On being loved

thomas-merton-right-poses-with-writer-wendell-berry-left-and-the-poet-denise-levertov

‘If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. But sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and His unselfishness.

Both the poverty and the nobility of our inmost being consists in the fact that it is a capacity for love. It can be loved by God, and when it is loved by Him, it can respond to His love by imitation—it can turn to Him with gratitude and adoration and sorrow; it can turn to its neighbor with compassion and mercy and generosity.

The first step in this sincerity is the recognition that although we are worth little or nothing in ourselves, we are potentially worth very much, because we can hope to be loved by God. He does not love us because we are good, but we become good when and because He loves us. If we receive this love in all simplicity, the sincerity of our love for others will more or less take care of itself. Centered entirely upon the immense liberality that we experience in God’s love for us, we will never fear that His love could fail us. Strong in the confidence that we are loved by Him, we will not worry too much about the uncertainty of being loved by other men. I do not mean that we will be indifferent to their love for us: since we wish them to love in us the God Who loves them in us. But we will have to be anxious about their love, which in any case we do not expect to see too clearly in this life’.

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

[Image: Thomas Merton, right, poses with writer Wendell Berry, left and the poet Denise Levertov. Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Institute 193 Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard. Source.]

‘… never waste a crisis’

So Rabbi Sacks:

Every crisis, for Jews, is chevlei leida, something new is being born.

And that is why, when crises happen, we as Jews have to lead the world to a better place, and that is the challenge I want us to accept, individually and as a people.

And how do we do it? The answer is … by starting, each one of us, individually and collectively, a Jewish journey, a Jewish journey that will help change us and help change the world.

What is a Jewish journey? The answer is contained in the opening words of the parsha, of the portion of the Torah we read just yesterday in our synagogues, the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, when God says to Abraham and Sarah, Lech lecha, “Begin a journey, get thee out,” me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha “From your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” And so began the world’s oldest, longest, and greatest journey of all, and we have to move on that journey to the next stage.

What do we learn from those words to Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of Jewish time? Three things.

Number one, uniquely Judaism begins with a journey. With two journeys. With Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia, and with Moses and the Israelites’ journey from Egypt …

To be a Jew is to help heal a broken world. We are the people who don’t stand still. We are the people for whom life is a journey to a world of justice and compassion and healing, which is not yet, but which we will not cease until we help bring it about. And that is the first thing we learn from Abraham and Sarah, that we as people have to journey and travel and grow.

Second thing, Lech lecha. What do those words literally mean? We translate them as Get thee out, leave. But the Chasidim pointed out that the words Lech lecha literally mean, “Get to yourself.” Become the person that you really are. Have the courage to be different. Have the courage to do the Jewish deed. The really great Jews are the ones who are unashamed to be Jews and to do the Jewish deed …

And the third message has to do with the politics of the world. The world is moving into a new and dangerous phase that I call the politics of anger. And the politics of anger comes from where? It comes from fear …

What makes people despair? Let me tell you what makes people despair. We think to ourselves, “How can I change the world? How can I make a difference? There’s only one of me, there’s seven billion people out there. I am no more than a wave in the ocean, than a grain of sand on the seashore, than dust on the surface of infinity.”

But I want you to think of this: Tell me, who is the most influential human being who ever lived? To be honest, there’s only one candidate, and that is Abraham, because today, literally or metaphorically, the people who consider Abraham to be their ancestor in faith are 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and a few of us, most of whom happen to be in this room today …

Chevra [Friends], this one individual, or these two individuals, Abraham and Sarah, think about it, they ruled no empire, they commanded no army, they performed no miracles, they delivered no prophecies. All they did was heed the call of lech lecha to begin a Jewish journey, and to define for all time what it is to be a Jew.

And these are what we learned from Abraham and Sarah: To be a Jew is to be true to your faith, and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith. And that is the greatest message of healing that the world needs to hear in the 21st century, and we have to deliver it.

Friends, that was all I was gonna say, until I suddenly realized there’s one thing, in addition, I probably ought to say.

Tell me, when you’re looking at journeys – you know how long it took us to get out of the station in Washington today? – everyone’s going one way, right? Now, tell me, are there more people queuing in America to go to Iraq, or queuing in Iraq to go to America? Where do people travel? They travel from poor countries to rich ones. They travel from low civilizations to high civilizations. What was the highest civilization in the days of Abraham? Mesopotamia, Ur Kasdim, where he came from. Everyone else is trying to get in, he’s leaving with Sarah. What was the highest civilization in the days of Moses and the Israelites? Answer, the Egypt of Ramses the Second. Everyone else is trying to enter, Moses and the Israelites are trying to leave.

