in service of the
Will Technology save us?
Praise should rightly be attributed to those whose advice has led Australia well through the pointy end of the Covid 19 pandemic. But now that we are beginning to glimpse life post the pandemic, are plans being laid in embryonic form worthy of the same praise, or are we already falling back to tired, binary, ideologically driven strategies?
Dan Tehan’s vision for fiscally supported priority to Stem based tertiary education (science technology, engineering, mathematics) should not be met with acquiescence from university Vice Chancellors and boards, simply on the basis of a funding deal. Much is yet to be worked through, but the thrust of the plan is clear. Post Covid 19, universities should major on Stem courses with a view to job creation.
I do not wish to argue against priority being given to employment. The fulfilment of individuals, and the prosperity of the nation, crucially depends on all having the opportunity for gainful employment.
I am not competent to talk about the details or speculate whether the higher cost of non-Stem subjects will deter enrolments or be a fiscal bonanza for universities. I want to address the principle that lies behind the proposal.
I want to argue that employment is the outcome of something far more important, namely the formation of rounded, thinking, socially responsible, and well-adjusted individuals. I do not think for one moment Dan Tehan is on the looney right of his party, but it appears there are many on his side of politics who do not want rounded, thinking, socially responsible individuals. Perhaps fear of such people is the reason why members on the government bench continue to undermine the ABC.
We are living through a most troubling period of history. Technology can and will help us. So, go to it you Stem gifted people. But if we are to rely on technology to solve all human challenges and failures, even climate change, our prospects are not very bright. To solve most of our challenges, we are going to need humans to behave rationally, cooperatively, with the capacity to think through the issues we face; adopting strategies which may not meet our needs in the short term, but will lay the foundations for a sustainable future in the long term. At present that is not what we generally do. We look for immediate black and white remedies to complex problems. We seek advantage to ourselves seemingly unaware that we depend upon advantage being equally shared globally. We hop on twitter or Facebook and make banal (and worse) comments about issues that we lack the capacity to think through.
Most world leaders who frighten us, including Trump and Xi, trade on fear and confrontation. Only those individuals, groups and nations with wit, calm and capacity to be rational, will be able to steer through these turbulent waters. How is this to be achieved?
We human beings were not born yesterday; we have millennia of existence behind us. Our problems are contemporary versions of problems that have always beset us. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It is willful ignorance not to want to understand how great minds have wrestled with the human condition in the past, from Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Locke and Hobbes. What roles do competition and cooperation play in the human enterprise? In the past, what have been the consequences of one prevailing at the cost of the other? What does history show us about the balance between individual rights and social contract? What is human wealth? What is worth striving for? What has happened in the past when the equity gap between the few who are rich and the majority who are poor continues to expand? Have the wealthy always attained their wealth at the expense of the poor? Etc.
Hugh McKay is arguably Australia’s most eminent sociologist and demographer, his data and reflections on Australian life should be compulsory reading. Peter Hatcher is one of Australia’s most eminent journalists and writers. What he and other like him say and think is vital to us all.
The arts do not simply entertain us, they have the capacity to draw us into life transforming narrative.
Understanding the part that religion plays in hearts and minds, and the contribution it should make in the evolving place humanity occupies on the planet would be wise, even for those in whom faith plays absolutely no part.
Investing in stem subjects at the expense of non-stem subjects generates little confidence that human future will be any less storm riven than the immediate past. Technology must not be the tail that wags the dog. We need first to grapple with the kind of society we would like to be and seek from technology solutions which will enhance this direction. Just because something becomes technologically possible it does not mean it is desirable.
Will technology make humanity happier, more content, more fulfilled? No, not in and of itself. If Covid 19 has taught us anything, relating is everything. What makes us happy are those elements of life which help relationships flourish, that give us a sense of belonging, that free us from the rush and bustle of an exclusively work orientated life.
I have found the following a useful scale to value education.
Data collection lies at the base of the education pyramid. Data multiplies exponentially and its acquisition does not make one educated. (Data can usually be picked up digitally when required). Some data contributes to useful information.
Information is not in itself sufficient for tasks other than menial ones. Information needs to be converted into knowledge, which is usually attained through experience and mentoring. Knowledge is essential to a practitioner in any field if their competence is to be trusted. Knowledge is also the soil from which wisdom grows.
Wisdom enables a well lived and meaningful life. The love of wisdom is the motivation of the philosopher. For a person of faith, it is the first born of creation, and for a Christian, incarnately present in Jesus.
Wisdom is insight, the world flocks to the door of those who possess it. It is a noble aspiration to be technologically competent. But technology without wisdom will not save us. Stem subjects at tertiary level need to be set within the context of this more noble aspiration, in partnership with non-stem subjects which are given equal value.
The Necessity of ‘Voice from the Heart’
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Lilla Watson.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the high-profile Alice Springs city councillor, makes an important point that far more Indigenous people die as a result of violence at home, than at the hands of law enforcement. The same could be said of child abuse, far more children suffer abuse at the hands of fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers etc than from custodians of institutions. That is quite true. But is it the right point?
Jacinta’s point, made on Sky News, was in response to the ‘Black lives Matter’ protests. She argued that protesters were being self-indulgent, that they should look to their own backyard and get this terrible family-based reality sorted before focussing outside. It is true that domestic violence in indigenous communities is at epidemic proportions, but is her point at all helpful in this context?
It seems impertinent to be arguing against a person who claims a proud Aboriginal/Celtic heritage. However, with respect, she seriously misses the point, or perhaps glosses over it, for the sake of supporting a conservative political ideology. The reality is that when people are oppressed, when dignity is gone, when identity is denied, when loss and degradation has been systematic; the complex web of societal and cultural safeguards, taken for granted since time immemorial, become broken. Is anyone going to seriously suggest that family brutality was endemic within the indigenous population prior to white settlement? Of course not, societal norms were grounded and respected in highly developed customary law. This is not to defend indefensibility, but it is to say that ordering people to ‘pull themselves together’, while they live without meaning, purpose, or dignity, separated from custom, is patronising and misplaced.
