Public Discussion and Christianity’s Decline

We have been discussing discussion. We have been talking about how we talk, how we converse inter-personally, but that also means we cannot avoid referring to how we communicate and disseminate information and “news”. In my last post the context of such a discussion about discussion was drawn in these terms:

… in a global context dominated by a constant babble of alternative and dissonant stories that now flood our post-post-modern consciousness on a daily, if not hourly, basis, is our own contribution going to be merely more “windy words”? Job’s words to his comforters can remind us how our speech can run out of control. “Will your windy words never end? Will you continue going on and on and on …?” (Job 16:3)

And so the question comes back again – the question is just as pertinent now with this latest post. Do we have any enduring task in all this? Should we even be seeking to make a contribution? Is it worth it?

The human art of everyday conversation is a skill to be learned. Just like complex diplomatic negotiation at a G20 convocation, it is part of the wonderful created reality of our social life. The crisis in discussion as a creaturely activity needs to be understood and overcome. That includes the crisis we experience in our own everyday public and private conversations. There is an ever-pervasive sense of  futility that threatens to swamp us, and it needs to be resisted, challenged with a new way of talking, a new way of approaching our task in this world, our cultural task.

Will windy words never cease? Well, we will need to become convinced that conversation is integral to who we are. We need to become convinced that telling stories, writing articles, giving literary form to our our scientific explorations, writing blogs like this one, are all part of what the Bible refers to in Genesis 1 as “the cultural mandate”. In fact those who have become disciples of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, listen to and attend to his parting words and realise that their cultural task now, with the announcement of His Kingly Power, is indeed their response to the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The unhealthy atmosphere of public cynicism and scepticism will not be overcome without the growth of a climate of healthy conversation. God’s knew that. That is why Christ was sent and Christian discipleship indeed may flourish in chat with one’s neighbour “over the back fence”. That is why Nurturing Justice says it again: we need to discuss how to form conversation, how to initiate discussion, how to form our contributes to public debates in ways that scrupulously avoid whatever destroys and vandalises the good gifts that God continues to shower upon us.

We need to recapture a sense of public conversation as part of who we are. It is not just something we add to our Christian lives to make our lives less boring by trying to be “more chatty”. Our calling is to converse as our calling, our vocation.

Now as I write this, I am reminded of what I read in The Australian last Saturday. These prominent articles by two leading journalists in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire might seem to be suggesting that a “Christian political option” is going to be initiated sometime soon. [Will it be Rerum Novarum rides again?] See what you think. I will give the two quotes from the pages of “The Inquirer” section and then I will conclude with some brief comments.

Here’s the first:

It is from Greg Sheridan “Six Roads to the West’s Strategic Crisis Point.” p.16 The Weekend Australian July 8,9 2017:
“… the sixth and final dynamic assaulting the strategic position of the West … is the growing distemper of Western electorates and populations generally.
“Since the global financial crisis a decade ago, middle class and below incomes in Western nations have been almost stagnant while a small group at the top has grown exponentially richer.
“This has led to bad-tempered and unstable electorates, willing to entertain all kinds of electoral experiments but not willing to undertake any further budgetary belt tightening.
This robs the Western political paradigm of some of its legitimacy and some of its stability when all the other factors listed above are undermining the grand Western narrative.
“The cyclical distemper born of economic woes feeds off two deeper structural changes in Western societies. The first is the eclipse of Christianity in the West. Several West European nations are more atheist than Christian and the religion with the fastest growth rate in Western societies, albeit off a low base, is Islam.
“Yet Christianity is basic to the Western cultural and political identity. The West for the moment is living off the draining moral capital of its Christian inheritance. Without transcendent belief, there is no ultimate philosophical obstacle to the pursuit of power as the highest human purpose.
“As Henry Kissinger has remarked, Western governments are no longer able to ask any sacrifice from their electorates.”

The second quote is this:

It is from Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly “Blessed be the egoistic individuals” p.19 The Weekend Australian July 8,9 2017:
“The reality is staring us in the face. Yet it cannot be spoken, cannot be entertained, cannot be discussed because there is no greater heresy and no more offensive ­notion than that the loss of Christian faith might have a downside…
“The rise of progressive values in the name of freedom and justice would march in parallel with the decline of religious faith. Put ­another way, they were different sides of the same coin. Eventually, the revolution took judicial and legal form. The greatest institution that embodied the new social order was the US Supreme Court.
“In a series of judgments, the court redefined the idea of freedom and human nature. Weigel captures this, quoting from the majority decision in the 1992 planned parenthood case. “At the heart of liberty,” the judges said, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Led by Justice ­Anthony Kennedy, this philosophy was repeated in the more ­recent decision to impose same-sex marriage.
“At this point individual autonomy and human rights (what some might call “the Big Me”) replaced the concept of an objective moral order founded in the Christian tradition. The notion of a God-­ordained morality was swept aside along with its view of mankind as more than a bundle of desires to be sanctified as human rights. Man, not God, was enshrined at the centre of the universe.
“The judges reflected the spirit of the age and the cultural revolution that had transformed the West. The idea of freedom was separated from a higher order moral duty and tied to personal self-realisation and self-esteem. Narcissism was legitimised. Weigel says: “There is no claim here that the American democratic ­experiment rests on self-evident moral truths.” The upshot was a society of many truths; each person was granted autonomy to ­decide his or her own moral truth.
“What does this mean for ­politics?
“It requires little insight to conclude such a society and culture that prioritises a cult of “individualism” when translated into the political sphere is less cohesive and united, more divided over existing norms, less willing to accept the decisions and compromises of political leaders, far more difficult for politicians to manage and persuade and, above all, from which to extract a working majority position. In short, governing is harder, the gap between politicians and public more difficult to bridge and the society divided at its essence.
“There is, however, an even deeper problem.
“As the moral status of the church declines, the moral status of progressive ideology grows. Vacuums will be filled. Because the Christian ethos was tied to the past and tradition, it became a target for the new ideology of personal freedom. This is founded in the view that settler societies such as America and Australia have failed to come to terms with the racism, indigenous exploitation, sexism, patriarchy and monoculturalism at their heart. The task of community leaders was once to uphold the values of the civilisation; now, more often than not, it is to dismantle them.
“Pivotal to this transition is the progressive attack on the Aristo­telian framework that made the West a success. This concept was articulated at various stages by the popes, notably Leo XIII and Pius XI. As outlined by Tulsa University professor Russell Hit­tinger, this envisages three “necessary” elements for human happiness: domestic society (marriage and family), faith and church and, finally, political ­society. A brief reflection might confirm the wisdom of this ­framework.
“It is, however, now being dismantled in the new and manic crusade of human freedom. Pro­gressive doctrine denies any preferred model for family structure since that would be prejudicial and discriminatory; it now approaches its ultimate objective in the realm of faith — to drive ­religion from the public square and reject the role of religion and church as a mobiliser of social capital in a secular society.
“The final logic is that everything depends upon politics. As the society of family and marriage ­becomes mired in confusion, as the society of church and religion is the target of assault, so the ­society of politics is being asked to assume a role and burden utterly beyond its capacity and guaranteed to leave community-wide ­unhappiness.
“The tripartite design that made the West such a workable and ­successful proposition is being torn part. Once dismantled, it ­cannot be put back together. This is being done in the name of justice, rights and progress. There was an ­inevitability about the decline of Christian faith, but there was nothing inevitable about the dismal pretender that presents as its replacement.”

