Thursday, May 30, 2013

I am not a racist, but…

Little did we expect the storm that would erupt during the AFL’s Indigenous Round last weekend. Thoughtless remarks yelled by a 13-year-old at one of the games most celebrated and decorated Indigenous players, Sydney’s Adam Goodes, sparked opprobrium from all quarters. Some have expressed reservations because the term “ape” has been bandied around in sport for years, not being limited as a term of abuse for Indigenous players. However, the deeper history of the term is deeply insulting, a history which is clearly relevant when applied to Indigenous players and people of African heritage.

The response of Collingwood President Eddie McGuire on the night was nothing short of exemplary. He made his way immediately to the Sydney rooms, seeking clarification about what had been said, and offering unreserved apologies to Goodes. Counselling and support for the perpetrator was offered, seeking education rather than punishment. Goodes magnanimously but correctly highlighted that a 13-year-old is a product of her environment, reflecting attitudes she has picked up from around her. In this sense she is a symbol of attitudes which run deep in our community. Just how deep took a few days to unfold.

Yesterday’s comments by Eddie McGuire on air were both a shock and an embarrassment. Not only to Eddie, but to us all. His linking of King Kong to Adam Goodes, while a clumsy attempt at something, and probably an association made stronger in his mind by the events of the weekend, was inexcusable. All Eddie’s good work in response to Friday night was undone with a careless remark on air. Eddie highlighted how deeply racism runs through our community. There is no way of avoiding the conclusion that deep within us all there is a racist streak. It calls to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It is evident in responses of callers on talkback. “I’m not a racist, but…”

None of us like to think we are racist, least of all me. And yet… surely when I make a point of ensuring that an Indigenous person is not left standing alone at a gathering, I am responding because of their race? When I see someone whose culture is obviously different, I make a point of smiling and saying hello. At the heart of my response is the race of the person. While I am seeking to offer welcome and hospitality, am I still not treating them differently because of their race?And I am not immune from the occasional moment when I think of a funny comment or observation which is racist at its heart.

It is easy to point the finger at another and highlight their failings. It is so much more difficult to recognise and affirm that those failings are not far from the surface in our own life and attitudes. It is at the heart of the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Such thoughts cross all our minds from time to time.

We have come a long way in addressing racism in our community, and in our own lives. But the job is still a long way from being complete. It would be easy to make scapegoats out of this episode rather than own a problem which is still deep in our community, and in us all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Too much of a good thing?

One could be forgiven for thinking Australia was in bad shape. Reading the opinion pages of almost any daily paper will fill one with a sense that our economy is amongst the worst in the world, with an overburdening debt that is dangerous and irresponsible. The economic reality is that there have been only two quarters of GDP decline since 2007 (in 2009 and 2011), and our economy has grown 13% since the beginning of 2007. Few other economies can match that performance. Government debt is about 13% of GDP, compared to other major economies – including the US and the UK – with debt around 90% of GDP (and higher). We haven’t had a recession in over 20 years, yet the prevailing sentiment is that we have been through hard times. Perhaps we have had it too good.

Without wanting to walk into the trap of a previous treasurer who spoke of “the recession we had to have,” there is a psychological aspect of this which is worth contemplating. We have benefited as a nation from a long period of growth and prosperity, in recent years largely on the back of huge mineral exports. There will be a generation of workers who have never known a recession during their lifetime (despite the fact that in 2007 unemployment rose from 4% to 5.7%). There is an implicit presumption that things will always get better. A recession tends to remind us that there are times when we need to temper our expectations: we pull in our collective belts and realise that though there are some things that me might want, we could really do without them.

Recessions tend to bring correctives, and provide the atmosphere in which they can be justified. Instead we expect that our government will continue to extend entitlements to us which we arguably neither can afford as a nation, nor need. Can we afford to subsidise taxpayers through negative gearing to the extent of $13 billion? Or private health insurance at nearly $6 billion? Living with an attitude that things will only continue to get better compromises any attempt to justify removing such subsidies (which are enjoyed mostly by the more wealthy members of society).

A complacency born of continued good economic times has allowed governments to appear to be generous with handouts rather than tackle important infrastructure requirements which compromise our ability to maintain a healthy economy into the future. And when adjustments are suggested to improve overall outcomes, the inevitable outcry is focussed on those who will lose money as a result (witness the school funding debate), reflecting the assumption that we can always afford more.

