the opposite direction.
Happiness or contentment is not fed by wealth, but by other more personal factors:
· Strong bonds of affection within the immediate family
· Being engaged in activity that is meaningful
· An attitude of gratefulness
· Knowing a worthwhile contribution is being made
· Knowing that enough is enough
If our politicians strive to deliver policies on the false assumption that greater wealth is the primary aspiration of most, or indeed that it is the most important aspiration, they will deliver a society that is even more self-focussed, discontent, and far more likely to suffer the fate of humpty -dumpty who, facing an inevitable fall, could not be put back together again because the vision that put him on the wall in the first place turned out to be an illusion.
There can be little doubt that religious practice is on the back foot in Australia and therefore some people of faith and their religious leaders feel under siege. This perception was exacerbated by the overwhelming vote in favour of marriage equality in November 2017 and its subsequent passing into law. But is religious freedom in Australia really under threat and if so what is the cause and remedy?
Following the marriage equality vote, the Government commissioned a ‘Religious Freedom Review’, appointing a panel with Philp Ruddick as chair. While the panel delivered it report to the government on 18th May 2018, we are led to believe its contents may not be made public for some time.
There are several reasons why religion generally and Christianity in particular are finding themselves with less and less relevance, sometimes interpreted as a loss of freedom, within Australian society.
· The most obvious reason is that the behaviour of some religious adherents, including leadership, has scandalised the community generally and brought opprobrium to the faith. For Christianity this has not only been the appalling breach of trust in relation to children in the Church’s care, but equally appallingly the obvious priority given by the Church to its reputation, over the needs and rights of the victims of this abuse. It is true that this abuse has extended well beyond the Church to almost every form of institutional care of children; it is also true that a child is far more likely to be abused by a trusted member of their own family than a person representing an institution, but neither of these realities lessen the guilt of the Church and some of its members.
For Islam the opprobrium has related to the way violence has been perpetrated in the name of the religion, and within Australia, the way young have been radicalised. It is therefore very significant that the newly elected Grand Mufti, Dr Abdel Aziem Al Afifi, has made it his priority to address this issue.
· It is considered by many in civil society inappropriate for views held by people of faith on issues of personal morality to be seemingly imposed in any way on the wider community. Euthanasia, abortion, and sexual practice, other than that which is clearly abusive, is simply a matter of personal choice, and all fall into this category. It will be interesting to see how the panel has addressed this issue, which one might assume has been at the heart of its work. There are good reasons why the virtues of ‘traditional marriage’ can and should be promoted without demeaning other partnerships. There are good reasons why abortion should always remain a contentious issue, for alongside the justifiable reasons why abortion can and should be supported, there are other reasons, partly related to the length of the pregnancy and partly related to value seemingly given to parental lifestyle over the value of an unborn life that should be contested. There are good reasons why euthanasia should become a topic of open debate, but there also needs to be a broadening of the education of the general public so that the benefits and limits (such as they may be) of palliative care are better understood.
The work the panel has done to address these issues will be a matter of considerable interest. The Anglican Church, is currently retaining the ‘freedom’ to demand its licensed officiants only preside over ‘traditional marriages’ as a matter of Church teaching. Many Anglican clergy would strongly disagree with this position, but if they wish to retain their authority under Anglican licence, they must comply. On the other hand welcoming LGBTQI members, according respect and dignity, providing all normal civil courtesies should be assumed and non-controversial.
· Some of the strongest requests for protection of ‘religious freedom’ are likely to have come from the conservative wings of faith. It is these wings who make it easy for the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens to parody, even ridicule, belief. Rather than people of religion being protected in their rights to believe and teach whatever they wish to believe and teach, I would argue the wider community, especially children, should be protected from exposure to nonsense from those whom they are led to believe are trustworthy. A creationist view of history should not be accorded a place in any school curriculum, religious or secular, as an alternative to science. Truth cannot be divided. Observable data confines a short view of history to the world of fantasy. No one should be allowed into a child’s classroom contesting science based on a literal scriptural interpretation. In like manner an interpretation of the Koran which encourages violence or even disrespect to another human being has no place in a liberal democratic society and deserves no protection. No one should be allowed into a class room who might encourage children to believe that persons are more or less acceptable on the basis of sexual orientation.
· It should always be the case that people of faith, especially Christian faith, will speak and stand for justice; be it in relation to refugees, indigenous people, the environment, children, the poor etc. Vested interests will always attempt to minimise this voice, using money or slogans: ‘do-gooders’, ‘greenies’, ‘socialists’, ‘happy clappers’, etc. but the right, indeed responsibility, as followers of Jesus to speak and act in this way needs no protection: the responsibility should simply be taken and exercised. There have been numerous attempts over the years to ‘shut me up’. Most famously when the then Premier of Queensland ordered me out of his State on the front page of the Courier Mail, and far less publicly when a Prime Minister called me in for a dressing down following a speech I had made. People of religion need no protection of freedom to speak for justice and righteousness, indeed the more this might appear to be supressed the more the right and duty should be exercised. The great sadness is that the capacity of politicians to publicly declare their faith appears to bear no correlation to their likelihood to stand up for matters of justice and equity. Which leads me to the final point.
· “You cannot love God and mammon” (Mtt: 6.24). Without dispute mammon is miles ahead. The only political value is economic. This is unfortunately underlined by almost every utterance that proceeds from the mouths, especially the important mouths, ‘on the hill’. Virtually no value is currently being accorded to environmental or ecological issues. Recent announcements that great tracts of land are to be bulldozed inland of the Great Barrier Reef and $400 million is to be given to a foundation run by business people with no expertise in the field and no expressions of interest called for from other entities is enough proof of this statement – if any were needed.