There are a few observations that I would make. Nurturing Justice might watch the development of a “Christian political option” that would develop from these analyses, but there are critical issues that need to be raised straight away.

To what extent is The Australian – and other mass media “outlets” of the Murdoch media empire like “the West … for the moment … living off the draining moral capital of its Christian inheritance”? What transcendent belief has motivated News Ltd’s pursuit of power as the highest human purpose? Again, are we to believe that The Australian has had not part to play in the rise of “progressive values” which in the name of freedom and justice have, we now hear from its pages, marched in parallel with the decline of religious faith? Is The Australian not so secular after all? Since when?

Instead of writing in terms of vague generalities, are we to suppose that there has been no political conversation motivated by “Big Me” individual autonomy and human rights promoted by The Australian and its owner? Where has The Australian been in support of the  moral order founded in the Christian tradition?

It somewhat takes the breath away to read how “the philosopher” made the West a success?  What has Aristotle got to do with Christian discipleship and the task of forming a Christian public discussion?

Both quotes suggest a journalistic style that attempts to discuss by standing outside, if not above, the “eclipse” and the “decline” they describe. There is no discussion about how this eclipse might be overcome with a genuine revival of “true religion and virtue”, nor is there any indication that anything can be done now to arrest the political decline by a Christian understanding of public justice. In fact there is no real discussion of how their analysis arises from their faith perspective. The assumption is that they are simply dealing with the facts, “nature”, the news. And the decline of “grace” is their lament.

Further, there is no indication that either journalist sees any inner connection between the West’s crisis due to the erosion of public trust and journalism. How are we to interpret these articles, these discussions? Are they not part of the very trends they lament? Could the dogmatic neo-Aristotelian objectivity they espouse merely be the other side of a syndrome of journalistic denial that forgets that they have been front-row contributors to the phenomenon they now seek to put in the headlines?

And as such these quotes from these contributions to public discussion by two respected journalists, give us no indication that we might be dealing with a cumulative tradition that demonstrates a Christian inability to mount and form public discussion with integrity. Remarkably, as those lamenting the decline of faith, or transcendent values, there is sadly no mention at all of the compromised contribution of senior clergy of the Roman Church who, despite inheriting “Catholic social teaching”, have aided and abetted the public denigration of marriage they so lament.

BCW11.7.17

 

 

Social Media and the Secular Age

Could it be said that “social media” is an agent of ongoing “secularisation”? Well, the answer, of course, depends upon what we mean by this term “secularisation”. We have been discussing this in previous posts, and I have drawn attention to the weakness of the theory as it related to the early “religious” experience of students when they were at primary school. Somehow the “secularisation” that was discussed within sociology when I was an under-graduate, and which became a taken-for-granted aspect of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s when I taught sociology at university, focused upon the “religious character” that was present at the onset of the modern age, and which has, supposedly been in decline ever since.

It has become commonplace to attribute the rise of modern political thought in the West to a process of secularization … it may well be that we live, as Charles Taylor tells us, in a “secular age”, but if so we nonetheless owe several of our most central political commitments to an age that was anything but. And it seems reasonable to suppose that we will not be able to understand the peculiar fault lines and dissonances of our contemporary political discourse until we come to terms with that basic paradoxical fact. (Eric Nelson The Hebrew Republic Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 1, 3)

Nelson is suggesting that the traditional historical narrative “will have to be significantly revised, if not discarded”. His challenging interpretation can be accessed “here”.

My point however which I have tried to elaborate in an autobiographical way  in previous posts has been somewhat more “personal”.

Consider what Charles Taylor says about the rationale for his above-mentioned book The Secular Age (Harvard Uni.Press 2007). His aim, he says, is to chart the historical change “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” (p.3) That formulation is convenient for my purposes even if I begin to suspect that this view is framed by a post-modern Christian equivocation in which his statement seeks to be (objectively) in solidarity with his “secular age” fellow citizens, even while he sees his mission (subjectively) as a Christian public intellectual who would seek to recognize the transcendence within the “immanent frame”.

What I have suggested is that “secularisation” is not something simply to be grasped by an abstract and theoretical understanding history and societal differentiation – although we certainly need deepened scientific understanding of the manner in which the full gamut of our many-sided responsibilities are given to us to love God and serve our neighbours with the love that draws from us. We find our calling – our work, our job – in complex networks of ongoing societal development that presupposes all the amazing developments the globe has witnessed in the last five centuries. How are we to understand these developments if not to view them within the framework of the Bible’s revelation of our mandate before God to form and cultivate what He has given?

I have suggested in earlier posts, that learning “personally” about what was involved in “secularisation” was strangely ignored in university. We were effectively encouraged to forget the faith (we thought) we had from earlier years, and simply adopt a utilitarian approach to life.

“All these religious and philosophical questions can wait until later. It’s urgent that you get qualified so you can get a job.”

My observation is this. “Secularisation theory”, however that is understood, needs to see the inner connection between that taken-for-granted view of what living in this society means and “secularisation”, meaning, in this instance, the manner in which education and public life are organised with the assumption that a disciplined forgetting of one’s religious past is indispensable to “life in a secular age”.

