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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenson on ecumenism’s strange future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depression and the Gift of Christian Community

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

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

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

Today is World Mental Health Day.

Jonathan Sacks on antisemitism

Sir Jonathan SACKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

You can read the whole address here.


On being a ‘Church leader’


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

– Mr MacKinnon

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

Zadok/University of Divinity Field C Research Group Colloquium

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

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

1330                     Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1515–1530          Break

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Folsom to visit Whitley College

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

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

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


‘Father and Daughter’


It came to this, the panic at not being loved,
an overdose in the middle of the morning.
She slept for five days
strapped down in a hospital cot,
and when she woke to stew in her shame,
her father was by her bedside.
For a moment as long as a word of praise, neither spoke.
In that small silence, questions ripened.

She stood waiting for an ambulance
to take her to a psychiatric hospital.
She was dressed in a hospital robe and booties,
one size fits all, worn thin by other people’s fear.
The linoleum was as cold as the sea in winter.
She held a paper bag containing a toothbrush
and a copy of Tribune, which a cleaner had given her.
The air tasted bitter, of walnuts gone black in the shell.

– Kate Jennings, ‘Father and Daughter’, in Cats, Dogs and Pitchforks (Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 1993), 14.

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

Painting for Freedom: some happenings with Richard Kidd

I’ve previously mentioned that next month Richard Kidd, Anne Mallaby, and myself will be teaching an intensive unit on theology and the arts. I’m really looking forward to being part of what is shaping up to be a great week of learning. (Spaces are still available for anyone keen to be involved.)

In addition, Richard Kidd will be exhibiting some of his work at Chapel on Station Gallery, in Box Hill. The exhibition will be accompanied by three related events:

Thursday 8 September, 1830–2000: Official Opening and Book Launch (with drinks, nibbles, and poetry).

Sunday 11 September, 1630–1830: Conversation and Cake. Richard Kidd and Anne Mallaby invite you to explore art and theology … and cake.

Tuesday 20 September, 1800–2000: Art & Justice: Creative Voices of Liberation. Richard will talk upon the work of Freeset in Kolkata, and his new Charitable Trust, ‘Painting for Freedom’.

All events are free and will take place at Chapel on Station Gallery, cnr Station St & Ellingworth Pde, Box Hill.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

‘No longer male and female’: a note on gender, Christian community, and the intersex condition

april-none-of-the-aboveA guest post by Andie Hider

In June last year, I was invited to attend a conference held by the Australian Paediatric Endocrine Group at which was discussed the vexed issue of how to treat a group of infants born with a particular group of genetic conditions. Present at the conference were surgeons, endocrinologists, and other medical specialists from some of Australia’s leading children’s hospitals, representatives from support groups that support parents of infants, and people born with the conditions, as well as ethicists and the current and former Chief Justices of the Family Court of Australia.

Earlier last year, in March, I shared my story growing up with one of these conditions with my congregation. My best friend, a devoted Christian, and friend of hers, who is a Deacon with whom I had shared my story long before, were amongst those visiting our congregation on that day to give me moral support. Standing up and telling my story living with my genetic condition is something I am very used to doing, but standing up and telling my story to my own faith community made me very nervous and was the reason for the moral support present on that day.

By now you may be asking yourselves what could be so complex, so difficult to treat, about these particular genetic conditions that would warrant such a formidable gathering of medical and legal expertise? What could possibly be so awful in the medical suffering I faced that telling my story to my own faith community would need the moral support I had? The answer to both of those questions is there is nothing medical about these genetic conditions that demands that sort of attention and fear. No, the difficulty faced here in both situations is a social problem.

The genetic condition I was born with is called an Intersex condition and, without wanting to get into complex discussions about genetics and embryonic development, it quite simply means I was born biologically both male and female. There are thousands of people like me in Australia, millions across the world, and the conditions and the people born with them have been around since the dawn of God’s creation. The problem is that for thousands of years we have not understood the conditions, and then once we understood them we did our best to hide the people with them away.

Society has spent so much time neatly dividing God’s creation up into male and female that once we realised there were plants, animals, and people who did not fit into one of our categories we didn’t know what to do with them. Throughout history people with Intersex conditions have either been humiliated, put on public display as curiosities, or, in some cultures, given specific ‘elevated’ roles in society (most often as shaman or healers) that allowed them to be set apart from others. As a result of this history the medical profession has been forced into the position they make a ‘best guess’ about the gender a child with an Intersex condition should be raised.

Placing the medical profession in the position they must make a decision on behalf of a child who is not yet old enough to speak their mind about who they are is unfair. The reason for the gathering of medical and legal expertise at the Australian Paediatric Endocrine Group conference is because things have now come to a difficult place. A decision about gender of rearing is often reinforced medically and irreversibly and if it is wrong the later consequences for that child and their family are horrific. Medical professionals and support groups are then again left to work with the families to try to pick up the pieces of the resulting harm to that child. As a result of this, and because of law suits brought against hospitals and medical practitioners, the Family Court has had to become involved in protecting the rights of the children involved. Conspicuous by their absence at the conference to discuss such an important and vulnerable group were our Christian leaders and we need to ask ourselves why that is?

