Monday, December 14, 2015

Reform vs revolution: visions of social change

There is a dispute or tension at the heart of most attempts at addressing injustice: should we seek achievable incremental change to make a broken system slightly less damaging to those who are victims of its injustice or risk more ambitious change that attempts to shift some of the fundamental reasons for that injustice?

For instance, the recent Paris Agreement, viewed through the incrementalist model was an outstanding semi-miraculous success, yet viewed through the lens of justice, was a further entrenching of the power of the systems that have caused the problem and which show little inclination of doing anything like what is necessary to avoid suffering on a grand scale.

Expressing the latter perspective, Slavoj Zizek says (and I've never managed to discover if he is quoting someone else at this point), "the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves", that is, some attempts at incremental improvements to the worst aspects of an unjust system can simply be part of maintaining that system by making it more palatable to the consciences of those who are the system's beneficiaries.

Yet a similar charge gets levelled against the idealists: by demanding more, the possibility of making real tangible improvements to the lives of suffering people is sometimes lost. Oliver O'Donovan praises the virtue of compromise, which means being willing to do "the best that it is actually possible to do", that is, to avoid making the best the enemy of the good.

But the tension here is not always destructive. We are not always necessarily faced with a choice between token improvements that inoculate against further change or demands for impossible systemic change that suck the energy from incremental reforms. Sometimes, strategic piecemeal reforms can help to express, build and solidify public opinion regarding values that ultimately lead to more ambitious changes. And sometimes, demands based directly in ideals reveal the truth of an injustice with a clarity that enables much-needed reforms to occur.

But the reason that this tension is perennial in all movements for change is that this dispute between reformers and revolutionaries cannot be decided a priori. In O'Donovan's language, "what is possible" is itself highly contested. Who is to say that what currently seems impossible might not become thinkable under the pressure of a sustained radical social movement?

Such judgements about what is indeed possible must be made according to close attention to the particulars of the situation, while also being informed by a vision of divine providence being capable of doing more than we ask or imagine; hard-nosed assessments of political openings must be combined with a strong sense of historical contingency, cultural malleability and the omnipresent possibility of repentance.

Put another way, reformers ought to be strategic in seeking reforms that will heighten rather than lessen the visible tension between reality and justice. Where there is a choice between improvements that tend to make the powerful feel more comfortable and improvements that help to further reveal the injustice of the present order, then pick the latter. And revolutionaries ought to articulate visions and select strategies based on a credible (if ambitious) path towards change, where the next step is comprehensible as movement on a journey towards justice.

Of course, this doesn't mean antagonism between reformers and revolutionaries will cease, or that all will agree on where the convergence between competing strategies might lie, but hopefully it can help in avoiding some of the more egregious dead ends.

So was the Paris Agreement a miraculous unprecedented step towards international cooperation or a woefully inadequate further betrayal of future generations and vulnerable lives everywhere that further reinforces the power of the perpetrators?

Your perspective probably reveals where you lie on the spectrum between reformer or revolutionary. For me: it is both.
Image credit unknown.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Forty years ago

On August 16, 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam gave the following speech when handing over freehold title of the Gurindji lands to Vincent Lingiari. The speech was written by Dr HC 'Nugget' Coombs.
On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australians who honour and love this land we live in. For them, I want: first, to congratulate you and those who have shared your struggle on the victory you have won in that fight for justice begun nine years ago when, in protest, you walked off Wave Hill station;

Second, to acknowledge we have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of black Australians; third, to promise you that this act of restitution we perform today will not stand alone. Your fight was not for yourselves alone, and we are determined that Aboriginal Australians everywhere will be helped by it; fourth, to promise that, through their government, the people of Australia will help you in your plans to use this land fruitfully for the Gurindji;

Finally, to give back to you formally, in Aboriginal and Australian law, ownership of this land of your fathers.

Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.

Friday, March 13, 2015

An Australian Hero: coal vs public health

Near the end of last year, a famous Australian put his religious and scientific convictions into action and was arrrested at the #LeardBlockade while non-violently protesting the construction of the Maules Creek open cut coal mine. This mine is being built in the middle of a critically endangered woodland ecosystem and is reducing the water supply to some of Australia's best farmland. The coal extracted over the planned lifetime of this mine will result in as much carbon pollution as would be emitted by hundreds of millions of people living with sustainable carbon footprints for a year. Air pollution from extracting, transporting and especially burning this coal will very likely result in thousands of early deaths and hundreds of thousands of people finding it more difficult to breathe.

