in service of the
Great and unmatched Wisdom
Trump’s claim to be the custodian of “great and unmatched wisdom” must rank, even for him, as one of his most bizarre utterances. One would normally consider a person making such a claim to be totally devoid of self-awareness at best, and at worst, seriously out of touch with reality. The term madness is usually used of one suffering from a serious mental illness and therefore should not be used pejoratively. It means being unable to process experiences and data in a rational and balanced manner because of illness. In normal circumstances such a person should be worthy of considerable empathy and deserving of expert treatment. However, if such a person holds a position of extraordinary power, as Trump does, and is capable of inflicting untold damage on others, what is required is more than empathy, it requires that person being removed from their position of power. In the last few hours more than one hundred brave Kurdish soldiers have apparently lost their lives as a result of Trump’s betrayal. The US did not defeat ISIS. The heavy lifting was done by the Kurds and for them to be betrayed is unconscionable. This is but one, perhaps the most recent, example of harm being done as a result of grievous misuse of power
The search for wisdom is the Holy Grail of life. While traditionally the elderly are expected to be wise, others appear wise ‘beyond their years’.
According to scripture wisdom existed before creation began. As it emerged, the world became imbued with ‘pre-existing wisdom’. It is through wisdom that order triumphs over chaos, equally it is in the absence or ignoring of wisdom that chaos re-emerges, as graphically portrayed in the Noah narrative. Happy are those who find wisdom…she is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her…Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace…the Lord by wisdom founded the earth…(Prov: 3. 11-19). Wisdom is the breath or wind of life. Wisdom is the capacity to understand, to make sense of, to be positioned appropriately in the ebb and flow of life. It is to know what company to keep. It is to appreciate the right time for holding and the right time for releasing. The reason why Jesus said: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mtt 19:24) is because the desire for power and riches almost always makes the attaining of wisdom impossible. How often powerful leaders appear to be far wiser when they have left the seat of office!
I would like to speak of wisdom which receives little attention in the creation narrative. According to Gen. 1: 1- 2:4 in the process of creation three entities were afforded sovereignty – the sun, the moon and humanity.
The sun is given sovereignty as “the greater light to rule the day”. The sun has sovereignty over all that is visible. Literally, the sun is the energy that makes living possible. Harnessing the sun’s energy for agriculture, power generation, and industry has been at the heart of civilization making for thousands of years. In the ancient past this harvesting was largely indirect, using natural phenomena such as wind and tides, indirect products of the sun’s energy. In more recent times the harvesting has been historical, through the wholescale use of fossil fuels.
Today, we know the sovereignty of this ‘greater light’ must be exercised in a contemporary fashion. For reasons we all understand we can no longer use the stored energy of the sun in fossil fuels without causing untold damage. We know this, we have the technological power to do something about it, but shamefully we lack the political will.
The moon is given sovereignty as the ‘lesser light to rule the night’. Its sovereignty is over what is unseen yet equally vital – rhythms and balances, times, tides and seasons. These rhythms can be ignored, but they cannot be abrogated. We observe them in the various seasons of life as well as the seasons of the year. There is very good reason to believe that Sabbath had its origins in celebrations associated with the new moon. Modern day liturgical sabbath is a million miles away from sabbath as expressed in the creation narrative. Sabbath is the cyclical celebration of creation and it provides rhythms that balance life’s journey so that triumph and tragedy are both kept in place and neither allowed to rule. Resting, enough, forgiveness, restitution, jubilee, hospitality, inclusiveness, equity, are all expressions of the sovereignty of this lesser light.
The sense of brokenness, alienation, loneliness and melancholy that many now feel, is an outward manifestation that these essential rhythms have been lost. 24/7 in all its manifestations is inconsistent with the sovereignty of this lesser light and is therefore unsustainable both in the short term in individual lives, and in the long term as far as our civilisation is concerned.
Humanity is the third entity to be given sovereignty. Ours is expressed in terms of dominion over the fish… the birds…the animals… What this sovereignty looks like in practice unfolds in the rest of scripture. Rather than making all living thing subject to our need, as some are wont to interpret, scripture makes it clear that we have a role as steward, shepherd, friend, carer etc. Ours is the responsibility of ensuring that harmony, balance, diversity in all its fulness is maintained.
In other words the sovereignty of humans can only be meaningfully delivered in light of the sovereignty of the first two entities, the sun and moon.
Herein lies great wisdom which clearly has escaped the purview of Donald Trump, Boris Johnston and Scott Morrison, despite at least the former and the latter claiming a Christin heritage.
Wisdom and the search for it is the human vocation. Science can inform contemporary parameters for the search, especially sciences of the body and mind. Wealth and ambition are mostly, but not always, a total distraction. There will be many pitfalls along the way, but to stay on the right path it is necessary to “live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God”(Micah 6:8).
The Eaten and Satiated
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the theology of eating in anticipation of Mr Morrison’s State banquet in Washington. Eating is more than an intake of calories. Humans are social beings, eating is a means of securing friendship, an expression of shared values, perhaps even commitment to a joint strategy. No one leaves a table of significance without carrying something of the character and expectations of the host into the future. This reality was re-enforced by the images of closeness which both parties clearly wished to convey following the dinner. Those who break bread together in a meaningful manner are bound to each other. In this meal it was not simply Morrison and Trump sitting together, it was the US and Australia with legs firmly under the same table. So how have we fared?
In a word, not very well.