We are the world’s contrarians. Everyone’s going that way, we’re going the other way. So let me make a simple suggestion. You know as well as I do, that when the world is united, Jews are divided, right? Now the world is divided, let’s us do the opposite thing and show that we are united …

So when, out there, there is despair, let us bring hope. When out there there is hurt, let us heal. And when out there is division, let us show that we are enlarged and not diminished by our differences. Let us show the world what it is to stand together and respect one another.

Therefore, I say this, never waste a crisis. Never stand still. Go out there, continue the Jewish journey, and be a blessing to the Jewish people, and to the world.

You can read the rest here.

As so many leaders of religious communities and religious organisations (including theological colleges) make the turn inwards towards, in my tradition, an ecclesiocentricism characterised by idolatrous efforts directed towards self-preservation and self-propagation, Rabbi Sacks bears witness to another – a better – way. So too does brother Dietrich: ‘the church is church only when it is there for others’. May the State of Israel too hear that word, and so follow the way that Sarah and Abraham walked, and so ‘be true to [the] faith, and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith’.

‘Never waste a crisis’.

Faex Avium

Satellite 18

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing this past couple of weeks is taking photos of some work by local artists. The artists are all professional insofar as they literally do it for a living, but unpaid and very often under-appreciated. So I thought I’d share some of these shots with others in the hope of bringing some attention to their wonderful work. I’ve even created a dedicated page here on this blog for this purpose. Enjoy.

Margaret Preston, on the state of things

I’m off to the Heide Museum of Modern Art this afternoon to see the Making Modernism exhibition, featuring works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston, and Grace Cossington Smith. I’m looking forward to it. I will return again on Saturday with a group of around 20 students. To prepare myself, I’ve been reflecting on the image below. Seems timely … still.

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– Margaret Preston, ‘The Expulsion’ (1952)

On how and why ‘class trumps gender’ in America

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Among the seemingly-endless washups of the recent presidential election in the US, Joan Williams has offered some good analysis of things, echoing what many others (including Bernie Sanders) have been saying not only about the States but also about other parts of the world. The entire piece is worth reading (not least because of the irony in the fact that it was published by the Harvard Business Review), but here’s a snippet to whet the appetite:

‘One little-known element of that [class culture] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.

Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals. Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.

Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. It’s comfort food for high-school-educated guys who could have been my father-in-law if they’d been born 30 years earlier. Today they feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.

Manly dignity is a big deal for most men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession. Look, I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with. For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). Trump promises to deliver it’.

– Joan C. Williams, ‘What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class’

[Image: Alternavox]

Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

ismail-al-rifai-motherA sermon preached at Box Hill Baptist Church, 13 November 2016
Text: 1 Kings 17.8–24

It is not for the first time, but what a dark world we have entered – a world where hate and xenophobia and misogyny and the rape of natural resources is given free reign; a world poisoned by self-interest, and where contempt for the rule of law grows louder. It is not for the first time, but we are living in a world where what is being violently compromised is any sense that if we are to flourish and not flounder as human community then we simply must find ways to befriend the stranger and to celebrate the dignity of our differences. This world has a name: fear.

Little wonder then that not a few parents are writing letters to their children apologising for our inability to protect them from the growing horrors, and to renew their own daring determination to fight the powers of death wherever such rear their heads in the desperate hope that while the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, it does finally bend towards justice. Such letters, it seems to me, are a profound act of desperation born of faith and, more importantly, of love. It also seems to me that those who stand on the side of life will need to get used to writing such letters, and will need to ask again and again ‘How then shall we live?’

So we gather to hear the living Word of God. Our text today is part of a pattern of the presentation of very many lives of mostly unnamed women in the Bible who are contending with forces that threaten life and trade in death. From the Hebrew mid-wives back in the days when Israel was enslaved to the foreign powers of Egypt and their resistance to Pharaoh’s call to slaughter their own children; to the tragic story of a young woman in Judges 11 who was victimized by the stupidity of her father Jephthah against whose violence she had to carve out for herself a space where she could affirm her dignity in the face of impending and unnecessary death; to Naomi and Ruth, two widows threatened by famine and who became vulnerable migrants who find a way, against all the odds, to preserve life and to endure; to a pregnant teenager desperate to find a safe place to give birth to a child whose name was given by angels but whose arrival was greeted with a mixture of unbridled joy, confusion, and as a threat to the ruling powers. The women in the Bible find themselves ensnared in a hostile world that is stalked by death and in which they are called to preserve life.[1]

This story from the Book of First Kings about a widow and her encounter with the prophet Elijah is not an altogether unplayed track. She is, it seems, a religious person, but her God goes by a different name than does Elijah’s. And she is living in Zarephath in Sidon, deep enemy terror for Elijah because it is the home of Jezebel and the land of Baal. This means that she represents something of a risk to this unkempt stranger, this ‘man of God’ (as she calls him) from the wilderness. Her vulnerability too speaks of risk, a risk that the word of God presents to those who confront it. Will he harm her? Will she tame him?

