Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Day of Remembrance for Lost Species: the Bramble Cay melomys

This is the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), aka Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat. On earth, there are over 2,200 rodent species comprising about 40 per cent of all mammal species. What's one rat?

And the Bramble Cay melomys is amongst the most insignificant of rats. It is not particularly genetically distinct from a number of other similar species of melomys. It's never been useful for any human project. We've never hunted it for fur or meat. No child has ever had one as a pet. No tourists have ever paid to see one. It may perhaps be considered the least of all mammal species.

Bramble Cay, from which this rat draws its name, is its only known habitat. And this is amongst the most insignificant of islands. Just a few hundred metres across, less than 4 hectares in area, the cay is a tiny dollop of sand in the Torres Straight, closer to PNG than the Australian mainland. It is the northernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef and the northernmost piece of land over which Australia claims sovereignty. And it is flat and basically featureless, never rising more than a couple of metres above mean sea level. No humans have ever lived on the island. It is amongst the least of all islands.

The Bramble Cay melomys was first described scientifically by Oldfield Thomas in 1924. It is not hard to find as the cay is so small. It is just that no scientists bothered to go there until then.

In the 1970s, it was recorded that there were several hundred Bramble Cay melomys flourishing on the fleshy leaves of the scrub that holds the sand together. A 2004 survey found just a dozen. The last official sighting was in 2007. A fisherman who often visits the island says he last saw a melomys – just one – in late 2009. This solitary animal may have been the endling of the Bramble Cay melomys, the last of its line.

Two official University of Queensland surveys in 2014, the last one involving multiple camera traps and intensive daytime searches, failed to find a single individual. A couple of months ago in an official scientific report, it was declared extinct.

The report said habitat destruction from ocean inundation was almost certainly to blame for their extinction:
"Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys. Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change."
This creature is not only the most recent extinction of which I'm aware, and not only is it another item on the embarrassingly long list of lost Australian mammals, and not only might it stand in as a terrestrial placeholder for all the (largely unrecorded) marine species lost in the northern GBR during the recent catastrophic bleaching also caused by a warming ocean, this insignificant rat is also a symbol for all the useless little species, the unknown earthlings winking out all over the place on a rapidly changing planet, whose lives and existence precious to God.

Thomas Aquinas once wrote:
“Although an angel, considered absolutely, is better than a stone, nevertheless two natures are better than one only; and therefore a Universe containing angels and other things is better than one containing angels only.”
Tonight, we mourn the Bramble Cay melomys, a gift we were largely ignorant of having received, a creature whose loss doesn't threaten us, yet whose demise was pretty much entirely our fault.

This too was one of the creatures called to praise their Creator in the great choir of life (cf. Psalm 148). Its voice is now stilled. Let ours fall silent also.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On consistently labelling terrorism

Terrorism: the threat or use of violence intended to provoke fear and targeting civilians for political, religious or ideological reasons.

This has been the definition of terrorism I've been working with for a few years. It is very similar to official legislative definitions in a number of jurisdictions. Yet it seems to rarely be applied consistently. Typically, it is only used for non-state agents, and mainly used when the perpetrator is not from a dominant social group. But if my definition above is what we actually mean by terrorism then there is far more terrorism that happens around the world than is usually recognised.

When an ISIS-sympathiser carries out a mass casualty attack in a major Western city, that is terrorism (though not if they attack a military target, btw - that is just part of irregular warfare).

When a white nationalist assassinates an elected MP while shouting xenophobic slogans, that is terrorism (amazing how so much of the media has avoided using the term in reporting on the trial of Jo Cox's assassin).

When an authoritarian regime drops barrel bombs in civilian areas or conducts strikes against hospitals, that is terrorism.

When a "liberal democracy" uses double tap drone strikes targeting first responders, or designates all males of fighting age in an area as energy combatants until proven otherwise, that is terrorism.

When white supremacists torch black churches or paint threats on mosques, or graffiti swastikas on synagogues, that is terrorism.

When an apartheid state illegally occupies or blockades a territory and severely limits the residents' access to water, food and basic supplies, that is terrorism.

When law enforcement targets certain kinds of protesters for unnecessarily brutal treatment, or exhibit a pattern of using deadly force against certain kinds of unarmed suspects, that is terrorism.

When government-backed hit squads assassinate activists who are highlighting state injustices, that is terrorism.

When an angry man yanks off a woman's hijab, or promises violence against an LGBTI person, or tweets a rape threat to a female journalist, that is terrorism.

When colonial invaders dispossess indigenous peoples, forcibly remove their children and erase or suppress their culture, that is terrorism.