We did not have long to wait to make a preliminary judgement on this question. Mr Morrison’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, focussing on environmental responsibility and climate change, breathtakingly stretched credulity. Apparently, we are concerned that plastics will soon outweigh fish in the sea. Concerned, are we? What national policy do we have on this matter, or what effective international lobbying have we undertaken? Ask the average Australian and they will be able to articulate the policy! Apparently, we are also concerned about sustainable fishing practice. Well, what national policy do we have to prevent over-fishing? In recent times governments in Australia have reduced marine parks, not extended them. What about the Barrier Reef? We would rather welcome coal carriers through the reef than protect it. And then there is the small matter of emissions. Apparently, we are more than pulling our weight and will meet our obligations in a canter. The facts of the matter are we are not. Emissions are increasing and we have no viable energy policy to address the matter. Our weak 2020 obligations may notionally be met through a trick of auditing that counts credits from an earlier target, achieved through a climate tax that the current government abolished. If we have a policy Mr Morrison, or Mr Taylor, you need to explain what it is. We know there is no policy because the government is internally riven and appeases a significant and very vocal minority of climate deniers. It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister is so critical of those who point this out, as if, like claims from Trump and Johnston, it is treason to call one’s government to account.
Again we did not have long to wait. In his New York speech, Mr Morrison blamed the media for what he perceives to be an erroneous perception that his government is not meeting its responsibilities.
Without being as overt, are we to face an Australian version of ‘fake’, or bias, when government experiences negative reporting of its policies? The incessant attack on the ABC appears to give us grounds for this fear. Any government must be held to account. Our government is guaranteed a free pass from Sky and News Limited, do they expect a free pass from all outlets?
The consistent mantra of the government is that they will reduce the cost of energy. In their hundreds of thousands, Australians have indicated how they intend to reduce energy cost – generate their own. We are told the grid is not fit for this purpose – what is the government going to do about it? Increasingly more and more home solar systems will have the capacity to service neighbours through battery stored excess. If the government is genuinely concerned to reduce the cost of energy where is government policy to enable this phenomenon to accelerate?
Concern over oil security will be a constant into the future. It makes sense to quickly expand the number of electrically powered vehicles. It is argued that Australian distances make this problematic. That is true. But it is also true that most Australians live in built-up areas, travelling relatively modest distances every day. Where is the policy to increase the number of electrically powered vehicles? Where is the policy for multiplication of recharge facilities? Not only does it make sense to make Australia less dependent upon oil, it also makes sense for an increasing number of Australians to fuel their vehicles from battery stored surplus energy at home. No matter how Messrs Taylor and Morrison paper over the fact, currently we have no energy policy, just political spin.
While self-interest in some measure is an unavoidable component of politics at any level, the overriding goal of the political process must be service of public good. Trump publicly eschews global best interest in favour of short-term national interest and worse, personal best interest. When he speaks of ‘patriots’ he means ‘nationalists’. A true patriot is a citizen of the planet. The strengths and weaknesses of a global world are now shared by all. Commitment to an environmentally stable world must be the highest priority of all governments. A primary ingredient in this commitment must be the alleviation of global poverty. The poorest have no choices. Australia must not follow Trump in the futile pursuit of national self-interest as if this can be obtained at the expense of global best interest.
As I prepare to post this blog news has emerged that the Prime Minister agreed to assist Trump in fending off the Mueller inquiry through a telephone conversation in early September. The PM has absolutely no business in interfering with another nation’s legal proceedings, and absolutely no business developing an “I’ll scratch your back if you will scratch my back” form of friendship with the American president.
It may prove to be very difficult to have sat at table as best friend with a president who faces impeachment without some of the acrimony sticking to one’s clothing. The best way of ensuring this risk is minimised is for the Government to move away from its romance with partisan politics and concentrate on policy which might serve common good in Australia and beyond its shores.
Zionism the ugly truth
Alex Ryvchin’s article “Zionism and the big lie. How Soviet anti-Semitism shaped contemporary anti-Zionism”, published through the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” site, is too cute by half. Of course the strong critique of current Israel (which likes to call itself a Zionist State) has a history, but it is primarily fuelled by the reality that contemporary policies of the State of Israel cruelly subjugate the Palestinian people. That Israel considers non-Jews to be less than full citizens was entrenched in the 2018 Nation State law, which amongst other things permits Mr Ryvchin and other Australian Jews the right to settle in the Palestinian territories as citizens at the expense of Palestinians who have lived there for centuries, many of whom languish till this day in refugee camps within walking distance of their ancestral homes.
As we know, selective quotations from statistics, or history, can prove anything the writer wishes to prove. For example, to ‘prove’ that the use of ‘Palestine’ is illegitimate Mr Ryvchin says territory known as the “land of Israel” was renamed Palestine following the suppression of the second Jewish rebellion in 135 CE.
I could quote different moments of history:
My selective quotes from history are as legitimate as those of Mr Ryvchin, but in the end, they are no more helpful than his to solve the present impasse.
There is an inescapable reason why Zionism cannot shake off the criticism Mr Ryvchin resents. Whatever else is true of Zionism, it will never escape its great moral flaw – that in creating a homeland for the Jewish people, Zionists assumed a form of terra nullius over Palestine and a pretence that the Palestinians who had lived there for millennia had no right to remain. It need not have been so. For post war Zionism, it has never been enough for Israel to coexist on equal terms with the Palestinians – despite Jew, Muslims and Christians having done so in the region since time immemorial. This is the enduring shame of contemporary Zionist Israel. Mr Ryvchin has no answer for this, which is why he distracts and obfuscates with his trip down Soviet memory lane.
