Vision, Voice, and Vocation
I am very excited to announce that Art/s and Theology Australia will hold its first conference on 16–19 July next year.
This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.
It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?
More details here.
- save the date
- help spread the word
- get in touch if you would like to offer an academic paper or creative presentation
‘The Jolly Swagman’
What to do with your Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey form: a 5-step guide
Step 1. Draw a pretty picture of yourself on the form. Claim it as ‘yours’.
Step 2. Add some style.
Step 3. Create a little jigsaw. Be sure to ‘lose’ a couple of pieces too. That way, your form can serve as a kind of parody of the process itself.
Step 4. Help the little bastard find its way to the recycle bin. The ‘lost’ pieces should be placed in the regular rubbish.
Step 5. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea.
Note: In my view, the postal survey is an insane and destructive process that undermines the integrity and responsibility of the federal parliament, and in so doing weakens a key mechanism whereby human rights are legislated and implemented. While I certainly welcome a change in law (something I’ve written about here) the ends do not, in my view, justify the means. On this, I agree with Michael Kirby v.1. That said, I am open to the possibility that time will prove me wrong about that. In the short term, at least, the process will, one hopes, assist No voters to accept the outcome less painfully than they might have otherwise.
When is political power legitimate?
‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?
These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.
Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.
At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.
And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:
Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …
If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.
– Mr Stringfellow
Some Recent Watering Holes
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
- Damion Searls on how psychiatrists used Rorschach tests to examine Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.
- George Monbiot’s piece on being ‘Screened Out’.
- Julian Cribb on why ‘coal will kill more people than WWII’.
- Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, and John Menadue reckon that ‘we can stop the boats and also act decently, fairly and transparently’.
- The announcement about the National Gallery of Australia’s ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ coming up later this year!
- Chris Green’s Ash Wednesday reflection – Christ’s Death Lives in Us.
- Steve Wright’s Ash Wednesday reflection – To dust.
- Mary Beard is simply awesome: check out her piece on Seneca and her lecture on women in power, delivered at the BM.
- For those within cooee of Melbourne, this looks good – Thomas Crow, Anne Dunlop, and Charles Green talking about theological originality in art.
- Matthew Sharpe on Montaigne’s Essays.
- Jane Hutcheon talks to Reg Mombassa.
- Michael Hobbes on the epidemic of gay loneliness.
- Jonathan Sacks on the architecture of holiness.
- Rick Floyd has been looking for light in the shadow of death.
- Jason Guriel on Christian Wiman and ‘kind of faith that a poet had better not lose’.
- Queensland, a part of the country where most locals seem to espouse the philosophy that two wongs don’t make a white and which is not especially well known for a radical brand of Christianity, sees some religious fanatics charged for beating swords into garden hoes.
- A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius, plus his good little introduction to Christianity.
- Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump’s America.
- John Milbank on the problem of populism and the promise of a Christian politics.
- Scott Jackson asks, ‘Was Niebuhr a “Real” Theologian?’
- The University of Divinity is seeking a Director for its Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP).
- Swee Ann Koh asks, ‘Is there racism in the church?’
- Paul Collier reviews a couple of recent efforts to understand the logic and opportunities of, and challenges to, capitalism. Along the way, he has some insightful things to say about nationalism, ‘nationhood’, multiculturalism, and global citizenship too. (However, given the reality of religion, for example, it would be very difficult to defend the claim that ‘nationhood is the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity’.)
- Why students hate peer review, and how to make it work better for them.
- Watching Umberto Eco and his books and books and books and paintings and books and books and ladders means that I will tolerate no more complaints on this subject, from anyone.
- Speaking of no complaints, Doug Gay’s third public lecture on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism is now available here.
When crisis and disorder become means of governing
I’ve just finished re-reading Luke Bretherton’s wonderful – and very timely – book, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life. I’ll be drawing upon it for a paper that I’ll be giving in Chile later this year. Along the way, I’ve been reflecting on these sentences in light of the deeply-troubling events taking place at various US borders:
When everything is treated as a crisis or an exception, crisis and disorder become means of governing.
