Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need

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I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

On empty talk about faith

‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.

– Dag Hammarskjöld

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Historical Context

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I’ve noted before that today really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.

Next semester, Whitley College will again host the Rev Dr Keith Clements, a leading international Bonhoeffer scholar, who will teach an intensive course on Bonhoeffer and his theology. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most courageous theological minds, and to wrestle with how some of his convictions might inform our own faithful witness in the world today.

When: Fridays 6pm–9pm | Saturdays 9am–1pm | 14–15, 21–22, 28–29 July and 11–12, 18–19 August
Where: Whitley College, 50 The Avenue, Parkville
Cost: $300 for audit enrolments (normally $500). Discounted Rate available until Thursday 31 May.
Enquiries and enrolments: 03 9340 8100 or email

Just words

Death Sentence.jpgA good little letter by David Hall published in this month’s Crosslight newspaper alerted me to Don Watson’s old book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, and to the wonderful words in its Introduction:

PUBLIC LANGUAGE CONFRONTS MOST of us every day of our lives, but rarely when we are with friends or family. Not yet, at least. It is not the language in which we address lovers, postmen, children or pets. So far.

True, in the households of young professionals they will say sometimes that the new dog adds alpha to their lifestyle; that they need closure with their orthodontist or mother; that they are empowered by their Nikes. There is seepage from the public to the private. But that’s all it is. At this point in time.

Public language is the language of public life: the language of political and business leaders and civil servants – official, formal, sometimes elevated language. It is the language of leaders more than the led, the managers rather than the managed. It takes very different forms: from shapely rhetoric to shapeless, enervating sludge; but in every case it is the language of power and influence. What our duties are, for whom we should vote, which mobile phone plan we should take up: in all these places the public language rules. As power and influence are pervasive so is the language: we hear and read it at the highest levels and the lowest. And while it begins with the powerful, the weak are often obliged to speak it, imitate it. ‘Even politicians speak / truths of value to the weak’, Auden said. Believing as they do that everyone needs something even if they don’t know it, marketing people would agree.

The influence of marketing shows itself in advertising and commerce, where we would expect to find it, and in politics and war, where its presence might surprise us. Marketing goes wherever the media goes and the media goes pretty well everywhere. Naturally the language goes too, which is why all kinds of institutions cannot pass on the simplest information about their services without also telling us that they are contemporary, innovative and forward-looking and committed to continuous improvement, as if the decision to raise their rates or change their phone number can only be grasped in this context-sensitive way. To help us all get going in the same direction they might give the context a name, like Growing Victoria Together or Business Line Plus, or Operation Decapitation where the service is a military one.

Managerialism, a name for various doctrines of business organisation, also comes with a language of its own, and to such unlikely places as politics and education. Even if the organisational principles of management or marketing were so widely appropriate, it is by no means certain that their language is. Marketing, for instance, has no particular concern with truth. Management concerns are relatively narrow – relative, that is, to life, knowledge and possibility. This alone makes marketing and managerial language less than ideal for a democracy or a college. In addition their language lacks almost everything needed to put in words an opinion or an emotion; to explain the complex, paradoxical or uncertain; to tell a joke. If those who propagate this muck really believed in being context-sensitive, they would understand that in the context of ordinary human need and sensibility their language is extraordinarily insensitive. It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless.

Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another. In all societies, ‘To take power is to win speech’. Whatever its appearance, intimidation and manipulation come as naturally to public language as polite instruction, information and enlightenment. That is why vigilance is needed: an argument concerning the public language is an argument concerning liberty.

To Levi’s list of obfuscating types we could add many sociologists and deconstructionists, including some who design school curricula and courses with the word ‘Studies’ in them. The politically correct might have a case to answer for years of philistine abuse (often, strangely, in the name of cultures), had the Prime Minister not abolished them. We are now all free, he says, to speak our minds; but the language continues to decay, which rather lets political correctness off the hook. Political correctness and its equally irritating twin, anti-political correctness; economic rationalism; dope-smoking; Knowledge Management – wherever cults exist the language inclines to the arcane or inscrutable. This is no bad thing of itself, but obnoxious in a democratic or educational environment. Among Druids, Masons or economists we expect the language to be unfathomable or at least unclear or strange. They speak in code. This can only be because they do not want us to understand, or do not themselves understand, or are so in the habit of speaking this way they have lost the ability to communicate normally. When we hear this sort of language it is, therefore, common sense to assume there is a cult, or something like a cult, in the vicinity. And be alert, if not alarmed.