When George Floyd was dying, he cried “I cannot breathe”, for him this was literally true, but for his people it has been metaphorically true for generations. 24 months ago when I was in Hebron, the largest Arab city on the Palestinian West Bank, the Palestinians said to me “the occupation and settlements are choking us”.
More than a decade ago I visited Deepsloot refugee camp not far from Pretoria, South Africa. It was a place of absolute squaller and desolation. The behaviour of men towards women in the camp was appalling. Nothing can defend brutality and sexual exploitation; however, it is one thing to condemn this behaviour, but quite another to address economic, social, and cultural inequity and loss, which underlies hopelessness. Being suffocated by oppression with loss of societal norms is a global phenomenon.
Black deaths in custody may not be the most accurate numerical indicator of the level of suffering and abuse experienced by Australia’s indigenous community, but they speak to the power base that refuses to address, or is ineptly incapable of addressing, underlying and continuing dislocation and loss. This ineptness, or cultural bias, looks exaggerated when not one single case of death in custody has been successfully prosecuted.
It is true that many indigenous deaths in custody have resulted from suicide and therefore, in theory at least, the judicial system and its officers are absolved from responsibility. However, even with a little knowledge of indigenous culture, and one should fairly assume that judicial officers are trained, it is clear that locking an indigenous person alone is highly dangerous. Australian indigenous, like indigenous everywhere, understand their identity through community – self is nothing outside community – and community is of course inclusive of country.
This matter, as much as anything else, is the heart of the problem and why attempted assimilation through the ’stolen generation’ became such a disastrous scandal, no matter how misguided the intention. No doubt many future studies will examine cultural change initiated by COVID 19 isolation. It is already clear that Australians want higher investment in meaningful relationship building. Is it possible that Australia and Australian society will now draw back from the precipice of social disintegration wrought through an over emphasis on the individual, and the minimisation of societal common good, rooted in our economic system? If so, it may well be the case that an indirect consequence of the pandemic is that, finally, White Australia wakes to the truth that we have culturally more to learn from indigenous Australians, than they have to learn from us; and that this learning is what will ‘bridge the gap’ in a way that white devised targets in health, education, longevity etc never can.
It is for this reason that a “Voice” to parliament is absolutely crucial, not simply for the sake of indigenous people, but for the sake of us all. I realise that the shape of the “Voice “ is yet to be finalised, but let there be no doubt it needs to happen. Minister Ken Wyatt, take courage and bring a referendum to the people before the next election, it is needed for all our sakes.
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Lilla Watson
(Lilla Watson is a Gangulu woman who grew up on the Dawson River, Central Queensland, her "Mother's country").
Trump vs Christianity
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream. Amos 5: 21-24
Nothing could be more dreadful than the murder of George Floyd, under the watchful eye of supposed custodians of law and order. But as a commentary on this evil, Trump holding a bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church, having tear gassed a pathway to its door, speaks as clearly as anything might about the spiral into decay of a proud nation. Thank goodness the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Bishop Mariann Budde, immediately chastised the president for this outrage. “Let me be clear”, she stated, “the President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the things of Jesus”.
If it were not so serious, the news clip of Trump tear gassing a pathway to the Church together with the officially released White House video would, in other circumstance, be an episode from the Chaser, the rather disrespectful, but humorous take on current affairs.
But this was not funny, it was an outrageous attempt to appropriate Christianity for divisive political ends. But who was the intended audience? Who was presumed to be impressed? The dreadful truth is that the intended audience was Trump’s political base, American Evangelical Christianity.
The collapse of the county’s moral base is staggering. As a letter to the SMH editor cynically said, “I suppose it was inevitable that having invaded so many other countries, America would eventually invade itself”. What supposedly is the US’ moral base – well Trump clearly thinks it is Evangelical Christianity. The calamity now being experienced by the US is not simply that it is imploding, with deep chasms in its civil society, but that Christianity is being appropriated for strategies, power plays, ideologies, accomplishments that are the very antithesis of Christian faith. American Evangelical Christianity appears to have fallen into a mix of prosperity gospel, conspiracy theories, dualism, fundamentalism, individualism, and general attitudes and behaviours antithetical to the life and teaching of Jesus.
Trump, how dare you. But perhaps it is not your fault. The US philosopher Sam Harris, darling of American humanists and CEO of Project Reason says freewill is an illusion. Is Trump a tragic caricature, a puppet? So Trump, are you the single most significant contributor to this decay, or are you a creation of it? Has American evangelicalism created you? The cartoon of a person coming up behind Trump and offering him a Bible to which he responds, “What’s in it, does it mention me” just about sums it up. Those who most want to thump others with the bible; about the evils of environmental responsibility, or the rights of the LGBTQI community, or who want to make war against Muslims, or call a terrorist anyone who gets in the way of America’s grand design, are the ones who seem to have the least knowledge of it.
If the US and China are the powers between which Australia must choose its future, which is more dangerous, which might be more reliable? Is it better to trust a communist country with an ideology that is an affront to the values we espouse: freedom of speech, democracy, liberality, respecting difference, protecting minorities: or is it better to put our trust in a country which claims values and a moral base which are clearly an illusion?
Is Trump’s recourse to ‘fake’ (his strategy to fend off truth), a pathway he stumbled into because it suits his pugnacious style, or is it something more frightening? Is it an unintended reflection of an inner realisation, conscious or otherwise, that the moral foundation upon which he relies, US evangelical Christianity is itself fake?
The time has come to stop pussyfooting around. Just as Muslims worldwide have been expected to stand up against the appropriation of their religion by extremist ideologies that have expressed themselves in various forms of terror, so the Christian community must make it clear that Christ and the Gospel will not be sullied.
Christianity is not about individual rights. It is about responsibilities that reside in being part of a body: be that body the family, the local community, the nation, or as importantly, the global community . Individual rights must always defer to reciprocity within communal life. Asserting rights that privilege some and diminish others can never be condoned in Christian life. Those who promote gun rights need to hear Jesus’ word to Peter, “put your sword back in its sheath”. Jn 18:11
Christianity is not about prosperity; it is absolutely not about prosperity being a sign of God’s blessing. Christianity is about being a blessing, it is about investing in the good.