Look again at that quote from Taylor. Is there not a way of reflecting upon this in “personal” terms? The personal, self-reflective question is this: Was there a time for a child (for some children at least) growing up in Australian suburbia in the 1950s when it was virtually impossible not to believe in God? Were they not surrounded by the combined impacts of Christian family life, church and Sunday School? And then, as this person matured and confronted the 1960s, was there not an urgency to stand as a fully responsible believer, a genuine follower of Jesus Christ? But was it in reaction to “secularisation” that prompted family and church people to encourage the young Christian to make a “choice”? Was all this childhood and youthful faith to be viewed as a believing that derived from grabbing what was but one human possibility among all the many others that siren-like were making their pitch for the young person’s “choice”?

We began this post by asking whether “social media” could be viewed as an agent of “secularisation”. And we said immediately that an answer will have to depend upon what we mean by the term. But then the overall discussion seems to be somewhat disjointed. We might want to reflect upon how “social media” should be formed as part of Christian discipleship. How should a young Christian avail him or herself of these technological gadgets?

It is clear that “social media” places new communication technology in our hands. And in our hands it certainly allows us to send message (here is a post!). And so yes this technology is part of our life and undoubtedly it participates in our efforts to form relationships, disseminate information, encourage other to fulfil our diverse responsibilities. But then that kind of “human flourishing” also followed the development of the printing press. In time restrictions were removed not only from publishing the Bible in the vernacular, but also from the personal publishing of political tracts, let alone the diverse artefacts of literary art. Establishing a delivery service by which people could write letters to each other has also played an important part in fomenting and developing discussions of all kinds between people. There was a time when newspapers became an important part of public life and political discussion, and letters to the editor still carry some, if reduced, civic weight. The invention of the telephone enabled people to keep in touch, and we do so even if we live far apart. A few decades back radio broadcasting developed talk-back radio and these days radio station are encouraging listeners to download their apps into mobile phones. The technology of social media is evident all around us.

We have also been discussing how “social media” has, in latter times, filled a political vacuum that has arisen in polities around the world that claim to be parliamentary and democratic. What we see is not pretty. We have also suggested that the political vacuum has come about because political parties have become committed to winning office rather than articulating a particular political outlook, philosophy or world-view.

And now “social media” in its variant forms has become part of this problematic  political situation around the world. But it is also in times dominated by the threats of Islamist Jihad that give voice to a determination to extend the reach of Islam, the Dar al-Islam into the Dar al-Harb. The threat, regularly repeated, is that they will do so by violent means. We have also noted that it is not a phobia to be afraid of a person or group who threatens to kill you.

In the last few years we (i.e. not only we in the “west” but also we global citizens, including the “rest”) have seemingly entered this new era of instant global communication. Could Twitter texting be embraced as a valid dimension of “deliberative democracy”? Quite apart from the fears generated by the Jihadist threats, it seems that “social media” also confronts us with new kinds of dangers and threats. The advent of the i-phone and texting may enable people to stay in contact but there is also a nasty side to such communicative technology.

Recently, the occupant of the White House in the United States of America used his Twitter account to “tweet” a warning to a guy he had just fired. He had better watch out and not say the wrong thing. The 140 character limit on “tweets” may have constrained him, but what we should be asking is why we were made privy to this statement by a Commander in Chief to the former head of the FBI. If there really were recordings of White House conversations then why couldn’t this have been conveyed in the letter in which the man’s tenure was terminated? What business did we have knowing about this threat? And why should be learn of it in such a manner? What kind of transparency is this?

The fact that the President of the most powerful State would try to bounce a message off his Twitter “followers” to threaten this man not only indicates lack of manners, it confirms this act as brazen bullying. Any Grade 6 Primary School child would see it this way. It is bullying! In that sense we might suggest that this style of Presidential politics has shown a disregard for proper standards of behaviour. And did we see whoever it is in control of that paragon of superficial communication cancelling POTUS’s Twitter account? Hasn’t Twitter, let alone POTUS, heard about the way “social media” is used in highly inappropriate, offensive and criminal ways? It is not only the POTUS “Code of Conduct” but what about Twitter’s civic responsibilities? Who will step forward to say that this was merely a matter of POTUS exercising his right to free speech?

The actions of Jihadi Islamists are criminal and need to be legally resisted in the interests of public justice, nationally and internationally. We have learned the bitter lesson of a language that seeks to redress 9/11 by claiming to embark upon a “war on terrorism” to maintain America’s pre-eminence in perpetuity. But when we now see the leader of that most militarised and most powerful (and most indebted) nation of the world providing a precedent for the improper and threatening use of “social media”, we realise that our  work in crafting a Christian political option must also be vitally concerned with doing justice to inter-personal and informal relationships, just as must as we focus upon institutional impacts, corporate service and global networks. We also need to develop a healthy fear of the hurtful and dangerous consequences of social media usage and find ways to resist social media perpetration of injustice, however that is expressed. Social media that resorts to “hairy chested” threats in 140 characters does not respect its own proper contribution to life on this planet. We are not called to theatrically call attention to ourselves but to a faithful stewardship.

Nurturing Justice claims to be promoting a Christian political option. Here in this post however we do not formulate the ongoing public policies in relation to social media that we will need to develop if we are to stand as faithful servants of God’s Kingdom in the years ahead. We will need to grow wise, to find ways to contribute to public education – particularly to political education in which we discover anew the path of public justice. And we are certainly not going to consign “social media” to the trash heap. Our task is biblically-directed reformation with the recognition that computer, I-pad and mobile phone are all given to us and retain their value because Christ Jesus is the God elected Redeemer. He retains his sovereign claim upon us and, with the entirety of creation, these creatures as well.

BCW 2 June 2017

 

Twittering Plebiscites and the Sending of Messages (2)

INTRODUCTION

In our previous post we posited two questions for Christian readers to ask themselves as they reflect upon the way “social media” has, in but a short decade, seemingly transformed our political debates, or at least appeared to do so. We have linked this discussion to our previous posts that have sought to cast doubt upon the esteemed dogma, regularly put forward as an unassailable fact, that this is a “secular age” and that Christian citizens ought to unhinge their citizenship from their faith in Jesus Christ.