As John Hewson has said, the NDIS is being used as an endless supply of jobs for private contractors that are rushing to the latest gravy train in the same way that others had run to the pink bat gravy train. The shameless refusal of government to increase ‘job-start’ allowance is another example. So many more could be recited. The government’s refusal to appropriately fund a regulator with teeth for the banking industry etc. And then there is the spectacle of our previous Deputy Prime Minster selling his story for $150,000 and putting the money into a family trust to avoid tax.
Alexander Downer once asked me at a Government House reception “and can’t the rich be saved”. (To this day I am unsure what I had said or done to provoke the question). The answer is: of course, yes! We are no more or less worthy, rich or poor. The difference is that the wealthy face a question which the poor will never face “what are you going to do with it”?
In Australia people of religion must be very wary of asking for any further ‘freedoms’. The greatest and most secure freedom will arise from a recognition that people of faith make such a contribution to the wellbeing of society that the thought of their absence is inconceivable. We are currently a long way from that point.
Nakba, Gaza and Jerusalem
Today, 15th May, marks 70 years of the Nakba- catastrophe for the Palestinian people. Unlike most commemorations of historic events, this is different, the Nakba is an ongoing catastrophe with its suffering as real today as it was 70 years ago. Palestinians continue to live as refugees, they continue to have their land and livelihood confiscated, and they continue to be treated as if they are ‘non-people’ by those who fall over themselves to carry favour with Israel’s extreme right-wing government. In light of this, what does the world expect Palestinians to do?
In particular, what does the world expect Gazans to do? 1.84 million live on this tiny strip of land that is punitively blockaded. Much of Gaza’s infrastructure remains damaged or in ruins by Israeli airstrikes. Roughly half the population suffers from what the UN calls “food insecurity” and 90% of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption. Beaches are polluted with untreated sewerage and fishermen are shot for sailing too far from shore. Much of the arable land is in the buffer zone wherein Palestinians can be shot on sight.
On March 30, 30,000 Gazans established five protest camps on the edge of the buffer zone demanding a return to their homes in Israel. Wary of Israeli retaliation, they have confined their protest to a non-violent and mostly symbolic ‘March of Return’. Israel’s response has been to try and crush the demonstrations while keeping the death toll below a level that would provoke international condemnation. Although the UN reported last week that 2,017 protesters have been shot with live ammunition, only 47 had been killed to that point. Medics in Gaza reported an unusually high number of amputations caused by an “exploding bullet” that pulverises bone, tissue and arteries.
Yesterday, Israeli troops shot dead dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza border as the United States opened its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, a move that has fuelled Palestinian anger and drawn foreign criticism for undermining peace efforts. It was the bloodiest single day for Palestinians since the Gaza conflict in 2014.
Palestinian Health Ministry officials said at least 55 people were killed and more than 2,200 injured either by live gunfire, tear gas, or other means during protests on the border.
It is of course true that Palestinians have been badly let down by the infighting of their political leadership and worse, Hamas’ policy of firing rockets has been disastrously counter-productive. But it is also true that the policy of Israel has been to ensure that Palestine and Palestinian leadership remains dysfunctional by thwarting any real capacity to deliver meaningful services to their people. Hamas, the PA, the PL0, Fatah all scramble for legitimacy in a context of contrived disempowerment.
Added to this, and most crucially, Israel and its allies must accept the reality that the relentless colonisation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has virtually closed the door on any possibility of a two-state solution. For Australia to stay with a ‘two-state’ solution as its official policy and yet do absolutely nothing to achieve it through its conversations with Israel, or its voting at the UN, is political double speak of the worst kind. When in March Netanyahu announced that in no circumstance would Israel relinquish control of the land West of the Jordan, there was complete silence from the Australian government.
‘Facts on the ground’ demand that the whole international community insist on basic human rights for all in an area of land that for all intents and purposes is now, not only controlled by a single authority – Israel, but which it is determined will remain in its control in perpetuity. By moving its embassy to Jerusalem the US has endorsed that control. It is no good Trump saying he is open to a ‘peace’ process for Palestinians and Israelis, moving his embassy has made clear that Israel is, and from his perspective always will be, a sovereign state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
The scandal of the US move is not the move itself, but that it has been made without seemingly to recognise the implications or own the consequences. Through the move the US is agreeing with Israel that it has control of all the territory which it has long since ceased to recognise as ‘occupied’ and has preferred to call ‘disputed’. If Israel is now, as Netanyahu claims, and apparently Trump agrees, ‘Greater Israel’, then the consequences are enormous. In these circumstances, unless Israel wants to abandon any legitimate claim to democracy and unless it wishes to avoid the opprobrium of being the only western aligned country that has intentionally established an apartheid regime; the consequences of moving the embassy must be to insist that Israel immediately grant equal and unrestricted rights not only to Israeli Arabs, but equal and unrestricted rights to all Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
By moving its embassy, the US has significantly changed the goal posts in terms of what it must mean for Israel to behave as a responsible sovereign state within the international community. Palestinians and Israelis can of course live in harmony with one another. The adversarial binary forms of identity that have become more and more entrenched since 1947 do not need to prevail, indeed they are the major stumbling block in a desire for peace and security for all.
It is true that some Palestinians teach and maintain hatred towards Jews, the fact that they have suffered so much does not justify this self-defeating stance. But it is more than equally true that many Jews teach and foster hatred towards Palestinians. This is not just a feature of the ideologically driven illegal settlements, but a casual walk through the Jewish quarter of the Old City will hardly be possible without verbal insults being hurled from Jewish children and adults alike. The move of the US embassy just adds to this false triumphalism “Trump makes Israel great again”. Israel will never be great in any enduring sense if its triumphalism is built upon, even dependent upon, the subjugation, humiliation and destruction of another people. Hatred of the other must be called out for what it is, xenophobia, and Israel will rightly remain despised if this xenophobia remains entrenched. It is entrenched as long as the Israeli army protects its perpetrators with Israeli citizenship, while locking up Palestinian children who throw stones out of their frustration.
For their part the Palestinians are not going away. The fact that despite everything they are still there is a triumph in itself.
