Minimalism

I’m a fan of minimalist design.

I was introduced to the concept by a friend who, noting the design of the iPhone (which was, at that point, relatively new), described the possibility of stripping back that which is unnecessary in order to find ‘perfection’ (rather than seeking the same result by ‘adding things on’). In the context of the dominance of Blackberry phones and the ‘fact’ that a business device required a full, physical qwerty keyboard, the iPhone boasted a bold, minimalist design. And it won. It became that which we never knew we always needed.

I’ve thought about the point often since then.

When I read Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I was struck by the chapter on the ‘discipline of simplicity’. I remain gripped by this vision where my speech and actions and entire way of life is far more…simple—far less cluttered and noisy and complex.

I’ve been thinking about what it means, for example, for writing blog posts like this (and how it challenges my usual verbosity).

I’ve been thinking about what it means for the public speaking I do on a regular basis.

I’ve been thinking about what it means for what I buy, the furniture in my house, and the clothes I wear.

More than this, I’ve been thinking about what it means for church. What is necessary for a local church to be doing to facilitate discipleship and mission. What is the ‘clutter’ that can—and should—be stripped away?

I’ve been thinking about what it means for politics. What is necessary for a government to be doing to facilitate the flourishing of a nation? It should be noted here that my understanding of ‘flourishing’ is somewhat more nuanced than ‘unending economic growth’.

As someone who works for an aid and development organisation, I’ve been thinking about what it means for community development (both here and abroad). As someone who is not a development expert, I need to recognise the clear limitations of my contribution to this discussion, though I think the idea of ‘minimalist development’ (where there is laser focus on that which is necessary to see empowerment and self-sufficiency) is an inherently attractive one. This is not ‘lazy’ or ‘cheap’ development, and nor is it the result of an obsession with simplistic notions of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficiency’. It’s the result of a desire to live with humility, leaving a small footprint, while seeking the genuine flourishing of human communities and the world in which we live.

These are my thoughts; I’d love to hear yours.

Same-Sex marriage: A topic too hot to touch? Or an argument too out of touch?

In this month’s edition of the Eternity Christian newspaper, Karl Faase contributes a short piece about same-sex marriage in Australia, entitled ‘A topic too hot to touch’.

Karl’s argument goes something like this: ‘many’ evangelicals in Australia have ‘gone silent’ (or, God forbid, support same-sex marriage legislation) due to a broader focus on love, justice, and the desire to present a relevant message to society—all of which are, Karl suggests, ok in-and-of themselves, but which seem to have conspired here to confuse church leaders or to rob them of their courage on this issue. This has left them unable or unwilling to defend the ‘clear biblical values’ that should, it seem, inspire staunch opposition to any such legislative changes.

Now, Karl is a smart guy, a successful pastor, a gifted communicator, and someone who is no stranger to issues of faith in the public square.

I would suggest, however, that, in the process of calling out what he sees as the error of passivity in his opponents, he has here fallen squarely into the equal but opposite error of coercion. Passivity and coercion, as Miroslav Volf reminds us, are the two common malfunctions of public faith. One of the results of his call to action is to align (and thus to radically reduce) his version of Christianity with conservative politics and to align those who disagree with him to progressive politics. This is as unhelpful as it is misguided.

I’ve written before about my thoughts on a Christian approach to legislation concerning same-sex marriage, so I won’t repeat myself here.

What I will say is that I think it’s now time for what I proposed there to come into effect.

I believe that the best possible thing that churches in Australia could do at this point in time is to jointly and voluntarily renounce our authority to perform (legally recognised) wedding ceremonies on behalf of the State. Churches have no place acting on behalf of the State in performing this service, and the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in the whole matter means that we end up in futile arguments like the one Mr Faase invites us back into.

Everything to do with legally recognised unions in Australia should rest with the State alone. Churches should leave that responsibility with them, and seek instead to offer ‘covenant ceremonies’ which recognise the status of the union before God, which a State obviously cannot do. A couple might, for example, have their union legally recognised by a representative of the State (for taxation and superannuation purposes, and the like), and then choose to have one these covenant ceremonies which celebrates the union in the sight of friends and family and, of course, God. Everyone wins—even the wedding industry, which could continue to extract preposterous amounts from couples wishing to throw a huge party and to pay an exorbitant premium on it because someone might be wearing an over-priced white dress!