So, who was this Australian icon putting his body on the line to protect our farmers, our koalas and bats, our neighbours, our habitable planet? I'm not referring to David Pocock​, though the rugby star and committed Christian was also arrested days later doing much the same thing, and undoubtedly received more coverage than of the other 350-odd arrests at Maules Creeks over the last year or so. I'm talking about the man who (in my book) is the most credible and authoritative of all those who have joined the #LeardBlockade: Professor Colin Butler​, an international expert on climate and public health, an IPCC author, and sole editor of the most up to date and weighty volume in that field, Climate Change and Global Health, a collaboration of 56 authors from 18 countries that came out weeks before his arrest. Prof Butler is also co-founder of the Buddhist NGO BODHI (Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight).

Prof Butler was arrested back in November and faced court yesterday, where the original charges against him were dropped and he was found guilty of a lesser charge. No conviction was recorded under Section 10, and Prof Butler was given a two year good behaviour bond (which is still heavier than many people who have been arrested under similar circumstances, including David Pocock).

Almost every time people read about people being arrested for peacefully protesting, there will be comments from confused people who have perhaps conflated "peaceful/non-violent" with "lawful", and who think it is outrageous that someone could be arrested for a peaceful protest. It was indeed a peaceful protest, but once which broke the law of NSW.

So what did Prof Butler do wrong?

Essentially, a parking violation. Prof Butler parked his backside in the middle of the road for a few hours (and presumably refused to move when directed to do so by a police officer), a road which just happened to one that mining equipment required for the construction of the mega-mine in question.

It is good to have laws against parking/traffic violations. In general, people ought not to be allowed to block public roads. But sometimes, there are bigger fish to fry: people really, really ought not be to be allowed to dig up sequestered hydrocarbons on a massive scale without regard for the damage caused by the extraction, and ought not be allowed to burn those hydrocarbons while dumping their waste into the global commons of the atmosphere and oceans in such a way as to endanger the habitability of the entire planet. In that context, one crime is far, far, far more serious than the other.

And so thank you Professor Butler. Thank you for your vital research, public voice and actions in seeking to protect the habitability of our home. There is no planet B.
First image (Leard State Forest being cleared for the mine) from Greenpeace Australia Pacific. Second image (Prof Butler's arrest) from Front Line Action on Coal.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Stop the boats! Torture and the agony of being lectured

"Stop the boats!"

And we have. Apparently.

Except what we have done is stop (most of) the boats from arriving. Stopped the public from hearing about them. Stopped the xenophobes from having to share our boundless plains with tiny numbers of uninvited people in desperate need.

We have not stopped people getting onto boats, as there are still tens of thousands in our regions who do so, driven largely by genuine and well-grounded fear of life and limb, according to basically every official attempt to quantify such matters. We have probably not stopped people drowning at sea, even if there are now fewer who drown in sight of Australian land. We have not stopped dangerous and possibly illegal things happening on water, we just no longer hear about them from the minister who is meant to be accountable to us for the actions taken in our name. And we have certainly not stopped xenophobia by flattering it with policies designed to woo its votes.

We have facilitated the abuse - physical, sexual, emotional - of thousands, including more than a thousand children, and destroyed the mental and physical health of many. Two have died unnecessarily, one violently, yet no charges have been laid more than twelve months after his murder, witnessed by many (some of whom were then allegedly flogged into recanting their testimony). We have seen abused children used as hostages in parliamentary negotiations. We have violently ended peaceful protests. We have thrown billions at a false solution during a "budget emergency", the annual cost per asylum seeker detained offshore being greater than the PM's (very generous) salary. We have corrupted the governments of multiple poorer neighbours, through leveraging our foreign aid to secure policy outcomes amenable to our purposes, forcing them into impossible Kafkaesque situations so that we might technically have clean hands - and so journalists and human rights commissions can be kept away. We have transgressed the sovereign territory of our neighbour with military vessels on a string of occasions. We have flagrantly breached multiple critical international treaties and undermined international trust and the rule of law. We have dragged Australia's reputation through the mud, behaving in ways whose only parallels are found in dictatorships and repressive regimes.

And yet, for a majority of Australians, these costs are worth it. Because we've stopped the boats. A system of lies, cruelty, abuse, fear and manipulation has been constructed with bipartisan support (at least for the basic policy structure), in order to achieve a goal questionable in value, efficacy and morality. Yet the popularity of the idea that we have thereby reduced deaths at sea makes it all justified.