When a government harvests organs involuntarily from political prisoners of conscience, that is terrorism.

When a political candidate threatens violent reprisals against his opponents, that is terrorism.

If we are going to use the term at all, then let us at least be consistent.

Friday, July 15, 2016

On extremism

I will not condemn extremists.

I condemn violence. And these two get conflated so often it is worth asking ourselves why, whose interests are served by this blurring.

Those who use violence in pursuit of their political agenda are regularly labelled extreme. If only they had pursued their goals through peaceful means, we say. Yet this obscures the everyday violence of a system so “normal” that it will never be called extreme.

When multinational banks, fossil energy companies and weapons manufacturers get subsidies, tax cuts, loopholes, political access and nothing more than slaps on the wrist, while indigenous people, single parents, the disabled, elderly, unemployed get austerity, services cut, grievances ignored, working conditions eroded, civil liberties constricted, living spaces polluted, their struggles and small escapes harshly criminalised – that is violence. Holding desperate people in abysmal conditions to stoke and pander to xenophobia for political gain is violence. Suppressing the memory and ongoing legacies of colonial genocide and dispossession is violence. Foreign policy that puts the interests of elites over the upholding of international law, that mutes criticism of useful authoritarian regimes while unflinchingly supporting allied imperialism is violence. Sacrificing a stable climate for the short term profits of a small number of major shareholders is one of the most violent ideas ever conceived. It may not look like a bomb in a market, or a truck ploughing through a crowd of people, but its victims end up just as dead or wounded. The values, assumptions, institutions and practices that sustain it are violent and unjust.

But they are not considered extreme, because they are the status quo. It suits those who benefit from the ways things are to focus our condemnation elsewhere, to channel our outrage into xenophobia, victim-blaming and the relative trivialities of the latest celebrity scandal or sporting upset.

To be extremist is to stand opposed to the status quo. This can be done violently and for unjust goals, but it needn’t be. And when the status quo is itself violent and unjust, then opposing it is the only defensible option. Such opposition can take many forms, but historically, many of the most effective struggles against injustice were considered extreme by the status quo of the time. Martin Luther King Jnr was condemned as an extremist and had the resources of the white supremacist state marshalled against him. Nelson Mandela was gaoled for decades and remained classified as a terrorist by the US even while president of South Africa. Berta Cáceres, the indigenous Honduran environmental activist, was assassinated earlier this year for being an effective extremist. Universal suffrage, the forty hour week, the abolition of child labour, worker’s compensation, basic environmental regulations protecting clean air and water – all these and more were won by movements condemned at the time as extremist.

And the Galilean preacher who disturbed the violence of the Pax Romana with his revolutionary message of the last being first and the powerful brought low, who taught his followers to love their enemies yet to refuse to worship power, to see strangers as neighbours and even the wicked as loved by God, to first take the log out of our own eye, who exposed the collusion between religious, nationalist and imperialist agendas: he was the greatest extremist of all. The movement he began, if it is to remain true to his life and teaching, can never rest comfortably with a status quo where women are killed by their partners, children are forcibly made into soldiers and sex workers, debtors are crushed, whistle-blowers are punished, warmongers profit from their lies, and the habitability of the planet is in peril.

So do not condemn extremism. Condemn violence: especially violence that targets innocents, that targets those who are already suffering, that targets the most vulnerable. Condemn injustice. Condemn the ideologies and practices that uphold a violent and unjust status quo as well as the ideologies and practices of those who oppose it violently and unjustly.

Let us have more extremists: extremists for love; extremists for justice; extremists for peace; extremists for honesty. I am an extremist. Are you?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

On the "Christian Values Checklist"

Each Australian election, a coalition of Christian groups promote a resource called the "Christian Values Checklist" from the Australian Christian Values Institute, comprised of a list of twenty-odd "issues of concern to Christians", with the major three parties and a few right-wing minor/micro-parties evaluated. For each issue, each party gets a green tick or a red cross (or sometimes a question mark). The list has varied only slightly each time, but the contents are dominated by a relatively narrow set of issues in sexual and bioethics, along with certain privileges associated with the maintenance of a "Christian heritage".

The results mean that parties identifying as Christian typically get all green ticks, the two majors get a mix (with the Coalition faring much better than ALP) and the Greens get all red crosses except for the very last line, which is a generic environment question where every party gets the same green tick. The overall effect is far more important than the specifics. At a glance, readers are confronted visually by the idea that the more right-wing the party, the more "Christian" it is.

Each election cycle, I've posted some critical observations on this document. If they wanted to call it "our opinions on some issues we care about", that would be one thing. But they claim to be addressing issues "affect[ing] the very foundation of our society" and implicitly, the most important issues Christians care about, which is not true either empirically or (I would argue) theologically.