Gazans cannot be kept caged for ever.
Palestinians on the West Bank will not go away
The US, in its eagerness to meet the expectations of its Republican power base and pay a dividend to its Zionist benefactors, will need to face the legitimate political consequences of its embassy move, or fall to the standard of Israel’s abandonment of democracy and its cavalier application of universal human rights under international law.
The Banking Royal Commission
The scandals being uncovered by the banking royal commission are appalling, but should we be surprised? The financial sector not only comprises a significant component of the national economy but sets the standards by which the daily transactions of life are conducted in Australian society. The sad reality is that profit and ‘success’, so lauded in the finance industry over other values, has become the normal standard in almost all boardrooms and in so much that passes for commercial transaction in day to day life.
The commission into Child Sexual Abuse aside, the politically motivated royal commissions of recent times have been ‘Much ado about Nothing’, but not this one. The findings have been quite horrifying. But are we, or should we, be surprised? Much that is being revealed has been around in anecdotal narrative for some time. In stark contrast, those of us who are old enough will remember a time when the Commonwealth Bank was publicly owned, and no matter which bank enjoyed our loyalty, the bank manager was revered. We trusted the bank to be there to serve us in good times and bad. Why has the culture done a U-turn?
We now instinctively know we, the customers, are no more, but no less, than a pawn of the bank’s wealth accumulation strategy and that the banks exist to serve their shareholders.
But is this simply a problem of the banks or of the finance industry more generally? I put it to you that it is the latter, and that the banking royal commission is acting as a lightning rod into the parlous state of civil society, a state all of us have fallen into.
Allow me to set the scene:
- Profit is everything, the rewards for having produced an outstanding balance sheet are considerable. The bonus system carries within it an irresistible inducement to act unethically. Results which exceed the rate of inflation by a considerable margin are not necessarily the result of productivity or hard work, they have often been the result of someone else’s loss. Hedge Funds operate on the basis that there is money to be made from other’s ill judgement. Hedge Funds do not produce, they harvest capital from one source, capturing it to another vault.
- Winning is everything. We are all recovering from the national shame of a ball tampering episode. How could it have come to this? Not at all hard to explain. Winning is everything and the financial rewards for doing so are monumental. It was hypocritical of politicians, including the Prime Minister, to engage in the shame game when all that is exemplified from parliament is their own version of ball tampering for political self-interest.
- Taxation robs resources from the private sector into the public arena and therefore can be legitimately avoided at all costs. It is an indisputable reality that millions, probably billions, are invested every year in tax avoidance. We know that many large companies have so arranged their affairs that they pay no tax at all and yet are looking forward to a reduction in the rate of ‘company tax’. Taxation should be embraced as the incontestable obligation of all to contribute to the common good of a harmonious and just society. We are currently far from this position.
- Private ownership is good, public ownership is bad. We have made essential services captive to ‘for profit’ enterprises. Essential services should not have legitimate expenses minimised and profit maximised for profit hungry private enterprises. Gaols should not be places in which rehabilitation is compromised, or refugee compounds places where health, education, and general care fall below the standard acceptable within the general Australian population. We appear to have reached a point in Australian political life where nothing remains in public hands as a matter of principle. When I lived in Canberra many public servants were made redundant under the Howard purges. The ones in my street left with a redundancy package on Friday and renewed their old job on Monday on a private contract at a higher rate. Quite apart from the loss of corporate memory there are very good reasons why many key areas of Australian life ar more appropriately and effectively administered by the public service. Privatising ‘poles and wires’ has not contributed to cheaper electricity – quite the contrary.
- Independent regulation is bad, self-regulation is good. This extraordinary situation is promoted most strongly on the right of politics, and most fully by Libertarians like Senator Leyonhjelm. Libertarians believe that any interference or restriction placed upon the affairs of individuals is an unwarranted intrusion into their lives. Society is made up of individuals, so they argue, who must be allowed to get on with their lives and in so doing contribute to society as a whole. The false premise of this position is that the complexity and interrelatedness of life means of necessity we are all accountable to one another for the common good. The failure of the regulator to do its job in the banking industry is obvious, almost criminally obvious, for all to see. However the monumental failure of regulation has been in the environmental area. Future generations should bring a class action against the present crop of politicians for this failure. The French President, Mr Macron, now visiting Australia, has appealed to both sides of politics to get over their party political gamesmanship on this matter, reminding them there is no planet B. It should come as no surprise that those who have opposed proper oversight of climate responsibility are the same as those who have opposed investigation of the banking industry.
- The wealthy are self-motivated and hard-working, the poor only have themselves to blame. This explanation, perhaps justification, for inequity is one of the greatest threats to the future of an harmonious civil society. Racial prejudice and the capacity to scapegoat, is closely connected. That more than a quarter of the prison population is indigenous, that mental health is a great contributor to homelessness and gaol, that the poor go through gestapo like interrogation to justify claims whilst politicians and senior bureaucrats stretch the rules to embrace theirs; all these and many other facts are indicators that winner takes all, and the loser can simply stand aside.
Considering these realities, a civil movement is called for, to which people in their millions might associate their name, which says “enough, turn around, we are going the wrong way”. This movement could begin within communities of faith, but does not need to. It needs to be led by respected figures such as the economist Allan Fels, and the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. It needs to stand outside conventional politics, certainly not to be captured by any party. It is a cause for which the name Monash could be attributed. It is a movement which should attract well motivated philanthropists such as Dick Smith.
Above all, we need a movement which ordinary Australians can embrace. Stay on the track we are on and the faults of our current society will be exaggerated in the next generation, stand up and a different path will take us to a platform where mutual trust and service for the good of each other within civil society will once more become a possibility, if not the norm.
Preaching on the second Sunday of Easter I was pulled up short by the Acts reading. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). It s not that I had not read this passage many times before, it is that it struck me how it contrasts with the widely held perception in Australian public life that Christianity is about individualism, individual rights, property ownership and family values – meaning private rather than social principles and responsibilities.