History tells us, and present reality confirms, that those in power will do all they can to legitimise their narrative and diminish the narrative of others. For centuries Christendom was the world power. Nations that were part of Christendom found it very convenient to scapegoat others for ills that the powers themselves failed to address. Shamefully the Jewish community suffered what is rightly called anti-Semitism throughout the whole period of Christendom, climaxing in the horrors of the holocaust. Anti-Semitism was of course not consistent, at times the Jewish community was embraced, at other times it was shamelessly expelled as it was from England in 1290 CE (to be restored under Cromwell) and from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century.
The challenge facing those in power today is the same as it always has been, to hold leadership through inclusivity, virtue and service of common good, not through self-service, fear, mistruth and oppression. Currently Netanyahu has chosen to hold power externally through military might, and internally through corrupt practices that could soon have him before the Israeli courts.
The facts of the matter are that the State of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu is an oppressive regime towards those who are not Jews. At the most recent election the chief combatants vied with one another to promise the most grievous outcome for Palestinians. Netanyahu himself promised that he would annex the Jordan valley, Palestine’s breadbasket. How dare he. How dare Mr Ryvchin and others infer anti-Semitism to those, who criticise this most grievous and illegal action. In June the US promised $50 billion of other people’s money (those ‘others’ yet to be identified) to Palestine and Palestinians if they will accept the loss of any claim they might have for autonomy. How outrageous. If Palestinians were not prevented by Israel from developing their economy, and their land, like the citizens of any other country, they would not need anyone’s charity.
Behind Mr Ryvchin’s article is implicit support for the current attempt by those in power in Israel and the US to delegitimise the very existence of Palestine and Palestinians. Sadly the preferred option of those in Israeli politics is for Palestinians to cease to exist. The escalating attempts to undermine the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee in the Near East (UNRWA) and relief organisations generally is geared towards removing the legitimate claims of Palestinian refugees. Children born in refugee camps are no less refugees than their parents and grandparents who were forced by aggressive circumstance to leave their homes – they are certainly not citizens of a refugee camp.
A well know Jewish intellectual, Noam Chomsky, once wrote; “The Zionist dream is to construct a state which is as Jewish as England is English and France is French. At the same time, this state is to be a democracy on the Western model. These goals are incompatible. Citizens of France, no matter their ethnic origin, are French, but citizens of the Jewish state are not equal if they are non-Jews, either by ethnic or religious origin or simply by choice … To the extent that Israel is a Jewish State it cannot be a democratic state.”
Palestinians are Palestinians and always will be. They are not Lebanese, or Syrian, or Jordanian, or Egyptian, they are Palestinian who in large numbers have been forced away from their homeland.
Some years ago I was invited to speak at a symposium in Canberra on the topic, “does humanity have a future”? Most speakers, both scientists and philosophers, were pessimistic, largely on the grounds that although human beings understand what strategies, both environmental and societal, are necessary for survival, their view was that narrow self-interest has historically always prevailed over common good.
An essential societal condition for survival is mutual respect and dignity. The narrative that now prevails from the leaders of both the US and Israel appears to be that dignity belongs to winners, to the strong. Losers or the weak do not deserve dignity being shown to them. A humanitarian view of dignity is that every human being deserves respect and dignity because they are members of the human race.
To be a Palestinian in the Occupied West Bank, or Gaza Strip, or in a refugee camp, is to suffer without dignity. It is not dignified to be without water for washing, drinking or cooking, while Jewish settlers on the hill above are watering their lawn and filling their swimming pools. It is not dignified to be herded like cattle, to be terrorised at check points and to have a demolition order over your house, or not being able to provide for your family. It is not dignified to be called a terrorist simply because you object to your house being demolished, your orchard destroyed or your wife giving birth at a check point because you are not permitted to get to hospital.
Worse, it is not dignified to be a citizen of a country which imposes such cruelty on others. Rather than smearing critics of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and accusing them of harbouring anti-Jewish views, this criticism should be a wake-up call to the Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere who support Israel’s policies, to drink deeply from their traditional wells of virtue, of care for neighbour, and desire for shalom which can only happen when the stranger is embraced as a friend, and motivations of life are based in love not fear.
Over two millennia, Jewish people have often punched above their weight in many fields that have contributed to human advancement, but the Zionist project manifested in the current State of Israel is a dark period in Jewish history.
Let us hope that amongst the younger generation there are some who have the strength to imagine differently. To imagine that lives are enhanced through engagement and reciprocity and that as Banksy famously portrayed through his art, that even a little girl with a balloon can scale a wall.
Global Climate Strike
The time has come for civil society to take control of energy policy by our actions and by our activism, if necessary, through civil disobedience. Political leadership has failed us, worse it is failing those who will come after us. It is worryingly true that liberalism is declining, replaced by a global trend toward right wing nationalism that cares for nothing other than national self-interest. Australia is sadly on the spectrum, with our leaders telling us that what Australia does will not make the slightest bit of difference. But the real question is: “do we want to be on the side of a planet which will support healthy life into the future, or do we want to be with those invested in a self-defeating isolationism destined to destroy any hope for a sustainable future”. Those who doubt that smoking is a health hazard, or that vaccinations have kept humanity clear of many diseases, or that the holocaust occurred, or that human activity is contributing to global warming should not be given oxygen. Sustainable and healthy outcomes are far too important to allow the ignorant, arrogant and self-opinionated any credibility.