‘Male’ and ‘female’ are words, part of human language and our attempt to reduce God’s creation to a level we can understand in our human simplicity. Once God created Eve, regardless of how you personally believe that came to be, God gave us the gift of creating life. God also meant for the beauty of creation to be realised in all of God’s forms. Creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs would also have meant that Eve, our greatest of mothers, had some male in her and was by medical definition Intersex. We live in a world of striking and wonderful creations of God where we marvel at the diversity of plant and animal life we are privileged to enjoy. We are not the masters of God’s creation, and nor are we some immutable caretakers of that creation; we are part of it.

The reason our Christian leaders were not part of the conference is because we are part of the problem, not the solution. There is a very public debate about the issue of ‘gay marriage’ going on at the moment, and central to the debate is the oft-cited statement ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman’. Apart from the artificial line we have created to try to reduce God’s creation to our level of understanding, there is no division between male and female. God saw to that when He created Eve from Adam. Male and female are attributes and we all have some mix of both and we all fit somewhere along a spectrum.

Every time a Christian leader or one of our politicians makes the statement about marriage being between a man and a woman they are reinforcing a statement that science and medicine has long understood to be untrue. Worse than that, every time we make a statement about male and female in that way we keep doctors and infants with Intersex conditions and their families trapped in a circle of shame, secrecy, and hurt. Every time we make a statement about male and female in that way we force the Family Court to have to intervene in the lives of families that have enough to cope with. Every time we make that statement we deny God’s wonder and the diversity of creation, and reduce it to something merely human and insignificant.

Worst of all, every time we make a statement that God created man and woman to reinforce the view there is some inviolate division between them, people with Intersex conditions or parents of infants with the conditions that need our support turn away from our churches and our faith because we turn them away. We, Christians, limit and deny God’s creation and turn other Christians away from our church by making them feel unwelcome and misunderstood. A friend of mine that helps run our support group and has the same condition I do is also a member of the Uniting Church. There will be other members of our church that either have the conditions or are parents of an infant or child with an Intersex condition. When was the last time that one of them spoke to anyone reading this about the trials they are facing because God created them in a way that we, as human beings, are unable to accept because it would mean admitting that we cannot define God’s creation in human terms?

We as Christians should be at the forefront of helping understand God’s creation in all of its wonderful diversity. We should not be adding to the discomfort and shame and misunderstanding of people born with Intersex conditions by taking a hard, and incorrect, stance about God’s creation in our over-enthusiasm to define something that cannot be defined by us, but only by God. Our leadership should be part of the discussion about supporting infants with Intersex conditions and their parents, not excluding us because we add to the problem. We are challenged as Christians to welcome all who believe in Christ as our savior into our Christian family, and to understand, accept, and love them. We cannot do these things if we refuse to acknowledge some people even exist because they are the living proof our binary construct of male and female is wrong. It should not be that hard for us because we have grappled with the concept of a triune God since the beginnings of our faith.

‘Children’s Song’

Pat Scala

We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven.

– R. S. Thomas

[Image: Pat Scala/SMH]

With Martha Nussbaum, the ‘Captain of Her Soul’

Martha Nussbaum.jpg

Rachel Aviv’s piece on Martha Nussbaum, published in The New Yorker, really is a wonderful read:

“To be a good human being,” [Nussbaum] has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered” …

For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, [Nussbaum] argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives …

Last year, Nussbaum had a colonoscopy. She didn’t want to miss a workday, so she refused sedation. She was thrilled by the sight of her appendix, so pink and tiny. “It’s such a big part of you and you don’t get to meet these parts,” she told me. “I love that kind of familiarization: it’s like coming to terms with yourself.”

The Danger of Outsourcing Morality

Jonathan SacksSome characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:

A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …

Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …

You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …

But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.

One can read the full lecture here.

[Image: source]

On becoming an anti-communist

Bolsheviks‘My political identity was shaped by the Holocaust. At first this drew me naturally to the left. However, because of my reading about the historical crimes of Stalin and the contemporary crimes of Mao Zedong, and because of the influence of two teachers, Vincent Buckley and Frank Knopfelmacher, during my undergraduate days I was gradually drawn into the anti-communist movement. There were two main reasons why people became anti-communists in those days. The first was geopolitical: because they believed the future of the world would be determined by the outcome of the Cold War that was being fought between Communism and Democracy. The second was moral: because of the crimes of Stalin and of Mao. For my part, I did not become an anti-communist because of the Cold War. In 1970, I marched against Australia’s participation in the United States–led Vietnam War. I became an anti-communist because only the anti-communist intelligentsia seemed to speak of the mass killings associated with Stalin and with Mao in an appropriate moral register.