Framing something as an exception justifies two parallel responses. The first is the closing down of due process, proper accountability, and collective self-rule: the crisis demands immediate action rather than taking the time to formulate reasoned and collective political judgments. The second is to claim the problems are so overwhelming and so urgent that they are beyond the scope of widespread deliberation and human judgment and instead a “neutral,” topdown procedure must be found to address the crisis. This can involve leaving it all up to the market to decide or trying to find a one-size-fits-all, technocratic, administrative solution … that just eradicate the problem in one go. This second response displays what can be seen as the modernist prejudice: the need to abandon tradition and eviscerate rather than reform existing institutions in order to inaugurate the “new,” “the modern,” or the “progressive” [– or, we might say, the “alternative” –] solution.
But what happens when the ‘exception’ is no longer true to definition but becomes the new norm, literally by the stroke or two of a pen? (I write this as news filters into my ‘alerts’ about the firing of acting Attorney General, Sally Yates.) What happens when one reads the current disorder against a narrative like this one which suggests that the ‘primary aims’ and ‘main organisational goal[s]’ of the new regime are to undermine, eliminate, and replace all existing power structures with ‘a tight inner circle’ hungry for ‘unchallenged power’? That human societies have been here before doesn’t entirely take the sting out of things, although some time reading the Hebrew Bible, for example, does at least help to see that sting in some continuity with the nature of history as shot through with the tragic and violent.
The one thing that is certain in our current political climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’ (Rowan Williams). The other one thing that is certain is that those in liberal democracies are embroiled in a real battle about power, and about what role, if any, the ‘existing rulebook’ (Bretherton) will play, and about the possibility of living a genuinely-shared life (with or without the hassle of all those left-leaning loopheads ‘blocking traffic and causing some travelers to miss their flights’).
It is this, among other things, that makes Bretherton’s work so interesting. Drawing upon insights from Aristotle, Saul Alinsky, and others, and his own involvement with grassroots democracy expressed in the work of Citizens UK, Bretherton’s is a vision of democratic politics and of vibrant civil society expressed in what he calls ‘broad-based community organizing’ in which those of different faiths – and of non – and who carry ‘myriad obligations and commitments’ and identities and practices, coordinate, negotiate, and seek to forge a common life, a life that will inevitably call into question the kind of arrangements designed to leave economic and political and ecclesiastical elites immune from accountability and responsible participation in a common social, economic, and political space. Bretherton recognises that ‘whereas the medieval city offered one set of political opportunities and challenges, the modern and now world city offers an assemblage of material and social conditions for a different set’. And rather than shy away from this reality, or rage against it, Bretherton leans into its opportunities:
What community organizing represents is a means of reconstituting, from the ground up, a sensus communis, which can then form the basis of a practical rationality on which shared judgments can be made. It does this through assembling a ‘middle ground’ out of the existing traditions, customs, and habits that have poured into the city. The practices of community organizing create the conditions through which a shared world of meaning and action can emerge – albeit one often based on partial misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Such efforts towards a sensus communis are not without opposition however, as anyone who has been involved in grassroots democratic movements can testify :
Whether on the Left or the Right, those who would seek to do without a shared life and resort instead to technical, bureaucratic, legal, and market-based procedures of control and risk avoidance consistently oppose organizing and thence the creation of a middle ground.
So goes what Bretherton calls ‘the virtuous pursuit of democratic politics’.
Apathy leads to all kinds of death. ‘The body politic is a constructed, fractious, and fragile artifice that requires something like the practices of community organizing in order to constitute and reconstitute it out of its disparate elements. It is a constant work in progress rather than a spontaneous, natural phenomenon’ (Bretherton).
‘The Fury That Breaks’, by Michelle Boisseau
After César Vallejo
The fury that breaks a grown-up into kids,
a kid into scattered birds
and a bird into limp eggs,
the fury of the poor
takes one part oil to two parts vinegar.
The fury that breaks a tree into leaves,
a leaf into deranged flowers
and a flower into wilting telescopes,
the fury of the poor
gushes two rivers against a hundred seas.
The fury that breaks the true into doubts,
doubt into three matching arches
and the arch into instant tombs,
the fury of the poor
draws a sharpening stone against two knives.