While English spreads across the globe, the language itself is shrinking. Vast numbers of new words enter it every year, but our children’s and leaders’ vocabularies are getting smaller. Latin and Greek have been squeezed out of most journalists’ English and ‘obscure’ words are forbidden unless they qualify as economic or business jargon. You write for your audience and your audience knows fewer words than it used to and hasn’t time to look up unfamiliar ones. The language of politics is tuned to the same audience and uses the same media to reach it, so it too diminishes year by year. Downsized, business would say. Business language is a desert. Like a public company, the public language is being trimmed of excess and subtlety; what it doesn’t need is shed, what is useful is reorganised, prioritised and attached either to new words or to old ones stripped of meaning. In business, language is now productivity-driven.

What of the media whose words we read and hear every day? The code of conduct of the International Federation of Journalists is categorical: ‘Respect for the truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.’ There can be no respect for the truth without respect for the language. Only when language is alive does truth have a chance. As the powerful in legend turn the weak or the vanquished into stone, they turn us to stone through language. This is the essential function of a cliché, and of cant and jargon; to neutralise expression and ‘vanish memory’. They are dead words. They will not do for truth.

Therefore, to live according to their code, journalists must choose their own words carefully and skilfully and insist that others do the same. The proper relationship of journalists to the public language is that of unrelenting critics. It is their duty to see through it. But we cannot rely on them. Norman Mailer once wrote on behalf of writers like himself that ‘the average reporter could not get a sentence straight if it were phrased more subtly than his own mind could make phrases’. They munched nuances ‘like peanuts’, he said. True, it happens and it’s maddening, but inadequate prose is still journalism and roughly meets the requirements of the code. It is something else, however, when journalists ignore abuses of the public language by people of influence and power, and reproduce without comment words that are intended to deceive and manipulate. When this happens journalism ceases to be journalism and becomes a kind of propaganda; or a reflection of what Simone Weil called ‘the superb indifference that the powerful have for the weak’.

The war in Iraq provided a case in point. The military provided brand names – Shock and Awe, for instance – and much of the media could see nothing but to use them. Each day of the campaign the media were briefed in the language of the Pentagon’s media relations people, whereupon very often the journalists briefed their audiences in the same language. The media centre in Doha was always on message, and so was the media. When the military said they had degraded by 70 per cent a body of Iraqi soldiers, this was what the media reported. Few said ‘killed’ and only the Iraqi Minister for Information in his daily self-satire said ‘slaughtered’, which was a more honest word but a blatant lie because he said it of American soldiers, not Iraqi ones. One journalist, who knew something about the effects of Daisy Cutter bombs, said ‘pureed’. And no one showed any pictures of the bodies. To be embedded with the Coalition forces was to be embedded in their language and their message. It turned out that embedded just meant ‘in bed with’ in the old language. If they said they had attrited an enemy force, generally that was what the media conveyed, and it was the same if they said deconflicted. All this was a sad retreat from both the journalists’ code of conduct and the noble achievements of twentieth-century war reporting. Just as significant was the way these words spoke for the willingness of journalists to join the military in denying the common humanity of ordinary soldiers – especially the largely conscripted cannon fodder – on the opposing side. Here was another retreat: from war reporting standards going back to Homer.

The public language will only lift in tone and clarity when those who write and speak it take words seriously again. They need to tune their ears to it. Awareness is the only defence against the creeping plague of which this is a microscopic specimen. The inquiry may allow for relevant businesses or industries to be identified and for investigation into the possibility that certain regional or rural areas of the state would be more affected than others. No doubt in the place from which these words came they were judged competent. But they are not competent in the world at large. They are not competent as language. They represent an example of what George Orwell described as anaesthetic writing. You cannot read it without losing some degree of consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You are getting sleepy again. Read aloud, in a speech for instance, an audience hears the words as they might hear a plane passing overhead or a television in another room. We can easily make it sound less like a distant aeroplane by the simple expedient of saying it as if we mean it: The inquiry will decide which businesses are relevant and which parts of the state will be badly affected. In fact, to guess at the intended meaning, it might come down to the Inquiry deciding which businesses and which parts of the state will be most affected.