Let me be clear: fewer deaths at sea is a great thing, all else being equal. But the bottom line is that we simply don't know if our draconian policies have saved a single life. Our government claims to have saved thousands of lives, claims that it's working, but won't show its working.

Let's for a moment assume they are telling the truth. Let's assume that thousands of would-be economic migrants without a genuine fear of death or persecution have been dissuaded from risking perilous journeys on leaky boats run by shonky operators with little regard for their passengers and consequently thousands of those who would otherwise have ended up floating in the Indian Ocean are still safely in their crowded Jakartan apartments without legal protection (or safely incarcerated in Indonesian detention camps). Even then, Tony Abbott's dismissal of the UN report on Australian torture would be irrelevant and misleading.

The UN Convention Against Torture does not rule out torture used for bad ends, or torture used by bad people, or torture implemented through particularly cruel mechanisms. It rules out torture. Unconditionally and universally. There are no circumstances under which torture is appropriate. You can fantasise all day about ticking bombs and "noble" uses to save a city from a WMD; such instances would still be torture, and still be banned. You can have inflicted torturous conditions on innocent third parties in order to deter thousands of potential drowning victims from risking a voyage and hence have saved many more lives than you tortured, and still have breached your unconditional, universal commitment never to commit torture. Article 2.2 states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

So pointing out, as I have done many times, that stopping the boats has not kept desperate people out of serious danger, only pushed them elsewhere, at one level, misses the point.

Affirming that seeking asylum is a human right and so genuine refugees who happen to arrive on a leaky boat are thus protected by international law from being prosecuted for any irregularity in their mode of immigration, which means that the victims of our torture have been convicted of no crime also misses the point (though I've used this one too).

Even explaining that punishing innocent third parties to deter others from a course of (legally protected) activity is a form of deep moral cowardice still doesn't quite nail it.

It is simply wrong - deeply, wickedly, heinously wrong - to torture people. It is wrong to torture people when you think you are serving a good cause. It is wrong to torture people if you are indeed actually serving a good cause. It is wrong to torture innocent people. It is wrong to torture people who are guilty of every crime in the book. It is wrong to torture as a deterrent to others. It is wrong to torture in secret where deterrence of third parties can never enter into it.

The recent UN report has confirmed in perhaps the most official way possible what has been obvious for some time. The conditions under which we have been (and still are) holding thousands of people are horrendous. The fact that we are holding them indefinitely is brutal and unnecessary. Using mandatory indefinite detention under cruel and abusive conditions as a deterrent to others denies natural justice. Our capacity, even desire, to "legally" commit refoulement stands against every lesson learned about displaced and persecuted peoples through the horrors of genocide and world war. In short: we have become torturers.

So Mr Abbott, what is worse than being lectured to about torturing people?

Torturing people.

Monday, March 02, 2015

On having dirty hands: Clean Up Australia Day

Sermon preached at St Matthew's Anglican, West Pennant Hills
On 1st March 2015, St Matt's held a joint service for all congregations after many parishioners had spent the morning cleaning up local parks and streets as part of Clean Up Australia Day.

Scripture readings: Psalm 104 and Romans 8.18-27.

When I was growing up not far from here, I had zero interest in my parents’ garden. For me, it was too much hard work - tending, watering, weeding - for too little payoff. With the impatience and selfishness of youth, I expected my efforts to result in immediate tangible personal benefits.

But now, I have a garden of my own: citrus trees, a blueberry bush, passionfruit vine, basil, tomatoes, zucchini, silver beet, basil, kale, leeks, capsicum, various herbs (including basil), a compost bin, a couple of worm-farms, some basil and a beehive. I love it! And I'm trying to inculcate an interest and appreciation in my two little kids that I never managed to gain until I was almost 30.

Some things take time to recognise. The patience, attentiveness, humility and willingness to get my hands dirty that I spurned as a youth are now things I cherish and seek to foster in myself, ever mindful of how fragile my grasp on them is.

Soil is now something I have learned to love. The opening chapters of the Bible speak poetically of humans being fashioned out of the soil. Indeed, even the name ‘Adam is a Hebrew pun, being the male form of the female word ‘adamah: soil, dirt, ground. ‘Adam from ‘adamah. The pun even (kind of) words in English: we are humans from the humus, a slightly unusual word for topsoil.* We are creatures of the dirt, relying on dirt for almost every mouthful of food.
*Technically, the dark organic matter in it.