It’s my suggestion that a voluntary and coordinated ‘handing back’ of the power to perform marriage ceremonies would act as a circuit-breaker in the current debate, and also might build goodwill among the general population as churches suggest that these covenant ceremonies—as ceremonies that have no legal standing—should be offered entirely at the discretion of the churches. Many would only offer these for the union of one man and one woman, but others might also offer them to same-sex couples. Either way, as something that holds no legal standing, the churches should be free to offer them to whomever they like. Of course, the State could offer the legally recognised civil unions to whosoever they like too, including same-sex couples.

This, I suggest, removes discrimination against same-sex couples, as well as allowing us to retain our authentic voice in matters of public faith while falling neither into coercion nor passivity. If we truly believe that there are ‘clear biblical values’ related to marriage, then as we demonstrate the way that a certain model offers a ‘better’ way of flourishing, then surely it will be attractive to others who might like to be part of it. In this way, people would be invited to participate rather than being forced to comply (or have no choice but to be excluded). I, for one, think that this is a more excellent strategy.

So, who’s with me?

Let’s start a campaign to get churches all around Australia to hand back to the State what belongs to the State and, in the process, I think we might just win a few hearts.

Suburban Permaculture as Missional Living

A few months ago I mentioned that I was seeking to focus my attention for 2014 on three streams of thought (and practice), and the interaction and overlap between them. Those streams were missional thinking and practice, the spirituality and practice on nonviolence, and the principles of permaculture. You can find the original post here.

In this post, I’d like to tease out some of the connections—especially in the overlap between missional thinking and practice and the principles of permaculture—by way of an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years now. The idea has not come to fruition for at least a couple of reasons (that I won’t go into here), but I wanted to put the idea out there both as (what I think is) a good illustration of what I’m talking about, and for anyone who might be interested in trying to implement something similar.

I attend a church in the north-west of Sydney—a typically suburban area that is now seeing a rapid increase in medium-density dwellings (townhouses, apartment complexes, etc.). It’s what you might call an upper-middle class kind of place, with people typically having reasonably well-paying jobs, large mortgages (on large houses with tiny yards), and many demands on their time. It’s the kind of area where it’s easy to get wrapped-up in your own little world and not really know your neighbours, and where you can scratch all your consumeristic itches at the mega-malls and ‘homemaker centres’ to your heart’s content.

My church would be the perfect place, I think, for a community garden. We have a large (currently-)grassed area which would be absolutely perfect for it!

To begin with, this area could house a reasonable number of traditional garden beds, as a place where people from the community could come and grow their own fresh produce. Many residents in the area have tiny little yards (that probably don’t even qualify for that name), with many having no yard at all. If set-up and promoted well enough, I believe that this sort of place could pick up a reasonable amount of interest from people in the community who would: a) love to be able to grow some of their own organic food, b) be interested in getting themselves and/or their kids outside and their hands dirty, and c) be interested in getting together with other people in their community to help form new friendships.

In terms of the set up for the area, I would see it as an opportunity to take people on a journey into the world of permaculture through an easy entry point. It would be set up with some traditional garden beds, compost heap, and a worm farm or two near the entry point (the first thing to catch the eye of people coming in for the first time), moving on to a couple of mandala gardens with, perhaps, a decent-sized herb spiral to the side, and moving again into the beginnings of a genuine food forest (as a place to demonstrate deeper permaculture thinking through plant guilds, stacking functions, ‘closing the loop’, etc.).

From here, I would suggest seeking to bring in an experienced permaculturist, perhaps once-a-month, to talk about the principles and practices of sustainable small-scale food production, and maybe also to begin talking about ideas such as the ‘slow food movement’ and the like.

The next step, though, is where, I think, it starts getting exciting.

What I would really love to see is for a place like this to become a kind of hub for training up and sending out people into their townhouse and apartment complexes equipped with skills in innovative small-space permaculture design (or whatever you would like to call it). The idea would be to see people enthused to get together with their neighbours to devise ways of taking such complexes on a journey of becoming self-sufficient and sustainable (in terms of fresh produce) and fostering community. Apartment balconies could become places where each resident grew one item, which would then be shared and traded with neighbours who were growing something else. In this way, no one household/family would need to grow everything they needed, but could form co-ops with their neighbours so that each had something to contribute and each could share in the diversity of what others were producing. This could spread to common areas in these complexes becoming places where plants were grown for their usefulness, not just for their aesthetics.