Between the time I was preparing for my matriculation exams in October 1965 and the time I arrived at the University of Melbourne in March 1966, some 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered. During my undergraduate days there was no discussion of the murders. We were preoccupied by the Vietnam War. As I know now, the American and Australian governments supported the murders through aid and silence, principally for questionable foreign-policy reasons. The threat of Chinese aggression, especially at the time of the Sino–Soviet schism, was vastly overblown. The anti-communist intelligentsia offered their governments full support. It is of course possible, perhaps even likely, that if the Indonesian communists had come to power a different kind of tragedy might have occurred. But can it seriously be maintained, as many anti-communist defenders of the Western policy in Indonesia did then and still do, that acquiescence in the murder of half a million civilians on political grounds can be justified by speculations about possible events in the future?

If I had known then what I know now, while my attitude to the crimes of communism would have been no different, I hope I would have had sufficient judgement to have given the anti-communist movement a far wider berth’.

– Robert Manne, ‘Rivers ran red: Indonesia’s mass killings have been overlooked for 50 years

On the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom

violenceAlmost every semester, I remind my students that I have three general expectations for any particular class. I couch these in terms of joy, formation, and community. In regards to the latter, I note my expectation that we will learn together. Studying theology is a challenging exercise, but I hope and expect that there will be a growing awareness among my students that theology is the responsibility and work undertaken by a hermeneutical community. Part of this entails that students feel a measure of safety in the classroom, that the learning environment be a place where their learnings and reflections are welcomed. No one learns while feeling threatened or in a place where one is constantly on the defence, or on the charge. Any classroom can be a perilous place as much as it can be a gift, a place where we grow frustrated with and mistrusting of one another, a place where we can learn the disgraceful habits of competition and soon forget that the texts we employ, and the ideas we share, are not part of some intellectual game but rather represent our efforts to think faithfully about the narratives of divine love. I believe that the story of God is the most beautiful of stories, and we learn it best when we learn in such a way that that beauty finds form in our learning together.

But there is another side to all this. For if the learning environment is merely safe, it is unlikely that anyone will learn anything at all. Teaching calls for a kind of necessity for violence – a kind of violence against our dearly-beloved ideas and convictions, for example – apart from which the kind of expectations I have in my teaching cannot be reached. Thus there is a real sense in which I hope that my students will not feel safe at all. For there seems little point in undertaking theological study unless one is willing to have one’s ideas interrogated, challenged, transformed, changed. Real learning is always a kind of repentance, with all of the risk and pain in the arse that such entails. It may also, as George Steiner has noted, ‘take us as near as is possible to the concept of resurrection’. In this sense, I invite my students to resist with all their might the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom and what Ilan Stavans recently called the ‘façade for overprotectiveness’. ‘Being in class’, Stavans writes, ‘doesn’t bring salvation. Instead, it plunges you into the contradictions that shape our lives. Safety is a basic principle of education: Knowledge results from trust, and trust comes from care. Yet whether we like it or not, violence is an unavoidable feature, our constant companion. Nature without violence is a contradiction’.

‘Fidelity and betrayal are close knit’ (Steiner) in any community, classrooms included.

Musings on Ministry and Theological Education

Anne MallabyA guest post from Anne Mallaby

Coming to the end of a formal pastoral leadership at Box Hill Baptist Church creates a moment to reflect upon ministry as it has been experienced in the local church context, and in my involvement in theological education within the formal educative process. Often this may have appeared to be a dance between separate spheres of academic theology and its practical outworking that could be at best considered a tension, and at worst placed as polarities. However, for me the concluding of formal pastoral leadership responsibilities does not mean that my love for the church as it strives to express the love of God in the world will stop. It continues, albeit in a different mode but contributing to both in ways that hopefully serve the realm of God expressed locally and more broadly.

For many years, I have lived out a model of ministry that sought to apply academic thought to practice by intentionally considering how academic thinking informs my practice, and, in turn, how my practice prompts more rigorous examination and understanding. The conversation between the two has provided a rich base for ministry, with experience informing theological thinking and the resources of the academy enriching my pastoral practice. I’ve delighted in that interesting dialogue that takes seriously the challenges of engaging with people, religious systems, and social phenomena, and that seeks to reflect theologically upon them. And, in truth, I’ve never been tempted to see this conversation as a one-sided one. We need the academy to distil the social data, the sources of our tradition, and the richness of our text. And the academy needs the practitioner to ask the questions, to prompt the exploration, to seek understanding. This has never been an either/or approach. The academy and the practice of ministry delight together in a dance that rises and falls, seeking to catch the rhythm of God with us.