Christianity abhors ‘justice’ achieved through the prevailing, or dominating, of the strong and the vanquishing of the weak. Justice demands upholding equality. It demands respect. In Jesus, difference has been levelled. There is to be no bond or free, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile. US evangelicals are wrong and immoral to promote the rise of Israel through the vanquishing of Palestinians, anymore than whites should prevail at the expense of blacks. God’s ways can never be claimed through such injustice. By doing so, US evangelicals have positioned themselves against the God known to us in Jesus who knows no benefit to some at the expense of others.
Christianity is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, in the reality that humanity is divinely rooted in the whole created order. So called creation science, a short view of history and commitment to the dominance of humanity over the rest of the created order is not biblical. Trump can claim no Christian base for raping the planet under the banner of “America First”. Creation science is a lie and should not be given airtime, any more than conspiracy theories should be given airtime, accept of course on Fox.
There is a great deal at stake here. Christianity is the story of redemption, of peace, of hope. Its truth deserves to be heard. If folk are to reject Christianity, please at least hear it first. Its truth will blow you away, its art will inspire you, its acts of kindness will transform you and its God of grace will embrace you with life in all its fullness.
The Cost of Humiliation: Germany, Israel, China, Trump
Bullying and abuse have a devastating effect on individuals, often leading to serious mental health issues, even suicide. By way of contrast, the cost of humiliation inflicted on tribes or nations is frequently borne through an overwhelming responsive need to assert pride in national or tribal identity, with a fierce determination that this will not happen again. The consequence can be unreasonable justification for aggressive standpoints, even retaliation, conflict, and a continuing cycle of violence.
At the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, the country was saved from the terrible consequences of black humiliation by the grace-filled leadership of its first black president, Nelson Mandela, and the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Unfortunately retaliatory action is more often the norm.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles which concluded WW1 humiliated Germany, especially the clause which impugned ‘war guilt’ and required massive reparation for civilian damage. Piece by piece the treaty unravelled, but the humiliation imposed through the treaty, fed the psyche of Adolf Hitler and all the consequences that flowed from his and his follower belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. Had WW1 concluded with a treaty that built bonds of freedom and prosperity across Europe, would there have been WW2? We will never know.
The consequences of WW2 fell upon the whole world, but none suffered more terribly than the Jewish people. It is estimated that two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, 6 million, were slaughtered along with gays, Romani, and various ethnic groups. Would this cruel search for a ‘pure Aryan race’, unpolluted by lesser humans, have occurred without the national psyche having been first trodden on following the end of the war? We will never know. What is clear is that victors in any dispute, big or small, have a responsibility to enable the vanquished to stand tall. This is a trait frighteningly absent from most global leaders who relish victory and the exultation of self. Australians have paid a high price for the humiliation felt by a succession of political leaders over the last two decades.
We do know that the holocaust has become the defining event in the creation of Israel and its memory is sacrosanct. The celebration of the Shoah is entirely understandable, even necessary. However, is building a national identity out of response to a catastrophe as terrible as the holocaust the healthiest way to build national identity? Israel is determined to ensure it will never again need to rely upon anyone for security. In Israel, ‘security’ justifies everything, walls, checkpoints, land grabs, lockdowns, and leads to the humiliation of others- the Palestinians. Arbitrary identity papers, burdensome checkpoints, limited essential service, restricted movement etc have little to do with security and everything to do with humiliation.
The problem for Israel’s children is that this humiliation, like all humiliations, will continue to fester and one day an account will need to be given for it. The problem for the rest of the world is that in the meantime criticising Israel will be called antisemitic. Could Israel adopt the words emblazoned on the entrance wall to the holocaust museum in Soweto, South Africa, and teach them to its children as boldly as it admonishes them to remember the Shoah: To be free is not to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
Another country to consciously shape itself out of what it perceives to have been national humiliation is China. It perceives its humiliation at the hands of the British, French, and Japanese, in particular, to have lasted for more than 100 years, concluding at the end of WW2. This sense of past national humiliation is fostered amongst the people by the Communist Party and is used to justify unquestioning support for the government and its policies, by its people. Questioning is not to be tolerated, as the people of Hong Kong are painfully being shown.
In the last few weeks, the Australian government has felt the full force of rhetoric from the Chinese government that interprets every communication or engagement through this lens. What is understood to be reasonable to a Western mind is interpreted as insult by the Chinese authorities. Ironically, the sense of humiliation is so deeply entrenched in the Chinese psyche, that even today while the rest of the world considers China a strong and powerful nation, many Chinese still behave as though they are the ones being bullied and mistreated, with a watchful eye for “hostile foreign forces.”
South China Sea expansions, sovereignty sought over Taiwan and Hong Kong, the belt and road programme, are all strategies to engender intense national pride. The Chinse people are even encouraged to see the somewhat belligerent acts of their governing elite as righting the wrongs of the past and swinging the pendulum in the right direction.
How is Australia and the rest of the world to respond to the flawed and bruised psyche of what is now the world’s most dominant power? Is its global responsibility to tip-toe around China’s need to fully requite its sense of humiliation, or is it China’s role to take its place as one of the great peoples of the world, free of past burdens, celebrating extraordinary accomplishments, knowing that ‘setting the record straight’, like a politician’s, autobiography, is almost inevitably diminishment?
And then there is Trump. There can be little doubt he acts out of his constantly bruised ego. The mainline press does not fawn over him and are declared fake. Numerous appointees have dared to present a different perspective and are sacked. His predecessor, President, Obama, for all his shortcomings, was everything he is not, and has become Trump’s paranoid obsession. (The Obama speech at the 2011 correspondent’s dinner probably did not help)!