So, here Nurturing Justice continues to make my suggestions to readers, particularly those who are fellow Christians, but anyone else of other faith, uncertain faith or no-faith who is reading this is welcome to join in. At this point we are assuming that there is a Christian way of life and we want to clarify how that way of life should be coming to expression in the midst of public debate that is increasingly fomented if not malformed by what we now call “social media”.

And so, we have to limit ourselves and confine our observations to two topics – homosexuality and Jihadist Islam. When these topics are raised in public debate, and in social media in particular, questions about the Christian way of life are unavoidable. And so if we are wanting to find the path of authentic discipleship we may find it excruciatingly difficult – we may well be suffering from a kind of “media fatigue”, a sense that our faith has been under attack for so long that really we simply want to retire to “smell the roses”, spend time walking along the coast, reading children’s stories and simply avoiding the contentious new, newspapers and the ridiculous tweets of the totally out-of-his-depth American President.

There are of course many other issues which require Christian citizens to engage in ongoing political conversation if we are to develop a Christian political perspective. But we single out these two in particular; they have been with us for decades, are not going away and to raise them yet again is to have us asking ourselves whether we are making any headway..

So in the former post I referred to two issue, the questions of which I now edit.

MARRIAGE AND THE IMAGE OF GOD.

1. How is the pagan mythology of “sexual identity” (and with it the attempt to misrepresent the human condition by appeal to a bogus “heterosexuality”) to be adequately refuted within and among Christians and their churches to make good the claim to be the disciples of Jesus Christ?

Another way of saying that is to acknowledge that we are called to live with an enriching recognition that the Imageo Dei is male and female as the scriptures confirm and that the glory of God is unfolded as males and females serve their creator in all of our life including marriage. Marriage is the inaugural God-endowed institution for the generation-to-generation nurturing and cultivation of creation’s stewards by God’s image-bearers.

With the teaching of Jesus and the apostles as the Christian basis for marriage, we turn again to Jesus’ teaching and discover the definitive proscription of violating the other person by a covetousness (the 10th commandment) that would render any person, any of God’s image bearers, into a sexual object and thereby violate that person’s standing before God (as with the 5th as well – Matthew 5:27-32; Genesis 1:27-31; 2:15-25; Exodus 20:12,17). This gives sufficient ground to such an exclusive view of marriage. Christians are called to receive the teaching that humankind has been created male and female and this is quite other than the pagan presumption that humanity simply has to be allowed to form various kinds of homo-hetero balance for cosmic harmony. And as difficult as this may be for some people, this biblical teaching yet calls us to fully respect the unmarried and the widow and widower.

But then even with such basic viewpoint, a veritable tsunami of historical questions will flood our consciousness: how are we to live in a way that faces up to the long-tradition of generation-by-generation mis-education about marriage, of adulterous living, about the practical denigration (including what seems to have been a secretive riot of sexual license within the closets of the Christian church and its organisations itself) in which God’s image-bearers male-and-female have been cruelly violated and Christians have cruelly and violently abused themselves and their public trust in the process? And how does the Christian community, the Body of Christ, reckon with the way in which Christian profession has been used as a cover for all kinds of degrading and hypocritical practise?

Seeking to face up to this Biblical teaching certainly calls upon us to seek wisdom as we make any contribution to public policy, let alone with respect to pastoral care that is required within church communities. Why shouldn’t two women in seeking to develop a stable household for their respective children, having fled abusive and violent partners, set up house together and seek, as best they can, to provide a stable home with the kind of legal entitlements granted to other households?

And as indicated above there is the need to exercise discernment in the way in which a Christian view of sexuality is discussed when putting forward a public view of why marriage cannot be homosexual. And that view will have to be put forward with ongoing integrity what legislatures and courts decide. Governments make mistakes; marriage equality advocates are making a massive mistake when they assume that the matter will be finally resolved with legislation. Not at all.

Marriage presupposes a sensitivity that husband and wife are called by God to nurture between themselves, with all their own distinctive personal characteristics in a permanent life-long bond. And Christians in nurturing their children are going to have to learn how to maintain unashamed adherence to the teaching of Jesus.

Such a perspective can hardly be suggested with 140 characters of a Tweet. And if we Christians haven’t found a way to discuss human sexuality among ourselves – and given some of the scandalous revelations that are before us who can blame anyone for being hang-dog about the topic? – we are hardly ready to launch forth with a well elaborated comprehensive political viewpoint about marriage, family life, households and so on. But we do have to take up our political responsibilities as Christian citizens to love our neighbour by seeking public justice for all.

THE NEW TESTAMENT’S TEACHING ABOUT JESUS CHRIST CONFRONTS ISLAM

2. How are we Christians, to resolutely take seriously the New Testament’s teaching about the anti-Christ (2 John 1:7-11) and clearly take distance from all such teaching and ways of life whether modern, post-modern, ancient or archaic?

Again this is not a matter to be taken lightly and it is certainly not something that should be reduced to a 140 character Tweet. But if we Christians are true to our profession then that means we cannot avoid responding to Islam and that religion’s teaching about Jesus Christ.

In September we will be 16 years on from the intensification of Islamic Jihadism that was signalled by the 11th of September 2001 attacks on Manhattan Island.

Now consider the Muslim viewpoints from these two links:

Here is a link a Sufi friend and colleague sent to me. He is continually concerned with the way in which Jihadist Islam is causing havoc in Muslim communities here in Australia. He is concerned to develop what he calls the cosmopolitan Australian Islam that has inspired him since before Yugoslavia fell apart into ethnic violence in the 1990s. It was from that disintegration that he and his wife fled. And yet, he is also of the historical  view that despite what Sheikh Tawhidi affirms, he believes that to a large Islam advanced peacefully – Islam he affirms is religion and insofar as it is religion, a matter of faith, its advance is always peaceful not the military subjugation of an empire. So already as the television announcer said, seemingly with great surprise, there is deep disagreement, deep public disagreement, among Muslims with respect to their own religion. Sheikh Tawhidi in the midst of that profound religious confrontation claims that Islam needs to move away from its “scriptures of war”, its books that are used to teach young people to go and behead the infidel.