So, to limit myself to two brief comments:

1. What is left out? Heaps! A brief list off the top of my head: corruption, military spending and priorities, health spending and policies, education spending and policies, taxation, welfare, homelessness, Indigenous justice, DV, banking regulations, freedom of the press, economic inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, surveillance, foreign aid, foreign policy, industrial relations, agricultural policy, water policy, negative gearing, ABC/SBS funding, disability policy and more and more and more.

On some of these, one small(ish) aspect is singled out as the "Christian" bit: that wealthy private schools get "equitable" funding, that abortion funding be removed from foreign aid, that gender-selective abortion be removed from Medicare (interesting double standard there: if you're opposed to abortion overseas, why not make the abolition of all Medicare funding the issue?), and so on.

2. What is put in? Many issues where Christians disagree in good faith. Some direct contradictions (support free speech but want default internet censorship). And much that is oversimplified and thoroughly misleading. For instance, if the Coalition get a tick for their support "legitimate orderly immigration", then this means abuse and illegality are considered legitimate.

Yet the bit that makes me laugh the hardest every time is the final line.

As though the entirety of environmental policy can be handled with a tick or a cross, and then every party gets a tick! This is such a crass way of giving the most curt of nods to the near universal support amongst Christians for creation care (NCLS says that over 80% of churchgoers affirm it as part of Christian discipleship), while defusing it as an issue by saying that we're all greenies now and the differences between preserving a habitable planet and the thinnest veneer of greenwash are irrelevant.

So, as a document revealing one strand of Christian political beliefs and priorities, it is illuminating. As a document intended to guide Christians' electoral discernment, it is not.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

A prayer for mothers

God from whom we have all received life,
    Thank you for mothers: for the women who gave each of us birth, and for the women who preceded us in the faith.

Thank you for Eve, the mother of all the living.
    You love all her children: those who came before us, those who will come after us, those who are (or seem to be) our enemies, those whose suffering is distant to us, those whose lives are harmed by the systems from which we profit and prosper. Teach us once more that we all belong to you, that we are one family. Forgive us when we forget that we are still called to be our brothers’, our sisters’ keeper. Give us today our daily bread, that we may learn to share it generously and justly. And let us not neglect the bread, the land, the respect and honour that we have stolen from Australia’s first peoples. Forgive us our trespasses.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Sarah, mother of Isaac, who laughed at your crazy promise and then laughed again in joy when she held it in her arms.
    You are patient with all of us who struggle to see your goodness in the pain and misery of the world. You hear the cries of those suffering crippling drought in Zimbabwe, drought and famine in Ethiopia, drought and heat waves in Vietnam, Thailand and India, those thousands who have lost homes in the heat wave and fires of Alberta, those still rebuilding after cyclone Winston in Fiji, those slowly losing their homeland in Bangladesh and low-lying Pacific islands, those reliant upon bleached coral reefs for food and livelihood, and all those whose future seems to have dried up, who cannot imagine how you could be faithful to them on a planet getting dangerously warm. Give us a renewed trust in your goodness, and an eager desire to embody that goodness in your world, to be living symbols of your care and delight in all your children. Thank you for those around the world taking peaceful direct action today and this week to break free from dirty energy and the dirty politics it engenders. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Tamar, mother of Perez and Zerah, a woman abused, exploited, shamed and threatened with death – all due to the failures of men in her life – yet whose resilience and creativity turned the tables on her abusers.
    You cherish all your daughters: including all those bearing scars of the body and of the soul. Too many of those wounds were inflicted by men: fathers, brothers, husbands; bosses, pimps, priests. Break the entitlement, heal the bitterness, dissolve the disdain and dismantle the systems that teach our sons to scorn their mothers and to mistreat the mothers of their own children. Rescue women trapped in cycles of violence and abuse, liberate the enslaved and empower the voiceless. Provide resources to domestic violence services, wisdom to policymakers and humility to your people to learn afresh your gentleness. Deliver us from evil.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who gave birth in secret then entrusted her child to the waters in order to escape Pharaoh’s murderers.
    You embrace all mothers living under tyrants, and all who entrust their children and even their own lives to the waters. Guard and protect them. Raise up those who will take them into new homes. As we hear of tens of millions fleeing war and persecution, fill our hearts with compassion towards all those in desperate need. You love the mothers of those trapped and suffering on Nauru and Manus Island. You know their fears, the withering of their hopes. Comfort those mourning the death of Omid Masoumali. Preserve the life of Hodan Yasi. And as our government’s policies have faced condemnation in multiple courts this week, bring fresh vision and deep wisdom to our national imagination, that we may share more fully your heart for all who cry for help. Make our churches places where hospitality is practised and practised and practised until it is second nature for your people to extend protection and care. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, who became like a mother to her when they were both widowed.
    You welcome all those whose family lives have been fractured and reformed, with bonds formed not by blood but still with great loyalty and love. Be with all those estranged from their mothers, and with mothers estranged from their children. Bring healing, perseverance, insight and even (we dare to ask) the usually-slow often-imperfect miracle of reconciliation. Provide extra nurture and care for those whose mothers have recently died, or for whom today is a fresh reminder of old grief.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Hannah, mother of Samuel, who for year on year was deeply distressed at not being able to have children and who faithfully brought her tears to you.
    You care for all those without children who mourn (often in secret): the involuntarily single, the infertile, the ones wounded by broken dreams. Hold close today those who have lost children: whose babies were carried but never met, or who were held but couldn’t be taken home, or who came home but didn’t stay. Build us into a body that is attentive to our members who need particular honour and tenderness.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Esther, an orphan who became queen, without recorded children, yet who is known today as the mother of all Persian Jews on account of her thwarting a genocidal plot through her courage and boldness.
    You delight in all who stand against injustice and are not silent in the face of wickedness. Thank you for the examples and legacies of so many women throughout history whose contributions to your people and your world have involved so much more than raising children. Remind us all that we are first your children and that you bless your church with all kinds of gifts. May we cultivate, encourage and equip one another for every act of service without enforcing stereotypes or implying that motherhood is the epitome of femininity.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Thank you for Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus.
    You love her and all those like her who receive your grace, obey your command, wait for your promise, and heed your Son. May your church follow her example and walk in his true and living way. Give us here in this place humility and patience as we listen to one another and reach out to our neighbours with the message and love of Christ.
    Lord in your mercy,
        Hear our prayer.

