Mae La Refugee Camp under flood

In the last 48 hours, Zone C1A in Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma border, and which is home to some 40–50,000 refugees, mostly Karen, has been hit with a big flood. As if life in the camp isn’t hard enough as it is …

Thankfully, there has been no loss of life. The damage at this stage has been mostly to school furniture and books.

If you’re the praying kind, then folk in the camp would greatly value your prayers at this time.

And if you’re able to help out financially, then donations marked ‘Mae La Refugee Camp Flood Fund’ can be made via PayPal (contact me for details) or directly to this bank account:

Name: Moe Win Tun Kin
Bank: Commonwealth Bank of Australia
SWIFT code: CTBAAU2S
BSB number: 063 622
Account number: 1024 8600

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On Geoff Thompson’s A Genuinely Theological Church

A Genuinely Theological Church.jpgThis afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.

Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church.[1] I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.

Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).

It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond.[2] Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).

He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).

Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?

Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’.[3] This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).

The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).

Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrinetheology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.

For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’,[4] exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’.[5] Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’

A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom[6]] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82).[7] Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?

A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:

To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.[8]Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.

You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.

[1] Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).

[2] While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.

[3] Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.

[4] Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.

[5] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.

[6] The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.

[7] Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.

[8] Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.

‘The Mitchells’, by Les Murray

prunes 2I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white

bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.

The first man, if asked, would say I’m one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I’m one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Audio

‘Reformation and Secularity’

SuspendedMy paper on ‘Reformation and Secularity’ has now been published in the Journal of Reformed Theology. The abstract reads:

Among a growing body of recent scholarship that has shown interest in the geneses, definitions, and assessments of secularism is Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation. This essay begins with a brief assessment of Gregory’s thesis. By way of response, it then offers four reflections on what are live challenges for those Christian communities committed to a refusal to withdraw from sharing and creating common life with others, and for whom the various reformations of the sixteenth century remain critical for the formation of their identities. The reflections concern (1) the character and conditions of belief; (2) the existence of the church in late Christendom; (3) the church’s worldliness; and (4) the character of faithful public life. Each of these themes has pressing implications for the ongoing life of the reformed project.

I understand that there are plans afoot to have a version of the paper translated into Spanish too. More on that to come.

A lament for lost trees

On the unpacking of books

sortingbooks1.jpg‘The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act, the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order’.

– Alberto Manguel, ‘The Art of Unpacking a Library’

[Image: Juno Lamb]

On ‘high culture’

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‘Like you, Professore, I cannot abide Rock music. My stomach turns at most television, at the plastic and porn, fast food and illiteracy that pours out of what you call “California”. But I wonder whether even these things are inflicting on men a fraction of the pain, of the despair which all our Athens, all our high culture have inflicted. They rocked around the clock not long ago to raise millions for charity. They lectured on Kant and played Schubert and went off the same day to stuff millions into gas ovens’.

– Father Carlo, in George Steiner’s Proofs and Three Parables.

[Image: Mary Queen Bernardo]

‪On the gift of lice‬

‘It’s almost impossible to comb your own hair for lice when you have long hair. It reminds me that you can’t do everything for yourself, that we are in fact primates, that the social contract involves grooming each other. Perhaps that’s the metaphysical function of lice. To remind us of our mutual need’.

– Sarah Ruhl

‘The Jolly Swagman’

Christmas, and not lying about the world

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Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)

 

I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

James Denney on Christmas celebrations

‘The Christmas celebrations in many churches … are an appeal to anything and everything in man except that to which the gospel is designed to appeal’. – James Denney, 1902.

Uncle Jan and his garlic

I reckon that my Uncle Jan grows the best garlic in Australia. So it’s good to see his hard work – and bio-dynamic farming really is labour intensive. Try clearing 250 acres of weeds and rocks by hand! – being recognised and celebrated in this short doco on his gorgeous Barrington River Organic Farm.