In 2016 Trump promised his followers they would win so often they would become sick of winning. Winning is relatively easy if you are stronger, hold more resources, or perhaps simply have a bigger megaphone. Creating a better world because of winning is much harder. Above all, if winning means the diminishment of others, this is extremely dangerous. ‘America first’, or any one first. is a very flawed slogan.
It takes a strong person to absorb the slings and arrows of others and not pay back. Forgiveness is the workplace of the strong, not the weak. On this definition the world’s ‘strong men’ Trump, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Erdogan, Assad are in reality the world’s weak men. Covid 19 has revealed the strong, they have been the creative faces of the lockdown, medical workers, shop assistants, carers of various kinds and perhaps a few world leaders exemplified by Prime Minister Ardern. In a post Covid 19 world, may care prevail, and winning diminish as a goal. Most of all, may winning not cause diminishment of others.
Australia’s two personalities
In recent domestic policy and international engagement Australia is demonstrating two contrasting personalities. One is demonstrated through our response to COVID 19 and the other through our troubled inability to form responsible climate and energy policy. Why do we have two personalities?
Australia rightly deserves praise for its handling of the COVID 19 crisis. The creation of a national cabinet across political ideology, was a brilliant strategy. Ensuring that national response was driven by scientific advice was critical. Linking economic revival to success on the health front has been vital to stem populist right wing views that the economy must come first. (The result of this false dichotomy is all too tragically clear in the US where both the nation’s health and economy are pitiable). The role of PM, Health Ministers, Premiers, Medical officers has been praise-worthy. This combined leadership has saved Australia’s frontline health workers from what would otherwise have been a catastrophic situation. Sure, we were not as prepared as we should have been, Essential personal protection equipment was frighteningly scarce, but strong leadership has enabled good fortune.
Transporting this domestic good work into the international arena has seen Australia take a major lead in the establishment of an independent investigation into the origins and management of the pandemic. Marise Payne has come into strong criticism for acting pre-emptively, and causing grief to Australia’s China export market. But surely China’s response has justified the action. China is a bully. Its domestic human rights record is shameful. Are we to endure a world in which China treats the rest of the global population as suppliants, with hands outstretched in gratitude to receive meagre gifts? The language and threats emanating from the Chinese ambassador to Australia were outrageous, and indefensible. No, the behaviour of bullies should not be tolerated.
Clearly Australia played a major role in achieving a resolution, ultimately signed by China, which asks for this investigation to occur as soon as possible. It is not independent of the WHO, as Australia may have originally liked, but having 145 nations co-sponsor, has been a remarkable achievement. In light of failed leadership from the US and China, middle powers have stood up and achieved an outcome in the best interests of the globe. (Is this a hopeful sign of the future, given the chaos of the US and China’s belligerence)? There needs to be an investigation, not to apportion blame, or punish, but to learn and hopefully prevent such a pandemic repeating itself in the future. Not to have had an investigation would have been utterly irresponsible.
In the pandemic context Australia has stepped up and taken a leading role. In the context of the globe’s even more serious crisis, global warming, Australia has not only failed to lead, but has done its best to be a wrecker of global consensus. Australia is consistently ranked as one of the worst performers in terms of Climate Change policy, 56th out of 61 countries. Last year Australia was linked with Brazil and the US as one of the three nations who have probably caused the door to be closed on a hoped-for restriction on global warming to 1.5 degrees. Our actions will prove to have been a major contributor to this failure and the cost that will be borne by future generations. Given all the opportunities we have on this continent to move away from fossil fuels, with the concomitant chance to grow a more vibrant, regionally based, technologically diverse economy, our behaviour can only be described as grossly irresponsible.
Unlike our response to COVID 19, we have refused to follow scientific advice. A mockery has been made of modelling, the very technique that has enabled us to respond so well in face of the pandemic. Those who watched Four Corners on Monday night, 18 May, will have observed the pain and dismay of senior scientists and bureaucrats who lived through the wasted decades of Australia’s political infighting on this matter. Australia’s lack of energy policy must rank as the worst and most costly policy disaster of our lifetime. That any doubt may still linger that this malaise was driven by ideological absurdity, not by rationality, science, or even the hoped for good of the nation, we need simply to be reminded that Tony Abbot called talk of environmental responsibility – socialism.
And now we have been offered Angus Taylor’s “technological road map”. Yes, coal is missing and, at last, there appears to be an assumption that science is right. So what is the problem?
The problem lies with the objective. The objective with the COVID 19 response was to immediately ‘flatten the curve’. What should the objective be here? It should be similar, to flatten the curve of global warming and the emissions that underlie it, as quickly as possible. Is that objective clear? On the contrary. We have still refused to rule out the use of our so called ‘Kyoto credits’. We are still refusing to lift our 26 percent reduction target by 2030. Science makes it clear that zero by 2050 will be too late, there will already be too much carbon in the atmosphere. We are setting ourselves an impossible task of meeting our obligations. Taylor’s objective remains to further Australia’s business interests without setting those interests into the context of emission reduction urgency.
Angus Taylor is not surrounding himself with the best scientists, but with captains of industry, especially the mining industry.
Angus Taylor, nothing less will suffice than setting emission targets toward net zero by the 2040’s and encouraging the flourishing of Australia’s business interests in that context. If this is done, we will not be transitioning through uncertain decades of attempted carbon sequestration from gas. Hydrogen may well be the go-to energy of the future , but it must be extracted using renewable energy sources. Because there has been no cogent climate policy, we no longer have the luxury of transition periods. Had we adopted a policy guided by science when John Howard first came to power in 1996 it would be a different matter.
Business has consistently made it clear that they can live with targets. As long as they are consistent, investment can be made on their basis. It is therefore infuriating that government still refuses to regulate a platform upon which this can become a reality. Science has not failed us. Independent public servants with the good of the country at heart have not failed us. Politics and politicians have failed us.
Facing the COVID 19 pandemic politicians across party-lines have stood up and done what politicians are paid to do, lead, and regulate. Why is this so difficult in climate and energy policy?