Let us pray together the family prayer that Mary’s son taught us.
    Our Father in heaven,
        Hallowed be your name…

Monday, May 02, 2016

Border "Control": a thought about language

Governments regulate their borders. "Control" of borders is like saying police should have "control" of the streets. Yes, crime should be regulated, but if you repeatedly emphasise the need for police to always have control, then it's not too long before you have tanks on the streets. The language of "control" is part of the problem as it implies "by whatever means necessary". Police and the criminal justice system regulate criminal activity, but not by whatever means necessary. Only according to law.

Political authorities may legitimately regulate their borders, but not by whatever means necessary. There is much about Australian immigration policy that has departed from this. Australia is doing the immigration equivalent of putting tanks on the streets.

So the dichotomy between "control" and "open borders" is a false dichotomy, which results in the false dichotomy between drownings and deliberate abuse.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Great Grief: How to cope with losing our world

"[...] In order to respond adequately, we may need to mourn these losses. Insufficient mourning keeps us numb or stuck in anger at them, which only feeds the cultural polarization. But for this to happen, the presence of supportive voices and models are needed. It is far harder to get acceptance of our difficulty and despair, and to mourn without someone else’s explicit affirmation and empathy.

Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health.

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly."

This short piece gives a sense of some of the psychological and emotional ground I cover in many of my presentations on climate change. It also briefly presents a version of the argument I make in my thesis (grounded not just in psychological research, but in Christian theology) about the significance of walking into our uncomfortable emotions if we are to think and act well as followers of Jesus and human creatures on a warming world.

Christian faith is a good context in which to explore and embrace the grief this article speaks about. Such grief (and the related anger, guilt, anxiety, etc.) is one of the vastly under-acknowledged realities of our day that shapes (amongst many things) the possibilities of Christian outreach; this is one of the things going on for many people, who are earnestly looking for a narrative that can make sense of this experience and a community in which to live it and respond to it.

And from my experience of talking to now thousands of Christians about this, there are many people in the pews experiencing this grief who have their own pastoral needs. It is not an issue that I think Christian leaders can ignore.

I have been touched by this Great Grief. Have you?
Image from here.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On growth, decoupling and distributive justice

This is a thought-provoking article on economic growth, ecological/climatic decoupling and distributive justice. The main claims that it makes are:
• Decoupling is largely (though perhaps not entirely) a fiction based on offshoring.
• Decoupling gets us nowhere near necessary climate targets.
• Decoupling continues the growth fetish that delays the urgent questions of distributive justice.
• Anti-growth campaigns can (in the absence of a strong distributive justice framework) merely reinforce neoliberal austerity goals.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Conflicting Baselines: a climate nerd winge

I find it incredibly frustrating and baffling that the IPCC and other major climate science bodies like NASA use a variety of unreconciled baselines for global temperature changes in the reports. Sometimes it is 1951-80, sometimes it is 1981-2010, sometimes 20thC average and so on.* I have not found a convenient set of translations between these baselines in the reports that would enable you to, say, add 0.4ºC to get from a 1880-1909 baseline to a 1951-80 baseline.
*Since climate averages are defined scientifically (at least by the recommendation of the WMO) as requiring a minimum of 30 years of continuous data, most baselines are 30 year periods, rather than single points in time.