Of course, it’s just one sentence. But we have to begin somewhere.

We must keep it in perspective of course. The decay or near death of language is not life threatening. It can be an aid to crime and tragedy; it can give us the reasons for unreasoning behaviour, including war and genocide and even famine. Words are deadly. Words are bullets. But a word is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a jihad, or unhappiness. Like a rock, it is not a weapon (or a grinding stone) until someone picks it up and uses it as one. We should not get cranky or obsessive about words. You can’t eat them, or buy things with them, or protect your borders with them, and it will not do to make a great display of your concern. There are more important things to think about than what we say or how we say it.

In any case resistance is probably futile: as futile as the Luddites’ resistance was futile. Managerial language may well be to the information age what the machine and the assembly line were to the industrial. It is mechanised language. Like a machine, it removes the need for thinking: this essential and uniquely human faculty is suspended along with all memory of what feeling, need or notion inspired the thing in the first place. To the extent that it is moulded and constrained by opinion polls and media spin, modern political language is the cousin of the managerial and just as alienating. To speak or be spoken to in either variety is to be ‘not in this world’.

Bear in mind just the same that if we deface the War Memorial or rampage through St Paul’s with a sledgehammer we will be locked up as criminals or lunatics. We can expect the same treatment if we release some noxious weed or insect into the natural environment. It is right that the culture and environment should be so respected. Yet every day we vandalise the language, which is the foundation, the frame and joinery of the culture, if not its greatest glory, and there is no penalty and no way to impose one. We can only be indignant. And we should resist.

An interview with Niklas Frank

Niklas Frank.jpg

Today, the BBC World Service’s Hardtalk program ran a fascinating interview with Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi Occupied Poland.

As I listened, I was reminded again that forgiveness is always inescapably personal, and unimaginably hard; and, for some, simply unimaginable: ‘I will never forgive him’.

I was reminded too of the work of the Polish theologian Józef Niewiadomski, who visited Melbourne in 2014. Niewiadomski conceives of the last judgment as an event in which all victims and all perpetrators face each other, and all the evil suffered and inflicted fully is exposed to each person. Were it not for God’s immense good­ness and unrestricted willingness to forgive, and to heal, such an event would no doubt turn into a bloodbath marked by self-justification and accusation of others in which victims and perpetrators would condemn each other to hell. For, as Niewiadomski writes, ‘Each would insist on his or her own status as a victim, each would demand retaliation and each would seek to place on others the punishment that he or she ought to receive’. But confronted with the radical grace of divine forgiveness, he says, ‘hardly anyone [and possibly no one] will withhold forgiveness and continue to insist anachronistically upon his or her own right and revenge’.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Perhaps it is a foretaste of this very reality – including its impossibility – that we are given in the Lord’s Supper – a vision of a judgement day marked by victims and perpetrators meeting together around the Table and, in the safe and reconciling love of Christ the host, eat and drink together, and in that action experience the beginnings of healing and transformation and mercy toward the other. Monsters transfigured. We can learn to trust again … and again. It may be that in time, we can move towards forgiveness, apart from which there can be no future.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Theology beyond colonialist logic

José de Acosta (1).jpgAmong the many Constantinian assumptions that much Protestantism shares quite uncritically with Romeis a commitment to modes of imperialism that preference and propagate particular cultural forms. The near-idolatry of, and proclivity to proliferate, its own forms, coupled with an ecclesiocentric view of the world, has very often restricted the church from entering into unfamiliar territory in anything but highly-qualified and guarded ways – ways usually accompanied by the violent protection of the state, such as was the case with the Conquistadors (lit. ‘conquerors’) who sought to extend the bounds of Europe to the Americas, to Oceania, to Africa, and to Asia.