Here’s another viewpoint, this time about the annual feast of Ramadan and developed by someone who is said to be an Emirati pop-star.

How are we to enter into political discussion with Muslim fellow citizens? The discussion can not only be about the murderous activities of the Islamic Jihadists? And the political discussion will have to broach the New Testament teaching at some point but it is also going to have to do so in a political where other religious commitments, anti-Christian messianic motives are at work. In doing so we are going to have to find a way to do justice to all these religious viewpoints including the various kinds of Muslim contributions we have noted above.

And though “social media” discussion of such antitheses cannot be avoided, for our part Christian citizens are going to have to learn how to account for the inner conflicts  within other religions and ideologies, including within Islam? To address the kinds of issues and disagreement that are raised about the atrocities of Islamic Jihadists we will have to have some idea of how they are each claiming to give expression to a Muslim “way of life”? And the difficult part of this is that the Islamic Jihadists are also claiming to be giving authentic expression to a Muslim “way of life”.

PROVISIONAL CONCLUSION:

There is indeed an urgent need for a Christian political option conversation world-wide – today. And in this and further posts we have wanted to consider some of the problems that “social media” – “information technology” – presents to us as we seek to form this vital conversation. The content of these posts should not only look at what should be the content of our posts, but at the emergent and taken-for-granted “hit ‘n run” structuring of social media conversations – Twitter and the like, with what are in fact conversation suppressing character limits, promotes unprecedented possibilities for the generating of fear, for manipulating and making fellow citizens scared – and all the while “contributions” are being made which carefully and persistently avoid sustained argument. Consider only what comes from the US White House, but then also ask your friend, the harried parent whose son has been the subject of continued barrage of vitriol from a former friend. The possibility of political irrationalities gaining a hold are increased and all the while there is the ongoing threat of Muslim Jihadism that is telling us that, as far as these psychotic murderers are concerned, we are simply the ones they haven’t yet reached with their emissaries of death.

We began this post by reflecting upon the place of “social media” in our lives. We have identified two “hot topics” and suggested that our Christian contribution has to be disciplined by heading Biblical teaching. In Biblical terms everything that exists is subject to the Creator’s creation order and that includes all possible “ways of life” that have unfolded in human history. The important issue, I think, from this post is that these diverse “ways of life” and their various, competing even antagonistic contributions can be found reflected and disclosed within the framework of “social media”. Next time we will try to get some further insight into “social media” in creational terms, but even then we won’t be able to properly assess its true value if we ignore the ways in which it degrades and denigrates.

But then we are certainly not going to consign “social media” to the trash heap. This is because computer, I-pad and mobile phone are all given to us and retain their value because Christ Jesus as our Redeemer retains his sovereign claim upon these creatures and the entirety of creation.

BCW

30.5.17

 

 

 

 

An Inconsolable Wailing in Ramah

Lifelong Lament of the Man of Sorrows for Bethlehem, His Birthplace

Some Sad Thoughts on the Manchester Atrocity

How are we to go on living, day after day? How many more times are we to hear, yet again, of yet another atrocity designed to tell us that we are simply those who are on the long list of those who have not yet been murdered? I am appalled to put it this way but this relentless anarchic campaign invites us to imagine ourselves and our local community wrecked – in a few hours or tomorrow – by such arbitrary cruelty, blasphemously labelling its terror with the pious fraud of Inshallah. It is as if a magic appeal to the heavens will transform practical hatred into righteousness, suicidal self-destruction into blessedness.

This is satanic evil and we are called to confront it by our prayer and, such is the seriousness of our times, even by our fasting.

Matthew begins his record of Jesus the Messiah by telling us the genealogy of Joseph. The story of that side of Joseph’s family history would have been an important part of the Son of God’s education. Look carefully at the list. Notice the reference to Judah; notice the reference to Solomon, David’s son, the child of Uriah’s wife! Matthew’s record is deep Good News. The Lord God so loved his own specially chosen people despite their gross sins. King David is here listed as an adulterer and a murder. And yet, Joseph, who cannot escape his membership in this dysfunctional familial line is called into service. Did the Lord care for Abraham, Jacob and David? Will the Lord look after him as husband of Mary now that she is pregnant?

Matthew not only tells us how Joseph came to be part of the story but also how Joseph and Mary told that story to Mary’s oldest son. The strange and gruelling events that they endured were explained in terms framed by what the prophets had announced long ago. And so, Matthew is telling us, Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, lived out his days with an awareness that His heavenly father, the one he could utterly rely upon, was faithful to his promises. God is with us despite the terrifying nightmare visited upon Jesus’ own age cohort in Bethlehem, where he had been born. This young man is being prepared by wise parents to be the man of sorrows, intimately acquainted with grief.

So we can conclude that this part of the family story hung over Jesus during His earthly life. Just as Joseph could not get away from the scandals in his lineage, so Jesus had to deal with the knowledge of a most awful and brutal “cleansing” that took place some time after his parents fled with him from Bethlehem to a safe haven. Yes, indeed the prophet Isaiah had dubbed him :

One despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief! (Isaiah 53:3)

And this family lived to tell the story of God, Immanuel, coming to live in the midst of his tragically forever backsliding people; it may be a story of a great fulfilment but Joseph, along with his already pregnant wife, had to get used to telling that story to Mary’s first-born:

This is what is to happen: the young chaste woman shall be with child and give birth to a son, and the name they shall give him will be Immanuel – which is “God with us”(Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8,10).

Scripture fulfilled! But such a tragic story as well, a story that could not be told without tears welling up in one’s eyes, without sickness taking a grip on one’s stomach. A young displaced family fleeing the murderous reach of the psychotic monarch of Judaea. Herod showed himself to be skilled in the arts of practical, cowardly hatred.

Joseph and Mary would tell this lad how he came to be born, how they were surprisingly found at Bethlehem by three naïve, star-gazing magicians from the east who had petitioned the King and thereby fed his psychotic jealousy. The Messiah of Israel, the promised Prince of all princes could only be a threat to this madman, as much as he is still a threat today by his life and his teaching that even goes out to those committed to such appalling Islamic terror:

You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45).