Energy and climate policy require the same: politicians who will stand up, lead, and regulate. A pathway festooned with already known technologies into an indefinite and undefined future is not enough. We know what we need to do, and the timeframe in which we must do it. Earn your pay and lead with this objective in mind.
The Power of Narrative
Nakba, Annexation and Anti-Semitism
The thread running through these realities is not hard to follow.
Historical details of the 1948/1949 Arab Israeli conflict are highly contested, as is the manner and implication of Britain’s withdrawal. But the indisputable facts are that 400 – 600 Palestinian villages were raised, Palestinian urban life was virtually wiped out and a majority of those who fled, or were driven out, have been denied any right to return, despite the fact that many still sleep on a pillow under which rest the keys to their still cherished home.
There can be no doubt that the holocaust stands amongst the most horrific crimes of the modern era and one of the worst ever to be perpetrated by humanity against fellow human beings. So horrendous was this evil that minimising it, or denying it, is aptly described as a crime. However, because this was so awful, there has been a tendency to down-play or minimise, by comparison, other crimes against humanity. This is particularly true of the Nakba which has been downplayed and minimised all too often by international media. It is an inconvenient truth. The State of Israel requires the minimising or downplaying of Palestinian suffering to promote its colonising strategy without accruing opprobrium. To admit a majority Palestinian population prior to WW2 with cultural rights, property rights, and historical connection to the land which European colonisers could never claim, is to undermine the Zionist settlement enterprise. International law, constantly re-enforced through UN resolutions, requires that these rights are honoured and protected. Israel, with the protective covering of the US and the shameful acquiescence of Australia, denies any breaking of international law, implying these rights do not exist.
It is rightly a crime to minimise or deny the holocaust, but equally it is becoming a crime in Israel to support the facts of history, that the Palestinian people have suffered the Nakba, and that the Nakba continues to be perpetrated. To lay bare these truths is to be inflicted with the antisemitic slur.
For some time, Netanyahu has been promoting the annexation of the Jordan Valley, even proposing a timeline for its implementation. The Jordan Valley is a significant proportion of the West Bank and is its most fertile - it is called the food bowl of Palestine. When the Oslo accord was struck in the 1990’s there was to be a five-year transition towards Palestinian sovereignty. To facilitate progress, the Palestinian Authority was established, and the West Bank areas A, B and C were created. Area C, the majority of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley remains, to this day, totally under Israeli control. In area C it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian to gain a building permit, on the contrary hundreds of houses, even whole communities, have been demolished. Clearly Israel seeks a cleansing of Palestinians from Area C. Cleansing enables the exponential expansion of settlement communities on Palestinian land, further thwarting the delivery of a two-State solution. On a daily basis, these settlers harass, demean, burn, destroy, the property and lives of the Palestinian community with the same motive in mind, to cleanse the area of the Palestinian population.
The proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley makes this motive abundantly clear. The Nakba is far from concluded. Annexation in the Wes Bank was a central plank in the recent negotiation for an Israeli unity party. Annexation is occurring in fact, even if not yet finally declared. It is clear the dominant political parties in Israel have no intention of supporting a two-State solution. If there are not to be two States, then there is one State.
The incremental continuation of the Nakba, the involuntary removal of Palestinian people and the denial of their human rights, must come to an end. But how is this going to happen? It has been suggested the Palestinian leadership might abandon the Palestinian Authority, hand back whatever limited responsibility they have retained (largely exercised on behalf of Israel) and tell Israel they can annex everything with a view to the establishment of a bi-cultural, prosperous, democratic state. This is of course exactly what Israel’s political interests do not want. They do not want to include Palestinians as equals in a democratic society. Israel’s political leadership want maximum Palestinian geography with minimal demography. They wish the Palestinian population to be corralled into tiny pockets with no contiguous connection and with absolutely no capacity to develop a viable, vibrant, autonomous state.
Israel must defend its actions against the claim that it is deploying ethnic cleansing and establishing an apartheid state. If these charges are inaccurate, a dreadful distortion of truth, explain why. What words would better describe the present Israeli strategy?
Let me conclude where I began, with the continuing struggle of Israeli politics for a dominant moral narrative against a background which contradicts it. Facts do not matter if you possess a winning narrative.
I warmly commend Sophie McNeil’s recent book, “We can’t say we didn’t know”. Her anecdotal accounts throw light upon Middle Eastern struggles (and foreign meddling) from Yemen to Syria. Her chapter on Palestine reveals what we already know, Israel will use every tool at its disposal to insist that its narrative must be accepted and believed and any who dare to publicise facts showing the narrative to be threadbare are to be reviled, condemned and if possible punished.
Yes of course there are many other scandalous atrocities in the world, but this is the only one that I am aware of where my government continues to intervene in defense of the oppressor.
The Way the Truth and the Life
Finding the path from our place to the beach, at Long Beach, is pretty easy and obvious. We take the path every morning because we like the destination, a walk along the beach. About 30 years ago I walked the Kokoda Trail with a friend. We self-navigated and carried all our own provisions. I carried the map and notionally was responsible for the route we took. It was nerve racking. On the first day I was not absolutely certain we were on the right path until we reached the spot, we had planned to stay the night. Stray a few metres from the path and the vegetation obscures the route. We took the track, not because of the destination – Port Moresby, but because of the journey. Most people will take a path in their lifetime which is not about the destiny, but about the journey. Apart from Kokoda, I have taken several such adventures, including six youth pilgrimages to places on the globe of poverty and deprivation, as well as physical journeys such as Compostela in Spain and the Inca trail in Peru. In each case the destination was internal growth and understanding, hopefully fostered through the journey.
What about life itself? Most of you have been travelling for 70 years or so. Would you say your life has been defined by the journey or the hoped-for destination? Perhaps, as shall discover in this text, they are the same, the journey is the destination.
Today’s extraordinary reading is about all of this. My reflections are unapologetically influenced by Archbishop William Temple’s 1939 timeless commentary on John’ gospel.