I have been reminded of this narrative again recently while reading Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Jennings maps how among the many tragic consequences of associating Christian belief with the power of colonial conquest has been the ways that Christian theology has been harnessed as a ‘discourse of displacement’ which both imagines and appraises new situations ‘wholly within a colonialist logic’. This, as Jennings suggests, has ‘changed the trajectory of the teleological framework of Christianity’ and ‘established a strange kind of insularity and circularity for Christian traditions of enquiry’.One result of this decision has been that ‘the inner coherence of traditional Christian inquiry’ has been ‘grafted onto the inner coherence of colonialism’. 

Reflecting upon the work of the Spanish theologian and naturalist José de Acosta who, in 1570 and at the age of 32, travelled with his Jesuit brothers from Spain via Columbia and Panama to teach at the newly-established mission in Peru, Jennings outlines the ways that the historic colonialist trajectory of much Christian theology is marked by ‘pedagogical imperialism’ and ‘epistemic insularity’ that makes it frightfully difficult for theologians to imagine whom we ‘belong to as we write, as we think, as we pray. This problem’, Jennings argues, ‘has fundamentally to do with a world formed and continuing to be formed to undermine the possibilities of Christians living together, loving together, and desiring each other. Such a desire is not a narcissistic longing for self to be seen in others, or an indulgent seeking for the comfort of like-minded doctrinal confessors. It is the necessary beginning for overturning the remade world’.

Naming some of the implications of this challenge for his own context as a teacher serving in the academy, Jennings argues that ‘Black Atlantic Christianity … lacks appeal because, enamored of the power and beauty of whiteness, … [it] presents itself to no one but itself and tragically invites “nonwhite” peoples to do the same. An intellectual life formed in so unappealing a setting becomes crushingly insular. It is exactly the insularity of Christian theology and all its identifiers (for example, orthodox, liberal, conservative, and so on) and the insularity of its Christian contextual responses and all its identifiers (for example, African, Asian, feminist, womanist) that repeatedly show Christians the missed opportunities of Christian intellectual life’.

Jennings’ is work launched by the assumption that worlds constituted on slave ships or by racial subjugation need to be overturned, and even where such efforts are provisional at best, such capsizing bears witness to the right orientation of things birthed of the hope gifted by the God of life. Such capsizing also calls for drawing from ‘the processes of displacement and translation clearer sight of something genuinely new in the formation of Christianity in modernity, the interpenetration of the vernacularization of Christianity and the production of space’. The logic of the incarnation means that the life and witness of the Christian community must not, as Jennings puts it, ‘stand over native flesh’. (Jennings is concerned to not dismiss what he calls ‘the important parental legacy of Christianity’ insofar as these nurture academic work in the modern West, especially for Black intellectuals. But, he argues, ‘we must not allow this legacy to blind us to the aching absence of a truly Christian intellectual community’ that reflects in its work ‘the incarnate reality of the Son who has joined the divine life to our lives and invites us to deep abiding intellectual joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only of beliefs and practices but of common life, and all of it of the multitude of many tongues’.) To proceed along such lines is to abandon one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones.

‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’

Gunnie Moberg - George Mackay Brown

The latest issue of Pacifica is now available, and includes my little article on ‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’. The Abstract reads:

This essay introduces and explores some explicitly theological concerns in the work of the Orcadian poet, novelist, and dramatist George Mackay Brown (1921–96). More specifically, its interest is with Brown’s presentation and treatment of the notion of time. Drawing on examples from a wide selection of his work, it is argued that Brown’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, and in particular his delight in the enchantment of the Mass, allowed him to exploit a distinctly Catholic sacramental theology and aesthetic of creation – its location, people, and history – appraised in light of the Eucharist.

[Image: George Mackay Brown, with cat. Photograph by Gunnie Moberg]

The Pacific Journal of Baptist Research: a call for papers

pjbr nov 2015.pngThe Pacific Journal of Baptist Research (PJBR) is an open-access online journal which aims to provide an international vehicle for scholarly research and debate in the Baptist tradition, with a special focus on the Pacific region. However, topics are not limited to the Pacific region, and all subject matter potentially of significance for Baptist/Anabaptist communities will be considered. PJBR is especially interested in theological and historical themes, and preference will be given to articles on those themes. PJBR is published twice-yearly in May and November. Articles are fully blind peer-reviewed, with submissions sent to international scholars in the appropriate fields for critical review before being accepted for publication. PJBR is indexed with ATLA/S. PJBR is currently accepting contributions for its 2017 volumes from graduate students, faculty, and other researchers. Information for contributors can be found here and essays can be emailed to the Senior Editor, Dr Myk Habets.

