Monday, January 26, 2015

Advance Australia where? Thinking about Australia Day

As the son of English immigrants, someone who loves this country, its culture and biogeography, Australia Day is sadly one of those events that is difficult to navigate. I've been thinking why, and how to hold different visions together. The secret is the idea of narratives.

Narratives are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world - and form a part of world views along with praxis, questions and symbols. There are two or three narratives I see going on, and they are not mutually exclusive.

The first is the one of Australia that begins over 200 years ago and tells the story of brave settlers, moving from a convict colony to a country with a distinctive culture, somewhat self-deprecating, capable of achieving much; a society that is largely egalitarian. It is this that Australia Day calls us to show our pride in.

Yet this narrative either deliberately or subconsciously excludes the narrative that extends back 10s of thousands of years; one that includes invasion, dispossession and colonialism, warfare and violence. It's a variation on a theme found everywhere Europeans arrived in the "New World". It's the story that shapes Australia Day as Invasion or Survival Day. It's a story outside of my experience, and yet one that tempers my own "celebration" of Australia Day. It means that while I want to affirm the good, I have to acknowledge it sits on a legacy - as has been said "White Australia has a Black history", with a double meaning.

The third narrative is the darker side of our own history, from White Australia to duplicity in East Timor, to attempts to undo our egalitarian society and continue to deny the "Black armband history".

For me to be a "proud Australian" is to celebrate the good and want to see the righting of wrongs, to Advance Australia Fair, in the true sense of fair. That might mean a new national day, or a transformation of the old. It will mean constitutional recognition of and a treaty with the first Australians, and continued efforts to allow them to flourish through some degree of self-determination. It will mean continued protection of all that we treasure, our fair society and this amazingly challenging but beautiful land.

Advance Australia where? Into a shared future.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

This is my Christmas eve 2014 sermon. A bit late as I don't work from a manuscript and so had to type up. Nice and short for a 10.30 time slot.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). Some ancient cultures had the idea of circular history, where the same events would play over again and again. Perhaps they were inspired by the regularity of the seasons. The Whiggish idea of history is that there was inevitable progress which led to the development of Western culture. This was a popular idea in England. Francis Fukuyama famously and foolishly said that history ended after the Berlin Wall came down. He was very premature. More recently, philosopher John Gray has written that “men are the playthings of a blind and amoral fate, which decrees that the same mistakes will be made over and over again”. The aphorism “those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it” comes to mind here.

The ancient Israelites understood their history as blessing and curse from a God not just of their nation but all nations, a God of history. The people walked in a great darkness, and in Isaiah 9 that darkness was Assyria, an agent of judgement for Israel’s national sins. Hence Isaiah wrote:

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! 22 Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (1:21-23)

And, as a result of this:

“Assyria, the rod of my anger—the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him.” (10:5-6)

Assyria were a warlike people known to torture, maim and kill in grizzly ways soldiers and nobility, and burned children alive. Little wonder Isaiah also writes “But this is not what he [Assyria] intends, nor does he have this in mind; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”

So while a judgment was intended by God, he did not intend such savagery.

So it is almost surprising in the face of this risk that Isaiah could also write:

“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.” (8:17)

For … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A light of freedom from war. In Isaiah 9 he describes the burning boots and uniforms of war. Elsewhere he speaks of swords being turned into plough shares. Perhaps we might say the turning of tanks into tractors. This light is also a light of freedom from oppression; the rod and yoke would be broken.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light of a golden age where a child will lead the people into everlasting shalom. Shalom is more than absence of war, but a peace which included wholeness, completeness, the “good life”. 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light is a child is who bears the very character of God himself –Mighty God, Everlasting Father.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and so certain was Isaiah, that this future hope is expressed in the past tense of “walked” and “have seen”.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. After the threat of Assyria came the Babylonian exile, and then the release under Persia where Israel was still a vassal state. Then came Alexander the Great, and after the Selucids as Alexander’s empire broke up. Finally came Rome. The census recorded in Luke 2 reminds us of the part that economic control played in the maintaining of empire, as such censuses were associated with taxation.

