Monday, March 02, 2015

What's your on button?

We all know what it is like to grind through our days, working on automatic pilot. Perhaps we are bored, frustrated or unengaged. Unmotivated to improve, adapt or explore. Sometimes we fear failure and our inner monologue is our own worst enemy. We need an on switch.

As I approach the prospect of a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a number of these thoughts cross my mind. To be in the moment is the need to be switched on, attentive and deliberate. It is to have goals of trying new techniques, of mastering favorites, of rolling without mistake or losing points. Whatever the goal, one has to believe, to be committed, to not give in to the inner demons.

And so it requires an on switch. Following the hand shake and fist bump, I now slap the mats once with my hands. This is my on switch, this means go for me. It doesn't mean a fight to the death, or the unswerving belief that I can never be defeated. It means that tapping is not losing, tapping is learning. It means that I will not let my partner or myself down with second best. It means being on.

Whatever you do in whatever field you do it in, be there. Be switched on. Have an on button that says this is now, this is my time, now I am here and I believe that I should be here.

What is your on button?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Responsible autonomy - freedom, work, the apple & serpent

I was reflecting recently on what it is I like about my job, which started me thinking about the whole idea of freedom and how it is exercised. It struck me that personal autonomy is important to me, yet complete freedom rarely happens in life. Possibly it's even undesirable. Let me explain.

In my job I have to teach content to guidelines - local and international standards for what is covered skill sets to address and so on. And yet the depth to which some things are taught is not dictated. Whether or not it is a lecture, tutorial, prac, assignment or whatever is not dictated. The figures I use are not dictated. In other words, I have a good deal of personal autonomy, but I'm not without accountability in terms of standards or results (if students pass, their feedback, etc).

When I think about growing up, saying that I'm now independent of my surviving parent is inaccurate. I have responsibilities. I have autonomy in the decisions I make, but this does not make me free without bounds.

People are not puppets on strings. Whatever the precise nature of our cognition and consciousness, we make decisions. Everyone is bounded by finitude, family history and ideology. I think it is a myth than the non-religious are the only freethinkers, they just have different boundaries (which excludes the possible truth of religion).

Which draws me to the story in Genesis 3 of a serpent, a piece of fruit (not an apple but hey we're stuck with it) and the idea of personal autonomy and responsibility. Adam and Eve are put in charge of a royal, walled garden and given responsibility to tend it. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn't forbidden because they are not to make moral decisions for themselves, but precisely because they should. And yet the boundary was not to reject God and try to become like him by grasping after it. It was a declaration of independence, which in the story is literally suicide. For many today of course, if God is there then they want to cash their ticket in (as Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Kamarazov).

The point is however, that if we spend our lives declaring independence then we work only for destruction. Unhappy is the employee that does not share their employers goals and culture. Unhappy is the marriage where partners just do their own thing. Now the opposites are also unhappy, jobs without freedom or creativity and marriages where one person dominates. And yet, autonomy is not to be used for utter independence, but like Z (played by Woody Allen) in the movie Ants, sometimes we are happiest in situations where we might have less autonomy that we could otherwise have if we have chosen them.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A theology of foreign aid?

Social media is a little like Chinese whispers, but I recently heard of a discussion going on somewhere that can be summarised as: Israel were given resources to develop their economy, that's the way economies should work and foreign aid doesn't work. It's an international version of the argument that welfare is a bad idea because it encourages people not to work, and often tacitly they are suffering because they deserve it and aren't working hard enough.

Now I'm one to promote hard work, using what you have to hand, etc, but I think this is an empty argument on two levels. Firstly, I think it's theologically poor, and secondly, aid and development do work. For the second problem, see Barb Deutschmann's article here.

Israel was given the promised land with plenty of resources to develop a healthy economy, but can we use it precisely as a case study for geopolitics?
  1. Israel dispossessed the original inhabitants and were given resources they didn't work for (see Deuteronomy 6:10-12). Without going into the mire that is the "Holy War" and displacement of the nations, this is not a model for us. This narrative has been used to perpetrate great injustices, murder and dispossession (e.g. North America) and it is profoundly unChristian to take such an example and apply it this side of Christ, and in our post-colonial age.
  2. Israel had an economy unlike ours; the idea of Sabbath and Jubilee was about reliance on God and re-distribution, including debt forgiveness. Hence, many Christians pushed for debt relief. To be sure, loans were wasted by corruption in developing nations, but the lenders were no less irresponsible. Surely a Christian understanding of global economics should include debt forgiveness, especially where it cases great suffering.
  3. Israel exhausted the land in greed - in not following the Sabbath laws or Jubilee laws. They are not a good model for human rights or land management (see for example Jeremiah 5 on destruction of the land).
  4. Israel didn't rely upon its own resources alone - no nation can. Think of its cedar imports for the temple.
  5. Israel was meant to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). This should be our model - where blessing can include financial help).
  6. There is no Christian nation - so straight application of a promised land teaching needs to be done carefully.
Now helping a nation in a time of need with aid in an exercise in neighbour love, just as Jesus commands us to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan - love those in need.When Sri Lanka was overwhelmed by a tsunami, should we have told them it was God's punishment (the story of the blind man in John's Gospel should tell us no), or that they had their own resources to draw on? Of should Christians proclaim neighbour love and give personally as well as ask the government to do so?

And what of development funds? The article here examines a number of causes, including corruption. However, the legacy of western colonialism and ongoing exploitation by the west of the developing world tell us there is an historical and ongoing burden of debt on us to do justly (Micah 6:8). Our lives are more comfortable because the system is designed to burden others so we might live well. America prospered because of slavery, Australia by dispossession of the first Australians, etc, etc. As noted in Barb's article, well thought out aid and development allows the proper use of resources by evening things out. As the saying goes, if the system rewarded hard work, African women would be millionaires.

Finally, climate change is set to swamp everything we've achieved in aid and development. The comfortable lifestyles of the west will impact the lives of those in the developing world, and for Christians to be blind to the moral urgency of aid just shows the Babylonian Captivity of the church afresh.

Aid and development is a way of showing love to our neighbours. Anything else is baptism of greed after the fact.

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.