This unnamed woman who has already survived the death of a spouse is now grasping for hope in a time of literal and of emotional drought. In the economies of the ancient world, people like her had few choices – to carry the shame of returning to their parent’s house, or to become a beggar, or to find employment in the oldest profession in the world – whatever made survival a possibility.

And there is a child involved as well, a fatherless son. They are, together, Bible shorthand for the most vulnerable and at risk members of the human family. And there is a famine in the land. Certainly this woman and her son are up against it, their lives profoundly threatened in a world and a system that seems to conspire against them. For them there is no social security, no hardship funds that they can tap into, and no food.

Their lives are caught up in a conflict between the powers and the gods around them to which their lives mean nothing. That’s why there’s a drought – because Baal and his promoter Ahab, and Yahweh and his promoter Elijah, are embroiled in an arm wrestle over who’s god can control the weather. It is all very well for the gods to try and out-manoeuvre and out-muscle one another, but caught up in the conflict, implicated in the struggle, is this widow and her son, helpless victims of divine warfare. And as with previous stories of widows at risk there is a scene of great poignancy at the heart of the narrative, as in this case our nameless mother is pictured gathering sticks in order to make a fire to prepare a last meal after which she and her thin and listless son will lie down and die.[2]

What an image this story offers us for our world today – a vision of a reality in which life itself is at the mercy of social and political and economic and natural and spiritual forces and powers that threaten us and threaten a kind of death of creation itself. Here is an image of a world that makes victims of us all, and a world that mocks our grand pretensions while tempting us to look to our own idols of technological sophistication and to the allure of a neo-capitalist machinery for liberation.

Up against this tide of death and seemingly-unbridled violence, it is just so hard, isn’t it, to keep believing in life; indeed, to keep believing in anything at all. It seems impossible, or worse, to imagine a way out, a way that ends with anything other than the experience recorded here in vv. 17­–18, with the pitiful death of this widow and her son, and with the brute accusation that this prophet of God, this religious nutter, had in fact been complicit in the death of this boy.

Thank God that there is another word here; that there breaks into this pathetic scenario four words – four crucial words that reverberate throughout Scripture, four words that promise another possibility, another ending, another future; albeit one almost impossible to imagine from what we know of the history behind us and from what we can see now on the horizons in front of us. But let us be as fools and risk hearing them anyway, these words recorded in verse 13: ‘Do … not … be … afraid’. ‘Do not be afraid’, says Elijah. Just as Isaiah spoke to exiles languishing hopeless and helpless before the mighty powers of Babylon, so too does Elijah dare to speak such insanity to those diminishing under despair and the abuse of power. ‘Do not be afraid!’ – the same words echoed many years later by an angel to a teenage girl about to relinquish all control over her life in giving birth to a son.

‘Do not be afraid!’ – words spoken in the sure knowledge that there are indeed forces at work in the world that leave us helpless and impotent, and that would destroy us. And these words are also spoken out of the promise that there is an incommensurable power at work in the world, a power that works not against us but for us, a power that leads us not into destruction but into well-being and into the flourishing of life in all its infinite forms. There is indeed some good in this world, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us; and it’s worth fighting for. It is the power of grace – grace that produces flour that does not give out, and oil that does not fail; grace that speaks life – strange and unexpected – in defiance of death.

Here is this widow on the brink of starvation with her last drops of water and her last handful of flour and her last dribbles of oil and Elijah asks her to give the first portion of it all to him, and she does. Why? Why the hell would someone do that? Such a selfless, generous act makes no sense at all. It’s a pattern played out again today in so many parts of our world, where the poorest among us – the Lebanese, for example, who have taken in over a million people from Syria, and the Turks who have welcomed 2.7 million Syrian refugees – extend hospitality while many of the richest and most powerful among us shut the door to the other – to those like the Syrian man Rabia and his family who were kidnapped and tortured by their own government, and then threatened by and forced to run and hide from various other terrorist organisations, and who had their business ransacked by gunmen, and who have been waiting and hiding in Lebanon for over two years after applying for an Australian refugee visa because our elected government told them that ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door’.[3]

There are certainly no easy or painless answers here. The Lebanese, for their part, have certainly not forgotten the 29 years, between 1976–2005, when they lived and died under Syrian occupation. Here too the life-giving power of grace enters the world in ways that appear foolish and counter-productive and that require irrational amounts of trust.

The Bible has another word for all of this; it’s the word ‘love’ – love which perseveres, which believes all things, which hopes all things, which presses on in faith and hope towards the healing of all things, which looks up towards the horizon for the coming of the untameable promise of God.