In direct repudiation of this enlightenment view, Acts, an account of the life of the post Easter community, provides a window into what might be called the primary or first resurrection value – shared life. It is easy to be dismissive. Apart from community movements such as the Franciscans, how often have we seen this value being literally carried out in the rejection of private ownership over the last 2000 years. Well, not very often if we look with the eyes of western Enlightenment, but if we look through the eyes of traditional indigenous life anywhere in the world we might have a different view. In any case, if the practical application of the principle might be somewhat elusive in Western life, the principle itself stands.
What lies behind the principle of ‘community’ or ‘shared life’ is the idea that friends or ‘communities’ have one soul. Those who have shared the journey with Christ through the cross to the resurrection and beyond share this new life. “You are my friends if you do what I command you - love one another” (Jn.5:12-17). Interestingly the idea of friends being of one soul is also found in Greek philosophy. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics: ”Our good is the good of a being that lives with others and so must in some way be bound up with the good of others”. This value is lived out weekly in the Eucharist or Mass where all present eat from the one loaf and drink from the common cup.
Much is being made these days of ‘conservative values’ for which we are to read ‘Christian values’. Indeed, at least one of the new Australian political parties is founded on what it claims are these principles. Exponents of these ‘values’, including Senator Cori Bernardi, Lyall Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby and Eric Abetz, to name a few, applaud property ownership, small government, ‘family values’, defence or security and solemnly rail against ‘creeping socialism’.
Because these values run counter to the value espoused in the post Easter account, I argue these espoused values are not especially ‘Christian values’ at all, nor do they deserve to be called conservative values. They are in fact Enlightenment values.
Christian values, conservative values are values that support the concept of ‘one soul’ or to put it another way, that support ‘common good’.
Margaret and I live in our own (modest) house. I am not suggesting that private ownership should come to an end. One of the ways of caring for others is not to be a burden on them, therefore to provide for one’s own basic needs is consistent with this principle. However, the Easter principle kicks in with considerable force when dealing with ownership that goes beyond basic needs when we are made to face the reality of equity and fairness.
Those who espouse so called ‘Christian’ or ‘conservative’ values:
Have been opponents of environmental responsibility, presumably because such responsibility crosses the rights of individuals to ‘do what they like with their own’. The Easter value is that we need a mindset that understands that ultimately, we do not own anything. Certainly, we have no right to activity, notably economic activity, which takes personal advantage at the expense of others losses. Science is unequivocal that continued exploitation and refusal to accept significant climate change mitigation goals will (not might) impact severely upon the future, indeed upon the present. This arrogant refusal is a direct rebuttal of Easter values.
Opponents of strategies that might make housing more equitable, presumably because private wealth accumulation is to be admired. It is beyond dispute that, while not the only factor, negative gearing and generous capital gains tax provisions have severely impacted the property market, leaving some with many properties from which considerable wealth accumulates and leaving others outside property ownership altogether. Those whose wealth or income is asset and not salary based enjoy generous tax provisions, while those whose income is reliant on wages struggle to make ends meet, despite the fact labour keeps the cogs of civil life turning.
Opponents of regulation that might curb spiking CEO salaries, presumably because this, like the afore mentioned, would be ‘creeping socialism’ writ large. One of my predecessors, Bishop Earnest Burgmann, once proposed that the salaries and emolument of senior management should be capped at a percentage of the basic salary prevailing in their company or organisation. Burgmann suggested the figure should be between 7 – 10 times. Taking the higher figure the maths are easy. Let us assume the basic salary is $60,000 then of course the CEO would earn $600,000. Why does anyone need to earn more than $600,000 per annum? If this principle were enacted, then at the very least there would be incentive on senior management to increase the basic salary of employees.
Even opponents of regulation to restrict poker machine operators from gauging the poor, presumably on the basis that we are all responsible for our own actions.
Cori Bernardi, Lyall Shelton and Eric Abetz have confused Christian or conservative values with Enlightenment values. At best Enlightenment value are neutral in relation to religion. They promote the entitlements of individuals, of capital and ownership, they are wary of any ethic that might be universally applicable, wary too of government acting through regulation to curb excesses, and see any role that religion may have restricted to private piety.
Whilst the Western world is and will remain indebted to Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Kant and Smith, it is also the fact that Enlightenment thinking is an insufficient foundation to assist humanity through the troubling global issues of our time. The right of individuals to do what is in their interest regardless of others, can no longer reign supreme if humanity is to survive another century. The wishes of all must be subject to the good of all. This is of course the great political struggle of our time. Nations always want to serve their own best interest when in reality their best interest is the best interest of all.
May the Easter value of shared life and it implications be better understood and become the primary focus of public discourse, and may the Church be bold enough in word and example to take the lead.
In the early days Christians took hold of secular often pagan (associated with matters rural) festivals and transformed them into expression of Christian verity. Most notably Christmas and Easter owe their origins to this incarnating the faith within the rhythms of contemporary life. When Gregory sent Augustine to England he gave him strict instructions to follow this strategy. In our time the reverse has become true. Commercialisation has taken over Christian festivals for its own purpose. Palm Sunday is a bit of an oddity, the secular world has connected the submissive journey of Jesus into Jerusalem with causes to do with refugees and injustice in general. Has this trend done a service or disservice to the Palm Sunday festival?
If you found yourself in Church on Palm Sunday you were very much part of a quirky minority. The clear majority find what we do and believe odd at best and at worst we are looked upon less than benignly. This I think we must accept as fact. Does it matter, and if so why does it matter? Well it does matter, not simply in terms of eternal destiny, but more pragmatically it matters in terms of how we live and make sense of the world in which we live. Holy Week and Easter have much to say about both, that is to say they speak of eternal destiny and they speak to the way the cogs of life should move every day. Indeed, so strongly do we believe this we take for granted the reality that the events of this week are the swivel point of human history, the modern era begins at this point.