And yet we also complain about the budget being in deficit… one of the side-effects of this continued generosity flowing to us.

While one would never wish a recession upon a nation, it does serve as a welcome corrective to our national psyche, helping us to realise that we can’t continue to have it all. One thing is for certain, we don’t seem to have political leaders with the gumption to step forward and challenge that assumption.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday: A Prayer

You are the One whose breath brings life through all creation.

We praise you, our God, because you appear to us in many forms:
We encounter you through many voices, diverse faces, and varied imagery;
We hear your whisper, step back from your booming voice, and wonder at the varied accents which convey your voice to us.

We know You as the One who creates:
Who brings good into the chaos, giving shape into our seemingly random and diverse life
We trust you in the sovereignty of Your perspective:
Watching over all creation, shaping a purpose which encompasses all of time, all cultures, and all circumstances

You have walked this earth among us, experiencing the joys and bruises which life can bring.
You have listened with compassion; joined in the celebrations of life in all its seasons:
Your feet were dirty from the soil on which we stand; your fingers stained by the food and wine we eat,
In the ordinariness of life, you walked with us, and showed us a beauty we have only begun to understand.

We know You as the One whose breath we have sensed:
Stirring winds which create chaos amongst our ordered and controlled lives, clearing away cobwebs and opening us to new opportunities.
We have been warmed by the outpouring of your life and grace:
Whispering words of hope, offering quiet prayers on our behalf, and providing words and wisdom in the unexpected moments.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
Three, yet one…
Opening us up to your work and your character
Giving us insight and understanding,
Yet preventing us from limiting You by our definitions.

Keep us open to Your presence,
Attuned to your wisdom,
Enlivened by your passions, and
Aware that even what we already know is but a shadow of your fullness.

You have revealed Yourself to us in many ways
Yet there is so much more of you to know.

Lead us into a deeper knowledge of You.

Friday, May 24, 2013


It struck me this week as I participated in a commissioning service for pastoral and spiritual carers in a hospital setting that hospitals are places of change. Patients who are admitted to a hospital are in a time of transition, one which may well call into question assumptions they had held about themselves, their identity and their humanity (or, more particularly, their vulnerability). Sitting in the background of the medical care being offered are deeper questions of purpose and identity. That we tend to think of hospitals as places of restoration (that is, being restored to health) masks the deeper challenges being faced. Hospitals are places of change.

But are they alone in this? What other institutions are places of change masked under a different banner?

My mind moved to schools: while education is their prime focus, surely this is about change more than anything else… guided change, expected change, growth and learning. That everyone in the system is on the same journey of change helps mask this reality, but education is fundamentally about change. Physical and emotional change is a part of what happens during schooling – is it ancillary to education, or part of it?

In fact education in all its forms is about change. We are doing more than learning information, skills and perspectives whether we are in kindergarten or a post-graduate course. Engagement with the topic of study brings with it a range of other shifts in our attitude. Studying economics or law, for example, raises questions of justice and equity and our contribution to it.

And then there’s church. Church as a place of change? I am reminded of an old joke: How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is: Baptists? Change??? Sometimes it appears that churches are the most resistant to change. There is a fundamentally conservative element which often comes to the fore whenever cultural and social change is proposed. Of course churches should be agents and catalysts of change. The Christian faith is driven by hope of a renewed creation, by the hope of redemption of all creation. Christians are called to a new future that is breaking into the present. But our engagement with a fixed canon of scripture and an often unchanging liturgy of worship, the impression can be created that church is about conservation and preservation rather than recreation and growth.

On reflection I find it hard to recognise and institution or organisation that isn’t about change. Even as we resist change, it happens to us, often hardening us to the opportunities which are presented daily for growth, for life, and for renewal.

Change is the one constant in life, or as one wag put it: change is inevitable (except from a vending machine). As those who lead and participate in communities, we need to affirm ourselves as communities of change, or at least changing communities. As we do so, we invite ourselves to be co-creators in the formation which is taking place. As we resist, we leave ourselves open to being formed by forces which we are unable to recognise, let alone control.

We are all changing. The question is, are we growing, or decaying?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Holey Hope

Yesterday I reflected on the oft-expressed character of hope in the evangelical tradition which leaves a huge hole in the middle. Is it really there?