The fury that breaks the soul into bodies,
the body into warped organs,
and the organ into eight doctrines,
the fury of the poor
burns with one fire in two thousand craters.
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.
– Margaret Preston, ‘The Expulsion’ (1952)
On how and why ‘class trumps gender’ in America
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’
‘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’.
… 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 préfèrent 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.
On recognising folly for what it is, and standing against it
Almost 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.]
The political realm as a place of spiritual decision
‘The weightiest criticisms of Christian speech and practice amount to this: that Christian language actually fails to transform the world’s meaning because it neglects or trivializes or evades aspects of the human. It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. So it is that some of those most serious about the renewal of a moral discourse reject formal Christian commitment as something that would weaken or corrupt their imagination. It may equally be that a Church failing to understand that the political realm is a place of spiritual decision, a place where souls are made and lost, forfeits the authority to use certain of its familiar concepts or images in the public arena’.
– Rowan Williams
On ordinary (and extraordinary) Australians
Welcome back Michael Leunig. So
sorry to learn of the serious knock. So
grateful that you – upheaved and altered – that you are
with us still. And for this ‘re-entry’ too
into ‘continuing madness and joy’:
Galarrwuy Yunupingu on leadership
Every now and then an essay is written that will probably be read for decades, an essay that risks the invitation to change the way whitefellas view the world and their place in it. This piece by Galarrwuy Yunupingu may be one of those.
One of the recurring themes that emerges throughout the essay is that of leadership. At one point, Dr Yunupingu describes an action of a great ancestor Ganbulapula:
This action was both stunning and brilliant, and it lifted people’s eyes from the mire of disorder, disagreement and bitter division. In that unprecedented throwing of the decorated log coffin, that unexpected shift into a new context, a new network of cultural meaning was created – a new future was believed in. The action generated the possibility of a future different from the past. Bitter division was healed by way of bold, confident leadership.
What a extraordinary description of what good leadership can be about! (Most of us, I suspect, are more familiar with management than we are real leadership.)
On the subject of political leadership, the author offers these timely words:
I live in the total knowledge that politics is a business that runs hot and cold every time a new office holder comes to Canberra (and Darwin), and they have to find some answers to what they can do in their time. Three years is such a short time, and politicians are under pressure to do something instead of biting their fingernails and having no solutions.
Aboriginal people need to understand that the government of the day will always seek to justify itself, protect itself and get its reputation straight. Its members will worry about their jobs and about saying things that will keep them in the good books with their electors, who are mainly white people. And those people will often have little good to say about Aboriginal people; when the voters do talk to their politicians they may want something from us or have some problem with us, because we are not like them. And this adds to the worry of politicians who are most of all concerned about whether they will be re-elected. That’s their first commitment. That’s the real situation. So the only way through it is for a politician to risk prestige with the voters to make the achievement, and to believe that an outcome can be good for all concerned.
This type of sacrifice from strength is the key to leadership. My father had to sacrifice much, too much, to reconcile his life with the ways of the modern world. But he did so. What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way …
Kevin Rudd, like prime ministers before and after him, acknowledged my leadership and made promises to my people. Tony Abbott made the same promises and came and lived on my land at Gulkula, and from there he ran the government for five or six days. Both were decent and respectful men. All the prime ministers I have known have been friendly to me, but I mark them all hard. None of them has done what I asked, or delivered what they promised. I asked each one to be truthful and to honestly recognise the truth of history, and to reconcile that truth in a way that finds unity in the future. But they are who they are and they were not able or not permitted to complete their task. For a prime minister is beholden to his party and to the parliament, which in turn is held by the Australian people. And the Australian people seem to disapprove of my simple truths, or the idea of proper reconciliation. The Australian people do not wish to recognise me for who I am – with all that this brings – and it is the Australian people whom the politicians fear. The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.
So the task remains: to reconcile with the truth, to find the unity and achieve the settlement. A prime minister must lead it and complete it. The leader of the nation should accept his or her commission and simply say what he or she thinks is right, and put that forward for the nation to correct, or to accept, or to reject. Let us have an honest answer from the Australian people to an honest question.