And so I’ve come to love my worm-farms and compost: watching dirt form in front of my eyes. Seeing my food-scraps return again into the nourishing foundation of life from which they came.

But my garden in Paddington is apparently built on a rubbish dump. It seems like every time I dig, I come across broken glass, plastic, old bits of metal. My two year delightedly finds bits of glass and comes running excitedly to show me and I am caught between anxiety that he’s going to cut himself and pride that he is learning to cherish the soil and wants to keep it free of rubbish.

I often find myself wondering: what were they thinking, these people who apparently smashed their bottles into the soil and dumped random bits of plastic? Were they neighbours chucking things over the fence? Was it a former resident who was particularly careless? Was it the result of some long forgotten landscaping that brought in rubbish from elsewhere?

When we moved in, the house hadn’t been lived in for almost 12 months, and the backyard was overgrown. Gradually, as the garden has taken shape, we’ve been cleaning up the mess. And it feels good to be part of setting things right, even if it is in a small, very localised way. This little patch of dirt from which I’ve removed a few dozen bits of glass and plastic, is now cleaner and healthier than it was before.

And I bet some of you have had something of a similar experience this morning: taking a small patch of land and improving it, removing rubbish, cleaning it up, making it a little bit more healthy, more right, less polluted. Maybe you’ve wondered at those who dumped stuff – whether out of carelessness, apathy or haste. Maybe you’ve even got a little angry – it can feel good to be fixing something, and when you don’t know who was responsible for breaking it, it is easy to indulge in a little self-righteous harrumphing.

It also feels good to be working with others, doing something useful as a team, making the local area a little better for everyone. This is an act of service, an act of commitment to a place, an act that affirms that as creatures of the soil, it is right and fitting that we seek to take care of our little patch of it, even trying to clean up the mess that others have made. Both gardening as well as cleaning up the land, are very human acts – they are a kind of work that affirms our connection to the humus.

And when we turn to our passages this morning, we see that they are not just human acts, affirming our creatureliness, they are also, in an important sense, God-like acts. Cleaning things up out of care for others is to be a bit like God.

Our first reading, Psalm 104, is a wonderful poem celebrating the creative and caring concern God has for all of creation. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is here revealed as being the creator and sustainer of all creatures, great and small. God’s care extends not just to humans, but to the great family of life, the community of all creation. Written long before modern ecological science or the development of the concept of biodiversity, nonetheless, this psalm celebrates the diversity and abundance of the more-than-human earth. The psalmist notices the various habitats of animals, both domestic and wild, the times and seasons of their existence, and asserts in faith that Yahweh is the source and provider of all life, feeding and watering birds of the air, beasts of the land and even the monsters of the deep that so fascinated and frightened the inhabitants of the ancient near east.

And the striking thing is, there is no hint here that God’s care is exclusively or even primarily for humans; this psalm does not give us a human-centred view that assumes everything really belongs to us and exists to be used in our projects. No, God cares for humans in their labouring during the day, but the same land is then the abode of wild beasts at night that are also in divine care. God causes grass to grow for the cattle, but God also feeds the wild lions, the wild donkeys, the creeping things innumerable that scuttle under the waves. These animals were not only outside of the human economy, but at least in the case of wild lions, actively a hindrance to it. God’s providential care embraces even creatures that make life more difficult for people.*
*This point, and the language of the community of creation, is indebted to Richard Bauckham's Ecology and the Bible: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. Highly recommended.

Now, within this community of creation we do have a particular human vocation, a weighty responsibility placed upon us to reflect the image of God, to show forth God’s own caring concern for other creatures, to manage and steward the land in such a way that the blessing multiplies and grows. We are indeed invited to be gardeners. But Psalm 104 keeps us from getting too cocky, too ambitious, too self-obsessed in this task. We are to reflect and participate in God’s loving authority, which is always directed to the good of the other. Yet this authority is to be exercised as creatures. We are not demigods, halfway between God and the rest of creation, we don’t float six inches above the ground. We are pedestrian creatures, creatures of the dirt and to dust we will return. Fundamentally, we belong with all the other creatures, under the care of God, and if we are then invited to join in that task of caring protecting, it is precisely as creatures. We care for the soil as those who are deeply dependent upon it.