Manus

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They were returning from the clinic
in Yaqubi district. [Name] was a teacher
at a little school on the edge
of Khost, eastern Afghanistan, where

the Soviets once set up camp but now
the Americans – who shot a bullet into his wife’s
mouth (it was nothing personal, you see;
‘friendly fire’, they said) and into their

newborn. It was the final straw. And
three months later, a long
long journey, via ‘Little Kabul’,
Belantik, Pekanbaru, with

tuberculosis, PTSD,
leptospirosis, to arrive, finally,
nowhere. Nowhere. No where.
Four-and-a-half years nowhere – were here. And

him who moved more deeply into
the world, its fears and its violence – violence
that splits the human soul –
upon an ass, among the mob

somewhere, somewhere political adversaries might reach
across the seemingly unresolvable contradictions and
shake hands, shake hands – when all is said and done, there are
profits to be had and votes to procure from such

goods – a new resolve to resist death’s proliferating
machinery. And Tansey’s three figures hang tangled,
tangled and exposed above
the lawn somewhere in St Kilda, a long

long way from home.

Jason Goroncy
8 December 2017

[Image: Renate Els Aerts, ‘Vluchtelingen/Refugees’. Photo: Dirk A.]

When church architects experiment with ‘untheological ideas’

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Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Ticino, Switzerland

This morning, I’ve been packing up books, making ready some space for what promises to be a new whizz-bang modern office that will appear sometime over the Summer. This offers the perfect opportunity for procrastination – for blogging, for example – and for opening up some dusty tomes long neglected by all but the various arthropods who have died under their weight. One such example is Peter Hammonds’s Liturgy and Architecture (published in 1960) under whose spine a huntsman spider took its last breaths, and among whose pages I happened upon these words lamenting, in tones more sanguine than one might employ today, the absence of theological and liturgical wisdom in architectural decisions about spaces designated for worship. Those pastors and others who have grieved when many of the most important decisions about such things are left in the hands of some 17-year-old salesman at the sound system shop, or by the church bean counter, will understand why these words struck a note:

‘Whereas on the Continent church architecture has been in deep communication with theology and liturgy since the early ‘twenties, in this country it has been carried on in an æsthetic vacuum and treated as something quite peripheral to the Church’s pastoral and missionary task: the preserve of antiquarians, archdeacons, secretaries of boards of finance and church-furnishers. Though ample resources of fresh thinking have been available, they have not been brought to bear on the design of our new churches. Those who have been building have held little converse with those who have been theologising or liturgising. The results have been disastrous. Lacking the brief which only the theologian and the liturgist could supply, architects have experimented with untheological ideas, and for want of any guidance as to fundamental principles have been forced to rely upon fashionable clichés culled from the architectural periodicals, or from a Scandinavian holiday, to give their churches a superficial modernity’.

Talkin’ ’bout the Reformation

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Geoff Thompson (Pilgrim Theological College) and I were recently interviewed by Penny Mulvey for a little article in Crosslight.

The topic? The Reformation project – what it was about once, and what it might still be about today. I had great fun chatting with Penny about this stuff.

You can read the piece here.

[Image: Beverly Brown, ‘A Flock Of Pigeons 2’ (2011)]

A little pre-Advent, Advent, and post-Advent ecclesiology

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‘The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which he will bring; she is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here she does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments, and she has the gift of the Spirit in order that she may not lose the way’.

 – Uniting Church in Australia. The Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1992), §3.

#Manus

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea

Richard Flanagan writes:

So this is what we have come to as a nation.

The wretched of the earth, because they were no longer safe where they lived, sought to come here. With a determined cruelty, we kidnapped and imprisoned them in Pacific lagers. These lagers became synonymous with the idea of hellholes because it was important to our government that they be – ­and be known as – hellholes.

On this policy of deterrence, as it was called, which had as its declared purpose to make innocent human beings suffer indefinitely, we spent billions of dollars. To this end we had truck with vile regimes such as Sri Lanka’s. And to this end we began forsaking our democratic rights.