The (to my mind) natural extension of these ideas would be to see neighbours sharing meals together to celebrate what they have done together and the friendships that have grown alongside the food.

In regards to the ‘missional’ element of this idea, I see it in regards to the local church becoming a ‘sending point’ for people into the community with creative ideas for fostering community and trust and a sustainable future together. The plan is not predicated on some cynical plot for getting ‘bums on seats’ in the Sunday services, but rather in helping draw people together in the community to share food and laughter and life with one another.

It’s my belief that brokenness manifests itself in different ways in different communities, and I see it in my own community (and my own life) in terms of isolation and detachment from those around us, as well as in the consumeristic drive that results in ‘convenience’ over sustainable living. The idea outlined above, I believe, could be one way of seeking to address this sort of brokenness, with the church seeking to become a valued and trusted partner in the community that is working for wholeness and wellbeing. This, to my mind, is precisely what the  local church should be doing.

Of course, the sort of thing I describe above would be implemented over a number of years. It would take time to see these things happen, and there would need to be thought towards short-term ‘wins’ as well as planning for the longer-term goals. It’s also something that would take a fair bit of experimenting; some ideas would work, others would become lessons learned for future reference. Of course, these just happen to be permaculture principles. The same principles that undergird sustainable agriculture also happen to be good ways of thinking about human communities and social interactions, and that’s precisely why the overlap here is so exciting!

Now, I realise that some people might see what I’m describing here as some sort of ‘communist dream’, but it’s simply one way of trying to deal with the destructive individualistic and unsustainable society that I find myself in. If you’d like to run with this idea, please do! I don’t ‘own’ it, and I don’t want to restrict the possibilities in any way. If you’d like to chat more about it, please let me know. I’d be only too happy to kick around ideas with you as you think about implementing something like this in your own community (or through your own church). Finally, if you are already doing something like this, I’d love to learn more from you!

Southern Baptist Pastor Changes His View on Homosexuality

In February of this year, Pastor Danny Cortez—a Southern Baptist pastor in the U.S.—delivered a sermon to his church about how he had, over time, changed his views concerning homosexuality.

It was a very courageous act, and perhaps the most honest sermon I’ve heard in a long time.

You can see it here:

Please watch the sermon—in full—and hopefully we can get some good discussion going in the comments below.

I do hope that we can keep the discussion graceful, and I will delete any comments that seek to tear down individuals rather than discussing the topic at hand.

Reconciliation, Miroslav Volf, and the Case for ‘Remembering Rightly’

In a previous post, I began to discuss the (incredibly important) work of theologian Miroslav Volf and how it might be applied to the issue of current Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In this post, I would like once again to bounce out of Volf’s amazing Exclusion & Embrace and begin to think through how his ideas might be applied in Australia around the issue of Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This is a complex, wide-reaching topic, and I do not want to claim for a moment that what I’m about to say will somehow ‘fix’ everything. Neither am I going to pretend that what I’m about to say is all that needs to be said on the matter. Rather, this is intended to be a relatively simple reflection on Volf’s extraordinary work, and how it might offer some practical ways forward for these discussions. It is intended as a very small part in a much larger conversation; I do hope it’s received as such.

In addition to this, it’s important to note that what I say here is directed firmly and deliberately towards my fellow non-Indigenous Australians. I came to the conclusion a while ago now that, as a non-Indigenous Australian, it is not my[/our] place to tell Indigenous Australians ‘what they need to do’. The very idea is as naïve as it is offensive. Rather, my task (as I see it) is to stand in humble solidarity and conversation with my Indigenous sisters and brothers, as we seek first and foremost to ‘speak to our own mob’ and then to return to the conversation with each other1 (and then, of course, to repeat the process), as we walk together towards a better future.

Though there is much in Volf’s work that could be useful to this discussion, I want to focus here on his notion of remembering rightly. There are a number of steps in the process of ‘embrace’ (Volf’s very helpful metaphor for reconciliation), but the act of remembering rightly holds unique relevance, I believe, to the current situation in Australia.