Yet … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for we read that:

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

The glory of the Lord, the great light, shone on them (Luke 2:9). The Pharisees considered shepherds to be ritually unclean because of their association with animals, and hence they were those walking in the darkness of religious bigotry.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the saviour, the anointed king (Christ, Messiah; Luke 2:10-11). He is the one who would rule over Israel and all nations. He was a fragile, vulnerable child (v12) because God’s power is made manifest in weakness and small things.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We walk in the darkness of violence as many recent events attest: 140 people, mostly school children, killed in Pakistan; two innocent lives killed in the Sydney siege; drone attacks on the so-called war on terror killing innocent civilians; persecuted people fleeing violence only to be inhumanely returned or locked up in detention.

We walk in the darkness of personal suffering and loss, of depression and grief – when we feel as if God is hiding his face. Yet Jesus did away with any simple connection between sin and suffering. Think of the man born blind in John 10. Those who pronounce God’s judgment for sin in natural disasters (Boxing Day Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina, Black Saturday) speak Satan’s words, not God’s. We can never assume people suffer because they “deserve it”. 

Here I follow Bono in his proclaiming of grace over karma. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I, like Bono, am holding out for grace.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for the child in the manger grew up to be a man who shook the halls of power, tipped upside down all ideas of power and greatness, and how to be reconciled to God.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the cross shines into our history and tells us that God himself has suffered, God himself identifies with us in our darkness, and that God himself “will ride with us”. 

Again, Bono puts it well when he says I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the resurrection shines down through 20 centuries of history and points towards the great light of the future resurrection where as John says “God himself will be with us; he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

Though we walk in darkness, we have seen a great light.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Privilege for a purpose: Biblical examples

Someone I've met in real life (tm) made a comment on my last post on WASP male privilege to point out that there are biblical examples of where privilege exists, but that is for a purpose.

I probably need to clear up from the start that while I see parallels between Christian social ethics (the politics of Jesus if you will) and socialism, I'm no Marxist. In wanting those of us with much to care for those with less, I'm not advocating doctors and street cleaners be paid the same. Instead, I want them to be valued as humans, have the same access to essential medical care and so on.

My problem is with the way in which wealth accumulates without a connection to real value; hence CEOs earning hundreds of times more than the bottom employees in an organisation. Sabbath economics and the idea of Jubilee acted a a reset for an economy designed not to dispossess or disadvantage others. How this might work today has been illustrated in debt forgiveness - although issues of irresponsible lending and corruption also need to be addressed.

So then, a couple of examples. Firstly, it seems to me that Israel always was to have a position of privilege. In Genesis 12:1-3 it is clear Israel is privileged but in a way that was meant to bless others. I suspect at times some sections of the Christian church forget that is a core aspect of its mission.

What about the rich then? In some cases, it isn't possible to get rich without it being at the expense of others; certainly someone like Zacchaeus benefited from tax farming, and his response would have included abandoning being part of that system. But for those who honestly gain wealth, Paul's constant plea to the churches to make offerings to the Jerusalem church point to the idea that money is sometime best circulated as much as possible.

Finally, my correspondent raises the idea of the "weak vs the strong". In the New Testament period, meat sacrificed to idols was an issue (see for example 1 Corinthians 8). Those strong in faith and conscience who understood that this was a non-issue were not to use their strength as a stumbling block for the weak. Theirs was a position of privilege, but not for their own sake, and sometimes we limit our freedom for the sake of others.

This last example is universally applicable, for only the extreme libertine would ignore the idea of a social contract. There's much said today about the evils of censorship, but sometimes this is for the welfare of others (and indeed ourselves if we more more internally reflective - do you really think computer games where you can rape and kill prostitutes constitutes a good or a right?)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Being a responsible WASP male without the guilt

I've been thinking about privilege, power and responsibility of late. I'm someone whose been born white, male and in a first world country with a solid economy, so I'm well ahead of most of the world. Born into a working class family, education has helped me into the middle class - though like many hardly rolling in it.

Likewise I more or less fit the WASP mold. I am white (painfully so in the Australian sun), but more Anglo-Celt I think thank Saxon. And yes, as a member of the Anglican Church, a Protestant. As a label it fits ok.

Sometimes the Right (labels again I know, but work with me) accuses the Left of being whiny (which it can be) and of insisting that people like me live with guilt all of the time. It seems the only ones that can be maligned are people like me. What the privileged Right don't get respectively is that one can be aware of privilege and how it has arisen without a self flagellating guilt. What the sometimes whiny Left don't get is that we didn't choose to be part of the system and don't bear the entire guilt of it simply by being born privileged.