Making sense of the world is the role of religion and science alike. I will come to Holy Week’s view of the world in a moment, but what about science? The world has just lost one of its most intriguing brains since Einstein, Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s life was spent in a relentless search for understanding, understanding how the world ticks, how it began, how it might end. Many of you will have read his treatise “The beginning of time”. In the treatise he argues that real time, that is time as we understand it commenced with the Big Bang 13 – 15 billion years ago. But he also argues that does not mean ‘nothing’ is a good description of what we might consider preceded the Big Bang. To theologise his theory, time is associated with transience, with partiality, indeed with pain. Dying is not simply to depart material existence, its transience and pain, it is to depart time, to enter what always was in God – eternity. Hawking also taught that most of the universe, as vast as it is, is unseen, consisting of black holes or dark matter. If science teaches there is more that is unseen than seen, then we have every reason to speak boldly of faith! Interestingly Hawking was also fascinated by the idea of love.
I have started the sermon this morning with Stephen Hawking not only because every sermon should engage with contemporary context, but also because of the reality that faith and science at one level exist together in the exciting journey of discovery.
Here on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week until Easter we are being led down the ‘path less trodden’, into deeper engagement with our own lives, with the lives of others and ultimately with what always was, is now and ever shall be - love, the energy which is God: existing before Hawking’s commencement of time, and unrestrained by time bursts beyond it in resurrection. What Holy Week proclaims is utterly explosive, not contradicting science but challenging a world view that is restricted by its own boundaries of discovery. This is what makes the decline of Christianity so serious, the population at large is restricted to a world view and set of values in which material wellbeing and the values associated with it, together with the laws of physics are the only guide on a life-time path with many hurdles that do not fit this restrictive exploration.
Palm Sunday starts with extraordinary insight into authority, leadership, yes even power. Because we humans are communal beings, none of us can survive alone, it is necessary that authority, leadership and power are exercised. But how?
The world of today presents a picture that is the diametrically opposite of Palm Sunday. The strong men of the world, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Jin Ping, congratulate each other on their strength. The largest ministerial portfolio in Australia is shamelessly led in similar manner.
Palm Sunday presents a picture of authentic leadership, authority and power that is embedded in vulnerability. It is a picture of reluctance, of power being wielded through the empowerment of others. It is the picture of a conscious choice to eschew expectation, to ride on a colt, the foal of a donkey, the lowliest of all beasts. Jesus knew that the crowd would herald him, he wanted to ensure that they knew what they were heralding. No, he has not the Messiah who would throw off the Romans. No, he was not the Messiah who would set up his own earthly kingdom. No, he would not even be challenging the authority of Herod, Pilate, or Caiaphas. If they were going to herald him, they must know the path he would take, for in association with him they (we) must take the same path. This is not simply a religious picture worthy of pious observation, it is much more than that. It is a perspective on how under God, human life and governance must operate if it is to be life giving, because relational principles are as immutable as physical laws. Those who seek authority must seek to serve. No one should exercise power for themselves, it always ends in tears; it must always be exercised for the common good.
As we move further into Holy Week insight into truth becomes more dramatic and from a human point of view more counter intuitive. We are looking at Holy Week with the benefit of hindsight, an advantage not available to the disciples. We know the central figure, Jesus, is the human face of the eternal God. In him the fullness of God completely dwells. Therefore, what we see in him is reflective of the activity of God always and everywhere. Love reigns. On the cross love intervenes to break the destructive cycle of human wilfulness and it does so, not out of power, but out of weakness, vulnerability. We human beings find such a path quite alien. Paying back is seen as a strength. We spend infinitely more on armaments and destruction than we do on aid and restitution. The cross really is quite offensive, even to Christians. Because it is so offensive the temptation is great to clothe it in language of strength, of God magisterially wiping out a penalty demanded of humans in the divine court. We do well to be reminded that over 2000 years, Christianity has refused to define the atonement, it defies any human definition.
Moving into Easter we are confronted by the most extraordinary truth of all, while love is manifest in the material world, it is not confined by it. Love has the capacity to reach beyond such boundaries, it is thus utterly transformative. Resurrection should not surprise us, it is love’s refusal to allow time and death to have the final word.
So journey well through Holy Week, hold on tight for the ride of your life, this is not simply some nostalgic celebration of a moment long past in history, but a celebration of life itself, of how things work: through the week we do not simply find comfort for heavenly destiny, but hope for a world desperate to break away from the human caused disasters that constantly surround us.
Light is dawning, the earth is being renewed, and we are being made whole once more.
Why is it that while we are observing well documented decline in the life of the Church and more seriously of Christian adherence, we are hearing little or no conversation about an appropriately renewed shape for the Church this century? Are we simply going to keep doing what we have always done, accepting we are more and more irrelevant while the world gets on very nicely without us – or more truthfully languishes without proper Christian engagement? Or might we consider that our present structures, whilst serving us well in the past, no longer do so and that an entirely different way of being Church needs to emerge? Not only do these structures no longer serve us, but they are a burden that now prevent us from being a true witness in the contemporary world.
Those of us who undertook theological exploration in the 1960’s did so in the so-called death of God era. It was not simply John Robinson and Honest to God; it was also Dietrich Bonhoeffer and religion less Christianity; Paul Tillich and his proposition that God should be understood as being rather than a being - etc. Of course, none of this was about a genuine proposition of the ‘death of God’ in any real sense, less still of the demise of Christianity, much more about how one might more reasonably understand and practice religious or Christian belief in a contemporary world. I will always be grateful to my lecturers at that time, especially John Falkingham who taught theology and Gordon Griffiths who was my first Old Testament lecturer. At the age of 20 they helped me negotiate these ideas while at the same time retaining confidence in the fundamentals of faith, and love of scripture. Much later this early formation helped me chair a packed St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane who were there to hear Jack Spong in full flight, doing his best to discredit the biblical narrative, and then proceed to give us his own. His populous treatment of scripture had the same depth as the populous politics that now sweeps western democracies.