The Need to Remember Rightly

It’s worth beginning the discussion here by asking why remembering rightly is so important, or, indeed, if it’s important at all.

As Volf makes clear, memory of ‘how it happened’ is inextricably connected to justice:

Erase memory and you wash away the blood from the perpetrator’s hands, you undo the done deed, make it disappear from history. Erase memories of the atrocities and you tempt future perpetrators with immunity. (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 234)

Simply put: the failure to remember rightly means that there can never be true or full justice.

Failing to acknowledge the truth of the matter means that the perpetrators of violence, harm, oppression, and exploitation are not held to account. Failure to acknowledge how it was means that we are unable to understand fully why things are the way they are now.

As such, the failure to remember rightly robs us of the chance of full [R]econciliation.2

In addition to this, we must remember that deception is often the best friend of oppression. Deliberate attempts to veil truth and to control the historical record allow for ongoing oppression and systemic inequality. It is often noted that the victors write history, but it should also be noted that the powerful manipulate (or obfuscate) history in order to maintain their power.

And this is why, of course, speaking truth is such a dangerous, subversive act. In many situations, to do so can cost one their life! This can be seen clearly in the record of the Hebrew prophets (calling things as they are and doing so often with significant personal cost), and in the life of Jesus himself. ‘Setting the record straight’ is no small thing.

How does all of this, though, relate to the Australian context?

In general, it seems clear that Australia has done a truly terrible job of remembering rightly when it comes to the last 200-odd years. From the violence and the massacres to the denial of full humanity to Australia’s First Peoples, from the good intentions with bad consequences to the attempted cultural and physical genocide, (perhaps the majority of) Australians are quite often clueless to the full extent of the trauma experienced by our Indigenous population. In addition to the general apathy towards understanding Australia’s modern history, it must be said that there are also many attempts to deliberately obscure elements of the past. Sometimes due to well-meaning attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’, sometimes with a much more sinister motive, these attempts to disconnect us from our past leave us with situations such as the arguments over the ‘culture wars’. The current Australian Government, for example, has suggested that too much focus on the sad history between Indigenous Australians and colonial powers constitutes a ‘black armband’ view of history, and is not a helpful exercise.3

The use of language here is interesting, to say the least.

It might be said, of course, that the current attempts to obscure the reality of Australia’s modern history constitutes an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the historical record. (My choice of language here is quite deliberate.)

At any rate, the result is that we are left with this situation where ‘how things are now’ is effectively disconnected from ‘how this situation came to be’. Detached from the truth of the historical record, systemic inequality is often kept from view and we are left with simplistic notions of ‘personal responsibility’ divorced from social and historical context.

The salt in the wound, of course, is that the attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’ or to ‘draw a line under the past’ thus become grotesque acts of injustice and of sweeping truth under the rug. In doing so, we also sweep away all hopes of full and genuine Reconciliation.

The Difficulties with Remembering Rightly and a Way Forward

For anyone who’s still reading at this point, the obvious problem that we are now faced with is the enormous difficulty we have in defining ‘truth’ and how it relates to the study of history (and thus the task of ‘remembering rightly’).

As Volf notes—and, in the interests of keeping the discussion relatively simple and not getting lost in the detail, I’ll keep this discussion fairly short and (hopefully) to the point—the modernist approach to history was well and truly overly optimistic in its belief in and its search for ‘detached objectivity’. Simply remembering history ‘as it was’ (with ‘what is true’ lining up with ‘reality’) is not so simple after all.4 Likewise, postmodern approaches are essentially bankrupt due to the equal but opposite error of a thoroughgoing relativism, not only in terms of the notion there can only be ‘interpretations’ of truth (due to the admittedly important notion of humanity’s inherent situated-ness and finiteness) but also in the undermining of the very notion of ‘independent truth’ (and the claim that all ‘truth’ is thus ‘constructed’ or ‘produced’ truth, accompanied by the power dynamics inherent in such notions).

All of this, of course, is on top of the natural tendencies of perpetrators seeking to minimise the offence or harm caused, and ‘victims’ tending to amplify the same.

An answer as to a way forward, Volf suggests, is through the notion of double vision. As Volf notes, we are not able to see the world in a perspective-less way. Acknowledging our own finiteness and situated-ness, however, does not mean that we should not attempt to see things from ‘there’, as well as from ‘here’.

