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

2–5 July, 2017-2.jpg

The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality

Seven Baptist theologians in the UK have penned a very good piece of constructive work, and a clear articulation of Baptist ecclesiology, in this statement ‘The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality’ [pdf].

They describe the Statement as ‘a call to Baptist churches to face our present disagreements over same-sex marriage by being faithful to a Baptist way of being church’.

The full Statement, plus some supporting documentation, can be accessed via this dedicated website.

On the fallacy of ‘Christian marriage’

brauysegen-im-bett

‘How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed/And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock’. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina, 15th century. Source

‘There really is no such thing as “Christian marriage” as the term is commonly used. “Christian marriage” is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. “Christian marriage” is a fiction. There is no more an institution of “Christian marriage” than there is a “Christian nation” or a “Christian lawyer” or a “Christian athlete.” Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world.

It is the same with marriage. Marriage is a fallen estate. That does not mean that it is not an honorable estate, but only that it is a relationship subject to death. It is a relationship established in and appropriate for the present age, but not known or, more precisely, radically transcended and transfigured in both the Creation and the Eschaton – in both the beginning and the end of human history.

As with any other reality of secular life, the Christian takes marriage seriously for what it is, but for no more or less than that. The Christian does not suffer illusions about marriage, but recognizes that marriage is a civil contract in which two parties promise to exchange certain services and responsibilities with respect to each other and to assume certain obligations for offspring of the marriage. At the same time, marriage is no merely private contract, for society at large has a particular interest in the honoring and enforcement of this contract. If the marriage contract is observed and performed with reasonable diligence, society, as well as the married couple and their children, benefits since an enduring marriage contributes to the economic, social, and psychological stability of the whole of society.

The fiction that there is some ideal of marriage for Christians which is better than or essentially different from an ordinary secular marriage is not only fostered by most Sunday School curriculum materials on the subject, but also by the practice of authorizing the clergy to act for the state in the execution of the marriage contract. Clergymen [sic] are licensed by the state to perform the functions of a civil magistrate, in spite of the supposed separation of church and state in this country. This both lends weight to the confusion about “Christian marriage,” and greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry. In the office and function of a civil magistrate, no clergyman really has the grounds to refuse to marry any two people who present themselves to him, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are temperamentally or otherwise ready to marry, as long as they meet the civil requirements for marriage; that is, are of a certain age, have had blood tests, meet any residence requirements, have a valid license, and pay the fee.

A more theologically responsible practice, I suggest, would be to divest the clergy of this civil office and require that all who will be married present themselves to the civil magistrate to be married. Then, if those who are so married are Christians, they will go to their congregation to offer, within the company of the Church, their marriage to be blessed, to seek the intercessions of the whole Church for the marriage, and to celebrate their marriage in the Church as a sacrament. A similar practice is followed in many parts of Europe and Latin America.

To restore such a practice would go a long way toward recovering the sacramental integrity of marriage between Christians. For to discard the fiction of “Christian marriage” and to understand that marriage is an ordinary, secular, and fallen estate in no way denigrates marriage for Christians. On the contrary, in marriage and all else the Christian is fully participant in secular life; but at the same time he [or she] is constantly engaged in offering his [or her] involvement in secular life for the glory of God. In such an offering, that which is ordinary is rendered extraordinary, that which is merely worldly is transfigured, that which is most common becomes the means of worship, and each act or event of everyday life becomes sacramental – a sign and celebration of God’s care for every act and event of everyday life in this world. Rather than demean or downgrade marriage, to restore such a practice would again give to the marriages of Christians the dignity of that which is secular made holy, of that which is a sign of death become a witness to redemption to all those, married or not, who are not Christian’.

– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 40–43.

 

On being loved

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

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

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

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

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

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

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

‘… never waste a crisis’

So Rabbi Sacks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest here.

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

‘Never waste a crisis’.

Margaret Preston, on the state of things

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

margaret-preston-the-expulsion-1952

– Margaret Preston, ‘The Expulsion’ (1952)

Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–––––

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

Public lecture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker

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

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

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

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

whitley-college-public-lectures

On losing our death literacy

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

– Kerrie Noonan

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

[Image: The Order of the Good Death]

 

On capitalism

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

– Ernst Käsemann, 1988

[Image: Andrew Cullen]

On our very own banality of evil


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I despair,

… and I resist despairing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Wolterstorff on homosexuality and same-sex marriage

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

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

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

‘I Used to Be a Human Being’

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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