The friends of Jesus see themselves in this widow, for like her we are called to lean into the counter-intuitive, apparently counter-productive and foolish ways of love. The friends of Jesus are summoned, like this widow, to demonstrate that love works its way into the world by strange but determined means. The friends of Jesus are called to witness to the world that violence will not defeat violence, that killing is not the way to overcome the forces that threaten life. The friends of Jesus are baptised to be peace-makers in ways that will never make sense to a world dominated by powers committed to work in other ways. The friends of Jesus are those who, in hope that what is promised is really coming, exemplify forgiveness, and reconciliation, and patience, and cheek turning; they model a pattern of life that in the amphitheatre of death appears as futile as a starving widow giving her last scraps to a foreigner. And the friends of Jesus are also a bit like Elijah as well – wild and untamed by circumstances, and committed to living a life that would make no sense where it not for the word of God itself. And when accused of bringing about the death of innocence, rather than defend themselves they do all that they can to try to find ways of bearing that death themselves, crying out to God, and then, as we read in v. 21, stretching themselves out upon the body of death, taking some responsibility for it, and waiting for the impossible – for life to emerge from the ruins. I am here reminded of words from the poet Arnold Kenneth:

The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.[4]

This was the kind of courageous vision that spurred the work of the great American priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan who died earlier this year. It was his conviction that

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.[5]

In her time of drought, a widow holding her lifeless son opened her life to an unwanted stranger. In doing so, she may well have discovered that where she was, was where God is found: in prolonged absence, and – inescapably – amidst the stench of death, broken and abandoned on the cross – not for God’s self but for God’s enemies. The cross is where God goes in order to enter into the madness, and pain, and shame, and confusion, and fear, and darkness, and hypocrisy, and terror … and every hell of the world. ‘Where we are and who we are is the furnace where the Son of God walks’.[6] And because the cross is not an event locked in the past but is the eternal present of God in the world, perhaps the faithful Creator has not abandoned this world after all, but is here – hidden in impossible possibilities, and with the determination to not leave creation orphaned. If this is indeed so, perhaps there could be nothing more important to do today than to go out and plant a tree. Amen.

–––––

[1] Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to some reflections on this passage from Lance Stone’s sermon ‘The Power of Grace’, preached at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, 11 November 2012.

[2] ‘Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation’. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.

[3] See Josh Butler, ‘Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa’.

[4] Arnold Kenseth, The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

[5] Daniel Berrigan, Love, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers, and Meditations (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 76.

[6] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2003), 98.

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

Public lecture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker

I am delighted to announce that Whitley College will host Andrew Root (Associate Professor and Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, Minnesota) for the first of its public lectures for 2017. Andy will be at Whitley teaching a one-week course on the theology of relational ministry. (More details about that here.)

The public lecture, which will take place on 1 February, will be on the topic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker, a subject on which Andy has published a very fine book.

Bonhoeffer is certainly one of the most beloved Christian pastors and theologians of the twentieth century. While his work is the subject of a growing body of research, largely omitted from such has been the centrality of Bonhoeffer’s youth work and ministry with children. Between 1925 and 1939, all of Bonhoeffer’s direct ministry practice was with children and youth, leading the experience of children and youth into his well-known theological works, as well inspiring him to write much lesser-known pieces and sermons about and for young people. Andy’s presentation will look to right this biographical wrong by exploring Bonhoeffer’s work with young people, and by asking how Bonhoeffer might inspire our own ministries, giving us new perspectives on our own work with young people, and others.

All are welcome, and please feel free to share the poster below (also available as a pdf) with others.

whitley-college-public-lectures

On losing our death literacy

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‘We’ve lost our death literacy over time because caring has been professionalised. Care of the dying has been professionalised, death has been professionalised and bereavement has been professionalised. All of those social processes that we used to naturally engage in, they’ve all been professionalised and silo-ed’.

– Kerrie Noonan

[With thanks to one of my wonderful students for drawing my attention to this interesting article. Next year I will teach a unit on the subject of death.]

[Image: The Order of the Good Death]

 

On capitalism

no-dapl

‘We will no more be able to shield our eyes from class struggle, which began in the previous century within the nation and now has gripped all continents, gripped them indeed as a deadly conflict between the privileged and those who have been exploited for centuries. What disguises itself as the free market system and which promises to enrich all, is in reality the continuation of imperialism and colonialism by means of a capitalistic system. It survives by the third world delivering raw materials and taking back our finished goods, among which – and this is especially abominable – are weapons of every sort. Thus the slums grow, which are the underside of our prosperity, and for three quarters of humanity our earth becomes a hell, in which hunger, murder, and prostitution reign and everyone struggles with the other for survival’.

– Ernst Käsemann, 1988

[Image: Andrew Cullen]

On our very own banality of evil


During this past week, Robert Manne gave a keynote address to the Integrity 20 Conference at Griffith University in which he tried to explain the purposeless cruelty of so much of Australia’s current asylum seeker system. Manne concluded by comparing the current situation to the ‘banality of evil’ famously described by Hannah Arendt in her reflections on her meetings with Adolf Eichmann published first in The New Yorker and subsequently in her report, Eichmann in Jerusalem:

A detailed moral history of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.