On Friday many will gather in strike protests around the globe. This should not be necessary. 21st century health, communication, agriculture, travel etc are all the beneficiaries of development based on scientific discovery. We live the lives we have come to take for granted because of scientific research and application. Why then is it an option to ignore science over an even more important matter - the health of the planet? To put the planet’s health at risk is to gamble with all our futures and is reprehensibly irresponsible. Those in the fossil fuel industry who are investing millions, trying to frighten us into believing that we cannot afford a healthy planet, those who use Alan Jones, Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Roberts as their foghorn, should be unmasked.
Fortunately the statements of Senator Malcom Roberts and his ilk are so stupid that few, if any, bother to report them. But it is quite another matter when David Littleproud, the Minister for Water Resources, says he is not sure whether human activity is contributing to climate change. He may well have been attempting to give comfort to sectors of the national party electorate dependent upon mining, but he is doing the whole Australian electorate and the agriculture base in particular, an extraordinary disservice.
Of course no climatic event: flood, drought, fire, or storm, can be attributed to a single cause. However the combination of events the world over should be enough to tell all humanity that we need to be very cautious. So far warming has only exceeded a little over one degree above pre-industrial levels. Imagine what it would be like if it were two degrees, or between three and four degrees, which we are on track to exceed this century unless we radically change. If climate science is wrong, sadly it is not, but if it were wrong, and we took all the precautionary steps science demands of us if we care about a sustainable future, nothing is lost. But if climate science is right and we do nothing to eliminate emissions, then the outcome will be catastrophic. For those who claim to be unsure, why doesn’t the cautionary principle prevail?
When I hear idiotic statements emanating from parliament it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. One such statement this week was that “carbon is a stable element it does not emit heat”. The blanket on my bed does not emit heat either. Greenhouse gases are called greenhouse gases because they have the capacity to trap heat and radiate it back.
In my travels last week I picked up a ‘free’ copy of the Australian from a stand and read an article opining that the ABC, Fairfax and Channel 9 are stymying debate and free speech by not printing or reporting articles from climate sceptics. When there are two or more possible ways of perceiving an issue, as of course in the abortion issue before the NSW parliament, of course there should be debate; but the fundamentals of climate science have been understood for more than 100 years. Like gravity and the fact the globe is not flat, this is not new science.
It is reported that Antarctic Beech, some estimated to be between 2500 -3000 years old
https://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/26607028 have burnt in the Gold Coast hinterland fire. If this is in fact the case, it is yet another example of irreversible damage and an icon that points us to a future none of us would like to imagine.
Prime Minister, don’t tell the children in Friday’s strike that they should be in their class rooms; they are on strike as a result of their education and the understanding they have gained about the selfish shortsightedness of current governmental policy, or lack of it, that puts misguided populism above investment in a secure future.
Students: come out onto the streets in your thousands. Teachers: encourage and facilitate them. The rest of us, be proud of the youngsters’ initiative, almost certainly those who have the initiative to be present, to speak in an articulate fashion are the ones who will excel in their adult lives contributing to sustainable jobs which will be both fulfilling for them and also aid the planet’s capacity for renewal.
Shame Australia, Shame
Monday night’s “Four Corners programme” revealed what must be one of the most shameful episodes in Australia’s recent history, in relation to East Timor. Given the prolonged incarceration of refugees on Manus and Nauru that is some claim. Our political leaders decided it was ok not to take lunch to school that day, but steal it from the poorest kid in the playground – and they did it in our name.
Shame is one of the most powerful emotions felt by human beings, because it is closely connected to humiliation. In the mix of reasons why child abuse is so often experienced as a lifelong sentence by its victims, is because feelings of shame relating to childhood humiliation are so hard to remove. In some cultures, especially Asian, individuals are seen to bring unbearable shame, through their actions, on close family and community, even though the actions were restricted to the individual.
In other cultures shame appears to be almost extinct. Donald Trump appears to carry absolutely no shame for his words and deeds; indeed they seem to be carried as a badge of honour. The American electorate, not least the Christian electorate, so vociferous in its moral outrage on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, appears not to feel any shame that its chosen leader is a serial offender in relation to truth, misogyny, and racism, to mention obvious matters from a very long list of shameful behaviours.
Where does the Australian community sit on the shame measuring pendulum?
It is hard to imagine a more shameful action, performed in the name of all Australians, than bugging offices of the leaders of Timor L’Este in order to gain an unfair advantage in negotiations over oil and gas extractions in the Timor Sea. With thousands of other Australians I feel deeply shamed about this action and very angry. Why?
How can the present government not understand these actions were thoroughly shameful; that the public has every right to know about them, and if any are to be brought before the court of public judgement and censure, it is those, including the foreign minister of the time, who thought this was ok. Well, it is definitely not ok.
Australian security laws should seek out and punish those who are employed to keep us safe, but by their actions betray national security and the safety of citizens. Has Witness K done this? The court of public opinion, I believe will find to the contrary. Witness K has served our country well in highlighting that a redefinition of ‘harm’ to include legitimising subversive and highly illegal activity in trade deals is not ok and ASIO officers should not be deployed in this way ever again.
We are led to believe that witness K was permitted to seek legal representation and chose the Canberra based solicitor Bernard Collaery. There is thus far no evidence to suggest that Bernard Collaery has done anything other than faithfully represent his client to the best of his ability. The raiding of Mr Collaery’s office was itself illegal and the papers taken from that office were ultimately ordered to be released and used, as they were intended, to give East Timor a fair hearing at the Hague.
The pursuit of witness K and Mr Collaery through the courts is adding shame on shame.