Given that the UNFCCC negotiations are based on a preindustrial baseline ("hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above preindustrial levels", Cancun Agreement, 2010), yet have never (to my knowledge) defined precisely what "preindustrial" actually means nor attempted to quantify its relation to other baselines, it is unconscionable that the IPCC have not made this a far more prominent frame for all their work. In other disciplines, preindustrial is generally taken to mean prior to 1750 or so. One challenge of using preindustrial as a baseline in negotiations for a legally-binding international agreement is that high quality temperature data from direct measurements (rather than proxies) with good global coverage only extends back into the 2nd half of the 19thC (depending on how good you want the coverage to be). Even if the IPCC noted that estimates of global temperatures prior to the late 19thC have error bars too large for meaningful negotiations and suggested that the UNFCCC make, say, 1880-1909 the universal baseline for negotiations, that would be defensible.

One reason they haven't done so is that this would probably require a reconfiguration of the global goals away from neat round numbers, since paleoclimate specialists (who reconstruct temperature data prior to the instrumental record from proxy data) say that between ~1750 and 1880-1909 there was likely about 0.2ºC of warming. Shifting to a goal of under +2ºC from 1880-1909 would probably (and should) be resisted by those nations most vulnerable to warming.

Why does this matter? (Beyond obsessive concerns for clarity from scientists and those of us who appreciate precision)

It matters because the vast majority of journalists fail to mention (and may well not even be aware of) the issue of different baselines. The media thus regularly refers to goals like keeping temperatures below +2ºC without specifying their assumptions. Since most new scientific publications use a baseline considerably later than preindustrial, this means that many articles reporting on scientific findings give a very misleadingly rosy picture of the scale of ambition required to achieve the agreed UNFCCC target. It is much easier to meet a +2ºC from 1981-2010 target than a +2ºC from preindustrial (=~1750, or even 1880-1909) target.

And this matters because I expect that the number of parliamentarians who grasp these distinctions is also quite limited.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Glimmers in the gloom: 10 signs of climate progress

It is easy (and pretty apt) to get depressed about the climate situation. As records keep tumbling and feedbacks kick in and polluters continue to throw their political weight around, the momentum on our trajectory into ever greater disaster can feel overwhelming. Yet it is also apt at times to remember some glimmers of good news amidst the gloom. Here are the ten signs that most encourage me about places where progress that has been made since this image was taken a handful of years ago.

  •  In five years, the value of the four largest US coal companies has plummeted from $45b to $200m, a drop of more than 99.5%. A string of major financial institutions have declared the coal industry to be in structural decline.
  • For the last two years, China has reduced its coal consumption without being in recession. This included shutting down hundreds of smaller, dirtier coal mines.
  • For the last few years, new renewable electricity generation capacity has exceeded new fossil fuel + nuclear capacity. Both wind and (especially) solar have seen their costs drop dramatically in the last 5-7 years.
  • ExxonMobil faces the possibility of real legal consequences for their decades of lies and misinformation. And by extension, other fossil companies too.
  • Fossil fuel divestment continues to expand rapidly, with now trillions in funds under management having divested in part or whole, or having committed to doing so.
  • Mass civil disobedience against the causes of climate disruption is increasingly becoming a reality. Australian efforts such as the #LeardBlockade and #PilligaPush and #BentleyBlockade and #LockTheGate have seen the largest campaigns of civil disobedience since the Franklin River in the early 80s.
  • Leaders with large followings in the UK and US are speaking openly and repeatedly about corruption, plutocracy, inequality and corporate hegemony - and drawing the links to climate change.
  • Public opinion in the English-speaking world on the need for taking climate action is at its highest for almost a decade. While fickle and related most closely to recent weather as much as anything else, this nonetheless presents new opportunities.
  • The compromised and weak Paris Agreement nonetheless represents the most ambitious step forward in international negotiations thus far, with every nation signing on to the need to participate in emissions cuts to keep warming to less insane levels.
  • The US Republicans - the only major party in the developed world to embrace an official policy of climate denial - look increasingly likely to nominate an unelectable and divisive figure who could demolish their gerrymandered Congressional stranglehold on his way down.
  • The most recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si', was a stirring call with implications that were nothing short of revolutionary, whose effects continue to reverberate throughout the global Catholic (and catholic) church.
And the final encouraging sign is that I sat down to try to write a list of ten and came up with eleven.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Sacred Mess: Crumbs at communion and discerning the body

Disclaimer: I am neither a sacramentologist, nor the son of a sacramentologist. Take the following with a grain of salt. For lightly salted bread is delicious.