Recently, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Peter Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took 30 years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.

Our current uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker policy is grounded in the absolutist ambitions that can, in my view, best be explained by Australia’s long term migration history and its associated culture of control. It has become entrenched because of the force of bureaucratic inertia that has seen the system grow automatically while any interest in, or understanding of, the relation of means to ends has been lost. And it is presently maintained by an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down.

Because of these factors, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the senior officials of Immigration and Defence are presently allowing the lives of some 2,000 human beings to be destroyed on the basis of faulty but unquestioned speculation, and of another 30,000 in Australia to be rendered acutely insecure and anxious for no purpose.

They are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.

Since this address, we learned today that this country’s heartless government, which has shown so little regard for the rule of law in so many areas, has sunk to a new and ‘necessary’ low, a plan to ‘introduce legislation to ban asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever being allowed into Australia’.

I despair,

… and I resist despairing.

I think about the ‘new absolutist ambition’ and the ‘reign of automaticity’ described by Manne, and I recall also words spoken by Dag Hammarskjöld at a luncheon with the UN press corps in July 1953. Responding to those offering ‘dark prophecies’ predicting the imminent death of the UN, Hammarskjöld said:

I have in mind all those who react instinctively against international ventures for the very same reason which makes them or their neighbors react unfavorably against people from other places. There are others who may recognize the need for an international approach to the problems of the world of today, but who have never really accepted the risks involved, and for that reason pull back the very moment the international sea gets rough … And I think also of those who have accepted the necessity of an international approach and the risks involved but who, when troubles start piling up, get scared and are reduced to defeatist passivity, despairing about the future as fright makes them blind to existing possibilities to overcome the immediate difficulties. Rereading the other day the French author Paul Valery, I found a phrase that in a very pointed way covers the attitudes to which I have referred. He talks about those who drown rather than swim under the conditions imposed by the water: ‘ceux qui prérent se noyer à nager dans les conditions de l’eau’ … It expresses the simple truth that, when trying to change our world, we have to face it as it is. Those are lost who dare not face the basic facts of international interdependence. Those are lost who permit defeats to scare them back to a starting point of narrow nationalism. Those are lost who are so scared by a defeat as to despair about the future. For all those, the dark prophecies may be justified. But not for those who do not permit themselves to be scared …

And I protest – with hundreds of letters, and dozens of petitions, and tens of thousands of others who march on this nation’s streets, and by breaking bread and wine and sharing it with strangers, and neighbours, and with people I don’t like very much. (I know of no better way of feeding the catholic vision of the only world that has a real future.)

And I confess my duplicity in the entire God damn machinery. And I confess other strange things with ancient words: ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible …’.

And I welcome those who have made it through – regardless of which door they came by – and who desire to start life again. To be welcomed to country is a gift almost unmatched by any other. To be able to participate in and to extend that welcome is a risk I’m prepared to take until those who welcomed me to this their land instruct me otherwise.

And I vote – vote for those committed to walking another way, even if it is for ‘a protest candidate who will not win … [For] there comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by [government] rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable’ (Robert McAfee Brown).

And I pray: Kyrie Eleison. Bend arc, bend. Maranatha. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on homosexuality and same-sex marriage

‘Once one says that a homosexual orientation is no more culpable or disordered than a heterosexual orientation, and once one observes that Scripture does not teach that God says that homosexual activity is always wrong, I think we’re left to conclude that justice requires that the church offer the great good of marriage both to heterosexual couples committed to a loving, covenantal relationship, and to homosexual couples so committed’.

So stated Nicholas Wolterstorff, a conservative Christian philosopher, in a recent lecture (which you can listen to below) given at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s not, as far as the Christian community can be concerned, what one would call a knock-down argument in support of same-sex marriage — the nearest we have to such, I think, has already been offered elsewhere; in Rowan Williams’s essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, and in Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way Into the Triune God, for example — but it is consistent with and builds upon Wolterstorff’s highly-regarded and mature body of work on the nature and implications of divinely-ordained justice for God’s world, and for the flourishing of its life, and so goes some way towards supporting the argument for why the state should champion such action, and for why the church can and should support the state in this its work. Clearly, the church has its own work to do on this matter, as does the state. The twain should stay out of each other’s way more often.

While some might lament the fact that Wolterstorff didn’t give this lecture many moons ago, perhaps to the board of Calvin College where he is, rightly enough, revered; and while some (although not I) may have considered this a missed opportunity to decimate more directly Richard Swinburne’s recent nonsense about homosexuality being a ‘disorder’; and while some may prefer that the argument for state support of same-sex marriage be defended on lines more Senecan, Grotian, or Hobbesian, and that any argument for church support of same-sex marriage be grounded on more explicitly christological and trinitarian grounds; and while some may charge that his argument would have been better served had Wolterstorff stayed in his more-traversed paddocks of philosophy rather than wandered off into the territory of biblical exegesis; his words here make a constructive and clear contribution to what is typically and lamentably an unconstructive (and very often a de-structive) and muddled discussion. I’ve learnt a lot from Wolterstorff over the years, for all of which I’m grateful. I’m grateful too for his gentle witness here this time, and for the conversations that it might open up.