In the camps the refugees were made to answer to numbers given to them as their new identity. Denied their names they were not even allowed their stories. Every attempt that could be made was made by the Australian government, from the petty to the disturbing, to deny journalists access to the Pacific lager. When it came to imprisoned refugees free speech became a crime: for some years any doctor, nurse or social worker in the camps who publicly reported on the many instances, now well-documented, of rape, murder, suicide and sexual abuse of refugees was liable to two years’ imprisonment.

And why?

Because evil was being done to the innocent, and to that truth there is finally no justification that even the most powerful could make. And so it mattered that Australians not know of the mounting crimes for which all Australians will be finally accountable.

All this too was done in our name by our governments, of both left and right. And, more or less, if we didn’t tacitly agree, few of us disagreed enough. And perhaps we didn’t really want to know.

Once we Australians had led the world in democratic reform. Once it seemed possible that we might overcome the violence of our wars of invasion and reconcile with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Once it seemed that we might make of ourselves a beacon for freedom and tolerance, a country of many peoples that welcomed the newly dispossessed as we had in turn once been welcomed. We were a nation born out of the evils of invasion and convictism. It was not that we saw ourselves as infinitely perfectible. It was rather that we were aware of what the alternatives were.

Now we are seen globally as the inventors of a particularly vile form of 21st century repression, in which the innocent are subjected to suffering in a prison where the crime is never named, no sentence is ever passed, and punishment is assured. For this achievement Australia now enjoys the praise of European neo-fascists and American white supremacists.

Some praise. Some achievement.

It is hard to say what is most horrifying in this long saga but the intent of the Australian government to now abandon the refugees it kidnapped, scattering them across an impoverished and corrupt country with a notorious reputation for violence, is an affront to any notions of humanity or decency.

When, out of fear for what might befall them should they leave, some hundreds of refugees refused to move from the Manus compound, there began a protest in which the refugees used the only thing left to them: their bodies.

Over the years we had taken away their rights, their future, even their hope. Three weeks ago we cut off their water, food and medical supplies. Risking starvation, dysentery, cholera and violence, some hundreds of refugees asserted with their flesh the one thing which Australia could not steal: their human dignity.

On Wednesday the UNHCR described what was now unfolding on Manus as a humanitarian crisis that was entirely preventable and a “damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”.

On Thursday 12 Australians of the Year signed an open letter calling on the government to restore water, food supplies, electricity and medical services to the refugees, warning it was a “human disaster that was unfolding” and that “it was inevitable that people will become sick and die”.

Instead of this moderate course of action, on the same day police in Papua New Guinea began clearing the Manus compound. According to witnesses, refugees were beaten with sticks to forcibly relocate the remaining hundreds of protesting men. This violence against the most powerless and weak was supported and promoted by the Australian government, as it has previously supported and sanctioned the poisoning of the refugees’ water collected in from sumps and rainwater, the destruction of the few pieces of property they possess, and the destruction of their scant remaining food and medicine supplies.

And then there came the news the Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani had been taken away by PNG’s much-feared mobile squad, a notorious paramilitary police unit which, according to a report in the Age in 2013, is “allegedly responsible for rapes, murders and other serious human rights abuses” and funded by Australia’s immigration department “to secure the Manus Island detention centre”.

Behrouz Boochani was targeted for one reason and one reason only: he has been the voice of truth speaking from the appalling reality of the Pacific lagers.

It is difficult to believe that all this is not being masterminded – if the word is not too grand for such thuggery – at the highest levels of the Australian government.

Released some hours later, Boochani tweeted that he had been left handcuffed for two hours while he was “pushed several times”, had his belongings destroyed by the police, and was yelled at by the police commander that he “was reporting against us”. Boochani knows now, more than ever, that he is a marked man.

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And in these circumstances he has, in characteristic fashion, continued to report.