The current government prides itself in getting out of the way, so that individuals can live as they choose. The current action against Mr Collaery and witness K indicates this resolve has severe limitations. Apparently, the government reserves to itself value judgements about the morality of actions in pursuit of national economic gain. Actions like this, performed in Australia by corporations against individuals or individuals against one another or against the taxpayer, would see the culprit before the courts. In this case the culprits are not before the courts, but those who have revealed the action are.
A more appropriate agreement in relation to the oil and gas. has now been signed by Australia and Timor. But this has not happened willingly on the part of Australia. It had to be taken to an international court in the Hague.
What is happening to Australia and its moral standing? Is there no one in the current government who feels deep shame about the actions of this previous government? I suspect there are many who do. But the way to respond is not to punish those who made this known, but to censure those who were responsible for this most tawdry of episodes.
My Dear Prime Minister,
Your attendance at the recent pacific leaders’ conference in Tuvalu was very important to show Australia’s commitment to issues that affect our near neighbours, for whom we have always recognised some responsibility.
We expected and hoped that you might show some real leadership, but we have been sadly disappointed.
When it was suggested that you might need to answer to the pacific in terms of Australia’s upward trending emissions, you said you were answerable to the Australian people. That is why I am writing. Between 60 – 70% of us want much stronger action on climate change. You do not appear to be at all responsible to us. Who are you being responsible to?
You have correctly said that changes in Australia’s policy alone will not stop the effects of climate change. Of course not. But if every country in the world has this attitude, we will remain on a path which will decimate much of our region – and beyond.
As a wealthy nation with many options, that if implemented, at worse will only marginally affect our g.d.p.in the short term and hugely improve our financial position in the long term we must set an example that puts pressure on others to follow. Why are we laggards rather than leaders?
I am grateful you have condemned Alan Jones for his appalling diatribe, but the truth is many of us see in Jacinta Ardern the qualities of leadership we long to see exhibited in Australia.
Please stand up and show genuine leadership rather than mouthing little slogans.
Bishop George Browning PhD DLitt
WHO ARE THE CONSERVATIVES?
It is time real conservatives stand up to usurpers on the right of right-wing politics and their echo chamber on Sky News. Freedom of speech is one thing, but affording space to legitimise the illegitimate is costly to genuine debate and policy making, inhibits international understanding, and undermines prospects for advancement in an inclusive, harmonious and genuinely civil society.
The popular and accessible 20th century Scottish theologian William Barclay proposed a behavioural context for the two absolutes, good and evil. He described good as thoughts and actions which enhance life and conversely evil as those thoughts and actions which are life destroying. Put this into a political context and conservatism should mean conserving individual and communal life, its equity and sustainability, through economic and social policy.
Being a theologian, Barclay understood life as relational. All species, plant and animal , inclusive of homo sapiens, are unique, but all are derived from and interdependent upon, the whole biosphere. To be a political conservative therefore should not simply be to support individuals or individual enterprises as if they exist in isolation, but to safeguard the supporting networks which grow exponentially more complex in a global environment. This is a multi-faceted task, inclusive of economic, cultural, social, environmental and political considerations applicable to individuals and nations alike.
Traditionally conservatives have resisted change, for the very good reason that change to what has been the status quo is frequently disruptive and can put at risk, or seem to put at risk, the very pillars upon which stability and desired continuity have been built.
But what if that which is being clung to and protected is the ‘sizzle and not the sausage’, to quote a reference to Boris Johnston, or the wrapping around a reality which has long since moved. If this is the case, as I fear it is, many who claim to be conservatives today are somewhat forlornly dressed for a parade whose star guest, 21st century life, is dancing to a different beat kilometres in the distance. Real conservatives distinguish between core principles that never change and economic and social habits that may well have served one context, but must change in another.
Let me illustrate. The recent CPAC (Conservative political action conference) imported from the US and attended by all the usual suspects, trotted out their tired pressing concerns.
The inviolability of the nation state. As we know, for most of our history humans have been tribal. Indeed tribalism remains very much alive and well in the 21st century. At one level tribalism can be life enhancing. But tribalism is more often destructive and violent. Over centuries, western civilisation was born out of the realisation that human flourishing could be enhanced if tribal rivalry and competition could be bridged – eventually the nation state was born – depending on the rule of law to keep tribal negativity at bay. In the 21st century we now realise human flourishing depends upon cooperation beyond the boundaries of the nation state. Globalisation has occurred and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. For humanity to flourish in the 21st century there must be willingness to address complex global challenges in a spirit of cooperation. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage et al are entirely wrong and misleading their people by asserting that nationalism should trump global cooperation. The days of the nation state are not over, but the days of blissful isolationism should be, but are they?
The nationalistic forces that drive significant players in world affairs are not understood and dangerously responded to by others. The nationalism of the US administration is disproportionately influenced by a fundamentalist Christian fervour which sees itself somehow superior to others and therefore gives itself the right to interfere in the affairs of other nations. Sri Lankan nationalism is Buddhist and less tolerant of citizens who do not share this identity. Turkey under Erdogan is no longer secular but Islamist. India has become fervently Hindu in its identity. Israeli nationalism excuses its treatment of Palestinians on the basis that it is a Jewish state. China seeks to re-establish a dominant place on the world stage by recovering its culture through Confucianist philosophy and a unique blend of capitalism and socialism. Rather than understanding one another, nationalism is making the world a far more dangerous place.