What I think is required is twofold. The first is to become aware of your advantage. I'm a male so I don't usually fear rape or sexual assault. Women often fear this. Be aware of this. It doesn't mean confessing I'm a closet rapist or assenting to an "all men are rapists" mantra. It does mean that the world is tilted in my favor by my gender. Likewise, in many walks of life having a penis means I can earn more than a human without one. That's not my fault, but I need to see that this wrong exists.

Likewise, understanding that to be white often means living on lands that have been taken from others, usually non-whites. Australia was stolen from its first inhabitants - accompanied by frontier wars and people being corralled into missions. In the USA, this included deliberately infecting people with diseases. I didn't take part in this sort of thing, but continue to benefit from stolen land.

Finally (but not exhaustively), global capitalism seems to insist on inequality to work; hence my clothing, electrical devices and so on. I'm part of a system that benefits me more than those who made my stuff, and those who own the companies who made the stuff more than me.

So I actually do need to feel sorry about this, without browbeating myself all of the time. It's a fact that many things are shit. Which leads me to the second half. How to be a responsible WASP male without the guilt. I'm happy to be who I am, but I might pause at using the word pride because of the unavoidable overtones it invokes. It's hard for me to be really persecuted at this point in history. Black pride makes more sense to me (than it does to those of the white pride perspective) because of the way in which history and socioeconomics and politics makes black people in many places a "minority", even if they are not numerically (think about apartheid South Africa).

So knowing this means it isn't Left or being a "champagne Socialist" to want to see the system change to rebalance inequalities. I believe in equal rights for women in the home, workplace and church because of my theology and not in spite of it - while still not seeing men and women as identical - we are equal.

Likewise, as all humans are as I read it made "in the image of God" all are afforded that dignity. What is often termed "social justice" is just justice, treating people as best elevates them to that dignity. This means aid to those who suffer from the system and changing it where possible. This means that "lifters and leaners" is unhelpful terminology, and blaming those who are poor can be (and mostly is) baseless. Criticising welfare to the many who need it on the basis of the few who rort it (while companies rort tax systems) is very myopic.

The us and them spirit invoked by "illegal immigrants" (when it is not illegal to seek asylum), "queue jumpers" (where there is no queue), etc denies people's basic humanity, our international obligations and forgets our privileged position carries with it a responsibility.

So I'm just some smart arsed white male blogger with a bleeding heart. Or maybe I'm on the slow process of looking at the world around me and recognising I'm in a good place to use my privilege for the good of others; not because people want to be the object of my charity or my do-gooding, but because I have no other choice ethically and should have no other motivation than to love my neighbour as I do myself - precisely because I love God.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams pits two philosophers against a supercomputer named Deep Thought, whose purpose is to discover the meaning of life. Their demand is for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, so that they might continue to have jobs.  I’m prompted to reflect upon this idea in response to a couple of Red Letter Christians blogs. Gungor and the Two Faces of Evangelicalism which looks at the reaction against a band who denies what some Christians believe to be essential to the faith, namely a literal (day I say literalistic) reading of Genesis 1-11. The other is the edgy piece Do Christians Really Need the Bible? For me, both pieces raise a number of issues about “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, or what Ron Choong of The Academy of Christian Thought calls “theological safe spaces”.

I think God is bigger than our doubts, our fears, our concerns, our misunderstandings and even our heresies. Try talking about the Trinity for more than five minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Not that I am advocating a free for all, breaking all boundaries and smashing all symbols like so much Henry the 8th style iconoclasm. What I’m wanting is far more nuanced.

Someone once described to me the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology as like the difference between the jungle and a botanical garden. The later is perfectly ordered, but its ordering may obscure the real relationships that occur in the wild. We need to constantly come back to the wilderness that is Scripture, with its many voices, to understand whether or not our arrangements tell us anything sensible.

In Scripture and the authority of God, Tom Wright divides the bible into five acts, not as rigidly as dispensationalism, but nonetheless as a useful guide to reading the bible as a story, and know where we are in it. By story, he doesn’t mean something made up, but an unfolding narrative of revealed truth, a story to tell and retell, to become absorbed in. The role of the reader is to let God bring their own personal narrative into the biblical one. The five acts are Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church or age of the Spirit. We are called to perform the fifth act, improvising in the light of what we know of the previous four, and the start and end of the fifth.