These star-gazing magicians had asked Herod the whereabouts of the new-born King of the Jews that had been revealed to them as they stared at the stars. But it  was a dream that awakened these naïve visitors to the danger in which they had placed this young, innocent family and so they departed without reporting back to Herod. And the result? A campaign of shock and awe was visited upon those families of Bethlehem who had recently been granted sons. No sons born in David’s city were going to challenge this maniac’s rule!

Reading through the New Testament we notice that this famous city of King David, the city of Jesus’ birth, is only mentioned in connection with his birth. Did Jesus visit Bethlehem in his ministry and on his way up to Jerusalem? We are not told.

King Herod’s brutal murder of all boys under two years of age is also told to us by reference Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the Lord“A voice has been heard in Ramah;
    there has been wailing and great lamentation.
It was Rachel is weeping over her children;
    and refusing to be comforted because these her children, are no longer.”

Yes, his coming, his first coming, would be with tears and weeping. But Israel’s Messiah, the Anointed, the Son of God, has come near and bodily shared it all, our human griefs and pains. And despite Herod’s action, Bethlehem retains its place in Jesus’ story, the place in Jesus’ story that provoked inconsolable lamentation. And yet despite such life-long tears, such life-long weeping, Matthew is compelled to tell this story. It is so strange this chapter that tells us of Jesus’ birth and family life, but it is Matthew’s opening announcement that Immanuel has come to fulfil God’s promises by being by our side.

BCW

24.5.17

Politics as Business – Business as Success!

THE POLITICAL-MASS MEDIA CULT OF SELF PROMOTION:

“SPIN AND SUPERFICIALITY”

Yesterday, we noted how the fashion of posting innocent “selfies” to a Facebook page has come about in the aftermath of a world-wide effort to transform universities into enterprises of intellectual self-promotion. My intention is not to identify in mechanical terms some “causal link” – the 1980s reform to Australia’s university system > the 21st century’s unleashing of unbridled narcissism – but rather it is to draw attention to how genuine political education has been made more complex by the impact of neo-liberal managerialism upon science and scholarship.

But it is true that our lives will continue to be filled with inner tension and outer turmoil when public life is dominated by the mercantile foolishness that presumes “success” must be any person’s “chief end”. We do not need a PhD thesis in psychology to be able to see that for the recently elected President of the United States of America, personal “success” is his chief end. It is about orchestrating things by making demands, and to keep on doing so, until he gets his own way. His Twitter tweets are also warnings to those standing in his way now that he has reached the top. (Consider his Tweet this week to the sacked FBI Director. I would have thought that was a “bullying threat” but I haven’t seen Twitter cancel his subscription, at least not yet.) The current aim of the incumbent of the White House is to supersede any threats to his “success” by his “success” and his tweets are made with that in view. The road to “success” and then, having achieved his goal, the path he is on demands that he put into action the plans he has already devised for dealing with competitors, those who, by their “success”, stand in the way of his getting his way.

Still, when all of life is characterised by “success” then one will become aware of a reality that has to be mastered by making many steps, each requiring a mini-success along the way – large and all-embracing goals are achieved by many small and limited successes that accumulate as one’s life goal is attained. In all this, the important thing is to gain one’s self-respect, and to do in a way that ascribes status to oneself by achieving one successful project after another …  and so by mastering the Facebook subscription and launching a first “selfie” one is simply taking the first small step on the path of self-promotion, artfully cutting a deal for oneself, incessantly demonstrating that one is successful and not to be messed with. A public ethic of “success first for me” is also inevitably to announce a threat to any who might “get in the way”. It is also a personal self (if not selfie) discipline.

Consider how the respectful and respected youthful Barack Obama gained “top job” after his “game changing” method of connecting his bid for the Presidency to what is now known as “crowdfunding”, support gained by an appeal for funding, an initiative launched from “social media”. The man who wanted to take his place once Obama’s time had expired, watched all this very carefully and decided he knew how he could gain “top job” by successfully learning the lesson and taking social media one step further … the trick was to develop a technique that would not just gain sufficient support to gain office but one that would enable him, so he thinks, to maintain support once he gained what he decided he had to have. The “top job”, he concluded, was there for the taking, and surely the country needed him to take it – and so he proceeded via his Twitter account to send out that message.

 The ambiguities begin to pile up. Is this an approach to political life that can be sustained? Now that the US President has endorsed a particular use of Twitter, going one-step further than Barack Obama’s “crowdfunding” technique, to garner public support, what is the next step? Where is this development taking us? We may need to think long and hard about this and also reflect upon the uncertainty we have about the answer to that question – if we have one. Does it not remind us of the crisis in which western democracy is now floundering? Does it not confirm to those besotted with Twittered politics that we no longer have a clear idea about the political party’s task?

And of course the US President is by no means the only politician using Twitter.

 

All of life, it would seem, becomes caught up in ways of speaking “in a world where spin and superficiality has far too much to say” (to quote the PM’s valedictory tweet on the death of Mark Colvin). Well yes. And the question is not whether but how spin and superficiality are to be overcome with genuine political discourse and political education. These timely words come back to haunt the Australian Prime Minister in a political context this is not only dominated by spin and superficiality, but by his own recent political “success” when he met the US President. How is it that he and the US leader can get away with mouthing the view that the US with their Australian military associates actually WON the war in Vietnam? How did this view ever escape exposure as “spin and superficiality”? How is it that this “fake news” wasn’t blown out of the water? Spin and superficiality indeed, Prime Minister! The Prime Minister’s Personal Assistants need to stop trying to make the Twitter page so pretty and instead concentrate on giving historically accurate and truthful advice!

And here’s the thing: the launch of the PM’s “selfie” with the US President, and the management of his Twitter account was the goal at one point and its “success” simply meant anything and everything else had to be of subsidiary importance. Did Rupert Murdoch’s Australian-wide tabloid  The Australian feature this “fake news” as news? Is anyone going to inform the thousands of Vietnamese boat people who came to these shores that they were mistaken, that the war had been won by the US and its allies? Did it have to take a former and much respected diplomat, the one-time Australian Ambassador to the United Nations (1992-1997), to tell the PM of his egregious error of fact? And dare we ask whether the record been corrected with the Americans? Are we to conclude that it would simply be spin and superficiality if it were corrected? (Alternative facts, Prime Minister?)