My understanding of the opening gambit in Matthew’s gospel to be something of a call to judgment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” is the first call of both John the Baptist and Jesus as they shape their work and ministry. It’s that word repent that does the trick. For the most part it conjures up ideas of turning back, or turning away. Returning to some notion of an idealised past. How many sermons have I heard with that call to repentance, coupled with the probing question, “Where will you spend eternity?” I can hear the preacher now, pumping up the sense of urgency about making a decision: “If you were to leave this building tonight and be hit by a car crossing the road, where would you spend eternity?” I’m not sure whether it made people think more carefully before crossing the road that night…

The word “repent” is a Greek word which means “to change the mind” or “to think afresh.” Of course this can be a rethink about the way our lives have been lived, or where we might spend the post-twilight years. But it is more than that. John and Jesus step into an atmosphere of despair. Israel was enduring a long occupation by a foreign power. There had been no prophets in the land for centuries. Attempts at liberation had only cost lives. The land was filled with a deep resignation about their lot, with some radical fringes fanning the flames of rebellion.  The notion that the kingdom of heaven was near was about as likely as Melbourne winning the premiership this year (or the Chicago Cubs taking out the pennant!) In this context, one could rephrase this first call of Jesus and John into “Think again! The kingdom of heaven is near!” Now. In the present moment.

The hope of the gospel breaks into the present moment. It is life-changing in the here and now, and into the immediate future. How often do we hear Jesus saying to someone, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more”? A loose translation could be: don’t let the past dictate the present and future! Think afresh about your life and all that God is doing!

Christian theology in this regard has been too much shaped by Augustine and by Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7. Both exhibit a strong negativity towards human identity and character. Paul sums up after articulating his struggles to do what is right: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) He seemingly underlines our incapacity to do what is right, even through our best intentions. What then are we to make of the opening to the very next chapter, just one sentence away: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2)? Think afresh about life! Repent!

Surely the central message of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is near – it’s here in the present moment. Not to be gained by returning to an idealised path, or waiting until this earthly life is over before we can share in it! Hope is alive in the present! In the here and now. Not to be gained by reaching back to an idealised past, but emerging right now! This is one truth which both Jesus and John the Baptist wanted to be sure we embraced.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Problem with Evangelical Hope

The response of the Australian Christian Lobby to Kevin Rudd’s change of heart in relation to same-sex marriage exposes one of the problems with the way evangelicals understand and express hope. The formulation leaves a large and important gap which, paradoxically, robs us of any meaningful hope in the present.
The ACL – not alone, mind you – shapes its hope in clinging to an idealised past (or present), in which many of the changes happening in society need to be undone. In the first instance then, hope is framed as a return to a mythical Garden of Eden, subtly framed as a time when the church ruled the earth, imposing its morality upon all. The implicit depiction is of an immediate future which is characterised as a further descent into… well, it is left unsaid, but the implication is further into an ungodly mess. Which provides the platform for the second aspect of hope: heaven.
In this formulation, the Christian hope is ultimately about getting to heaven when we die. Heaven is thus a consolation prize for enduring the inevitable descent which characterises modern society.
Of course, it is not just same-sex marriage which comes into the firing line to mark this continued descent. Any number of conservative hobby-horses become symbols of a culture which has turned its back on God: abortion, people living together, drug use, pornography, greenies, people opposed to gun ownership (OK, not in Australia!). The items missing from such a list are the ones which reveal an interesting agenda: greed, gossip, unethical corporate activity, environmental vandalism… Each suggesting that the only answer to a hope which is framed around turning back to an idealised past or hanging on to a consolatory future is to get what you can in the present moment.
Of course this is something of a caricature, but the principle essentially holds. The notion that the kingdom of God is breaking out amongst us isn’t part of the package. The idea that there is good news in the present moment which renews hope for eternal life in the here and now doesn’t enter the equation.
The central line of Jesus’ prayer still reads “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” The Christian hope is constructive and creative, and embraces the promise of Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jer 29:11) which is built on the call to “build houses… plant gardens… and seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” (Jer 29:5)
The Christian hope coalesces with much of the hopes of all human beings, and points to a source which enables its fulfilment, and a deeper call which transcends a limited hope in the present moment.
Whatever one may conclude about the call for same-sex marriage, those who wrestle with it share a common hope for a better world and a better community. Surely that’s something Christians can embrace and engage with.