A little MacKinnon for Lent

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‘In every Eucharist the death of Christ is shown forth sacramentally, and we are made partakers of His merits and His life. But in the liturgical cycle of Lent and Passiontide, the rejection and the Passion of the Son of Man are presented to us, as it were, no longer as the ground of our access to the Father and the source of our reconciliation and sanctification, but as a series of historical events. In our approach to the Eucharist, though it is through the sacramental oblation of Christ’s sacrifice that we do honour to the Father, acknowledging His sovereign dominion, inevitably we think more of the substance of that offering than of the accidents of its historical (or sacramental) embodiment. Yet in Passiontide we are led by the sovereign wisdom of the Church to attend to the individual details of that supreme confrontation of the Light of God with the darkness of this world. We realize that in that moment, when the fallen natural order was so mightily invaded by the transcendent majesty of God, and the powers of darkness overthrown in the agony of Gethsemane and Calvary, it was through the action of particular historical individuals that the full strength of the kingdom of Satan assailed the kingdom that came in Jesus. Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas are concrete, historical individuals. They are not, as so many well-intentioned Holy Week addresses suggest, merely abstract types of pride, compromise, envy. For, if we treat them so, we lose altogether the insight that the Passion would afford us into the historical mission of the Body of Christ’.

– D. M. MacKinnon

Some P. T. Forsyth Resources

Books/Booklets

 

Selected Articles

 

Secondary Literature (since 2000)

Some Recent Watering Holes

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Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source

 

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:

And this:

Andrew Root – Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

whitley-college-public-lecturesIt really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.

It is not wholly surprising that Bonhoeffer is one of the most beloved and most misunderstood Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. His thought is the subject of a growing body of research as a new generation of Bonhoeffer scholars discover parts of his thought that speak most pressingly to contemporary concerns. Among those scholars is Andy Root whose main contribution to that research has been to draw our attention to the ministry that Bonhoeffer undertook with and among young people, especially between 1925 and 1939.

A few week’s ago, Whitley College was delighted to host Andy for the first of its public lectures for 2017. His lecture, titled ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: Exploring the Interaction between Ministry and Theology’, explored some aspects of Bonhoeffer’s work among young people, and enquired how Bonhoeffer’s insights might inspirit our own ministries in whatever contexts we are engaged.

A video of that lecture is now available here:

 

 

Doug Gay on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism

Doug Gay has been in Edinburgh giving the Chalmers Lectures. The first two of these are now available online (see below), and the third and final lecture will be given later this week (I’ll link to it once it’s available). Together, they are an informed, intelligent, lucid, timely, and hope-filled challenge not only to Scottish Presbyterianism (the prime focus of his reflections) but also to the wider church.

I am grateful to Doug for giving these courageous public lectures, and to The Church of Scotland for making them available to a wider audience. I look forward to reading his forthcoming book on the same subject, Reforming The Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland.

When crisis and disorder become means of governing

Resurrecting Democracy.jpgI’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.

Fuck Trump Sign.jpgThe 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).

[Image: Verso]

On damaging and defending public property (in Hobsons Bay)

IMG_5614.jpgCall me ‘old school’, but I’m really not very tolerant when it comes to damaging public property. Places such as parks, public libraries, schools, rivers, parliaments, etc. are, in my view, sacrosanct, and when such places undergo vandalism the damage is done to us all. More specifically, when such damage is undertaken for the economic gain of a few, there really can be no acceptable defence at all.

The assumption here, of course, is that there really is such a reality called ‘public’, and that such a reality requires such things as ‘public spaces’, and that there is an obligation upon the public to honour such spaces. (For the purposes of this post I will not explore this matter further here.)