As such, we must seek to ‘step outside ourselves’—if only with one foot—in order both to see things from another (admittedly finite and situated) perspective and that we might catch a glimpse of any obstructions to our own view. This requires both imagination and love; ‘love’ in the sense that we only seek to see things from ‘there’ in the first place out of a will to embrace, and ‘imagination’ in terms of the creativity required for any (even momentary) self-transcendence.

(Though Volf himself does not explicitly make the link, the suggestion here sounds close enough to the kind of Critical Realism proposed by Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, and applied to the study of history as outlined by N.T. Wright in the first section of his magisterial The New Testament and the People of God. This approach recognises both our essential situated-ness, as well as the possibility of at least some form of self-transcendance. In Lonergan’s words, “Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” But I digress…)

The benefit of this sort of thinking, I would suggest, is that we are able to hold in tension both our own finite and limited nature (and perspective), and the goal—motivated by love and the will to embrace—of genuinely hearing the other (and making room in ourselves for what they have to say). The resulting conversation, then, as the cycle is repeated, allows us to start better working towards defining what ‘remembering rightly’ looks like.

In regards to the Australian context, though I sometimes, in my more cynical moments, doubt that there is, in fact, a genuine will to embrace in these conversations (from both ‘sides’, though I am focused here more on the attitude of my fellow non-Indigenous Australians), I would like to believe that, in general, there is a solid foundational desire for genuine Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As such, I am prepared to take for granted that we are already operating out of the will to embrace.

In light of this, I am more and more convinced that the very next step, at least for non-Indigenous Australians5, is the necessity of remembering rightly. Undercutting the objections of ‘the past is the past and we can’t change it’, this act would allow us at least to converse in the present on the basis of the truth of the past and how we came to be where we now find ourselves. It would be painful—both in terms of the grief and anger that many Indigenous Australians rightly feel in relation to the experiences of themselves and their ancestors, as well as in relation to the pain it would cause many non-Indigenous Australians to have to confront the horrors of the past and to find things in them[/our]selves that need confronting.

In terms of what it might look like, I guess it could be modelled in a (but not every) way on South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. Perhaps Archbishop Tutu and Professor Volf could even be enlisted as advisors for the process.

In terms of what might come from it, it’s hard to say. I suspect that there would certainly be opportunity for far more events like former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, though I suspect that such actions would need to resolve that they wouldn’t automatically be divorced from acts of material reparation/restoration from the outset.

There would also need to be large doses of humility and reminders that the process requires genuinely hearing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (and, in turn, that conversation is a two-way street).

This, it seems to me, is as good a way forward as any other option, and perhaps better than most.  Remembering rightly will not bring about Reconciliation overnight, but I am convinced that it is an important step along the way, and that it is one of—if not the—very next steps that we should work towards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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1) The very idea of ‘conversation’ implies both speaking and listening. As a non-Indiegnous Australian, I would suggest that, due to the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Australia, my/our speaking needs to be firmly subordinated to the listening to and learning from our Indigenous sisters and brothers. It seems to me that we haven’t had any trouble with the ‘speaking’ part, but we have certainly struggled with the ‘listening’ aspect. I’m not saying that there is no place to speak, but that, as things currently stand, there is a greater imperative to listen.

2) As noted in the previous post, though the will to embrace must precede all else (even truth and justice), the fullness of embrace cannot be achieved apart from truth and justice.

3) It does need to be said that the critique of the Australian Government’s actions towards Indigenous Australians is not necessarily a partisan issue. Though Paul Keating’s famous ‘Redfern Speech’ is a high water mark in regards to political rhetoric around these issues, the fact is that successive Australian Governments of both major parties have routinely failed to remember rightly and, subsequently, to move effectively through truth and justice towards the fullness of genuine reconciliation.

4) “To reconstruct the past as it actually happened, independent from a particular standpoint, is impossible.” (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 244.)

5) I do not for a moment want to be understood as suggesting here that this means that ‘the first step’ (and thus the power in the situation) lies with non-Indigenous Australians. I am convinced that there are certain things Indigenous people/communities can be doing that effectively alter the current power dynamic and put Indigenous people “in the driver’s seat” in these conversations. As I’ve noted above, however, I am focused on speaking with ‘my mob’ first and foremost, and working out where our responsibilities in these conversations lay.