A narrative approach doesn’t oppose story to propositional truth, it simply grounds those truths in the narrative and warns us that too much abstraction will lead to deforming those ideas. The narrative approach is not opposed to Lectio Divina, for our stories become part of HIStory, and then the bible can be mined for inspiration, encouragement and daily nourishment.

The narrative approach should make our reading centre (center for my US friends) focused, not boundary focused. Rather than being gatekeepers, we can discover a Generous Orthodoxy as Brian McClaren put it. I mention Brian deliberately because some associated his ideas with universalism, which I’m not convinced is true. But more than this, Christians at both ends of the spectrum need to grow up from the immature hermeneutic of “guilt by association”. Quoting a person on one idea does not mean they are being endorsed in all areas.

If we must use labels like conservative, Evangelical or Liberal, let’s use them with much care. After reading much Roger Olson in books like Reformed and always Reforming, and How to be Evangelical without being Conservative, I call myself a post-conservative Evangelical because of this narrative, centre set approach. For me, Liberal is a hermeneutic of suspicion towards the bible, not necessarily a set of beliefs. Certainly, we must stop the immature mud slinging of the word Liberal at anyone who doesn’t conform with our set of beliefs, not at least until we’ve properly understood our own thinking, and then theirs as well.

I’ve spoken to a room full of progressive Christians (or liberals?), spoken fearlessly about a bodily resurrection, and still been embraced as a brother, told they didn’t see me as Evangelical, and by one member of the audience, told I’d make a good Jew! For the record, I think Romans 10:9-10 is a pretty good place to look for the minimum of belief.

Doubt is another funny thing. At the of the book of Job, Job is not rebuked for lack of faith, but has his worldview stretched well beyond where it was. God is far more interested in loving others and in so loving, bringing them closer to the Truth, who is a person. I’m not sure God who have ever blogged “farewell Job”.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy. In his book Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd makes it clear that we kid ourselves if we think that faith means forcing ourselves to believe something that we find hard to believe. Faith is far more subtle, alive, a struggle, a fight. It is that which carries us forward that next step through life based on the promises of God. Faith can stumble, faith can fall, but it only needs to be mustard seed big and ask for help in its own unbelief.

So a theological safe space is where we are free to ask the questions that plague us. As a fellow of ISCAST: Christians in Science and Technology, I’ve been inspired by Ron Choong’s idea of the theological safe space. Science forces us back to our texts again and again and asks us to reconsider our readings. Not that science alone does that, as John Walton in The Lost world of Genesis One or Richard Middleton in The Liberating Image do with theology and so on with Genesis. We can’t simply stick our heads back in the sand, such an approach is intellectual dishonesty as Mark Noll pointed out some years ago.

We are also forced to think harder with new challenges such as global climate change and the possible collapse of civilisation, or genetic modification of humans and so on. We need to produce new wine, and sometimes the old wine skins of theologies past won’t cut it, yet the bible as our love story, our narrative of rescue, the saga of the journey of humanity from God’s good creation to God’s even better creation will be our guide, by the Spirit of truth, in the Messiah.

To explore the way forward, to express our doubts, to argue lovingly our differences, we need theological safe spaces. Oh that the entire global church could be that, but for the gatekeepers it cannot always be so. Thank God for those spaces, those people we can be safe with. Keep searching for the Truth, because He loves you.

On humility and self-promotion

I have a problem. Well I have several, but one in particular is that I now find myself as a writer (one book almost ready to print as a co-author, chapters in two others and a solo book to some), a blogger on a high profile blog (Red Letter Christians) and a speaker/preacher getting invites all over the place.

So, in wanting to push my ideas, share them, get them out there, how much is too much self-promotion? How does one go about and get gigs, publishing opportunities etc without becoming big headed?

There's a fairly recent and famous example of how not to do it. Mark Driscoll, now formerly of Mars Hill Church was involved in a scandal about using a marketing company to get it on the New York Times best seller's list. For a Christian, such self-promotion is unethical; it's bearing false witness. Indeed for most people this is unethical. Your average person engages in white lies, but this is of another level.