This vision, this challenge, this way of reading the world, does not emerge out of a vacuum. It is in every way non-novel, the fruit of millennia of song cycles which, as Yunupingu describes it, both tell of a person’s life and serve as ‘the universities of our people, where we hone and perfect our knowledge’. This seems to me to speak of not only the ways that our identities are grounded in story – that we are, in fact, storied peoples – but also of the fact that such stories are characterised by both the burdens and liberties of receiving, carrying, and then passing on traditions that are always dynamic and marked with the hope that makes life bearable. Whether or not our futures lay in the direction of our past, it seems that our futures can never be about an escape from the past. The best of our leaders, such as Yunupingu himself, get this. As he writes earlier on in the piece:
As a man reaches the final points in his journey it is then for others to do the singing. Others must take the lead, acknowledge him and guide him. If there is unfinished business it is no longer for that man to carry that business; others who have taken responsibility and who have taken leadership must then bear the burden of creation. The future is theirs, to be taken by them, crafted along the terms set by law as given to us by those that have come before. And failure will be theirs also, to own and bear witness to if they fail.
I have lived my song cycle and I have done what I can to translate the concepts of the Yolngu world into the reality of my life. I have endured much change and seen many different faces – I have watched both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders move in and out. And of course I have mixed feelings when I reflect on my life’s work. I feel a deep sadness at times, yet I know that I have done much that is useful. I know that I have secured my family’s birthright – we will not drift off with the tide; we will stand and endure, and our names will pass down through the decades and the centuries. Yunupingu means “the rock that stands against time”, and so be it. But I think always of what has been lost around me against what endures. It is a form of torture for a Yolngu person to see the loss of our life: every word, every note, every slip in the song is pain; every patch of land taken; every time an outsider takes control from Yolngu; every time we compromise; and every time we lose something or someone. I tell my family to stand strong and endure, stay within the guidelines of our law, stay with the song cycles and be armed with this knowledge so as to secure for our people our lands, our way of life and our place in the world.
These are just some snippets of what really is a remarkable essay, the entirety of which you can read here.
Lear on Brexit
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.
– King Lear (with thanks to André)
[Image: Nicholas Harding, ‘Study for John Bell as King Lear’, 1998–2001]
Is the ACL the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?
Is the Australian Christian Lobby the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?
They may well be, for according to their latest newsletter, ‘A marriage plebiscite is … the only way that, as Christians, we can secure both the future of marriage, and our freedoms to believe and practice our faith’.
This piece of brilliant propaganda might be the least Christian statement on marriage that I’ve ever read. What an embarrassment these people are to the Good News.
They’re certainly right about one thing, however: ‘There’s more at stake this election [sic] than marriage’. But even on that subject, the institution of marriage is far too important to be left to the likes of the ACL to define it.
[Update: Within minutes of this little post going live, the Australian Christian Lobby blocked me from the ability to post comments on, or even to ‘Like’, their Facebook page. (As far as I am aware, this is a first for me.) So much for being about promoting ‘public contributions of the Christian faith reflected in the political life of the nation’.]
On the American presidency
Ah, 2007; the good ol’ days:
‘The current politics of popularity, and the reality show atmosphere that surrounds presidential elections, have not held the nation in good stead. We labor under the myth of our own goodness and believe that it doesn’t matter who runs the nation, since the balance of power between the branches of government, and a free activist press will protect us from our own bad choices. Recent history proves that we must pay more attention to the criteria by which individuals are selected, because twenty-first-century high stakes political strategies can neutralize even the best laid plans of the nation’s founders … The next President of the United States should be a twenty-first-century thinker and visionary, a woman or man whose sense of responsibility includes a personal and political identity that is deeply connected to the lives of others in the world. An American presidency is never confined to the political interests of the electing nation; this is an office that influences the world and accordingly requires a leadership model predicated on integrity and vision’.
– Barbara Holmes, ‘The Politics of Vision: Transforming the Presidency’, Political Theology 8, no. 4 (2007), 417, 418.
On Hitler: ‘We engaged him for our ends’
‘Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. “We engaged him for our ends”, said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck’.
– Neal Ascherson, ‘Hopping in His Matchbox’, London Review of Books 38, no. 11 (2016), 23.