Global warming is a conspiracy perpetrated by scientists. That such a statement could be cheered by 500 otherwise (presumably) sane and intelligent human beings at their august conference is beyond comprehension and detestably irresponsible. How is this situation possible? Many books have been written that trace the origin and influence of climate sceptics, the similarity between them and their forebears in the tobacco industry, and their funding and patronage from the mining industry. But why do people still fall for this wicked betrayal of sustainable life on planet earth? I have come to realise that undergirding this great mistruth is another cherished principle of the so-called conservatives, namely the inalienable rights of the individual. It is, apparently, the right of the individual to do what they will with their life and for many, with their plot of land, regardless of its effect upon others. It is the right of farmers to clear land in NSW regardless of the accumulative effect clearing is having on the planet. It is the right of the individual in the US to carry a weapon, not just a simple gun, but an assault rifle designed for maximum damage in warfare. “He who confiscates my guns is my enemy” answered one participant at the conference in reply to the question of a journalist.
Those who now love to call themselves conservatives, and to a large extent trace their conservatism to Christian foundations, have totally misread scripture and the teaching of Jesus about the ‘kingdom of God’. The New Testament has no understanding of the individual in isolation. Every individual lives in relationship to God, one another and the earth. Every individual is defined through their relationships and the responsibilities inherent in them. A true conservative is one who understands and upholds these responsibilities. Nigel Farage is reported to have entertained his audience in Sydney by lambasting the younger members of the Royal family, Bill Gates, and others, for their commitment to environmental best practice. They are the true conservatives, not Farage, Credlin, Abbott, Latham, Dean, Kelly, Mundine, Anderson et al who would undo, put at risk, the very foundations upon which life and civilisation on this planet depend.
Private and public ownership. The political terms left wing and right wing originated in the 18th century during the French Revolution. They are based on the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly — those who sat on the left of the chair of the parliamentary president supported the revolution and a secular republic, and opposed the monarchy of the old regime. Those who sat to the right supported the institutions of the monarchist old regime or Ancien Régime.
As a rule of thumb those on the left, the liberals, favour the protection of ‘commons’, believing that human flourishing is best protected and enhanced by holding essential elements of human life in common (health, education, water, energy, clean air, green space, etc); while those on the right seek to privatise as much as possible, believing that self-interest is the best guarantor of flourishing. But who are the conservative here? Surely the conservatives are those who wish to conserve in perpetuity that which is held in common? The protection of ‘commons’ is a high order biblical principle in order that the poor and vulnerable are not inhibited from the enjoyment of life’s fundamentals. The privatisation of everything is a very radical idea that runs against the foundations upon which western civilisation is built. There is ample evidence that increased privatisation has led to corruption and higher costs.
In conclusion, there is almost no evidence that putting as much wealth as possible in the hands of individuals leads to a cohesive society or healthy and contented individuals. Mental illness and loneliness have reached almost epidemic proportions in many western countries, and particularly in Australia. Humans are social beings, the most urgent consideration for conservatives should ‘be how do we conserve the foundational elements of our belonging, in a fragile and threatened global environment?
A theology of eating
Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has announced he is to go to Washington to have dinner with President Trump. In the past such an invitation would be considered a great honour, especially as few other world leaders receive similar invitations. But these are not ordinary times. What does accepting this invitation mean for Scott Morrison and for Australia?
Sending an invitation to eat with another is a sign of desired and reciprocated personal respect, a symbol of commitment to common values and cause. Having eaten with another around a common table, one does not lightly walk away. Is this what Australia and Australians want done on their behalf in relation to the US at this juncture in world affairs?
In most indigenous cultures throughout the world breaking bread with another is an act of personal intimacy. There is a story that Laurence of Arabia was given shelter from the Ottomans by an Arab Bedouin family at enormous risk to themselves. When the danger passed Lawrence asked why they had risked so much; their reply: “we broke bread with you”. This same sense of deep commitment around shared food or the breaking of bread is embedded in the Christian tradition. The breaking or sharing of bread is the most intimate act of Christian intimacy. There is far more to a meal than simply consuming calories.
While the host at a meal is the primary extender of honour, nevertheless the one accepting the invitation returns the same honour. In the Christian meal, Christ is the host, unfortunately some major religious institutions think they are, and limit attendees according to their institutional requirements.
The host at the forthcoming Washington dinner is a man who appears desperate to be honoured. Why else does he constantly send tweets telling the world of his greatness, that America under his leadership is great again, that he is superior to most, if not all, past presidents, and that his ‘deals’ can solve all the intractable problems of the world? His discredited and derided ‘deal of the century’ in relation to Israel/Palestine is but one example.
This host is well known for many unfortunate traits. His widely documented untruths run into the thousands. His philandering seems to have become a matter of personal pride rather than a national and international scandal. He appears not to have any sense of global responsibility, of which his withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate mitigation is but one example. His international interventions have made the world a far more dangerous place. A long record of racist comments make it clear he does not favour an inclusive multicultural, multifaith America
The host is a man who has been shown to lead a shambolic administration and worse, an administration that has celebrated nepotism at its heart.
To accept a personal invitation to dinner with this host is either to deny these realities, to shut one’s eyes and ears to them, or rather naively to believe one can walk away from the dinner without some of this baggage sticking to one’s clothing. All human beings become the company they keep. By accepting this invitation Morrison is drawing Australia and Australians into this company. Are we Australians so desperate to curry favour with the US that we have no standards, no values of our own?
Australia has followed the US into a series of disastrous wars from Vietnam to the present. The price paid by Australian veterans and their families quite apart from the chaos heaped upon the people of Iraq etc, has been catastrophic and needlessly burdensome.