Today’s text is preceded in chapter 13 with the foot washing narrative, the prediction of Judas’ betrayal, and the humiliation of Peter who Jesus predicted would betray him not many hours hence. With all this back of mind reminder of human fickleness and frailty, John has Jesus launching into confirmation of God’s reliability, predictability, and service of us.
He starts by drawing on a familiar picture of eastern life, the camel train. A camel train would travel a set and predictable distance before resting, and being refreshed. These resting places were called, in the Greek, monai. A person called a dragoman would go ahead and ensure that adequate provisions, including water, were there for camels and human travellers. In this passage Jesus is likened to the dragoman. John’s inference being that there is no part of the human journey that Jesus has not taken, and in preceding us, has not prepared for us.
In his commentary, Temple argues the passage is not first and foremost about the destination, despite the fact this is one of the most common passages read at a funeral, but about the whole human journey. Further, that if the journey is taken in company with Jesus then the journey and the destiny are the same, it is all the ‘Father’s house’.
A conventional human life has predictable resting places associated with birth, schooling, early adulthood, marriage, career, retirement, and old age. COVID 19 has unwittingly cut across all these familiar experiences and drawn the global community into a common monai, or resting place. It may not feel like a place of refreshment, but it is necessarily a place of reflection, of re-evaluation, of preparing for the path ahead. How we experience this place will vary considerably. For many the economic disruption is going to have life changing consequences far more serious than the virus itself. For others mental health implications are going to be exacerbated. More significant than the virus itself, is how we respond to the place in which we now find ourselves. We will live through it, but how?
John goes on to shed wonderful light on this quandary.
You will remember from the Old Testament account of Moses’ call, that he refused to go unless God revealed himself, he said he wanted to know who had sent him. The divine reply was “I am who I am”, or as sometimes translated, “I cause to be who I cause to be”.
In his Gospel, John declares he wrote to show that “Jesus is the Son of God and that in him we might have life”. Crafting a significant literary tool, he attributes the divine name, ‘I am’, to Jesus. He constructs seven “I am” sayings: I am the Light of the world, I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the gate, I am the vine, I am the Good Shepherd, and here: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life”.
In our reading of this ‘I am saying’, we realise from the context, his emphasis is “I am the way”. He is the way, because he is also the truth and the life.
Since my days as a theological student I have been deeply influenced by two books by a monk named, Harry A Williams. One volume is True Wilderness and the other True Resurrection. In True Wilderness Williams distinguishes between what he calls inside and outside truth. To Williams outside truth is the data and information which explodes exponentially around us minute by minute. Unless in some way it shapes us, it has transient significance. Inside truth is far more significant. It is ‘aha’. Margaret and I have two foster daughters. One we have always remained close to, the other we lost contact with for a long time, until recently. It has been such a joy to reconnect with her. Life for her has been fraught and traumatic. She says now she is happy, has found herself, and able once more to relate. – Inside truth. Inside truth is always relational – indeed it is personal. Truth has to do with knowing. In the bible when knowledge is spoken of it is always associated with inside truth, with personal knowing. The key to personal knowing is awareness that love empowers everything, frees everything, redeems everything. Love of God, love of others and equally important, love of self.
We believe that life is of God and that it is essentially about the practice of love. Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life because in him all that is of God has been pleased to dwell. Further, in taking human form, through dying and rising, he has taken the humanity of all human beings. The life that is in him is available to us all. In this passage there is discussion about his going away and that where he is going, they cannot come. But the paradox John wishes us to understand is that in his very going away it becomes possible for him to be present, not just at one time and in one place, but at all times and in every place. The spirit that is Jesus is the spirit of life.
One of the common themes running through commentaries of the COVID 19 shutdown experience, is the rediscovery by so many that life is about relationships, not as we had assumed about position or possessions.
In a very intense way Andrew Constance (our local State member in the headlines for various reasons this last week), has been tormented by the bushfire experience and through it has found that much of what he had known, accepted, and prosecuted in politics is thoroughly pointless, or worse, demeaning of life. He deserves our prayers and understanding as he continues to work it through.
As we read this passage, we have had confirmed for us the reality that journey and destination are the same. God in Jesus has gone before us in all life’s experiences, including death itself. It is all the ‘Father’s house’. The room is always prepared, and the table is always set. Responding with love, as best we are able, is to have already arrived.
Easter 3 and COVID 19
Since the pandemic took hold in Australia the Prime Minister has been rightly praised, because his actions appear free of the oppressive, toxic and damaging influence of his party’s right wing. This is despite rumblings from usual suspects from Sky News and shock jocks about individual rights, which in their view are trampled by actions of social responsibility. Instead of being influenced, even bound, by this combative and divisive rump, he has profitably engaged with his ‘national cabinet’ of Premiers and Chief Ministers. Will it last, and most particularly will it last into the recovery phase when we will need to be free of ideology in order to reset Australia’s policy dials for the future?
I would like to reflect on this question through the Easter narrative of the disciples meeting Jesus’ risen presence on the road to Emmaus and their inability to recognise him until he performed a deeply social and community building act.
Unfortunately, in our individualised culture we have lost the significance of bread breaking. Bread, in this culture, was never cut, it was torn or broken. It was never eaten alone. Bread represents the life of the community. You cannot symbolically put a knife into shared life. When bread is broken and shared, community bonds are reaffirmed and deepened. Mutuality in a shared life is implicit in the invitation to a stranger to share the bread. It is an unthinkable crime not to share bread with a stranger. My sister Val who lives amongst the Afar in Ethiopia lives this culture. At mealtime, there are no individual servings, each dips their injera bread into a common bowl. Over the years Margaret and I have shared a meal like this with many marginalised communities around the globe, starting with the Karen of Myanmar, but more consistently with the Palestinians. Their story, their joys and sorrows, have become ours. For this reason we feel bound to them to this day.
One of the unexpected blessings of the COVID 19 lockdown has been rediscovering community. We have contacted folk by phone with whom in ‘normal’ life we might have waited for Christmas, or a birthday, before communicating. In turn we have been rung by many who have given us so much joy. I am regularly rung by a teenage grandson, which is the nicest thing.