Holy Saturday Vigil for Asylum Seekers – Love Makes a Way

On Holy Saturday of this year (April 19, 2014), more than 100 people came together for a peaceful, public, Christian prayer vigil for asylum seekers, outside (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s office in Cronulla Mall.

The event—organised by a group called ‘Love Makes a Way‘—included elements of lament, confession, a statement of faith, readings from the scriptures, and prayer. Below is the text of the short sermon I delivered as part of the proceedings, reflecting on what it means to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers with a ‘Holy Saturday faith’.

Image sourced from the 'Love Makes a Way' public Facebook page.

Image sourced from the ‘Love Makes a Way’ public Facebook page.

That first Holy Saturday was a time of confusion and shattered hope. The disciples, having walked with Jesus for three years, had now seen their expectations—their dreams—come crashing down around them.

Would God—could God—still come through? Somehow? Some way?

This is what a spirituality of Holy Saturday looks like.

On Holy Saturday, there is nothing to do but wait. Holy Saturday is “…the day of waiting, without knowing what will come next.” It’s a time of waiting in patient hope for the miraculous in-breaking of God’s love and justice.

It’s when we sit—and wrestle— with unanswered, uncomfortable questions.

It’s a day when we allow ourselves to think about the situation of asylum seekers—trapped between death and life: between the death that forced them from their homes and the possibility of a new life; between the despair of a perilous journey on a leaky boat—surrounded by death on all sides—and the life that awaits them on the other side; between the hell of being indefinitely trapped in an off-shore detention centre and the possibility of life that comes with resettlement.

It’s a day for us to hear their voices; when we hear—and acknowledge—the fear, and the desperation, and the despair, and the confusion as to why they are being punished for committing no crime.

It’s a day when we ask why our political leaders seem so intent on dehumanising vulnerable people, and why we allow them to do it.

And we wait. And we pray.

But Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is happening.

It’s the time when God takes into Godself the pain and the anger and the sadness and the violence and the godforsakenness of the world.

It’s the day when the Creator of all stands in full solidarity with broken humanity.

And so today we stand, with God, in full solidarity with asylum seekers; our brothers and sisters.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “Our part, then, is to keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of the world that sent Jesus to his death, trusting in the promises of God that new life will come in God’s way and in God’s time.”

Today we keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of a nation that sends asylum seekers away to Nauru and Manus Island, trusting in the promises of God that change can come in God’s way and in God’s time.

But in the present, there is something we can do.

We live in faith and in hope, but especially in love.

We must love. We must do love. We must be love. We must welcome the stranger. If ever there was a time for the Church in Australia to stand up and to embody an alternative, it’s now.

And we cannot fall into the trap of dehumanising those who dehumanise, for to do so is already to have lost.

Though we stand today in Holy Saturday, we look back to Good Friday and Jesus’ magnificent words on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgive us all, Father, for we do not know what we are doing!

We seek redemption, then, for all; for Scott Morrison (who is responsible for the current policy measures) and our other political leaders (of both sides—this is not a partisan issue!), as well as for asylum seekers…and for ourselves.

We seek to recover our own humanity, which is being marred in this process of dehumanising the other.

 

So we need to remind ourselves today that it’s ok to live in the tension, as we seek to be faithful as we wait for our faithful God to break-in to the current situation.

We can’t run ahead to Easter Sunday and the fullness of the resurrection, but rather we need to embrace what it means to live in the unresolved reality of Holy Saturday. Like the confused disciples running to the tomb of Jesus (but not yet having encountered the risen Lord) on that first Easter Sunday morning, we’re not quite sure what it all means, what God is up to.

But, as Christians, we do live on the other side of Easter Sunday. And so we allow ourselves a sliver of hope. We look back to the ways in which God has been faithful in history, and we dare to believe that somehow, some way, God will come through once more.

We urge ourselves to believe that, though it looks hopeless right now, it’s not the end of the story. We dare to believe that the broken rose can give bloom through the cracks of the concrete.

Help us, faithful Father, to wait for your victory, and in the meantime to serve you—and all those made in your image—in faith, hope, and love. Amen.