The Bonhoeffers and Tillichs of today are no less challenging and should be better known and read. They of course include James Alison, Miroslav Volf, Richard Rohr and many others. But I do not want here to engage in a theological discussion as such, but rather an ecclesiastical one.
Are we not currently facing the death of the (institutional) church and in our context, the beloved Anglican Church? I do not by this infer the death of ‘church’, the gathering of God’s people, nor am I inferring the death of Anglicanism per se, far from it, but the death of that institutional expression which no longer serves the contemporary age. Amongst other things I mean both the death, or radical redefinition, of entities like Dioceses, Parishes, and episcopates.
In the 1960’s I began my ministry in Inverell and Armidale in the Diocese of Armidale. Despite what I am sure were very imperfect ministries, it was almost impossible to get a seat on Sunday unless you were early. The Church was a lively and vital component of community life.
In the 1970’s and early 80’s I was the rector of Singleton in the Newcastle Diocese. Our Sunday school had 15 classes; one year there were 100 confirmation candidates; Christmas there were 1000 communicants; the men’s group had 150 members. All within a total population of well under 10,000 people. Many of you will be able to tell very similar stories.
Today the number of viable parishes in the bush have drastically reduced, while those in the city are able to remain viable because the population on which they draw is many times larger. We are maintaining bureaucracies and institutions at great expense as if they continue to have the relevance they once had. Everyone can recount stories (probably from one’s own children) of those who retain faith but find the parish ritual entirely unsatisfying and have dropped out. So many Parishes appear to have become chaplaincies to those who are members rather than agents of nourishment renewal, and transformation in the communities in which they are set. With a few notable and very refreshing exceptions bishops appear not to want to engage at all outside the narrow confines of their ecclesiastical lives.
So, what am I suggesting?
We need a wholesale reversal of the synod of Whitby (664)! You will recall that at that synod the Celtic Church lost and the Roman territorial, hierarchical, version of church through Dioceses and Parishes took its place (quite apart from the little matter of the date of Easter!) Now of course I am not meaning some nostalgic return to a past long gone, but I am meaning a rediscovery of a Church in tune with the rhythms of life in the contemporary world. Such a Church is likely to be far more contemplative. It is likely to connect digitally with most of its membership. Gathering together for worship on a seven-day cycle will continue but will not be the pattern for most of the membership. When gatherings occur, perhaps six to eight times a year, of which Christmas, Easter and Pentecost will clearly be three, they need to be celebratory, connecting to the life of the wider community and the rhythms and stories with which it identifies. Many or most will find regular fellowship discussion and energy from a variety of small groups associated with meals, conversation and prayer. These groups will be multifarious and not listed in the Sunday pew sheet!
We need to breed a very different style of episcopal leader, not one who sees himself or herself leading an old style Diocesan bureaucracy but a contemplative who is able to lead the Christian family into engagement with God, each other, and equally importantly with the world in which they live.
Such a bishop will not chair committees or boards, but will be the gatherer of spiritual leadership, ordained and lay, the one who identifies and gives permission to giftedness and grace. Bishop and clergy will not want to constrain spiritual exploration, least of all seek to define the atonement or other Christian verities but foster such exploration of God known to us as Trinity that ethical and other major 21st century challenges can be understood in its light – as well as the personal challenges that beset us all. Whether Parish or Diocesan boundaries and identities should remain I am unsure, but I am certain they require radical transformation and rethinking.
Western culture is decaying at the same rate that Christianity is diminishing in influence. It cannot be too arrogant to connect these realities. We need to be honest enough to recognise that continuing to do what has always been done will not lead to a different result. The world is crying out for wisdom, for insight. It is not in need of religiosity, dogma or canon law. It needs authentic Christian living, openness - not certainty, inclusiveness – not elitism, a healthy integration of heart, mind and gut.
These words are written, not to offer any solution – how could they, but to open a conversation that is desperately overdue. They are written to suggest that those who enter the episcopate behind us should be expecting to lead a very, very, different style of episcopate to the one which we led, and they should be given every encouragement to do so.
Are we observing the beginning of the end of Australian Democracy?
The Australian government is proposing to classify most major charities as ‘political campaigners’ allowing it to audit their advocacy work and sources of income. Political expenditure is defined as the public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before an election, regardless of whether a writ has been called for an election. It is well established that parties most able to influence government policy are not charities but paid up self-interest groups like the gambling industry and the mining industry. The influence of wealth in setting public policy is well documented and beyond dispute, in this context, to penalise charities and public agencies who have no interest in profit, but a great interest in justice fairness and equity, is an attack on democracy itself.
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the outspoken Brazilian Bishop who in the 1970’s courageously took the side of the poor during Brazil’s oppressive military dictatorship famously said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Camara’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was unsurprisingly blocked by Brazilian authorities, but the process of canonisation of him was reopened in 2015.
Australian governments of both poles are very happy for the Church to undertake welfare responsibilities on its behalf (to feed and clothe the poor), indeed to fulfil governmental mandatory obligation, but governments are increasingly reluctant to countenance public conversation about the deeper issues of justice and equity from the Churches or indeed from the growing number of social media networks like Getup.
It is ironic that the Church shows signs of increased acquiescence, it is allowing a view to prevail that welfare is the Church’s core business, whereas advocacy is not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any reading of scripture, any examination of the life of Christ, any scroll through a list of those whom the Church has honoured over the centuries will show that ‘asking why the poor are poor’, is absolutely core business. To use an obvious example: William Wilberforce would today be a prime target of the Turnbull government. His movement for the abolition of slavery was not simply about human rights and dignity, although nothing could be more important than that; but it was also a root and branch challenge to the prevailing economic theory of the time that slavery was an essential backdrop to the maintenance of ‘economic growth’.