Engaging with others is what we are born to do. We are not born to live in isolation. It is when we are forced into isolation, as we are now, that we become acutely conscious of our need to engage. But there is more to it than simply engaging with family and friends.
The world from which we have become temporarily isolated has become increasingly tribal. Increasing numbers of world leaders are arch nationalists, who in cherishing the distinctiveness of their own nation stand in judgement over others. Under God we are all distinctive. We are distinctive as individuals and we are distinctive as groups. But our distinctiveness turns in on itself unless it engages with the contrasting distinctiveness of others.
Followers of Jesus have two contrasting responsibilities. First, we are to nurture and nourish our distinctiveness, a key component of which is our faith – it is the gift we have to offer. We dare not enter the space of another without offering a gift. But to be distinctive without engaging is to remain outside another’s space in judgement. In recent weeks we have heard horrible stories of people who found it ok to abuse or even spit on nurses, shop assistants and even police; presumably on the grounds that these folk have unwittingly stood in the way of their presumed entitlement. On the other hand we have seen wonderful videos of people combining to sing from their balconies, or post hilarious utubes of their exercise routine. Yesterday Margaret and I joined neighbours in our driveway at 6.00am, ensuring that the spirit of ANZAC was alive and well in our little cul-de-sac. All residents were present.
There are various reasons why countries have suffered more, or less, than others through the COVID 19 pandemic. These reasons will be analysed in great deal in the months and years ahead. I would like to make a contrasting observation between the experience of the US and the experience of Australia. In the US, the gap between rich and poor is far more culturally and racially entrenched than it is in Australia. The poor are always more vulnerable when crisis of any kind strikes, fewer choices are available to them. The US does not have a universal health scheme. But there is one other reason which flies in the face of the fundamental Easter truth I am conveying. Given the US is outwardly the most Christian country in the world, one might well ask, what Bible have they been reading. The issue is this. Dealing with the pandemic requires a high level of social responsibility and willingness to forego individual freedoms: a wonderful hallmark of Australia’s response. But in the US there is a significant, but not universal, culture of believing any social responsibility that requires relinquishment of individual rights to be in breach of the constitution. The President has encouraged this view.
It is this arrogant assumption to individual (or national) rights that has caused right wing ideologists and libertarians the world over to prevent the globe from policy development which might build sustainability, security and wellbeing into the future. If returning to ‘normal’ means this minority view can or will always veto good policy, then the lessons of GOVID 19 will not have been learned, and we are, of all generations, to be condemned and pitied.
While we have embraced many features of the American way of life, fortunately we have not embraced this, despite the right wing’s desire that we might. The right is not the centre, and must never become so. We are criticised from without, and from within, for not having a Bill of Rights. There is every reason why we could/should have a Bill of Rights. But a Bill of Rights must always be set within the context of a citizen’s covenant of responsibility.
The policy settings for the future must bridge the poverty wealth gap and encourage job creation that does not simply build wealth, but which builds occupations that enhance social wellbeing. The policy settings of the future must reflect appropriate social responsibility on a global scale.
Finally, for the Christian community, to believe in the resurrection is also to believe in the Communion of Saints, that unseen band of witnesses to whom we all belong. The fellowship of broken bread gifts us with membership of the body of Christ. We are marked on our foreheads as members of this fellowship, in which we have no rights, we do not need any, for it is all gift; but we do have responsibilities, to care for one another as Christ in God cares for us.
This year we have not had to concoct a feeling of desolation appropriate for Good Friday. Many have been experiencing it for years through a relentless drought. Here on the coast we have intensely experienced it though the bushfires, some of us have lost homes and livelihoods, and globally we now experience it through the COVID 19 pandemic. If we, 21st century human beings, think we are bullet proof, that we are the masters of our world, think again. And then there is Easter!
While we can all bask in the security of feeling we are not personally to blame for the almost biblically proportioned pestilences that have been visited upon us, the fact is that globally we are culpable. We know all too well that we embrace an economic system that takes no prisoners. Nothing is to get in the way of economic growth, certainly not sustainable environmental practice, and up till now, not too much empathy or sympathy for vulnerable humans who have fallen by the wayside either. Asserting that their poverty and vulnerability has arisen from their own ineptitude is the thinly veiled message of the dominant economic narrative. The droughts and the bushfires, we are told, are part of the Australian landscape – nothing to see here; except science affirms they are directly related a culture of human dominance at the expense of natural stewardship.
What about COVID 19? Like HIV Aids, SARS, and the Spanish flue, it has almost certainly arisen from inappropriate interference with, and exploitation of, animals. While we can look down our noses at the wet markets of China and similar markets of Africa, our Australian behaviour towards animals is no less catastrophic in its consequence. Innumerable species now face extinction because of our unrelenting ‘conquering of nature’.
So, in 2020 as we look to the cross and hear the cries of Jesus, we have every reason to be penitent, to realise we indeed have been responsible for the load he carried and the injustice that was perpetrated.
There is no route to Easter, other than by way of the cross. Letting go is not easy. Jesus said: “what you hold onto you lose, what you give away you keep”. While the ultimate ‘letting go’ of death has been forced upon thousands of COVID 19 victims world-wide, for us it still lies ahead. In the meantime there are many large or small ‘letting goes’ we have to embrace in order that we might celebrate life. Whether we will be up for this when COVID 19 is over, only time will tell.
Like me, many of you will have already experienced little Easters when what had been pain and disaster has given way to new life and light – life and light that would not have been there otherwise. It is one of the deep paradoxes of life that experiences we would do almost anything to avoid, often become the fertile soil from which transformation and real growth occurs.
Easter is both deeply personal and profoundly cosmic. The Church was born, not out of the empty tomb, but out of the disciples’ deeply personal experiences of meeting the risen Christ. These experiences were so profoundly real that they and the early converts gladly suffered their own martyrdom in witness to Jesus, the song who filled their hearts with singing, and the new life that was now on offer in his company. I thank God for moments in my own life in which the presence of God in Christ has been intense.