When celebrating the sacraments, some Christians focus on the holiness of the elements (bread, wine, water).* And this is good. It is beneficial to stop and reflect on the ways that everyday objects can speak to us of divine realities of grace, forgiveness, promise and fellowship, even to wonder at the sacredness of all creation in pointing to God's beauty, mystery, wisdom and power. We worship a God who became flesh and blood, ate bread and wine, washed in water and shared the very air we now breathe. The incarnation is thus the main theological grounding for refusing to draw a sharp line between the physical and the spiritual. The divine Spirit sanctifies physical objects to point us towards and bring us into the presence of, and union with, Jesus.
*Leaving aside for the moment the question of how many sacraments there are and proceeding on the minimalist assumption of the two on which nearly all agree: Holy Communion and Holy Baptism.

Yet too much focus on the elements themselves can lead to some sacraments being exercises in holy carefulness, lest the body and blood of Christ be wasted or disrespected, lest any be dropped, lost or inadvertently trodden underfoot. At its extreme, only priests can handle the elements, bread-like wafers replace everyday bread, the boisterous unpredictability of children is excluded until such time as they are able to participate with due solemnity, a special plate is held under the mouths of communicants to catch any wayward pieces, and sometimes lay people are not trusted with the cup at all.

But this is not the only way of conceiving of the holiness of sacraments. Instead, or perhaps alongside, of the Spirit sanctifying everyday objects, perhaps we may also speak of the Spirit sanctifying human actions. The washing of baptism and the sharing of communion (or the thanksgiving of the eucharist, depending on linguistic preference) become enacted parables of the kingdom, pointing in the performance of them to the spiritual realities of spiritual cleansing through immersion into the life of Christ, spiritual feeding upon the saving death of Christ. If so, then it is not such much the bread and wine themselves that are special, but the eating of them in thankful fellowship, remembering Christ's death and embracing the promise of his coming.

And if we thus shift the focus from holy elements to holy activities, then we may end up with a different set of assumptions about how to proceed. If we think of holy washing (baptism) and holy sharing/thanksgiving (communion/eucharist), then the human acts are foregrounded, rather than the physical objects used in doing them. God is manifest not simply in the atoms of alcohol, simple carbohydrates, water, ethyl acetate and so on, but in the act of drinking in fellowship with others. And if we make this shift, then rather than ensuring nothing is done to conceivably dishonour the elements in any way, the focus is on honouring the actions.

When sharing a meal with friends, you're not going to deliberately dump the food on the floor, but you're also not going to obsess over avoiding any tiny spill or mess. What is important is that the food mediates joyful, honest, reciprocal relationships. A meal in which everyone is doing their utmost not to leave a skerrick or morsel wasted or out of place is probably not a meal in which everyone is enjoying one another's company.

Exegetically, this distinction turns upon the two meanings of "body" in 1 Corinthians 11.29:
For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.
Traditionally, many interpreters took "body" (soma) to mean the presence of Christ in the elements. Thus, those who fail to discern the body are unbelievers, or those who lack due reverence for the elements. The corollary is that it is better to fence off communion from the young, the ambiguously repentant, the partially orthodox, lest we encourage them to eat and drink judgement upon themselves. Better to accidentally exclude someone who could have been included than include someone would ought to have been excluded. And better to ensure that no one fails to show due respect to the body and blood of Christ, even by accident, than to open the possibility of mess.

But we must read verse 29 in the immediate context of verses 17-22, where the apostle Paul scolds the Corinthians for failing to acknowledge one another, with some (likely the wealthy) stuffing themselves at the holy meal before others (likely the slaves) had a chance to turn up. His criticism is not that they were disrespecting the body of Christ through disrespecting the elements, but disrespecting the body of Christ through disrespecting their fellow believers. They show "contempt for the church God" through "humiliat[ing] those who have nothing" and through the divisions and factions they have allowed to form within the body of believers. The entire letter emphasises this problem, from the opening salvo in 1.10-17 through to the famous "body of Christ" passage in 12.12-31, which in turn leads into the even more famous love-poem in 1 Corinthians 13 (which is more about how Christians are to treat one another as a church than about a healthy marriage, despite its near ubiquity in weddings). Therefore, in both the immediate context and the context of the whole epistle, it is far more natural to read "body" in 11.29 as the body of believers. Thus, those who eat and drink judgement upon themselves are those whose celebration of the holy meal is insufficiently interpersonal, insufficiently attentive to our neighbour, insufficiently focused on the act of eating in fellowship and thankfulness. On this reading, it is better to include some who perhaps ought to have been excluded than to exclude anyone who really ought to have been included. Ironically, the reading of "body" that emphasises the holiness of the elements can itself sometimes be the cause of our failure to honour one another or the holiness of the sharing Paul (and Jesus) invites us into.