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There are a couple of direct quotes in this short sermon that I need to go back and reference correctly. I apologise for any unreferenced quotes in the meantime.

Asylum Seeker Policy, Miroslav Volf, and the Will to Embrace

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference headlined by Miroslav Volf.

The man is extraordinary.

It’s not only his piercing insight and profound wisdom, but also the way he models the message that’s so impressive. The conference, in particular, was about public faith, and I have never before seen someone so fully articulate and embody the art of speaking in an ‘authentic voice’ from a faith perspective in the public domain.

Professor Volf is, I believe, one of the most important theologians of our time. His book Exclusion & Embrace, I would argue, is possibly the most important theological work in the past 100 years.

I don’t say that lightly.

In that book, Volf outlines a profound vision for true reconciliation, which he pictures as  ‘embrace’. I want to pick up on just a couple of aspects of that vision in this post and the next, specifically in regards to how it might be useful for Australian Christians—and, indeed, Australians in general—when thinking about the political process and specific public policy.

In this first post, I want to focus specifically on Volf’s articulation of the will to embrace, and to think about what it could look like in regards to Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In Exclusion & Embrace, Volf suggests that:

The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. (p. 29)

This is, no doubt, a challenging thought.

For Christians, however, I can’t see any way in which we can get around the idea. The essential core of Christian belief is that this is precisely what God has done, and indeed is central to who God is. The Christian God, as demonstrated most fully in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, is a self-giving God who always makes the first move towards reconciliation. It is God who makes space in God-self for humanity, long before humanity makes room for God. It is God who extends an eternal ‘welcome’ to broken humanity as a prior act to any movement of humanity towards God.

As such, if Christians are to make the claim that they are truly following the God of Jesus, this must be a central element.

For Australian Christians, then, the question needs to be asked what this might look like in regards to issues like policy towards asylum seekers.

Asylum seeker policy in Australia is a complex, disputed area. Both major parties seem to have concluded (admittedly rightly) that the majority of the Australian public are willing to allow—and even to vote for—harsh, punitive measures designed to ‘deter’ asylum seekers coming to Australia.* As I’ve previously argued, Australian political leaders have even callously co-opted the language of compassion, arguing that ‘stopping the boats’ is the truly compassionate response as it stops people dying at sea on the dangerous journey. It is conveniently ignored, however, that our policy measures do nothing at all in regards to dealing with the ‘push’ factors, which see many people without any other viable option but to flee their countries of origin. Current Australian policy simply pushes the ‘problem’ out of sight, out of mind, and cares not whether these vulnerable human beings die somewhere else, as long as they do so quietly, or at least out of our view.

I want to ask the question, then, as to whether or not this view is compatible in any way with a Christian understanding of the world. The issues are complex, to be sure, but I believe the question needs to be asked whether ‘deterrence’ measures, on their own, have any redemptive qualities whatsoever.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not convinced that it is possible for a Christian truly to support a policy of ‘deterrence’ alone—without a significant level of cognitive dissonance, at any rate.

Some may argue that this is precisely why ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ should be kept separate (in the interests of keeping religious belief from meddling in ‘necessary’ policy measures). I would suggest, however, that it is not possible for a Christian to approach the political process in any other way than as who they truly are (in precisely the same way as any other person—religious or otherwise—approaches the whole of their life from a certain philosophical frame of reference, whether they are conscious of it or not). The focus should not be the impossible task of trying to divorce one’s ‘religious’ outlook from their political decision-making, but rather to learn to speak in one’s own voice in the task of working towards true and full human flourishing in the context of multiple other voices (with each having the same right to speak into the public space and truly to be heard).

For Christians, then, as Volf notes:

A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ. (p. 25)

As such, there is no (authentic) way that I can see of escaping from a theology of embrace—even when it comes to such tricky issues as asylum seeker policy. Whatever specific policy measures Australian Christians decide to support in regards to asylum seekers, this point simply cannot be ignored.

Once asylum seekers are recognised as human,** Australian Christians have no other choice but to ‘welcome’ them, and “to readjust our identities to make space for them”. This is necessarily prior to any form of judgment, whether it be in regards to reasons why someone is seeking asylum in the first place, or in regards to certain social or cultural issues which could be viewed as ‘threatening’.

But this is not the end of the story.