And this is a good reminder to us on Clean Up Australia day. It is so easy, especially in a modern industrial society, to act as though we are above or outside of the rest of life on the planet, rather than intimately connected to it in a vast web of life. Getting our hands dirty today hopefully did some local good, helped make a little part of the world somewhat better. But as we look at our dirty hands, this can also re-ground us as creatures of the soil and we can remember again our dependence upon crops growing, rain falling, soil remaining healthy, biodiversity remaining robust, pollutants being minimised, climate being stable. We have never before in history been so powerful, never before had such amazing technological wonders; but never before have we had such a massive, and largely detrimental, effect upon the habitability of the planet as a whole. There isn’t time this morning to recite the familiar litany of statistics, but they are indeed dire. I’ll just pick one: that as best as we can calculate, the number of wild vertebrates living on the planet has declined by about one third during my lifetime. There are all kinds of factors contributing to this: habitat destruction, hunting, overfishing, climate change, but our stewardship is failing if we are squeezing out these creatures, who are also dear to the one who created us.

And so there is a darker side to today. Our second passage hints at this. In Romans 8, the apostle Paul paints a vivid picture of creation groaning, as though in childbirth, in great pain, in bondage to decay.

If you have the passage in front of you, you’ll notice that there are actually three things groaning. First, there is creation itself, waiting with eager longing, yearning for the day when the current conditions of frustration and decay are no more. Just pause there for a moment and notice the content of Christian hope in Paul’s vision: “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. The creation itself: this is not a salvation that is purely for humans. We are not to be whisked off a dying planet away to a heavenly realm somewhere else. The creation itself is groaning, yearning, hoping. The creation itself is to participate in God’s great renewal, of which the resurrection of Jesus was the first taste. The Christian hope embraces earth as well as heaven – which ought to be no surprise to those of us who regularly pray for God’s will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven".

The second thing groaning is “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for […] the redemption of our bodies”. Again, the Christian hope is bodily – we hope for a bodily resurrection, just like Jesus'. But more than this, groaning is a normal, healthy part of the Christian life. Paul is no triumphalist, who thinks that discipleship consists of ever-greater thrills and bliss. No, we follow a crucified messiah and our fundamental experience is of frustration, which is the necessary precondition for hope, for who hopes for what is already present, already manifest? Groaning is spiritual – not grumbling, mind you – but groaning, a deep yearning desire for all that is wrong to be set to rights. And that deep desire is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, since it is those who have tasted the first fruits of that Spirit who groan. There is way in which being a Christian ought to lead us to being less content, less satisfied, less ready to make our peace with a broken world as though such brokenness is acceptable.

But if we keep reading our passage, we find that not only is creation groaning, not only are we groaning, but the Spirit also groans. In verse 26, where the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, it’s the same Greek word Paul used earlier for our groaning: this discontented yearning for the renewal of all things, this deep desire for the resurrection of Jesus to be expanded and applied to all creation, extends into the heart of God. God too groans.

We are again, therefore, invited to be godly. If Psalm 104 helped us to be a little like God in caring for a community of life that extends beyond human projects, Romans 8 teaches us to be a little like God in yearning for the renewal of all things. These two passages give us a way of looking at the world in which the rest of creation is not merely a backdrop to an exclusively human drama. We discover wider horizons as we come to see ourselves as creatures in a community of life, as sharing with all life a fundamental dependence upon God’s provision and interdependence with other creatures. And we are invited to see ourselves as sharing with all creation a fundamental frustration, a desire for our brokenness to be healed, our pollution cleaned up, a desire grounded in God’s own desire that all things be made new in Christ.

Because the pollution degrading our lives isn’t just the rubbish dumped in a local park, it isn't even just the rubbish we’re collectively dumping into the oceans and atmosphere, largely out of sight and not as easily cleaned up with a pair of gloves and some elbow grease, pollution that is altering the very chemistry of the air and water, changing the climate, acidifying the oceans. Even more than these, the pollution degrading our lives is also the rubbish we allow into our hearts when we place ourselves at the centre of our own lives, when we live as though we were something other than creatures in a vast web of life, when we pretend that salvation doesn’t include the rest of creation. All this needs to be cleaned up too.

And so in the context of these passages, our efforts today become far more than just being good citizens, or kind neighbours, or taking pride in our local area, or seeking to make some amends for times we may have trashed the place. In the grace of God, they can become a little taste of the Psalmist’s vision of true creaturehood, a little taste of Paul’s Spirit-filled discontentment with disorder. In God’s hands, our efforts today can become another step on a journey into following Jesus with our whole lives, a journey that may break our fingernails, that may break our hearts, but which is the only path towards true joy.