Bottom line: when it comes to celebrating sacraments, the more the merrier. Share with children. Share with the ambiguously faithful, the confused and doubting, the seeking and struggling. Share with the sick and with those whose hands shake so much that they might spill. Obsess less over what ends up on the floor and more on the faces with whom we share a gracious feast of love.

Baptisms should leave the floor wet. Communion should leave holy crumbs.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

An environmentalist martyr? Some Christian reflections

Honduran indigenous and environmental organizer Berta Cáceres, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, has been assassinated in her home. She was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras, which Global Witness says has become the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists.
- Democracy Now, 3rd March 2016.

This crime is part of a broader pattern of indigenous leaders being assassinated and repressed in Honduras since the coup in 2009.

It is also part of a broader pattern (especially in Central and South America) of environmental activists being murdered. Hundreds are killed each year.

What is different here is that Berta Cáceres had more global prominence than most indigenous leaders and global south environmentalists, partially due to having received the Goldman Prize.

Persecution of environmentalists and indigenous people in (some) western nations, generally takes more subtle forms: designation as terrorists, surveillance, restrictions of legal rights, demonisation in the corporate press for environmentalists and dispossession, marginalisation, racism (overt and systemic), elevated incarceration, and demonisation in the corporate press for indigenous peoples.

Christians who follow the crucified and risen Messiah are discipled into a narrative that often places us in conflict with empire (even if some Christians haven't realised that yet or suppress it). If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar's claims to universal jurisdiction are idolatrous and false. Failure to recognise and submit to imperial claims can be bad for your health. This is why so many Christians have been killed through the ages (and today!) for following Christ.

Today, empire takes various forms: aggressive militarism, economic exploitation, corporate hegemony, individualist consumerism, neo-colonialism and what Karl Barth called the "almost completely demonic" force of capitalism (CD III/4, 531).

But empires are empires because they become adept at wielding the sword (in its various guises) against all opponents, not just Christians. That environmentalists and indigenous leaders (and in this case, both) are being persecuted and killed for standing against corporate profits and corrupt governments ought to lead followers of a crucified man into a measure of solidarity with them.

Christians bear witness to the truth of Christ's victory through words and lives that conform to a different logic of grace and peace. This will lead us into a variety of responses to the contexts in which we find ourselves; there is no one-size-fits-all Christian response to empire. However, the Nazarene will not let us make any lasting peace with empire. If we don't at times find ourselves in (at times) dangerous contradiction to the powers of this age, then perhaps we've grown a little too used to seeing through the eyes of our dominant culture and may need to be awakened once again to the call of the one who bid his first disciples leave their nets, their tax booths, their swords and take up their cross.

Berta Cáceres was very likely killed for her work bearing witness to certain truths. Are there any truths that you believe are important enough to risk doing the same?
Image from online search. Photographer unknown.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Intentions vs functions: when a desire not to offend is insufficient and largely irrelevant

They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Intentions matter for personal ethics, less so for social ethics. When we're considering a particular belief, act or behaviour pattern in an individual, then the conscious intentions held by the individual play a significant (though not exhaustive) role in the ethical evaluation of the belief, act or behaviour. If my six year old knocks her brother to the ground, the question of whether she accidentally struck him in the heat of a game or deliberately struck him in anger with a desire to hurt him is an important one.

But in the sphere of social ethics, where we are evaluating policies, cultural dynamics or systemic realities, then the beliefs, motives and intentions of particular agents fade into the distant background. Whether or not a policy was well-intentioned is largely irrelevant in comparison to how that policy actually functions. A slavery that the slavers conceive of as a form of enlightened benevolence is still slavery, and if the realities on the ground are no different, then it is no better or worse (for instance) than a slavery undertaken on the basis of explicit doctrines of racial subjugation (even if the two examples may lead to somewhat different strategies by emancipationists).

This distinction is crucial when it comes to social and political critique. When a policy or system is attacked, it will not do simply to point to the good nature of the policymakers, or the lack of enmity on the part of those in a privileged position. Such considerations may be important if the personal virtue of the individuals concerned is under discussion, but not for the policy, cultural dynamic or system.