Often when we turn our attention to intentional rigorous thought, searching to make sense of the many conundrums that come our way in ministry, we shy away from thinking of this as academic research. But to truly grapple with issues that lay before us, we need to understand deeply and fully as much as we can. If ministry on the run is our sole approach, we are likely to run full headlong into complex situations that have been over-simplified or run away from the opportunities for rich learning and engagement that will inform how we live.

I’ve needed the rigor of the academy to make sense of my practice, to stimulate my thinking, and to prompt me to extend my ideas and practice. But there is a compromise of resourcing and time. Trying to be abreast of the most current thinking, responding thoughtfully and intelligently to trends and contemporary questions, requires thinking through the implications and considering fresh paradigms of thought with as much energy as we can gather. We need the means of gathering that research and the skills to interpret it within our contexts, and we need people who have those skills and the time to support us in this endeavour.

Of course, we are all practitioners. We engage in community life with real people seeking to live well in God. We are practitioner-theologians in one sense. That said, we can’t all be on top of everything, and if we are to delight in new discoveries and to be open to new insights in our learning, then time and space need to be available for this. If I’m honest, even keeping up with the latest research is a challenge, let alone contributing to it!

As my formal ministry leadership role in a local church comes to an end, the question may be asked if I have sold out to the desire to live in books and ideas? This is not only a simplistic view of the Academy; it is flawed. Just as I’ve needed the rigor of academy to offer input and clarity along the way, so too I will need the community of God to raise up some of the questions that are important and that need to be explored. We all need people who have the capacity to discern clearly and to think deeply about important subjects that inform our living.

I am committed to informed and integrative learning as the way forward for our churches and our formational programs. And being informed requires thoughtful, intentional, attention to research and discovery. I’m excited to be a part of a team who are committed to doing this together.


Ed. Some related posts can be read here and here.


The political realm as a place of spiritual decision

Plato's Symposium - Anselm Feuerbach

‘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

Galarrwuy Yunupingu on leadership

Galarrwuy Yunupingu

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.

Australia’s offshore detention system and the Journal of Medical Ethics

Offshore detentionJulian Burnside has drawn attention to four recently-published articles on Australia’s offshore detention system. They appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and they contribute to a significant and growing body of academic literature on what is a far cry from being a merely academic subject:

ABSTRACT: Australian immigration detention has been identified as perpetuating ongoing human rights violations. Concern has been heightened by the assessment of clinicians involved and by the United Nations that this treatment may in fact constitute torture. We discuss the allegations of torture within immigration detention, and the reasons why healthcare providers have an ethical duty to report them. Finally, we will discuss the protective power of ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as a means of providing transparency and ethical guidance.

ABSTRACT: Australian immigration detention centres are in secluded locations, some on offshore islands, and are subject to extreme secrecy, comparable with ‘black sites’ elsewhere. There are parallels between healthcare professionals working in immigration detention centres and healthcare professionals involved with or complicit in torture. In both cases, healthcare professionals are conflicted between a duty of care to improve the health of patients and the interests of the government. While this duality of interests has been recognised previously, the full implications for healthcare professionals working in immigration detention have not been addressed. The Australian Government maintains that immigration detention is needed for security checks, but the average duration of immigration detention has increased from 10 weeks to 14 months, and detainees are not informed of the progress of their application for refugee status. Long-term immigration detention causes major mental health problems, is illegal in international law and arguably fulfils the recognised definition of torture. It is generally accepted that healthcare professionals should not participate in or condone torture. Australian healthcare professionals thus face a major ethical dilemma: patients in immigration detention have pressing mental and physical health needs, but providing healthcare might support or represent complicity in a practice that is unethical. Individual healthcare professionals need to decide whether or not to work in immigration detention centres. If they do so, they need to decide for how long and to what extent restrictive contracts and gagging laws will constrain them from advocating for closing detention centres.

The compromised nature of healthcare has now been well documented along with the pervasive nature of dual agency (or dual loyalty) obligations, between that of patients, the immigration department and other contractors. This has only served to restrict and distort the nature of healthcare and limit clinicians in their roles with healthcare frequently subverted to other policy goals. Accountability is obscured and oversight is limited with arrangements that attempt to divest responsibility from the immigration department. At best clinicians are required to navigate ethically fraught terrain where they frequently have to compromise what may be ideal or even generally accepted treatment, at worst this promotes conduct that is clearly unethical. Along with the detention environment this all serves to curtail what benefits may usually be gained from treatment. These issues have played out in a more acute form in off-shore detention where there has been a number of examples of the immigration department intervening in medical transfers and treatment recommendations.

Sadly and justifiably, regardless of the final results of this past weekend’s federal election, those illegally detained in Australia’s offshore detention centres can expect nothing to change. We are being governed by xenophobic dragons with little regard either for the rule of law or for human decency.