I suspect Mark didn't think through this in detail, and more than this, he was so convinced of the importance of his ideas and the need to communicate them, he didn't stop to think. Lesson one to me. I am not God; not all of my thoughts are divinely inspired.

But is self promotion right out? Clearly not! The fact that I've gained opportunities to speak and write, and continue to get them is some indication that this is my calling. The issue is not seeking opportunities (actually more often than not for me these days, simply saying yes), but a couple of things.

Firstly, when I see someone else doing something similar, I should be happy for them rather than either "I could have done that, why didn't they ask me?" or "I could do that better". I think this attitude gets at what Paul saying in Philippians 2:3 "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves."

Secondly, if the aim is self-aggrandisement, people will ultimately see through me, and hence the first part of the verse above will be broken. This is not to say wanting to be well known is such a bad thing, but what for and how will I achieve it? Writers and speakers love to share ideas and stories because they love their ideas and stories, think they are important and believe they can change people. That change should not be manipulative, but dialogical.

I can't bash people into believing climate change is real and needed to be acted upon, but hope to bring people along the journey to discover this. I've often said I wish my first book were not on climate change; there are plenty of less depressing topics to write or speak on. But I do it, not for fame or glory (I doubt there will be much of that) or for the money (there most certainly will be none of that) but for the sake of the earth, society and the glory of God.

So whatever you speak or write on if you find yourself in such a position; don't be ashamed at pursuing opportunities. Just always ask yourself, what for, who for? If the answers are because of passion and to help others, not only should you pursue opportunities, they will pursue you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Threading the middle? Belief, fundamentalism and the centre

I recently stopped following a Facebook group. Nothing unusual there. A post pointed to a Patheos blog which assured me of various things the bible doesn't actually say. Nothing unusual there either. There's lots of folk theology as there is folk medicine (anti-vaxxers), folk science (climate change denial), and so on. It's a good thing to question the sources of information. My issue though was when I looked at the first couple of entries, it was just standard (yawn) Liberalism. Sure I know Jesus was a human, a first century Jew, a Messianic claimant and prophet. But the usual "he never claimed to be God but actively denied it" just doesn't wash. The "Paul invented Christianity" is so patently wrong, as with it the view that Jesus had no interest in Gentiles and that a move away from Jews was Paul's plan B. There's plenty of good scholarship to show the gospels reflect the earliest years of the church (where's the conflict on circumcision for example), and that placing Jesus in the full story of Israel and its true location made Gentile mission a matter of when, not if. My point is, in trying to stay with the Progressive (so-called) crowd, I often become weary of some of the so-called assured results of enlightened scholarship, as well as the ironic conservative bashing. Sure Mark Driscoll earned his critics ire, but please, something else. Likewise, when I can't say some things in front of some Conservatives because I'll end up in an argument over their ideological refusal to see the truth of human caused global warming, there's another end of the spectrum I'm unhappy with. All that said, any time we claim the middle ground, are we not repeating other people's errors? Pushing others to the margins, do we not commit the same exclusivity? Well, yes and no. If you have no centre, you have nothing. It's pointless defining a community, a belief system, etc without some core identity. This will include a central story (which contains propositions that can't be abstracted), practices, symbols and questions. But having a centre isn't the same as having hard boundaries (that's fundamentalism). That said, assuming you have even the centre 100% nailed down can be an overreach, as each new idea will open more and more questions. More than that though, overfilling the centre will quickly approach the bounded set, and hence back into Fundamentalism. We all want to think we occupy the centre in politics, religion, culture etc. There ARE extremes to avoid - but maybe not always? We find some Fundamentalisms as morally repugnant if they involve extreme behaviour, such as suicide bombing. Is any idea worth being extreme about? But what if Jesus really is God? Can one be too extreme as a Christian? I think history tells us though an extreme Christian is one who is willing to be persecuted and martyred, not be a persecutor. Likewise, what if the new atheists were right? Would there be something noble in their crusade to rid the world of all superstition? So maybe we don't always shoot for the middle, because sometimes we need to be extreme. Reasonable ideas can end up being simply not worth bothering with, and I think this phenomenon is killing some Christian denominations. So here's the punchline. Christians, be true fundamentalists by putting love first, just as we were commanded. A whole lot more extreme things may follow, and some may thread the middle - but at least it won't be a life satisfied by simply being extreme at either end for its own sake, or threading the middle to play it safe.