As wonderful as they are, if Easter is only about these personal experiences of God in Jesus, this would not be enough, certainly not enough to make it history’s pivot point. The New Testament links the resurrection to creation, indeed a new creation. The words of Jesus on the cross: “It is finished”, mimic the words of Genesis 2:2, recording that creation is complete. While decay and mortality are a necessary consequence of a finite creation, by inserting himself into the created order in human form, God lifts the whole created order out of an endless cycle of death and dying, gifting it with the promise of redemption, of new life. That’ right, the whole created order. Nothing that God touched can ever be lost. As Bishop Howell Witt used to say in his parish missions, we and the created order have marched to the drum beat of ‘birth life death, birth life death’: now we are called to march to the drum of ‘birth life death life, birth life, death life’. To do this though, we have to let go of our obsession with earthen jars and their contents.
Easter defines Christianity, as Paul says without the resurrection, we of all people are most to be pitied.
While we await our final moment of physical dying as a precursor to eternal life, we are called to live as resurrection people, believing that life is constantly on offer. Our identity can no longer be tied to what we own or possess, but to the company we keep, or at least desire to keep, and the desire to love and be loved.
As we dare to believe we may soon be moving out of pandemic restrictions, will we quickly slip back into our old ways, or will we cherish the new opportunities for life this threat has brought us. Are we now likely to set side adversarial politics for consensus and cooperation? Are we likely to remove countless concession to the wealthy in order that we might maintain generosity to the needy? Are we now more likely to spend money on building security through respirators, masks and the like; establish responsible emission targets and practice water conservation? Or will we continue to foster old rivalries and divisions, spend billions on submarines that will likely be out of date before they are delivered, and allow ideology to trump compassion trust and cooperation?
Easter has given birth to life, creativity, imagination and service at it best. Bach was the fifth evangelist! May we cherish this new life every day, being intolerant of that which diminishes, whist choosing that which nourishes life.
I set before you this day Life and Death, blessing and cursing – choose life.
COVID 19 and Messaging
We all know that successful communication is tied to messaging. Why is it then that the Australian community is receiving such appalling messaging in the ongoing COVID 19 crisis?
Bad new is seldom, if ever, a successful lever for improved human behaviour. Indeed it can often be the opposite, a signal that it is everyone for themselves. If everyone is not going to survive, I will do my best to ensure that I do, even if this means taking more than my share and pushing others out of the way. This in part explains the unseemly panic buying which the prime minister has called ‘un-Australian’.
For the last fortnight and more the news has been dreadful, indeed quite frightening. Because Margaret and I are in the vulnerable age quartile we have been successfully frightened into not going out except to shop once a week. If I were a 20-year-old, I would not be so easily frightened. The frightening news gives very little incentive to the young, fit, and healthy to keep all the social distancing guidelines that have been ubiquitously present in any messaging. Added to this of course has been extraordinary confusion in the messaging. What on earth possessed the Prime Minister to say he would give one last shot at the football before it was closed down. Or what on earth was in his head or the head of his advisor to say getting your hair cut was ok as long as you were not there longer than half an hour. Or what makes five at a wedding safe, but 10 at a funeral will be ok.
Last night, on 7.30 Report, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer either did not understand the questions put to him by Lee Sales, or refused to answer them. He sounded like a spin operative on cue from the government.
The problem that has to be turned on its head is that looking after number one is Australian within a culture overseen by an ideologically driven neo-liberal government. Look at the Minister for Social Services in operation, it appears his interests and that of his party come before anything else. “Everyone who has a go will be given a go”. Within a neo-liberal world view, private enterprise is rewarded and investment in the social economy reduced to the lowest level with which the government can get away. In this world we are taught not to rely on any form of back up – that is left-wing socialism. It is little wonder we have a prime minister who notoriously has great difficulty in expressing genuine empathy, for to show empathy is to fail to encourage self-reliance.
The messaging could and should be turned on its head. The message should be loud and clear that if all the social distancing measures were followed then we could be out of this reasonably quickly. This is the good news and it is not pie in the sky. The virus cannot survive unless it is passed on. Zero contact prevents the passing on. It is within the wit and capacity of Australian society to do this. We are not doing what we could and should do because the reward of doing so is not being made crystal clear. It should not be necessary for these appalling queues outside Centrelink. They are there because bad news breeds bad outcomes. Good news promotes good outcomes. People will be able to go back to work sooner rather than later as long as everyone of us makes the effort to isolate or self-distance denying the virus the capacity to be spread. China has apparently done it – so we are led to believe. Japan and South Korea are doing it. Do we lack the inner fortitude to do it? No I do not think so. We just lack the messaging which tells us that in this discipline lies our salvation. This torture can end without waiting 18 months for a vaccine.
It should be noted we have been struggling with the same flawed messaging in relation to global warming and climate change. For too long those of us who have wanted action, have fallen into the trap set by denialists to emphasise the serious situation in which we find ourselves. The reaction has been to ridicule what has been said to be apocalyptic nonsense.
At last, global warming messaging has changed, emphasising the good news that action on climate change is economic good sense as well as environmental good sense. Action on climate change creates jobs, long term reliable jobs and increases the employment rate while safeguarding vulnerable industries like tourism and agriculture. Action on climate change does not take us back to the dark age but forward to an age of far greater cooperation, flexibility, and community cohesion. The question is whether changing from a message of gloom and doom to a positive message of genuine advancement has come too late.
And so with COVID 19, negative depressing and confusing messaging is reaping what it is sowing. Is it too late? No it is not. Listen to Melbourne based Professor Peter Doherty, the Nobel Prize winning epidemiologist. Now is the time for every Australian to hear that everyone will reap the benefit of social isolation, that the benefit can be observed in a few short weeks and that it is possible that 2020 need not hold the foreboding that it currently holds either in terms of health or the economy.
COVID 19 and climate change, two ‘wicked’ problems, are similar in terms of response required. Put the economy before the environment and both will ultimately collapse. Put health before the economy and both will flourish. Keep making ‘proportional responses’ and both will be on life support for months.