If following this dinner Mr Morrison should make any commitment that, if asked, Australia would join a conflict against Iran, I would call on the Australian people to rise up in the greatest show of civil disobedience this country has ever seen. The two competing titans of the Middle East are Saudi Arabia and Iran. For the US to have sided with Saudi Arabia, without any rebuke of its wilful atrocities at home and its sponsoring of terrorism abroad including 9/11, is to cast all sense and caution to the wind and to indicate the US demands one standard from those it considers its enemies and quite another from those it wishes to cultivate for economic reasons. Not to acknowledge that ISIS and its failed caliphate is rooted in Saudi Arabia based Wahhabism and to insist that Iran is the sole conveyer of terrorism is not simply misleading, it shows that the US can still make the terribly mistaken and catastrophic incursions that it made in Iraq.
Further, to join the closeted company of a host, is to join the company of those whose company the host prefers. President Trump has made it clear that he admires ‘strong men’, others may prefer to use the word ‘tyrants’. In the UK his preference is for Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage, his admiration for Putin is well known as his love affair with Kim Jong-un. His lack of respect for women leaders including Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Jacinda Arden is also well known.
I strongly commend Norman Wirzba’s book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. He is a distinguished professor of Christian Theology at Duke University. Throughout the book, Wirzba presents eating as a way of enacting fidelity between persons, between people and fellow creatures, and between people and Earth. In Food and Faith, he demonstrates that eating is of profound economic, moral, and spiritual significance.
In the West our eating habits are diminishing our forward directory as sentient, relational beings. Our eating is often hurried. It is too frequently alone. It is mostly wrapped in plastic and completely disconnected from its source in the natural environment. These are symptoms of a cultural malaise not disconnected from the mental health and loneliness epidemic with which we are confronted, and which is far less apparent amongst those whose lives are lived more simply.
There can be little doubt that Scott Morrison feels chuffed and honoured to have received his Washington invitation. However because of the implied intimacy involved and the moral and strategic significance that will almost certainly flow from it, it would be wise to be more circumspect and cautious.
Liberalism is dead
In an interview with the Financial Times In the lead up to the recent G20 conference President Putin now famously said “Liberalism is obsolete”. What is clear is that populism and autocracy are on the rise, that there appears to be more behavioural similarity between powerful historic enemies than between former western allies, and that the world is becoming a less safe place for its global citizenry. Why?
The etymology of ‘Liberalism’ can be traced back to Liber the Roman god associated with freedom. Thus a liberal is one who is free, or seeks freedom. Modern liberalism was born through the 18th and 19th century period of Enlightenment and industrialisation. Thinkers such as John Locke sought freedom from the controlling narrative and demands of the Church and from political subservience imposed by Monarchy or State. Enlightenment thinkers believed the state should serve the people, not the other way around, and that civil society should not be directed by religion. Liberalism embraced the concept of individual rights, democracy, free market and capitalism.
To be a liberal today is to be tolerant, embrace diversity, and be a willing participant in the marketplace of ideas. In the Church to be labelled a liberal can be shorthand for not being a fundamentalist. In my Anglican tradition a liberal gives weight to scripture, tradition and reason. The recent Folau controversy is a very good example of weight being given to scripture alone, but not even scripture as a whole, but to an isolated verse (misquoted) then prescribed as law for all humankind. It is a strange quirk of history that many of today’s ‘Liberals” support the right of a bible quote being used to condemn a vast swathe of ordinary citizens, a situation from which enlightenment liberalism sought to move away.
If the alternative to liberalism is Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnston, Xi Jinping, Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohamad Bin Salman etc then liberalism must be reformed. So what has gone wrong?
Politics is an expensive business, disseminating a political message has become increasingly dependent upon the largesse of wealthy and therefore powerful backers, both corporate and private. That political parties and politicians generally are tied to wealthy self-interested parties is obvious to the electorate and a major reason for the collapse of trust. That Christopher Pyne could so quickly transition from Minister for Defence to a commercial company that stands to gain from his previous political position is the latest scandalous example of the nexus between politics and a desire for wealth accumulation and advantage. It is not acceptable that political parties, especially those that espouse liberalism are clearly incapable of striking a balance between the democratic principle and capitalism’s insatiable appetite. If a choice is necessary, the choice is made for capitalism and against democracy. Four Corners exposé of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is yet another example of wealth gazumping democratic process and the interest of the nation.
It is difficult to see how this escalating trend towards capitalism at the expense of democracy is going to be slowed let alone reversed. However a first major step must be legislation to stop all donations to political parties, and for parties to be funded by the taxpayer alone on a pro rata basis.
Future historians will suffer from an over abundant choice when searching for Donald Trump quotes, but at the centre of it all will be ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. Donald Trump, currently the most powerful western leader, has made an art form of treating verifiable fact with contempt and conveying his self-aggrandising narrative as the only legitimate story in town. This has allowed the unacceptable and misleading to be acceptable. Does it matter that a short view (creationist) of history can be taught to children as if it were fact? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the Christian Right can teach that Jews are the only people to have indigenous rights to Palestine? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the argument against vaccination can be taught as equally valid as the argument for vaccination? Yes it does matter. Does it matter that there is a flat earth society – probably not!
Above all it matters that a position opposing climate change science can be posited with equal value to science itself. This is doing incalculable damage to the future of life on the planet. Future generations will not have choices available to them that are available to us, they will be stuck with the choices we have made, or more truthfully, have failed to make.
Freedom of speech and balance are important and worthy principles, however in an age when a three-word mantra takes the place of a reasoned argument, media outlets have a huge responsibility to distinguish between an unfounded opinion and a well-documented and researched position. Freedom of speech cannot be total. Speech is communication within a context and speech is the forerunner of action - intended or not.