It is entirely unacceptable, therefore, for commercial enterprises to destroy public property. One way that this is happening is by such enterprises securing their signage to our footpaths. In the area near my home, which is in Melbourne’s Hobson’s Bay region, real estate businesses such as Williams Real Estate, Gunn & Co. and others, repeatedly screw their signage into the footpath, indifferent to the destruction done.

Rather than remove the screws – which would, in my view, be a publicly-responsible action to undertake – I have thus far taken the less aggressive route of writing, on a number of occasions now, to the Hobsons Bay City Council about this matter, and included documentary evidence to support my complaint. Thus far, they have been polite and responsive, and I have been assured that a ‘relevant officer’ has been assigned to investigate the complaints. I don’t know what the outcome has been, but I do notice that the vandalism is still happening, that the boards continue to be erected upon and secured to the footpath. (That the footpaths in my area in already in poor form is hardly the point.)

The Council’s ‘Community Signboards Policy’ stipulates that not-for-profit community groups who wish to erect temporary signs to promote community events must ensure that ‘the physical and visual amenity on the natural and built environment’ is maintained, and that such signs are not allowed to ‘damage Council infrastructure’. And yet when it comes to commercial ventures, it appears that no such rule exists. Why?

A Council that judges graffiti to be ‘vandalism, “wilful damage” and a criminal offence’ ought, in my view, to not only be fining such real estate agents in order to repair the damage done, but also pursuing legal action against them for vandalism and wilful damage. (For the record, I do not share Council’s judgement about graffiti, for I believe that graffiti can be a way of honouring public space. But that discussion too is for another post. Neither am I suggesting that this matter ought to be a priority for Council. In the scheme of things, it’s a relatively small matter indeed.)

And here endeth my wee rant.

 

For MLK Day: ‘When you rise to the level of love …’

‘So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: that within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God”, you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system’.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’, in A Knock at Midnight. [A version of this sermon was also published in The Journal of Religious Thought 27, no. 2 (1970), 31–41.]

On making a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-30-18-pmOn 30 November 2016, the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament resolved to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the Commonwealth Government’s exposure draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. The Committee is due to report on or by 13 February this year.

The Committee is looking into religious views on amending the Marriage Act, and is using Attorney-General George Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill on Marriage as a reference point. To be clear, the committee is not asking whether the law should change. Rather, it is asking what, assuming a change of law, might be the implications of such a change, including implications for religious bodies and organisations.

The background to this inquiry is in part the suggestion from many religious leaders and religious lobby groups that legalising same-sex marriage threatens to undermine religious freedoms and communities. This concern, almost always poorly expressed, is possibly the highest hurdle still to be passed if there is to be a change in law. Yet it is not at all an argument against same-sex marriage itself. At most, it is merely a claim that amendments to the law should safeguard religious interests, some cultural geography, and the rights of religious communities to mark marriage in ways consistent with their particular ‘doctrines, tenets or beliefs’.

Submissions from a variety of religious perspectives are welcome and vital at this stage. The Committee is receiving submissions by email and online only until next Friday 13 January.

The Committee invites short submissions, written in one’s own words (pro forma submissions, in other words, will be disregarded), from all sections of faith groups. It will also accept submissions from those who wish their names not to be publicly disclosed. This is an important safeguard so that all views can be freely expressed.

The Committee has provided some general advice here on preparing submissions. In addition, a friend of mine has provided a helpful framework for making a submission on this particular inquiry:

Guidelines for Submission

Address to: Committee Secretary, Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, Department of the Senate, PO Box 6100, Canberra ACT 2600.

Heading: Submission to Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Your Name, Title & Contact Details
(+ if you wish: ‘I do not wish my name to be disclosed publicly’.)

Reason for Writing – who you represent
Give the Committee an insight into who you represent. For ordained members of religious bodies, this is mostly self-evident. For others, however, it is suggested that you sketch some background of your involvement in your religious organisation. In particular, mention any leadership roles that you have fulfilled, such as committees, volunteer roles, etc., as well as the length and extent of your involvement. Your age too may be added – young people’s views are typically under-represented. Clergy should include positions held and all titles.

Reason for Writing – your interest in this issue
A personal connection to the issue is relevant. For example, your engagement with or in the LGBTIQ community, your conversations with friends, relatives, and religious communities, and your involvement in public discourses around this matter can be mentioned here. Mention also any previous submissions that you have been involved in, if and where you have written on the topic, and ways that you have been involved in advocacy in any form.