If the Church is not addressing issues of justice and equity, harmony and fairness, it is not fulfilling its Christ given mandate and is in danger of simply being a pious supporter of whatever happens to be the political whim and colour of the day.
The difficulty has become more acute in recent times because the conservative side of politics has branded issues of equity as ‘socialism’ and issues of justice as ‘left-wing’ politics. How on earth, or why on earth, has Australian politics followed American politics down this bizarre path: in the process making Christianity un-Christlike; and demonising issues that should sit hand in glove with being ‘conservative’, such as conservation, as a left wing or communist plot?
There are many issues that one could reasonably assume to be expressions of Christian discipleship in the 21st Century, likewise, issues that should be entirely compatible with ‘conservative values’..
Let me name three of the most obvious:
Democracy is sustained through the free articulation of opinion without fear or favour. It is empowered when the ballot box has more influence on national policy than favour gained through political donation. It is empowered when the poor and marginalised are empowered. It is empowered when ethical considerations bear as much weight as profit in decision making. Democracy wanes when policy is dictated by the wealthy, self-interested, and advantaged. A party that calls itself ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ has completely lost its way if the policies it espouses are the very antithesis of ‘conservatism’ or ‘liberality’. Such appears to be the state into which Australian public life has now fallen, but worse, democracy will experience an almost fatal blow if policy currently before the parliament should pass which gifts unfettered and unchallenged voice to the wealthy and powerful and demonises those who speak for justice and equity.
Tony Abbott’s recent attempt to drive a wedge within his side of politics (while the Prime Minister was overseas!) should normally be treated with the straight bat it deserves. But what if on this occasion he is right? What if he is right that an excessively large migrant intake is in fact harmful: socially harmful, environmentally harmful and in the long term harmful economically?
Let’s start with two positives. Unquestionably the great success of Australia’s migration policy over the last two or three decades has been its genuinely multi-cultural flavour. Migrants are drawn from almost all parts of the world ensuring that no single ethnic cohort dominates to cause racial or ethnic power struggles. The demonising of any single group (South Sudanese, Lebanese, Vietnamese) quickly loses steam. The foundation of the programme’s success has been the multi dimension of multi-culturalism. Secondly, despite the shocking and unresolved treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, significant numbers of refugees have flourished in their new home, adding much to the life of all Australians.
Now to critique of the immigration quantum. Almost all political decisions have first an economic or self-interest rationale. Environmental, demographic, social, or moral factors lag well behind. For example, the Tasmanian government’s support for the gaming industry is an obvious case in point. The damage done to the less well off through poker machines is well documented, as is the fact that Tasmanian gaming profits end up with a family resident in NSW: but Tasmanian government gains ensure the industry continues to flourish.
So, what lies behind support for a big Australia? Scott Morrison gives a clear answer. It is economic. Australia is unable to maintain its unbroken run of 25 years economic growth without it. So, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with it lies in the ever-increasing groan that wages have remained static. The connection? Australia’s economic growth is somewhat of a cardboard house, it is quantitative rather than qualitative. The size of the economy is directly related to the size of the population. Standards of living do not increase without quantitative growth. The jobs record of the government has all to do with immigration, not productivity; unless or until there is a quantitative improvement in the economy wages will not increase. If the government can genuinely lay claim for jobs growth, look no further than the immigration policy.
But the problem does not end there. Dependence upon a big Australia is dependence upon a never-ending cycle of public infrastructure deficit that never really catches up. More roads, more airports, more public transport, more hospitals, more schools, mostly based around the nation’s state capitals. The deficit in each of these areas is a headline on almost a daily basis somewhere in Australia. Living in NSW I am most familiar with Sydney which has already reached a point of gridlock. Similarly, although immigration is biased towards a younger generation, thus helping to correct the burgeoning percentage of the population over 65, these newcomers will also grow old and their bubble will also need to be ameliorated with an ever-increasing flow of younger people sometime in the future. The current baby boomer bubble in Australia is directly related to post war migration.
To meet the challenge of infrastructure deficit the NSW government privatised its ‘poles and wires’. This has provided the state with a windfall enabling the construction of a massive motorway system linking the major parts of the city with each other and the airport. But there is a connection with escalating electricity prices. Conveying electricity from the point of generation to the place of consumption via poles and wires comprises a little under half of the total cost to the consumer, considerably more than the cost of generation itself. Thus, selling poles and wires to profit motivated private companies, to pay for the infrastructure necessary for a burgeoning population, has indirectly added to the cost of living of those already here. And so, the unaddressed cycle continues. Large immigration is an economic fix with very large strings attached.
While the immigration programme is touted as an economic positive, no such argument is put, indeed could be put, to argue an environmental positive. While Australia is a very large land mass, it does not follow that we can support an infinitely expanding human population. All land owners worth their salt know that every acre has a limited or maximal carrying capacity. Even with the population we now carry some aspects of Australia’s environment are facing disastrous consequences, none more so than the Murray Darling River system. The Murray Darling Plan which requires the sign-off of all eastern states and South Australia appears almost in tatters. One can only assume that as the population in each state increases then the pressures to draw water from the system for irrigation or human consumption will only increase. Economic considerations almost always override environmental ones. Water authorities on all states appear to bend over backwards to facilitate excessive use of water by irrigators. The rise and rise of Cubbie Station is just one example of a prevailing whole. The human foot print on the planet increases in weight year on year. Mitigation is implemented reluctantly and generally only occurs when the situation we have created is intolerable. Pictures of rubbish washing ashore on Bali’s Kuta Beach is in microcosm a picture of humans having well exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth.
Finally, let me say a few words about this from a Christian perspective. The biblical mandate is to live in such a manner that future generations will call on our name in blessing, because the manner of our living enhanced theirs. For the period covered in biblical history this meant having numerous children “fill the earth and subdue it”, for natural disaster and human sickness and disease meant human population needed replenishment to survive. Fast forward to today and we know an endless increase in global population, increases, not decreases, threats to human flourishing in succeeding generations on countless levels. If we are genuinely concerned about the flourishing of future generations we should be implementing policies that stabilise population, not increasing it.