‘I Used to Be a Human Being’

hotel-room-by-edward-hopper-1931

Based on Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room (1931). Photo: Kim Dong-kyu

 

There’s a very good piece here by Andrew Sullivan on the dehumanising distractions of ‘our always-wired world’.

On recognising folly for what it is, and standing against it

in-consceince-i-must-break-the-lawAlmost 50 years ago, at the height of and in direct response to his own government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, one courageous theologian by the name of Robert McAfee Brown, compelled by a conscience captive to the freedom of the love and justice of God, and having ‘utterly lost confidence in the Johnson Administration’, explained why he had moved from ‘curiosity, to study, to mild concern, to deep concern, to signing statements, to genteel protest, to marching, to moral outrage, to increasingly vigorous protest, to civil disobedience’. His words are as relevant and as timely today as ever, and that not only in the United States:

With each act of military escalation, the moral horror of the war is escalated. We have been killing women and children all along; now, we kill more of them. We have been destroying the villages of civilians all along; now, we destroy more of them. We have been breaking almost every one of the rules that civilized men have agreed constitute the minimal standards of decency men must maintain even in the indecency of war; now, we break them more often.

This escalation of military power demands the escalation of moral protest. Those of us who condemn this war, who are repulsed by it and who realize that history is going to judge our nation very harshly for its part in it, must see more and more clearly that it is not enough any longer to sign another advertisement or send another telegram or give another speech or write another article. The ways of genteel, legal protest have shown themselves to be ineffective. During the time of their impact, escalation has not lessened, it has increased …

Military escalation has become our Government’s stock response to every problem, and in its exercise, our leaders have demonstrated themselves incapable of change. Their only response, now no more than a conditioned reflex, is to hit a little harder. They have become prisoners of their own propaganda. Their rationalizations of their policy become more frantic, their attacks on their critics more strident, their defense of their actions more removed from the realm of reality …

The decision to cast no vote at all cannot be justified by those who believe in the democratic process. All that is left, then, is to vote for a protest candidate who will not win … There comes a time when it is important for the future of a nation that it be recorded that in an era of great folly, there were at least some within that nation who recognized the folly for what it was and were willing, at personal cost, to stand against it. There comes a time when, in the words of Father Pius-Raymond Regamey, one has to oppose evil even if one cannot prevent it, when one has to choose to be a victim rather than an accomplice. There comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by Washington rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable.

If such language sounds harsh and judgmental, it is meant precisely to be such. The time is past for gentility, pretty speeches and coy evasions of blunt truth. Evil deeds must be called evil. Deliberate killing of civilians – by the tens of thousands – must be called murder. Forcible removal of people from their homes must be called inhumane and brutal. A country that permits such things to be done in its name deserves to be condemned, not only by the decent people of other countries but particularly by the decent people who are its citizens, who will call things what they are and who recognize finally and irrevocably that the most evil deed of all is not to do bestial things but to do bestial things and call them humane.

You can read the full article here. [Many thanks to George Hunsinger for drawing my attention to this article.]

Jenson on ecumenism’s strange future

Robert Jenson concludes this reflection on his involvement in the ecumenical movement with these speculations:

‘The ecumenical movement centered on “the dialogues” was carried by these now distracted and enfeebled bodies [i.e., Anglicans and Lutherans] and the Roman Catholic Church. And there is no one to pick up the burden on the Protestant side. Evangelicals are rarely bothered by questions of eucharistic fellowship — or by sacramental matters generally — and when they do think about such fellowship they assume that they are all in it anyway. In the dialogue days, when a meeting included evangelicals they would regularly demand moving from worries about sacramental fellowship to more interesting matters.

So what do we do now? I think the first thing is to remember that we pray for something we will not do: “thy Kingdom come.” God will take care of that, and when he does he will sort out his Church in ways that will surely surprise us. It may happen any minute, so let us keep on praying for the unity of the Church.

If there is to be a long meantime, perhaps we may suppose that God will be up to something in it. Perhaps he is indeed winding down the Protestant experiment, as has been suggested. If things go on as they are, he will carry on the ecumene with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern churches, and Pentecostal groups. (We will not reckon with an “emerging church,” whatever may be brewing in the religious murk. Church — ekklesia — does not emerge; it is summoned.) We relics of an earlier providence — and there doubtless will be some — may be permitted to contribute by raising voices from antiquity.