His courage over the four years of his internment in the face of the horror of Manus – a hell of repression, cruelty, and violence – has been of the highest order. Behrouz Boochani kept on smuggling out his messages of despair in the hope we would listen.

It’s time we did.

All states commit criminal and sometimes wicked acts. The necessary mark of a democracy is the freedom to tell the truth about these crimes so that they can be ended and the guilty punished.

To be a writer is not to simply believe in freedom but to practise it every day with your words. Each word allows us to find ourselves in others, and in others to know we are not alone.

In the vacuum of reportage that the Australian government created one man kept getting the truth out. Behrouz Boochani’s words found me as they found so many others.

Now I hope mine find him.

We choose whether we live or whether we wait for death. Through his words Behrouz chose to live. His words showed that while our government had jailed his body, his soul remained that of a free man.

I am not sure if I would have had his courage were I to find myself in his situation. Perhaps that is why I admire it deeply.

Behrouz Boochani reminded Australia of what it had become. We should thank him and honour him for his warnings of what was happening to our country. Instead we enabled his imprisonment, and who can say what this marked man’s fate may yet be?

His detainment yesterday highlights the moral bankruptcy of the Pacific solution, its essentially criminal nature, and the growing dangers it presents to our democracy.

The shame of this time will outlive us all. Our children and grandchildren will have to remake the broken trusts, the sacred freedoms, the necessary liberties, that we traded away in our ignorance and our gullible fear. They must rekindle as necessary national virtues kindness and compassion to the weakest.

But we must begin the work now, with urgency, with determination, of rebuilding our nation’s honour, and our collective dignity. Because if we don’t, if we think it doesn’t affect us, the alternative is that what is happening on Manus will begin to happen here.

At the time of writing, Manus remains in crisis, with 300 refugees still in the compound. Who knows what fresh onslaught of violence is awaiting them? While outside wait the paramilitary thugs, inside the refugees search in the darkness for drinkable water, they scrounge for what little food was not destroyed, these 300 men who now face the determination of our government that they vanish from the face of the earth, and with them their terrible story that shames us all.

But that story demands investigation, not obliteration.

There must be a royal commission into the Pacific camps, the grotesque amounts of money wasted on them, the lies, the deceit and undemocratic practices used to ensure their ongoing existence, to determine the extent of Australian involvement in the PNG police’s latest acts, and to ascertain and if necessary prosecute those responsible for the many well-documented cases of the abuses of human rights on both Manus and Nauru.

If we can muster no feeling for the starving, sick and thirsty refugees waiting in the ruins of their prison for the next attack, spare a thought for what our future might look like if Peter Dutton begins persecuting journalists here with his newly acquired secret police powers. We should not forget the plans in 2015 for Dutton’s newly militarised Border Force officials to patrol Melbourne streets checking people’s papers, abandoned only in the face of overwhelming public anger.

Behrouz Boochani may be the first journalist to be detained for revealing the evil of our Pacific gulags. But how can we be confident he will be the last, and who knows what new government folly will need a repressive cloak of secrecy to safeguard its many failings?

In Boochani’s writings is a spirit Australia has lost: brave, honest, generous and free. Once he wanted to come here. Now we need him and all that he stands for more than ever.

And if, in these next few days any harm should come to Behrouz Boochani, for whose safety many now fear, the responsibility for that crime will not fall to PNG government or its police. It will be Peter Dutton’s.

[Reprinted with permission from The Guardian]

[Image: Reuters]

David Bentley Hart on the death penalty

Stefano di Giovanni - Burning of a heretic (1430-32)

David Bentley Hart has written an excellent little piece (a review of Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment) on why those who argue that there could be any theological justification for the death penalty ‘have essentially excused themselves from civilized Christian discourse’.

[Image: Stefano di Giovanni, ‘Burning of a Heretic’, 1430–32]

Reformation and Secularity

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Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. A published version of the paper will appear soon, but here’s a little section:

 

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Brad Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13).

 

Karl Barth: Gottes fröhlicher Partisan