It is certainly not just the Trump administration that has deep troubles with itself. There is indeed much here that requires ongoing and sustained analysis. In closing I list three matter that Nurturing Justice should seek to discuss in upcoming posts.

  • The success ethic, social media communication, schooling and the political education of children!
  • How has political representation been transformed by the “success” ethic? How should Parliamentary representation, as work, be viewed in relation to “careers”? What has the tendency in Parliamentary democracies to make elected representation into a career, meant for careers in the public service and for the diplomatic service in particular?
  • How has the “reinvention of Government” according to neo-liberal criteria since the 1980s and the privatisation of State services meant for the State crafting development and the respect for citizenship as an integral part of accountability of public governance.

To repeat: has not the US President endorsed a use of Twitter to suggest that political “success” is within the reach of any aspiring citizen – whatever the goal may be? What goals may these be?

BCW 18.5.17

UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part Two.

In Part One of this series my discussion was developed under a heading with the question: “Faith: Is it all about the language we choose to use?” The discussion began with the thought that there is a widespread presumption that religious belief is simply about holding on to a peculiar form of words, the language we humans invent to facilitate our “fitness” in the face of threats, problems, risks. And if this be true then “faith-talk” is not, in the first instance, about talking to other people and explaining why one believes, it is actually a syndrome in which religious believers talk to themselves and thereby reinforce their beliefs – under this view the object of belief is simply a construction, a sharing between subjects. It holds out the allure of a false liberty, and since it is what humankind perennially embraces it simply has to be resisted.

This syndrome is not to be mastered, it is to be resisted and disgarded, a continuous effort to assert our subjective autonomy,  to be over-ruled by some objectivity restricting our freedom. And so, my series is about how the Christian way of life is understood by this prevailing and dominant way of life – an underlying presumption is that language is the tool we humans have created in order to give ourselves meaning as we maintain control over our lives.

Now I am not wanting to suggest that everyone I meet has a well elaborated philosophy, let alone a philosophy of language and, even if they do have, I am not expecting them to have done so in the terms I have outlined. A way of life is taken-for-granted in human experience and hence is lived out unproblematically.

At this point I think of the thousands whose paths I have crossed in recent years, smiling at the palms of their hands, busily tapping on some gadget tightly held, seeming to talk to themselves and somewhat oblivious to the gaze of those walking or sitting nearby.

Adherents of a way of life do not easily develop an elaborate account of their life and will probably not even bother to do so unless they are confronted by others who are living sufficiently differently from themselves. And yet Christians can live side-by-side with people living other ways of life and not really see a need to develop an explicit account of who they are, how they live and interpret the world they share with their neighbours. They may not even talk about this distinctive “way” among themselves, let alone with their non-Christian neighbours.

Maybe, as I have suggested in the first post, we Christians in this part of the world have got so used to the idea that humans are primarily problem-solvers that it has become deeply rooted in our “Christian lives” – absorbed in the way we talk and think and act in our marriages, families, households, schools, churches, social welfare agencies and other groups and associations – let alone in our political responsibilities as Twitter beckons, with the endorsement of the utterly foolish (Psalm 14:1) incumbent of the US White House (along with, it must be said, the equally foolhardy endorsement of the founder of the fundamentalist US civil religion academy, Liberty University, at his side) ranting as if his “outsider”  Tweets can ever be the way to “get things done” with public justice.

In this sense, there has not been an awareness of any real need to develop an “alternative” Christian account of “our way of life”. To ask it another way: Has not Christianity in Australia, by and large, been lived as just another “denomination” of the prevailing “problem solving way of life”? If the answer is “Yes!” then it makes sense of our national social experience in which Christians seeking to set forth a Christian political option are perpetually on the back-foot, perpetually fighting a rear-guard action. These days the “rear guard” character of Christian political action, may well find it comes to expression in an initial effort to simply reassure those who are listening that this is different, that this is not simply surfing with the civil religious crowd on their populist tide.

The Christian account of the Christian way of life has been that Christians somehow solve the “life problem” by membership in churches developing particular beliefs that have enduring impacts upon their “Christian language” that they share among themselves. Beyond that they are simply “problem solvers” like everyone else. Is it commitment to following Jesus Christ in all things that is embedded deeply, for instance, in school curriculum? Is it not “problem solving”. And is not that “problem solving” simply presented as a Christian icing on the educational cake, a mere resort to a new kind of language to be shared with an in-crowd? I therefore hazard the guess that the “problem solving way of life” has made its devastating impact on the curriculum of Christian schools despite any persistent appeal to “Christian distinctives”.

And now that church membership and church attendance has continued a precipitous decline, church authorities and councils faced with this problem have for decades been responding, just like any other business seeking to establish its own niche in the market-place, to find ways to staunch the flow and “keep the show on the road”? Denominations and congregations have increasingly adopted managerialist techniques and confirm the dominance of the “problem solving way of life”.

And so, to summarise: are we not encouraged to see the world as an intricate system of communication filled with the language we choose to use, the words by which we give voice to our inner-most thoughts and feelings? And our personal contribution – let’s not dodge the fact, including even a blog such as this – along with millions of other spoken and written communications become viewed as an enormous self-perpetuating system that professes over and over to be giving expression to the human race’s self-creation, giving an ongoing human shape to our earthly habitat, and all the subsidiary life-worlds we inhabit. And when we ascribe such autonomy to language how are we to think of ourselves?

Are we not going to discover that we are constrained, held in a vice of unfreedom, our choices today narrowed radically by the choices we made yesterday in yesterday’s language that we keep on using to ensure our control over what seems to be slipping away into the aether through our frantic fingers.

We have a dramatic and theatrical demonstration of this before our eyes at present. It is taking place on what appears to be a global stage. The almost 71 year-old incumbent of the US White House, cannot put his toy down and shouts at us through his Twitter account by which he tries to prove to himself – is anyone else paying attention? – that it has all been worth it (but consider Luke 12:13-21). Is this man not giving forth the yelping of one trapped? Is he not in perpetual self-correction, adjusting the words he made yesterday to the choices he says he will now emphasise today? And so his conduct may appear on the wild side, but it is a modus operandi consistent with the same crisis-ridden problem-solving way of life, except perhaps that yesterday’s solutions are perpetually becoming today’s problems requiring a new verbal formulation in order to avoid being trapped by what other people are saying one’s words meant.