Or perhaps God has something more drastic in mind. When Joseph Ratzinger was a cardinal he used to say that further progress toward overcoming the major divisions of the Church would require a great and unpredictable intervention of the Spirit. (I know he really said this because one time it was to me.)

Or perhaps the Spirit will act yet more eschatologically than the cardinal was contemplating. Perhaps an unimaginable rehearsal of final judgment will upset the entire ecclesial fruit basket, so that God may sort the kinds as he chooses.

These speculative scenarios are of things only God can do. If nothing so theodramatic comes to pass and we simply face more of the same for an indefinite future, what do we — who are not Roman Catholic or Eastern — do? There is no going back.

There will be faithful congregations, some in and some out of the mummies of the mainline. There will surely be surviving faithful churchly institutions, broke but struggling on. There already are societies of clergy and laity, formed for survival in spiritual hard times. There will be desperate persons and families, holding faith in unfriendly seas. There are Pentecostal groups with high understandings of Eucharist and its fellowship. There are theologians who write for the Church of the creed. Let all these come together, catch as catch can. Let them cling to baptism, and after that not be too precise about further conditions of fellowship.

And let all of this be a waiting on the Lord. We do not need to know what for, short of the Kingdom’.

Depression and the Gift of Christian Community

depressionA minister reflects on her living with the black dog, and on the gift that the Christian community can, at its best, be:

Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms … But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible … Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief … In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.

This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles’ Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.

Today is World Mental Health Day.

Jonathan Sacks on antisemitism

Sir Jonathan SACKS

Readers of this blog will know of my deep admiration, gratitude, and respect for the work of Jonathan Sacks. He is among those few contemporary religious leaders who, in my judgement, diagnoses and communicates back to a wide public desperate for wisdom the maladies of our time, and does so with piercing soberness and profound hopefulness.

A week or so ago he was in Brussels speaking at a conference at the European Parliament on ‘The Future of the Jewish Communities in Europe’. His address was titled ‘The Mutating Virus: Understanding Antisemitism’. While I think that Rabbi Sacks has partially misjudged (for reasons I need not articulate here) the source of much of the antipathy towards the State of Israel, particularly from those in the West, I do think he’s right about antisemitism, racism, and prejudice, and possibly about Europe too. Here’s a snippet from that address, and below is the video:

The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews … Antisemitism is not about Jews. It is about anti-Semites. It is about people who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures and have instead to blame someone else … The appearance of antisemitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown. If Europe allows antisemitism to flourish, that will be the beginning of the end of Europe …

If there is one thing I and my contemporaries did not expect, it was that antisemitism would reappear in Europe within living memory of the Holocaust. The reason we did not expect it was that Europe had undertaken the greatest collective effort in all of history to ensure that the virus of antisemitism would never again infect the body politic. It was a magnificent effort of antiracist legislation, Holocaust education and interfaith dialogue. Yet antisemitism has returned despite everything … If this continues, Jews will continue to leave Europe, until, barring the frail and the elderly, Europe will finally have become Judenrein.

How did this happen? It happened the way viruses always defeat the human immune system, namely, by mutating …

Anti-Semitism is a form of cognitive failure, and it happens when groups feel that their world is spinning out of control. It began in the Middle Ages, when Christians saw that Islam had defeated them in places they regarded as their own, especially Jerusalem. That was when, in 1096, on their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders stopped first to massacre Jewish communities in Northern Europe. It was born in the Middle East in the 1920s with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Antisemitism re-emerged in Europe in the 1870s during a period of economic recession and resurgent nationalism. And it is re-appearing in Europe now for the same reasons: recession, nationalism, and a backlash against immigrants and other minorities. Antisemitism happens when the politics of hope gives way to the politics of fear, which quickly becomes the politics of hate.

Sound familiar?

You can read the whole address here.

 

On being a ‘Church leader’

rembrandt-christ-before-caiaphas-c-1649-50

‘It is a paradox that the one thing a “Church leader” cannot very often do is to lead. He [or she] sees [their] task more as one of preservation. Not always, I agree, but often enough to make the Johannine Caiaphas intelligible not as providing a shallow excuse for anti-semitism but for understanding the ultimate tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth’.

– Mr MacKinnon

[Image: Rembrandt, ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ (c. 1649–50)]

‘The lid is doing a nudie run down Barkly Street it’s gone into Poons to order Lemon Chicken and Special Fried Rice (Large) in the nuddy BECAUSE WE ARE IN A GRAND FINAL!!! GO DOGS!’

First Dog On The Moon does it again even better this time.

Zadok/University of Divinity Field C Research Group Colloquium

On 18 November 2016, Zadok will partner with the University of Divinity Field C Research Group and Whitley College to host a colloquium, the program for which is as below.

All are welcome to attend. If you are planning to come along, however, for catering purposes it would be great if you could let me know via email.