President Obama may harbour no personal conscious anti-Muslim sentiment, but if the foreign policy of his administration includes support for dictators in Muslim-majority nations, the invasion of Muslim-majority nations, the extra-judicial killing of predominantly Muslims, the deliberate stoking of sectarian tensions to provoke intra-Muslim violence, and the upholding of an apartheid regime that oppresses mainly Muslims (for instance), then it may still be accurate to describe US foreign policy as significantly anti-Muslim in effect.

Tony Abbott may have a genuine concern for the plight of Australia's first peoples, but if his administration's policies included opposition to a treaty, the forced clearance of remote communities, the approval of mining licenses allowing for the destruction of sacred sites and degradation of indigenous land, the cutting of services to indigenous communities and the upholding of a colonialist narrative, then it may be still be accurate to describe the Abbott years as significantly anti-Aboriginal in effect. (And PM Turnbull may shed real tears as he speaks of the importance of upholding indigenous culture...)

The CEO of BP may have a genuine desire to see an orderly transition to a lower carbon economy in order to limit climate change in the most sensible low-cost way possible...

George Pell may have genuine compassion for the victims and survivors of institutional child abuse...
The CEO of Woolies may really want to see an end to problem gambling...

Premier Baird may lose sleep over the rates of domestic violence...

In short, the critique of bad policy needn't imply any criminal or otherwise deficient intent on the part of its crafters, nor is the upholding of their benevolence either necessary or particularly relevant in the evaluation of its effects. And this has implications not just for policymakers, but for all of us as we inhabit cultural spaces and social systems.

I may have strong commitment to fight racism, but if I am amongst the beneficiaries of a history of colonialism and white supremacy, I am not thereby immune from the need to check my privilege or at liberty to innocently assume race is irrelevant in my social interactions (nor do I get to put on blackface and claim that it's all good fun).

I may have a firm belief in the universality of human dignity and equality before God and an unswerving desire to honour women, but if I live in a society shot through with ongoing patriarchal logic, in which women are not in fact treated equally in all kinds of ways, then I do not get a free pass to (for instance) select an all-male discussion panel and hide behind a claim of meritocracy.

Wealthy capitalist philanthropists may have every good motive in wanting to alleviate poverty, but if their wealth accumulation was through a system that reduces labour and ecology to tradable value through the absolutising of instrumental reason and sacrifices lives and a liveable planet in pursuit of endless growth, then the people they may manage to save from capitalism's own ills do not thereby justify it.

In each case, the innocence of heart or otherwise of the agents is not what matters. What matters is the function of the system, policy or cultural norm in the lives of those affected by it. That is rarely straightforward. In each of the cases above, there are also positive functions. And so it is often a difficult responsibility to weigh the complex contributions of this or that cultural element, political agenda or economic model.

Indeed, part of the attraction of doing social or political evaluation through intentions is that we are all very familiar with the task of determining whether we believe an individual is trustworthy, a decent bloke/lady, a good egg, and so on. This is the attraction of working to put "good people in charge" and of all personality politics in which we obsess over the personal lives of elected representatives, and thus in which politicians are (generally) carefully stage managed to avoid perceived gaffes. But the temptation of such shortcuts must be resisted.

The good intentions behind bad policy make for might impressive pavement, but it's the destination that matters.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Climate and mental health

“People may, indeed, suffer from anxiety about climate change but not know it. They will have a vague unease about what is happening around them, the changes they see in nature, the weather events and the fact that records are being broken month after month. But they won’t be sufficiently aware of the source, and furthermore, we all conflate and layer one anxiety upon another.”

Living on a warming world is bad for your mental health. For climate scientists, environmentalists and those who have lived through climate-related extreme events, the impacts are often quite conscious. For many others, there is a deep unease lying not too far below the surface.

Awakening to climate change has affected my own mood considerably over the last eight or nine years. I have spent long periods of time depressed, angry, anxious and grieving. My thesis topic looking at emotional responses to climate change was prompted by both my own experience and the testimony of many people I know well who have started to take climate change seriously.

Finding resources to cope and reasons to keep going when we know worse is on its way will only become more important as the century progresses. My hunch has been that the gospel of Jesus, the community of the church and Christian practices of discipleship and spirituality may have a constructive role to play for some people. Not that these "cure" mental distress, but that they can shed new light on uncomfortable emotional experiences and keep open the possibility of creative action amidst bleak situations.
Image by Loic Venance (AFP/Getty Images). Waves breaks against a pier and a lighthouse during high winds in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France, on February 9, 2016