So where to in the future? I agree with Abbott, perhaps for different reasons, but agree nevertheless, that the rate of immigration should be drastically reduced. For compassionate reasons the intake of asylum seekers or refugees should be maintained, indeed increased. Overall, we must find a way of flourishing sustainably on this continent with the population we have, rather than depending on the arrival of others to do for us what we should be able to do for ourselves. If we can engender a sustainable Australia, economically, environmentally and socially, we will then be in a good position to act generously and compassionately to those in the world for whom this dream is impossible.
It is said there are few certainties in life other than death and taxes: in this context carpe diem, seize the day, or pluck the day, is an appropriate antidote. But how do we do that? A biblical charge of similar nature is ‘choose life’. As we shall see, ‘seizing the day’ is seldom about the immediate, but about grasping an opportunity which makes even greater things possible. We are beginning the season of Lent which I want to argue sits appropriately apropos this, ‘plucking of the day’.
I am not sure that I agree with the whole ode in which carpe diem is historically set. “Seize the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may” (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero) is suggestive of “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”.
The facts of the matter are that it is in seizing or ‘plucking’ the day that tomorrow and its possibilities become possible. Western hedonistic culture served by a populist politic appears to have morphed into a desire to maximise the present regardless of its impact on the tomorrows that will follow.
No one would knowingly act to diminish tomorrow. There is a pressing need for Australians to hear truth from the political class about the implications that flow from today’s choices and their impact upon tomorrow. Is that likely to happen? Not unless we move away from reliance on ten second grabs used to tell people what it is thought they want to hear. The nation needs a reflective rhythm, achievable only through bipartisan commitment, in which major propositions are put to the people with explanation as to the implications that flow from choosing or not choosing a certain direction.
The Church enjoys a season of reflection (Lent), of discipline, of clearing the decks, in the lead up to Easter in order that life (resurrection life) might be celebrated in all its fullness in all the tomorrows that follow. Resurrection belief is commitment to the notion that love conquers, forgiveness restores, sacrifice makes the impossible possible, that what is broken can be made whole once more. Lent, like Ramadan, is a commitment to a fuller life, if only a little space can be forged through the clutter and immediate demands of life.
I was recently deeply saddened to hear of the sudden and untimely death of Michael Gordon, the gentle, profoundly respected, and effective journalist of the Melbourne Age. Some years ago Margaret and I spent a fortnight in his company in a tour sponsored by the Hizmet movement in Turkey. Following his death there have been extraordinary pieces written about him, most notably that his motto could easily have been carpe diem, in that every day of his life he never lost an opportunity to serve the common good. As far as I know Michael was not a specifically religious person, but that he had a spiritually reflective side is clear. His plucking the day allowed for the possibility of tomorrow for many through the causes he championed.
What might happen if the nation developed a more reflective character?
We could ‘pluck the day’ in relation to environmental responsibility and climate change. We have the technology at our disposal. We know what needs to be done. In doing so we do not face a decline in our standard of living. We need to give up (Lent) our dependence on fossil fuels in order that tomorrow might be embraced in all its fulness. We are deciding not to because we have been convinced (wrongly) that now is not the moment, it will cost too much, climate change is not the problem it is being made out to be, and those who benefit from the status quo, mining interests, ply the political elite with funds that they find impossible to refuse.
We could ‘pluck the day’ in relation to ‘closing the gap’ with our indigenous brothers and sisters. We have apologised to the ‘stolen generation’, those taken from their birth families on the presumption that in doing so they would be ‘better off’. But we still have a lingering notion that if the gap is to be closed it will be closed because the indigenous community embraces the value set of the white community. We need to give up (Lent) this notion. ‘Indigenous Voice’ the proposal presented to the nation from the Uluru gathering is in all our interests, not simply the interest of the indigenous community. We all need to hear this voice. To reject the proposition on the basis that it would be an unworkable ‘third house’, without creatively turning the notion into an implementable proposition, is to choose to prolong the gap.
Barnaby Joyce could ‘pluck the day’ by resigning or offering to resign. Holding on to advantage and privilege in public office, which is a gift rather than a right, is to undermine the position held. Those in positions of power must always be prepared to give up (Lent) and return it to the people if there is doubt about their moral authority to discharge its duties. The people may well say, ‘we want you to continue’, great, but to hold on to a position of power out of self-interest or sense of self importance is to diminish both self and the office. Some respect might begin to return to political life generally, if it is clear that those who hold office understand it is not theirs but belongs to the people whom the office serves. To resign or offer to resign and then be asked to continue would return credibility and trust.
The nation could ‘pluck the day’ if the principle of supply and demand was not used by government as an immutable law. It is not. The economic world is far more complicated. Taxation is a major and very complicated form of intervention. Wages will not automatically rise and jobs multiply if a company makes more money. Indeed a reason why a company might make more money could be because there are fewer jobs and greater automation. Another reason could be that a listed company is far more beholden to its shareholders than it is to its employees. Trickle-down economics has proven to be a fallacy as more and more wealth is held by a shrinking minority who have the capacity to make profit through other’s losses.
As Christian influence continues to diminish, reflective rhythms that brought life and health to individuals also diminishes and with it the health of the nation as a whole.
Lent is about increasing capacity to ‘choose life’ or ‘seize the day’. This capacity increases in direct proportion to an appetite for letting go. All of us exhibit habits that can or should be changed if greater life is to be embraced. As a nation we are drawn towards immediate gratification regardless of its impact on tomorrow.
The 50+ percent of the Australian population that still claims to be Christian could serve the nation well by entering into the Lenten season with reflective intent, that the day might be seized and tomorrow’s legacy enhanced.