Politics and Religion cover the totality of life. Politics is the business of negotiation for common good within local, regional, national or international life. Religion is about how life and its values and virtues are celebrated. While how life is negotiated in the West has been shaped by the Judaeo/Christian tradition, nevertheless in a liberal democracy political fundamentals should be secular. That is not to say people of faith should not argue, as ably as they might, for the prevalence of religious virtue and values in negotiated arrangements for civil society. But it does mean that people of faith should not request or be granted privileges or favours that are not available to those without faith, or to those of a particular faith, or that are in competition with others’ rights. Nation states should be unequivocally secular. The Republic of Turkey is the latest example of damage done when secularism is lost.
In the US the influence of the religious right is so substantial that no political figure dare ignore it. The irony is that currently the religious right appears to shut its eyes to the absence of traditional Christian virtues such as honesty, fidelity, and care for the needy, as long as the president promulgates their ‘pro-life’ agenda, individual rights, gun ownership and promotion of Israel’s colonisation of the whole of Palestine with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.
In Australia the politically recognised voice of the Christian community is the Australian Christian Lobby, but ACL is not representative of my Christian voice or that of mainstream Christianity. ACL seldom, if ever, expresses concern about the growth of economic inequity, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, social disadvantage, support for religious or ethnic minorities etc. ACL is almost entirely the voice of political conservatives within the coalition and their obsession with sexual and gender identity. Thus current freedom of religion debate has this obsession as its starting point.
The ideal of a liberal society is that all citizens enjoy the same freedoms, rights and privileges and that they are safeguarded under law. Parliament is the law maker, but increasingly in most western societies including Australia, the economic agenda always trumps the social agenda with the inevitable consequence that common good is lost. Governments everywhere have shamelessly privatised elements of civil life that should have always been retained in public ownership. If in the end everything is for sale, nothing is publicly owned, then those at the top of the capitalist tree will suck all that is common to their compound: environmental concerns become expendable, social concerns are of no account, and budgets are increasingly expended on protecting the wealth of those who have from those who have not. A nation state is not the sum of its individuals, it is the sum of its various communities and families. The triumph of the individual is the triumph of greed over responsibility and the triumph of transient wealth over intergenerational legacy.
Liberality is not only worth defending, its reform deserves investment and energy. Democracy is precious and must be safeguarded from the assault of capitalism. All individuals are equal, but all ideas are not. Religion should seek to serve civil society, not seek to shape it in its image. Good that is not common is not good. Every decision of parliament and every contribution to civil life must be judged by the way it serves common good.
Nathan and the ‘Deal of the Century’
To be born a Palestinian in one of the Middle East’s refugee camps, or in the Gaza Strip, or on the West Bank, is to be born into the chains of misplacement, occupation, or siege, and probably into poverty. So, is it attractive to hear that the world’s most powerful and wealthy country has a plan to spend $50 billion in your direction? Well no. It is not attractive because the reason for the chains and consequent poverty are not being addressed. It is not attractive because receiving the money will be conditional on acceptance that Israel has the right to continue the annexation of Palestinian land and that Israelis have rights, but Palestinians do not. It is not at all surprising that Palestinians, who were not invited to shape the content of the ‘deal of the century’, will not accept its outcome. Trump and Netanyahu believe the strong have the right to enjoy the bounty of their strength and that the weak must meekly accept this reality.
In my world this view is totally unacceptable and I will not accept the nomenclature of being ‘antisemitic’ for saying so.
Of the $50 billion, it is clear that the US intends to stump up nothing, or next to nothing, or the least with which it can get away. The US is expecting most of the money to come from wealthy Arab States. Parties to the deal intend that nearly half that money be spent outside Palestine in Egypt (Sinai), Jordan and Lebanon. This carries the intention that Palestinians who have been forced to live in refugee camps outside of Palestine since 1948 will accept another country as their permanent home. Presumably these countries will be expected to grant full and unconditional citizenship to those who have been refugees; a right Israel continues to deny Palestinians who have never been refugees and who have lived in what is now Israel for generations.
The chief power struggle underway in the Middle East is between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US will be looking to Saudi Arabia to make most of the funding available for its ‘deal’. In turn Saudi Arabia will be keen to curry favour with the US in support against Iran. Since the overthrow (and now death) of President Mohamad Morsi, Egypt seeks constraint upon the power and influence of Iran. Thus the common thread uniting the coalition around the US and its plan for Palestine is not the wellbeing of Palestinians, it is the thwarting or subduing of Iranian influence.
Israel costs the American tax payer nearly $10 billion annually. Frequently loans have been forgiven and turned into grants. If 50 percent of this money were diverted over the next 10 years as grants to Palestine, perhaps the ‘deal of the century’ with all its faults could be engaged. But no, it is not simply an empty puff of wind, it is an insult, it is the cowardly attempt of a rich and powerful landowner to offer his vassal subjects a new set of clothes as long as they promise to keep to their allocated place and no longer challenge his right to do what he pleases with what is essentially theirs.
Lift the chains off the Palestinian people and they will develop their own economy.
Netanyahu and Trump would do well to be reminded of the confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan (2 Sam. 12: 1-7). Nathan said there were two men who lived in a city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had vast lands and large flocks. The poor man had nothing but a little ewe lamb that used to play and eat with his children. A traveller came to the rich man: he was loath to take one of his own flock to prepare a meal for the wayfarer, but rather took the poor man’s lamb to feed his guest. David’s heart was kindled with anger against the man and asked who he was so that he could punish him.
Nathan said to David, you are that man.
Let the one who has ears – hear.