Your Views on the Terms of Reference (*)
Many legal experts will be giving advice on the technicalities of the legislation – you don’t need to do that. More important here is to convey views of people of faith ‘on the ground’. For example:

‘I remember when the Church changed its position on divorce by accepting divorcees for re-marriage. The law didn’t need to be changed during that major change. Some ministers refuse to remarry divorcees and I don’t see the need for any extra powers to refuse same sex couples’. [add a personal anecdote to illustrate]

Or,

‘I have same-sex friends who wish to marry. They would never contemplate “forcing” an unwilling minister to marry them against his/her wishes. What kind of wedding would that be?’

(*) It’s often helpful to highlight the Terms of Reference (ToR) addressed. You can put the ToR as a sub-heading or simply put ‘Term of Reference (a)’ – they’re numbered (a)–(d).

The Committee’s advice here is clear:

Please read the terms of reference carefully before making your submission. The committee has resolved that it will only accept submissions strictly addressing its terms of reference, with a particular focus on the following areas:

  • the proposed exemptions in the Exposure Draft for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations to refuse to conduct or solemnise marriages, and the extent to which those exemptions prevent encroachment upon religious freedoms; 
  • the nature and effect of the proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984;
  • whether there should be any consequential amendments to this bill, or any other Act, and, if so, the nature and effect of those consequential amendments. 

Substantive submissions that explore the technical aspects of the terms of reference will be published, however the committee does not have the resources or time to consider short statements expressing support either for or against same-sex marriage.  As such, these statements will be treated as correspondence and not published.

As mentioned, claims about the denial of religious freedom are central. Fears being raised include ministers being forced to officiate at same-sex weddings, churches being forced to hold same-sex weddings in their buildings, and religious bodies being forced to provide commercial goods and services to same-sex weddings. The draft Bill aims to address these fears by adding multiple means for faith groups to refuse involvement in same-sex weddings. But many think these new measures go too far. The Bill singles out same-sex couples as the paramount concern of religious people. It also provides brand new, potentially sweeping, powers for refusal by religious groups – and even civil celebrants.

Analysis of the draft Bill by Australians for Equality is here and here. For a different perspective, see the Australian Christian Lobby’s analysis here.

Personal stories have great value. Just keep them clear, concise, and relevant to the Terms of Reference (remembering that this inquiry is not about if the law should change but about what effects would result from the change). Don’t worry about making lots of points. One well-made point serves best.

Closing
Conclude with a statement on the effect of legalising same-sex marriage on your faith community, and a recommendation. A conclusion + recommendation might be:

‘The existing Marriage Act already gives my religious body/ministers sufficient power to refuse to officiate at, or participate in, same sex weddings.

Recommendation: A law that recognises marriage irrespective of gender should retain and not exceed these powers’.

Remember, the closing date is Friday 13 January. You can make a submission by either emailing it or uploading it online.

‘Playing God’

Playing God.jpg

A lovely little poem with which to finish the year, from the New Zealand poet and GP Glenn Colquhoun, and with renewed thanks to Martin Fey, who, some moons ago now, first introduced me to Colquhoun’s work.

If you play God, play God at tennis.

A strict code of conduct is expected.
Clear lines must be drawn in the sand.
The ball will be either in or out.
At times there is talk of love.

If you play God, play God at chess.

All decisions must be black or white.
There are ways for him to be kept in check.
Bishops are available for consultation.
There is the possibility of mating.

If you play God, play God at cards.

There is clear opportunity for cheating.
You might deal from the bottom of the pack.
Aces can be hidden up your sleeve.
The joker should be specially marked.

If you play God, play God at darts.

He will dislike their resemblance to nails.
An acceptable target must be provided.
There is a fine line he will not be permitted
to cross. Cursing should never be allowed.

If you play God, play God at monopoly.

Everyone will be expected to take turns.
He must sit at a table like everyone else.
You might refuse him a room at your inn.
He is certain to be feeling overconfident.

Australian Association for Mission Studies Conference: A Call for Papers

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