1330                     Welcome

1340–1415          Paul Tyson, ‘On being of the world but not in the world – how secularism defines our religion and renders our worship harmless’

Dr Tyson is Director of the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society, Emmanuel College, University of Queensland.

Abstract: As Peter Harrison points out ‘religion’ is as new an idea as ‘science’. Both of these notions are alien to the Biblical revelation and to the beliefs the practises of the Church before modern times. Yet the ideas that there are discrete ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ realms, that true knowledge only concerns material things and mathematical relations, that religion is a private matter separated out from the realm of secular public life, define contemporary Australian Christian beliefs and practises. In this manner thinking that has come to define what the New Testament calls ‘the world’ sets the terms of Christian belief and practise, relegating faith to the civically harmless realm of distinctly personal, non-political, non-scientific religion. Our faith is defined out of public life and becomes a sectional interest identity concern (surely a debasement of both faith and politics) at best. It is no surprise that Australia is worshipping the Golden Calf of financialized functional materialism, and that this idolatry is just as at home inside the Church as it is in ‘the world.’ The paper concludes with a few tentative ideas about how the Church might seek to change this situation.

1415–1445          Barbara Deutschmann, ‘Gender and the Garden Story’

Since retiring from TEAR Australia last year, Barbara Deutschmann has been largely working on how scripture speaks relevantly to current life issues. She is currently doing a PhD on gender and the Garden narrative in Genesis.

Abstract: Same-sex marriage, gender violence, post-feminism, queer discourse: gender-framed topics pulse through Western society’s political and social conversations. People of faith are driven back to their foundational narratives, such as the Garden Story of Genesis 2-3, in search of faith-full perspectives on these matters. This paper will give an overview of trends in interpretation of Genesis 2-3, then, looking at the narrative afresh, draw out some implications for current conversations on sex/gender. In the exploration, just as we are driven to ask questions of scripture, we find that scripture, in turn asks questions of us.

1445–1515          Keith Sewell, ‘The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences & Resolutions’

Dr Sewell is Emeritus Professor of History, Dordt College, IA, USA.

1515–1530          Break

1530–1600          Karen Pack, ‘Mateship – a holy alliance: rediscovering covenant friendship in the contemporary Australian Church’

Abstract: There was a time in Australian society when ‘mateship’ was revered as one of society’s grounding realities – an ANZAC value. Understood as a relationship of unbreakable loyalty, mateship held deep friendship to be a reverent, almost sacred thing. In today’s society, the lines of friendship have been blurred and the notion of loyalty sacrificed to the ego-centric ideal of ‘doing what is right for me’. Friends are no longer life-long mates, but seasonal or situational companions to be picked up and discarded according to convenience. Even more concerning, however, is the blurring of lines between friendship and sexual recreation. Rather than being the domain of ‘platonic’, non-romantic connection, friendship is now seen as a safe place to satisfy one’s irresistible need for sexual intimacy. To express this reality, we have even spawned a new lexicon, including ‘friends with benefits’, CSBF (Casual Sex Between Friends), ‘booty call’ and numerous far less savoury terms. When a friendship between men seems to involve an emotional connection or attraction, it ceases to be simply a friendship and becomes a ‘bromance’. For a Christian, this sexualisation of friendship and intimacy should be alarming, given the ideals of friendship and commitment taught in the Biblical narrative. This paper seeks to address the sexualisation of friendship in contemporary Australia, and contrast this with the Biblical ideal of covenant friendship. This paper will consider how such covenant friendships can be a nexus of hope in the midst of despair, an expression of the Ahava of God. Ultimately, it will seek to answer the question, ‘How can covenant friendships nurture holiness and wholeness, serving as a witness to the holy and tenacious love that God has shown us?’

1600–1630          Graham Leo, ‘Reading the Book of Esther: A Theology of Work for the 21st Century in the West’

Graham is a DMin student exploring the engagement of churches with male workers in their congregations. His work is investigating how men perceive the significance of their own work, and how their own churches perceive and respond to that work. Graham is a retired school Principal from the Gold Coast.

Abstract: The world of politics is the field in which our perceptions of human work are set in Esther. This paper will consider ways that notions of Jewry in fifth century (BCE) Persia clearly sound many resonances to the social milieu in which many in the West find themselves, especially Christians in ‘secular’ workplaces and various typical urban or rural environments.

Marty Folsom to visit Whitley College

Marty Folsom.jpgMarty Folsom, author of the Face-to-Face trilogy of works on relational theology, will be visiting Whitley College on Saturday 15 October, from 0900-1030. He will offer a presentation and share in conversation with those gathered.

Marty is the Executive Director of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies (USA). He maintains a marriage and family counselling practice, and teaches theology in the Seattle area. He has a particular interest in family systems theory and its relationship with theology.

All are welcome to come along and hear Marty. If you plan on doing so, please flick me a quick email and let me know so that I can make sure that there are enough coffee beans in the cupboard.