We may tell ourselves that by the choices to which we have given voice we have created ourselves, but the words by which we assert such freedom become a frame by which our lives are order, and as soon as they are uttered in a fit of freedom, they entrap us bringing with them the immediate pain that life lacks any enduring meaning. or at least that is the view of our language that emerges from pragmatism, the problem solving way of life.

In response to all this we might ask: How did I ever get into this muddle? Can we ever get out of it! One way may be to turn to the Book of Psalms and sing Psalm 42:

As the deer, weak with longing,
Trembling in deep agony.
Searching out a creek of water,
So my soul will search for Thee.
Yes, deep thirst is why I cry;
Lord of my life, O when shall I
Standing firm then in your presence?
Living life with holy reverence
 But it is not merely a retreat to the Psalms. This is the Biblical Book of Worship significantly updated by those recorded to have written New Testament Psalms in the Gospels. Mary, Elizabeth, Zacharias, Simeon, Jesus have all testified in musical psalmody to the faithfulness of the Lord God. The Psalms do not encourage retreat – they encourage complete capitulation to the Lord Almighty. They encourage whole-hearted bowing to the Majesty on High. They encourage our tears and our agony, our deepest search for what God had intended for us from the outset to this day! We are encouraged to enter joyfully with all our pain, all our sorrows, all our joys and emotional ups and downs into His Gates with thanksgiving. We learn to sing Psalm 42 and 43 slowly and using all our musical muscles to make each and every syllable count. With God’s blessing upon our heads we are encourage to “go on our way”, that is take up our way of life, following Jesus our Great High Priest, the Good Shepherd of the sheep of His pasture, with rejoicing in a complete way of life, a way of life He has offered to us and all humankind.

Can we truly live that life in these troubled times? And can such deep yearning for God and His ways find true expression in our lives as citizens, in our political lives? In this series of posts I want to explore these kinds of questions. Stay tuned.

BCW

11.5.17 (amended 14.5)

Do I Have to Read This?

Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women SPCK London 2015.

This is a difficult book to review. I would immediately commend it to any reader of Nurturing Justice. However, I could well understand why any reader of this blog who, having linked to this page, and has got this far in reading, might then say to him or herself: “Do I really have to read this?”

Let me try to get at my problem in writing a review in another way. My best and most reliable critic has worked for decades in agencies supporting “at risk” families and in child protection. She reminded me that policy-researchers and workers in this field are inundated with reports and don’t need yet another book that tells them what they have had to deal with day by day, month after month, year by year and decade after decade. This book, to such faithful workers in a seemingly unrewarding field will, in all likelihood, not be needed. And having read Storkey’s masterly overview of the global situation, one cannot but wonder about the toll on those working to support such violated women in these extensive fields of human misery. I read her work and my respect is deepened for those who stave off what seems to me to be an  ever-threatening sense of futility ready to pounce on whatever support such agencies can bring. It seems that public policies are simply not having much impact; and the constant and sometimes upward trends showing the extent of such degrading and dehumanising conduct are evident at home and abroad, in the developed as well as  developing countries.

That perhaps is enough to indicate why, as I write this, I am sympathetic to any reader asking, “Is this a book I need to read?” If you are working in the midst of efforts to counter such human disaster then maybe this book is not for you. But if you are in training because of a professional ambition in health, welfare, law, education, to make a difference then this is probably a book that you should read.

But do so slowly and I am reminded of the words ascribed to William Wilberforce as he takes the opportunity to introduce the supporters of his fellow parliamentarian to the smell of the slave ships moored in the Humber estuary.

Ladies and Gentlemen. This is a slave ship, the Madagascar. It has just returned from the Indies where it delivered 200 men, women and children to Jamaica. When it left Africa, there were 600 on board. The rest died of disease or despair. That smell is the smell of death; slow painful death.  Breathe it in. Breathe it deeply. Take those handkerchiefs away from your noses … There now. Remember that smell … remember the Madagascar, ….

And there was that film Amazing Grace reminding us, through scenes like that, that God made men and women in his image, all men and women, equally in his image.

Well, if someone comes to you and asks whether you know a book that can help  them understand and begin to overcome the atrocities that are perpetrated around the world by violence meted out to women and girls, then this is that kind of book. But say to that person that they have to read the book slowly, even though this book has the smell of death and putrefaction. One cannot read this book and expect to put it down without being impacted by its dreadful message. Readers have to breathe it in, and breathe it deeply. They need to set aside an entire day to read it and to cry and to pray and to share their troubled thoughts about this human disaster with those they love … let me imagine a friend of yours, perhaps in your church, someone who has been required by the courts to only have visits to wife (or former wife) and children under strict supervision. Let’s go further and imagine that he has benefited from an “anger management” course and is “on the way”. If he would come to you and ask:

Do you know of any book that could tell me in some detail the extent of violence against women around the world …?

then, this may well be such a book that could help such a willing student appreciate how his own life has been part of the frightening and alarming picture that Elaine Storkey draws for us in this book of 220 pages in length. But also it is a book that might be just what a person needs to wake them up to an ongoing disaster – it may well be just a few doors up in your street.

And in that regard this is a book for any who would seek deepened appreciation for what is so destructively at work in this world of ours.

To put it another way: I would not suggest that this is a book to give to those who have already been immersed in the kinds of human degradation that this book documents. I’m thinking of those involved in, say, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is not a book to give as a present to those who, in their work, are already preoccupied with the victims of violence. We might have further comment on the final four chapters (10. Why gender-based violence? It’s in our genes: exploring our evolutionary heritage; 11. Why gender-based violence? Power and patriarchy; 12. Religion and women; 13.  Christianity and gender: a fuller picture) in a later post.)

But Elaine Storkey’s description of what she calls a “global pandemic” and the careful identification of the various dimensions of such female focused violence is a shocking chronicle of human depravity.

Here is Elaine’s own introduction to her book from her web-site.

And here, in conclusion, is the table of contents.

Scars-Chapter-Page

That is sufficient for this post. As I say this is a book – as is Elaine’s web-site – that should be read slowly. “Breathe it in. Breathe it deeply.”

BCW 19.4.17