Some may be convinced, at this point, that I am arguing for a naïve policy of ‘open borders’. While it is true that I have significant problems with the idea of hard nationalistic boundaries (in light of the Gospel message that seems to subordinate ‘identity markers’ of every kind to the idea of the fullness of humanity made ‘in the image of God’), I am not arguing here for Australia simply to accept any arrivals uncritically.

As Volf notes, though the will to embrace is necessarily prior to everything else, the fullness of embrace is a little more complex. The will to embrace is unconditional; the embrace itself (full reconciliation) is conditional on truth and justice (p. 29).

As such, I believe that there does need to be some clear process of determining the refugee status of asylum seekers, as well as measures to ensure the health and security both of asylum seekers themselves, and of the Australian public. In addition to this, a certain consistency is necessary in regards to responding to asylum seekers and other displaced peoples around the world, not just those who are able to make it Australian territory for the processing of their claim.

For what it’s worth, this is why I personally back increasing funding to UNHCR facilities throughout our region, which would help create some sense of order and the possibility of a safe pathway for asylum seekers to attain refugee status in a reasonable timeframe, and for claims for asylum to be reasonably (and impartially) assessed. I also argue, in the interests of justice, for Australia to increase its asylum seeker intake, both from our region and from refugee camps around the world, to ensure that asylum seekers can see that there are other viable (and much safer) options than getting on a leaky boat and setting out on the perilous journey to Australia. Finally, it’s why I also back a limit of 1 month for reasonable on-shore detention of irregular maritime arrivals who do make it to Australian territory (to determine security and health status), before being released into the community while their request for asylum is processed.**

The specific policy measures are not so much the point, however, as the framework that underpins it. That framework, I have suggested, must include the will to embrace as an essential initial step, and then a pathway of truth and justice towards the fullness of embrace. None of these steps may be ignored.

In Volf’s words:

There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice. (p. 216)

In summary, then, I would suggest that, for Australian Christians, the constant and necessary stance towards asylum seekers must always begin with the will to embrace. This sort of ‘welcome’ is precisely the sort of thing that is embodied so well by Welcome to Australia. This initial stance doesn’t deny the necessity for truth and justice to follow, however it always precedes them.

The fullness of embrace, however, follows the necessary process of truth and justice. There does need to be ‘right judgement’ in regards to the determining of refugee status. Once that process is completed, the fullness of embrace is made possible (and, perhaps, required).

This, I would argue, must be the necessary basis for Christian reflection on asylum seeker policy in Australia. Whatever the final form of the policy measures might look like, this framework is non-negotiable. If Christians in Australia implemented such a framework, it is my belief that public discourse concerning asylum seekers would be changed dramatically. Australian Christians, by embodying these principles, could substantially alter the sickening course of asylum seeker policy in this country.

But I don’t think the framework is only applicable for Christians.

The framework itself is rooted in what it means to be human. Human flourishing is best and most fully achieved in healthy relationship with the other, rather than the fragmentation of society, the enforcement of arbitrary markers of exclusive group identity, and the victory of self-interest above everything else.

As Volf notes:

We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges. (p. 66)

There is not only the possibility of humans finding the fullness of their own identity in the other, indeed the fullness of one’s own identity can only be found in the self-giving (and other-receiving) of relationality. It is worth noting that this fullness is not found in the erasing of all difference (and the assimilation of all into a faceless nothing), but rather in the receiving of the (distinct) other in embrace, and the growth that comes from making room in oneself for the other, and vice versa.

It is my belief that Volf’s articulation of this framework could lie at the heart of significant reform of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the tone of discussion about these issues, and that the framework is workable for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is my prayer that this would be so.

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* It’s worth noting that this is not some passive recognition of the mood of the Australian public. I would argue that there has been a deliberate attempt by Australian political leaders to manipulate precisely this situation.

** This sounds like a silly point, but the deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers has reached extraordinary levels. This is precisely why, I would argue, the majority of Australians currently support not only harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers, but many are in favour of even harsher measures(!).

*** I can’t understand, though, why it is seemingly only those who arrive by boat who need to be ‘locked up’, rather than the tens of thousands of visa over-stayers each year (who usually arrive by plane). I would suggest that it is largely an issue of blatant racism, but I’m not sure that it would be helpful for the discussion at this point.